Waugh, The Revisionist

The latest edition of Commonweal magazine has an essay by veteran Waugh scholar Robert Murray Davis. This is entitled “‘Brideshead’ Revisited and Revised: The Mixed Reception of Waugh’s Most Famous Novel.” In this, he traces the critical reception of Brideshead Revisited and explains how Waugh reacted to it by writing multiple revisions to the book. Prof Davis identifies critical reactions firstly from Waugh’s close friends who were provided advance copies of the book in a limited edition. These resulted in substantial revisions to that early version which became what Davis describes as essentially the page proofs of the book. He also incorporated a message to detractors (without mentioning them) in the dustwrapper notes for the UK edition. Then, while he was serving in the Army in Jugoslavia, Waugh relied on Nancy Mitford to collect the reactions and gossip relating to the published edition and pass them on to him in her correspondence.

Finally, the formal opinions of the critics are considered, most of them favorable. The only initial criticism to which Waugh reacted in writing was that of Desmond MacCarthy in The Sunday Times. This was overall positive but raised certain points that Waugh addresses in correspondence with MacCarthy:

Waugh thanked MacCarthy for the review but added, “I was pleased with the book when I finished it, but since then the rats and moths have been at me and I was despondent about it,” adding “I am eager to learn your criticisms of my method.” MacCarthy’s criticisms in his letter of June 18 were of a kind familiar in the work of later critics and, by 1960, in Waugh’s own final view of the novel. Foremost were the soliloquies of Julia and her father, which, MacCarthy felt, overshadowed dramatic situations. He was also concerned about Charles’s indifference to his children; about whether or not Anthony Blanche’s criticisms of Ryder’s paintings were intended to be seen as accurate; and—more a concern to other readers than to him—about why Lady Marchmain was a bad mother.

Prof Davis also notes negative criticism from sources such as Edmund Wilson, novelist Rose McCauley and journalist Conor Cruise O’Brien. Waugh reacted to both constructive comments from friends and more serious objections from critics by making small but frequent edits in the UK editions of the book. Finally, in the fullness of time, and after fighting with Hollywood over an aborted movie version of the book, Waugh made substantial revisions which were incorporated into a new and revised UK edition that appeared in 1960. This included a new preface by Waugh in which he explained some of the revisions and his reasons for making them.

Prof Davis, who was responsible for cataloguing the Waugh archives acquired in the late 1960s by the University of Texas, has written extensively about Waugh’s practice of revising his books. E.g. Brideshead Revisited: The Past Redeemed and Evelyn Waugh, Writer. While Brideshead was probably subject to more revising than any of the others, Davis once warned his fellow scholars studying any of Waugh’s books that: (1) consistency between different editions of a Waugh novel should never be assumed; (2) Waugh was capable of altering not only details but important elements of the story; and (3) study of the textual history of Waugh’s novels was not only essential but almost certain to be rewarding. This latest article about Waugh’s revisionism is probably based on Prof Davis’s work as co-editor of the CWEW edition of Brideshead.

UPDATE (17 January 2018): A few minor edits were made relating to Waugh’s reaction to the critical reception.

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