Waugh on Spender

Satirist Craig Brown has reviewed a memoir of poet Stephen Spender in this week's Mail on Sunday. This is a book by Spender's son Matthew entitled A House in St. John's Wood: In Search of My Parents. Among other revelations, the memoir confirms his mother's  previously denied affair (or at least infatuation) with novelist Raymond Chandler as well as numerous homosexual affairs of his father. Waugh was not an admirer of Spender. His views are reflected in the memoir (as amplified by Brown):

Matthew quotes Evelyn Waugh as saying that, together with Auden and Isherwood, Spender had ‘ganged up and captured the decade’ of the Thirties... Tactfully, he fails to mention Waugh’s horribly damning verdict on Stephen Spender’s writing: ‘To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.’

The quotes are from Waugh's 1951 review of Stephen Spender's memoir, World Within World, reprinted in Essays, Articles and Reviews (p. 394). Waugh might have added in a more charitable spirit that Spender, unlike his chums Auden and Isherwood (who appeared in several of Waugh's works beginning with the novel Put Out More Flags as Parsnip and Pimpernell), did not scarper off to the US during WWII but remained in England where he served in a fire brigade.

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Brideshead Named Among Top 10 Literary Castles

The Guardian has named Brideshead Castle among its list of Top 10 literary castles and country houses.  The list was put together by Helen Maslin as part of the Guardian's ongoing series on Top 10 Children's Books.  Others selected incude Nancy Mitford's Hampton, home of Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate, and P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings Castle, seat of the 9th Earl of Emsworth (and his pigs).  More in keeping with the series' stated theme, Hogwarts Castle from the Harry Potter series is also named.  Maslin, who lives in Cheltenham and has rather bright reddish hair, recently published a children's book entitled Darkmere.  Here's an excerpt from her description of Waugh's novel as book for chidren (or perhaps young adults):

Brideshead Revisited was a battered favourite among boys I knew when I was in my teens. Although it was never the theological theme of the book that interested them – they, like Charles Ryder, had fallen under the spell of Brideshead Castle and the glamorous Flyte family...Charles is already entranced with beautiful and charming Sebastian Flyte, when he’s taken to Brideshead ... and admits that although “rapt in the vision” he also felt an ominous chill at the words Sebastian used – not, “that is my house”, but “it’s where my family live”.




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Waugh Among Top "Conservative" Novelists

Literary historian and professor of British literature at Ghent University, Kate Macdonald, has published in the Guardian a list of what she considers the top 10 "conservative" novels. This is based in part on her recent book Novelists Against Social Change published last month by Palgrave Macmillan. In that book she discusses the novels of John Buchan, Dornford Yates and Angela Thirkell as they represent a conservative point of view. She complains that today's teachers of literature ignore these works because their characters oppose social change and support imperialism.

Ignoring fiction of a political colour that you don’t agree with is teaching with blinkers on. Literary history should function as a 360-degree panopticon.

In her Guardian list, she expands the field to include "conservative" novels by other writers such as Nancy Mitford's The Blessing (1951), Ian Fleming's Dr. No (1958) and Dorothy Sayer's Gaudy Night (1935). Also included is Waugh's Brideshead Revisited about which Macdonald offers the following:

I’m sorry if this is a predictable choice, but Waugh is the most wonderful Tory writer, and this novel is a glorious elegy for the conservative life he could see disappearing after the second world war. It’s his most readable novel, and such a marvellous evocation of a vanishing prewar life of privilege. Waugh borrowed Thirkell’s obnoxious Captain Hooper from her novel Growing Up (1943) and put him in this novel to represent the ghastly new egalitarian world.

I wonder on what authority she has it that Waugh has read Thirkell's 1943 novel or was sufficiently familiar with it to "borrow" a character?


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Waugh on Politics

Athough Evelyn Waugh professed no interest in party politics and asserted that he never voted, he has been cited several times recently in political articles. In a Weekly Standard article earlier this month on the unfortunate politics of the British Royal family in the 1930s, Waugh's assessment of George VI is quoted:

Evelyn Waugh called George VI’s reign “the most disastrous” since the Middle Ages: an empire lost, a country demolished by war, and socialists ruling the rubble.

