When I first blogged about my visit to Heywood Hill and the launch of my Year in Books project, Ali was kind enough to point me in the direction of a book of the collected letters exchanged between Nancy Mitford and the original proprietor of the shop, Heywood Hill. Mitford had worked in the shop from 1942, although by the time this correspondence begins she is, for the most part, living and working abroad. However, that doesn’t bring a halt to her interest in the shop and in the politics (actually some might say petty bickering) rife amongst the staff who are still employed there.
The collection includes letters that take the reader right up to the point of Mitford’s death from cancer in June 1973 and by that time Hill, himself, had retired and left the shop behind him. However, as both were so immersed in the literary world, their correspondence is still full of anecdotes about writers and their works as well as, occasionally, news of the shop itself.
Nevertheless, it is the letters sent while Hill was still working regularly in the shop that fascinate me the most, and especially those that include titbits about some of their more interesting customers. Here, for example, on January 22nd 1958:
A man has just been in to ask if we will tear 3 illustrations out of a new art book in the window for him.
Well, why wouldn’t you?
Or my particular favourite from March 26th the previous year:
Mrs Hammersley has just been in with just a gold shell hatpin gleaming from under the layers of veils. She was here, she said because of her 80th birthday and could she borrow a book so of course I gave her one…
I am hoping that when I reach my eightieth birthday and want to borrow a book they will give me one as well although if I’m still living in the Midlands it might be quite a way to go just on the off-chance!
Before reading this I had had very little literary contact with Nancy Mitford. I’ve read her sister Jessica’s letters and I used to see Deborah walking around the estate at Chatsworth sometimes when I was visiting friends in the area but other than that I know very little at all about the Redesdale family. Having now made her acquaintance, however, I would rather like to deepen it. I suspect that The Pursuit of Love is probably the best place to start with her fiction but I would also like to read a biography of the family as a whole, if such a thing exists. I know that many of you are Mitford fans so if you have any suggestions as to what I should be looking for then I would be very grateful.
There is a second book of letters concerning Number 10 Curzon Street, a Spy in the Bookshop, which is now sitting on my bedside table waiting to be begun. If there are any more anecdotes worth the sharing, then look out for a second post.