New Age Waugh

This week’s New York Times Book Review contains a review by writer David Leavitt of a novel by British satirist Edward St. Aubyn that was originally published in England in 1998. The novel, entitled On the Edge, is compared to Waugh’s The Loved One and William Boyd’s Stars and Bars in that it “indulges some very British lampooning of American culture and its excesses.” An example quoted by Leavitt of St. Aubyn’s targets is the U.S. food industry:

Menus couldn’t decide whether to advertise dieting or eating.  Often the contents of salads and sandwiches hung around shyly among the real stars: the ingredients that had been left out, and the pointless variety of methods by which the sodium-free, unbleached, sugarless, decaffeinated, coffee-free coffee could be vaporized, sun-dried, skimmed, scorched and served in 16 different kinds of cup.

The book’s belated U.S. publication is attributed to the success in this country of St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series of five linked novels. Leavitt thinks it may have been passed over initially by U.S. publishers for fear of a backlash because of its sharp satirization of the U.S.  But that did not happen in the case of The Loved One nor for that matter in the case of the Melrose novels where features of U.S. culture were subject to equally pointed satirical attacks. In this case, St. Aubyn has done for the New Age spa (think Esalen Institute) what Waugh did for the U.S. funeral industry (think Forest Lawn). Both institutions have survived satirization and have continued to flourish.

In another allusion to Waugh, Leavitt notes the novel’s  ”complexity and subtlety, as well as the the elegance with which it modulates between Waughian parody and Fosterian pathos.” Waugh fans could do worse than to try St. Aubyn if they are looking for Waugh’s satirical spirit applied to updated targets, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. Indeed, St. Aubyn, like Waugh, is no shrinking violet when he aims his pen at the foibles of his own countrymen, with particular reference to its upper classes.

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Scoop Included in Daily Telegraph Top 100

Last month the Daily Telegraph published a list of the 100 novels everyone should read.  This includes translations as well as books in English. There is no explanation of how or by whom the list was compiled or whether the books are ranked in any kind priority of “bestness.” Only one book or series by each author is named.  Scoop is listed as #18.

“18 Scoop by Evelyn Waugh 

Waugh based the hapless junior reporter in this journalistic farce on former Telegraph editor Bill Deedes.”

Others on the list from Waugh’s generation include The Great Gatsby, Dance to the Music of Time, Cold Comfort Farm, 1984, Brighton Rock and Mrs. Dalloway.  There in no novel by D H Lawrence or Ernest Hemingway on the list.

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Inaugural Dead Meet Up, London, Nov. 26th: “The Loved One” and the Reality of Embalming

There is nothing new under the sun. Except, perhaps, this:

On Wed., Nov. 26th, at Barts Pathology Museum in London, Dead Meet (“Dating and Networking for Death Professionals”), is holding its Inaugural Dead Meet Up, a networking event at which noted Waugh scholar and EWS honorary vice president Ann Pasternak Slater will discuss “The Loved One.” After Ms. Pasternak Slater’s talk, Kevin Sinclair, a member of the British Institute of Embalmers, “will tell [the audience] whether or not the procedures [described] in the book are true to life.”

The event runs from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m. and is open to all, although Dead Meet members receive discounted admission and special tour privileges within Barts [sic] Pathology Museum.

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Memoir of Lord Berners’ Menage is Published

A memoir of the residents of Lord Berners’ Faringdon House estate in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) has been written by the granddaughter of one (or possibly two) of them. This is The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me , by Sofka Zinovieff (Jonathan Cape, 436pp, £25, U.S. publication scheduled for 2015).

The author’s relationship to the menage is a bit complicated. Her mother, Victoria, was the child of Jennifer Fry, who lived at Faringdon in the 1940s and married Robert Heber-Percy (“The Mad Boy”). He was also Berner’s companion and may (or may not) have been Victoria’s father. Heber-Percy and Fry were soon divorced, and he later married Evelyn Waugh’s friend Dorothy (“Coote”) Lygon. Other male companions also came and went after Berners’ death in 1950. The estate was left by Berners to Heber-Percy, who kept changing his own will, causing Waugh to make the following comment in a letter to Diana Cooper dated December 12, 1950: ‘I went to dinner at Faringdon … the Mad Boy has installed a Mad Boy of his own. Has there ever been a property in history that has devolved from catamite to catamite for any length of time? It would be interesting to know.’

Heber-Percy ultimately left the estate to Zinovieff who still owns it and rents it out to American millionaires. This is all explained in more (and more entertaining) detail in a review of Zinovieff’s book by Waugh’s grandson, Alexander Waugh, in the current issue of Literary Review.

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Last Mitford Sister Dies at 94

Deborah Cavendish (nee Freeman-Mitford), Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, died earlier this week at the age of 94.

Evelyn Waugh and she were friends, though they were not nearly as close to him as were her older sisters Nancy and Diana. They met in 1942 at a Christmas party where Waugh unfortunately made rather a fool of himself. Deborah was impressed at this first meeting with the “phenomenal amount of drink that [Waugh] consumed, and as I was still shocked by drunkenness, I kept my distance.” She also recalled that Waugh poured a bottle of Chartreuse over his head and then walked about repeatedly intoning that his hair was covered in gum. Her assessment of Waugh was that he could be charming early in the evening: “He wanted to be friends and was full of compliments, but they turned to insults before you knew where you were. The cleverness came through but so did the criticisms; everything was wrong including me.” Deborah said that after the war Waugh made up for his bad behavior by buying her a hat from Paris.

