Evelyn Waugh Reviews Nancy Mitford

26th July 2020

Evelyn Waugh's scathing review of Mitford's The Water Beetle was published in the Sunday Telegraph on 21st October, 1962.

First edition of Mitford's The Water Beetle, 1962

Waugh had sought the company of the Mitford sisters from his early twenties. The most enduring friendship was with Nancy, strengthened by a shared sense of humour and love of teasing, which blossomed through frequent and intimate correspondence.

After visiting Mitford in Paris in 1951, Waugh wrote, "she leads you into her salon... and talks, prattles, giggles - of what? Gossip, outrageous, incredible, entirely funny". Miss Nancy Mitford is full, he states, of "sweetness, happiness and inexpressible levity."


Portrait of Nancy Mitford in her Paris salon by Mogens Tvede

During its preparation this book of essays was discussed at length in correspondence between Waugh and Mitford. Commenting on her choice of title Mitford wrote, "I hope to disarm the critics by calling it The Water Beetle."

The title was taken from Hilaire Belloc's, A Moral Alphabet:

The Water Beetle here shall teach,
A sermon far beyond your reach;
He flabbergasts the Human Race,
By gliding on the Water's face,
With ease, celerity and grace,
But if he ever stopped to think,
Of how he did it he would sink.



Upon receipt of the title's derivation Waugh responded, "An excellent, disarming title making everything easy for reviewers. How I look forward to the book." On 10th October Waugh wrote to Mitford to say he had received a copy of her book and had very much enjoyed it, apart from the "coarse" drawings by Osbert Lancaster. He also mentioned that he was writing a review for the Sunday Telegraph and concludes, "I hope I say the right thing. I delight in the book."

Osbert Lancaster Illustration

"This accumulation of short pieces brings only delight"

 Introductory section of Waugh's original manuscript

Mitford might have been surprised therefore when the review began in Waugh's typically acerbic style,
"The contemporary English literary world may be conveniently divided into: those who can write but cannot think, those who can think but cannot write, and those who can neither think nor write … Nancy Mitford, by her choice of title, puts herself in the first class."
Waugh goes on to praise the fluency of the writing in these essays, which range from childhood reminiscences to discussion of Scott's expedition to the Antarctic "and she does it all with ease, celerity and grace… all is told in the same gay artless, artful manner as though in one of those salons whose demise she tearlessly regrets capable of such gaffes as describing Oates's disappearance in the blizzard as suicide."

Waugh's notes on his original manuscript

He concludes, "This accumulation of short pieces brings only delight.... [Mitford] constantly flabbergasts the present reviewer. When most of our writers have sunk, she will still be gliding on the water's face."
Mitford responded upon reading the printed review, "You are a brute…. Oh how I screamed at your review …many thanks for flaying me alive, poor little unpretentious Water Beetle."

Bibliography: The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, Hodder & Stoughton edited by Charlotte Mosley; Evelyn Waugh; A Biography by Selina Hastings

Details of the original manuscript of Waugh's review. 

Add a comment

Thank you for your comment. Your comment will appear on the site after it has been reviewed by a member of our team.