John Saumarez Smith, editor
The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street:
Letters between Nancy Mitford
and Heywood Hill, 1952-73
Frances Lincoln, 191 pages, 12.99 pounds

“When a man is tired of London,” Dr. Johnson observed, “he is tired of life.” By the same token, when a man is tired of Heywood Hill, he is tired of books. This charming London bookstore, tucked away in a quiet bit of Mayfair, is my favorite purveyor of books. It sells new books—I always acquire a few when I go there—but it is for its couches of old and rare books that the shop is best known. “Couches”? That, it turns out, is Heywood Hill-ese for piles, of which there is an enticing abundance in this bookshop.

By comparison with today’s Barnes & Noble leviathans, HH is tiny, but it has a stellar collection, always full of surprises, and what they don’t happen to have they know about and can always get. John Saumarez Smith, who came to the shop in 1965 and now runs it, is cheerfully omniscient and somehow manages to turn up even the most out-of-the-way volume within weeks. I’ve never been able to stump him, though I have tried. I wonder if Nancy Mitford, who worked at Heywood Hill’s shop in the 1940s, was as impressively erudite.

As Mr. Saumarez Smith notes, there is no shortage of published material about Nancy Mitford and her sisters. Since her death in 1973 at 68, the author of The Pursuit of Love, Voltaire in Love, and those infamous reflections on “U” and “non-U” usage has emerged as a cult interest, as have her sisters. Every time a biography or new collection of letters appears I read it and then say “Enough! No more.” Until the next one appears, which I proceed to gobble up. This volume of letters between NM, then living in Paris, and G. Heywood Hill (1907–1986) is like a glass of champagne, from a good year, at a quiet garden party. It’s a beautiful day, one is among friends—but not too many—and laughter reigns.

Nancy, in 1963:

Abbé Girard, quite the nicest of priests, who came here, asked for Voltaire Amoureux, so I said to Mme. Costa what should I put comme dédicace. She said I think better put nothng or else when he is dead & they look at this book, he will be compromised. “You see you are such a beautiful young (sic) lady, it’s not as though you were Mme. de Pange.” Can you wonder I like coming here!

And here is HH from 1971:

One of [his wife] Anne’s other brothers Bob—the one who talks hind legs off people—has been staying with [his daughter] Harriet. H. writes “At the end of one long talkative evening, I had gone to bed. I heard Bob saying to [her husband] Tim, Well, my dear, I must say I think Gray’s Elegy is one of the really GREAT works of art (humm, sniff, snort). Well, I think, replied Tim, it’s the biggest load of crap I’ve ever read. Bob got up & went to bed.

 

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 2, on page 77
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