Waugh was later a guest at her house on the Chatsworth estate where he complained that a chamberpot in his room had not been emptied. In her memoir Wait for Me!, (p. 145) Deborah described Waugh as a “difficult guest” who seemed to try to find fault with everything, including “the wine, his bedroom, the outlook and, judging by his behavior, the other guests too.” The full chamberpot was his coup de grâce and was announced “with a look of triumph on his face.” Deborah said she never knew whether his claims were true but she was doubtful, because he “did not bring the evidence with him.” Waugh later wrote to Nancy Mitford in 1962 that he knew he was being a bore during his visit but had behaved badly “because she had turned on the television at dinner.”

Another anecdote from her Memoirs recounted a gift that Waugh had sent her. Waugh, knowing that Deborah was not a great reader, sent her a copy of his biography of Roman Catholic cleric Ronald Knox, assuring her in his inscription that her Protestant sensibilities would not be offended. After unwrapping the parcel and feeling rather pleased with herself, she found that the pages of the book were all blank.

In her later years, Deborah also tried her hand at writing, but her output was never going to rival the works of her older sisters, Nancy, Diana and Jessica, who made successful careers as authors. In addition to publishing her memoirs in 2010, Deborah wrote about her experiences at Chatsworth which she managed to turn from a losing operation into a successful business venture by marketing its farm produce and promoting it as a major tourist attraction.

Her sisters predeceased her, as did her brother, Tom, who was killed in World War II.

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Daily Mail Reports Sale of Waugh’s Favorite Writing Venue

The Daily Mail online edition for 16 September reports the offer for sale of the Easton Court Hotel in Chagford, Devon. This is the place to which Evelyn Waugh retreated to do much of his writing, including that for his most popular work, Brideshead Revisited. It provided him the peace and quiet he needed away from the distractions of his family and friends.

As reported in the story by Jenny Awford, the hotel has preserved the modest library in which Waugh worked. It looks much as it did about 20 years ago when your correspondent spent a night there. Other writers who used the hotel include Patrick Leigh-Fermor, with whom Waugh overlapped on at least one occasion in 1956. They invited their mutual friend and correspondent Ann Fleming to join them, but she declined (perhaps fearing that she would be interrupting the seclusion they needed to write). Waugh also formed a friendship with the then co-owners. When one of them, Caroline Postlethwaite-Cobb, died in the late 1950s, Leigh-Fermor reported that he, along with Waugh and his wife Laura, were among the few mourners present at her funeral service in the village.

The photos accompanying the Daily Mail article suggest that the place has been well preserved. It is on offer for £1.65 million. Thanks to Robert Murray Davis for bringing this to our attention.

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Waugh and Spanish Civil War

Waugh’s views on the Spanish Civil War recently came up for comment in the TLS.

In his review (July 4) of a recent book about war correspondents in Spain, Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill, Jeremy Treglown commented that it was unfortunate that Waugh did not report on that conflict because “no one would have communicated its ironies more sharply.” In the July 11 issue, reader Nicholas Rankin noted in a letter to the TLS that although Waugh did not report on the Spanish conflict, he did make his views known in the publication Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War: “If I were a Spaniard I would be fighting for General Franco.” Rankin goes on to comment that Waugh’s detached irony seemed to have failed him when he wrote to Diana Cooper during his subsequent coverage of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia: “i have got to hate the ethiopians more each day goodness they are lousy & i hope the organmen gas them to buggery.”

That is not to say, surely, that Waugh, although he made little effort to show impartiality in reporting that conflict, would have expressed his views in quite those exaggerated terms had he intended them for publication.

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Complete Works Project Launches New Website

The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project at the University of Leicester has launched a new website. Its Resources page is particularly useful. The project blog can be found here.
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Peter Harrington’s Evelyn Waugh catalog

The bookseller Peter Harrington’s Evelyn Waugh catalog contains many desirable volumes, none more so than Graham Greene’s inscribed copy of Helena (£25,000). Note, however, the last sentence in PH’s description of the item:

First edition, first impression, large paper issue, being one of about 50 copies specially bound and printed on handmade paper. A major association copy with the author’s signed presentation inscription to the front free endpaper, “for Graham from Evelyn Oct 1st, 1950″ With the estate label of Graham Greene to the front pastedown. On 16 November 1950 Waugh wrote to Greene thanking him “awfully for writing about Helena. I hardly hoped you would like it. I am exhilarant to hear you do…” The copy is, however, almost entirely unopened – only the last 50 pages are cut – suggesting that Greene merely read the ending and wrote his appraisal from that.
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1960s Vintage Films of Waugh Novels Now Available on DVD

According to this post by film blogger Michael Barrett, both the early theatrical films made of Waugh novels are now available in digital format: The Loved One (MGM, 1965, directed by Tony Richardson, screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood), and Decline And Fall Of A Bird Watcher (20th Century Fox, 1968, directed by John Krish, screenplay by Ivan Foxwell).

Of the two, D&F is the better film adaptation, although LO is better known. The film of LO was something of a disaster with much of the plot rewritten. The portions relating to Waugh’s satirization of Hollywood’s British film colony are the best, but that was true of the novel as well. John Gielgud’s Francis Hinsley and Robert Morley’s Ambrose Abercrombie are worth the price of admission (or DVD as the case may be). The remainder is so over the top as to be best forgotten. Anyone wishing to know more about how the film came to be the mess that it was might want to seek out Mischief in the Sun: The Making and Unmaking of ‘The Loved One’ (1999) by Waugh scholar Robert Murray Davis.

The screenplay of D&F more closely follows Waugh’s plot, but that plot is essentially unfilmable. Fans of the novel will nevertheless enjoy watching it, if only to see the performance of Leo McKern as Capt. Grimes in his pre-Rumpole days. Made-on-demand DVDs are available from for $19.95 each at the links above.

Thanks to R. M. Davis for sending us the PopMatters post. The plug for his book was entirely my idea.
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