Waugh is here quoted from a letter to Nancy Mitford, dated 15 February 1952 (Letters, pp. 368-69). The summary explanation is provided by the author of the article, rather than by Waugh. The article ("Fighting Siblings: The House of Windsor in uniform" by Dominic Green) concludes: "It could have been worse. What if Edward VIII had listened to his brothers in 1936 and been king in 1939?"

In an earlier article in the same journal, Joseph Epstein  was discussing English conservative Michael Oakeshott and had the occasion to compare the political philosophies of US and English conservatives:

England is (or at least was) a society aristocratic in spirit and based heavily on tradition. America is based on revolution. Americans, even ultra-conservative ones, have not given up on the idea of progress; English conservatives wish (or used to wish) to retard, even stop, progress. Evelyn Waugh once remarked that he would never again vote for the Tories: They had been in power for more than eight years and hadn’t turned back the clock one minute.

Waugh's pronouncement on his disappointment with the Tories comes from Frances Donaldson, Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbor (1967), p. 15, and was made in response to her congratulating him on the victory of the Conservative Party in 1951. The actual quote is "The Conservative Party have never put the clock back a single second." The reference to the party's having "been in power for more than eight years" seems to have been added by another hand.

Finally, the Buffalo (NY) News recently cited Brideshead Revisted for a quote applied to Hillary Clinton's present predicament caused by her somewhat unconventional attitude to e-mail security during her tenure as Secretary of State:

“A twitch upon a thread,” was the way English novelist Evelyn Waugh described how a person’s gravest decisions might be influenced by the actions of another. In his “Brideshead Revisited,” the persons being “twitched” were fallen-away Catholics. Tugging at the other end of the string was God.

In the ongoing soap opera of Hillary Rodham Clinton and her emails and the emails of those closest to her, the federal justice community is holding one end of the thread. On the business end, it could be the director of the FBI, or the attorney general or even President Obama himself.

In this instance the quoted language is that of G.K. Chesterton. The quote comes from one of his Father Brown stories ("The Queer Feet") which Lady Marchmain reads to her children and guests as was her custom at a time of family tension (Penguin, pp. 128, 212). Chesterton, who was admired by Waugh, was more active in politics and political writing than was Waugh but this quote had nothing to do with politics.

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Radiohead Musician A Waugh Fan

In a recent Guardian interview, Radiohead lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood named Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour as his favorite audiobook. He says he was introduced to Waugh's work by reading Clive James, who he credits with helping him complete his education which was interrupted by demands of the band. His favorite book is James' Poetry Notebook.

Here's what he says about Sword of Honour:

It’s the sardonic view of army life that appeals to me most – “was this the already advertised spirit of Dunkirk? He rather thought it was…” I secretly rate this trilogy higher than Brideshead, and of all of Waugh’s put-upon heroes, Guy Crouchback is my favourite, forever doing “the right thing” and getting nowhere. I’m confident that this is exactly what army life was like for many in the second world war: chaos masquerading as order, and everywhere hypocrisy and humbug.

The quote is from volume 1 (Men at Arms) in the scene where Guy has denied the request of one of his men for leave to attend a dance contest. The request was made at the time of the unit's emergency assignment to defense duty in the wake of the evacuation from Dunkirk.

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In the Tradition of Waugh

Lawrence Osborne (b. 1958) is a British novelist and travel writer who is frequently compared to Waugh by his reviewers. The latest example is a review in the Irish Examiner of Osborne's third novel, The Ballad of a Small Player, on the occasion of its appearance in paperback. The reviewer, Tony Clayton-Lea, writes that

Osborne shares with Waugh, in particular, a strain of stylised writing that is equal parts clever-clever, pretentious, and informed with a certain kind of wisdom…And yet there are times when he’s less Evelyn Waugh and more AA Gill.

There are those who think Gill's writing, especially the ironic humor, also has a certain Wavian aura about it. Reviewers in the New York Times and the Literary Review of Osborne's previous novel, The Forgiven, made a similar comparison. A fourth novel, Hunters in the Dark, is scheduled for U.S. publication early next year. It will be interesting to see whether the tradition continues.

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Evelyn Waugh and Middle Age

In a recent column in The Independent, D.J. Taylor describes the evolution of the concept of middle age. He invokes the writings of Evelyn Waugh to illustrate the attitude toward middle age of those bright young people who were young adults in the 1920s.

Waugh writing in January 1929 bemoans the "Peter Pans of middle age who block the way." According to Taylor:

The people Waugh is complaining about, it transpires, all those “ex-captains and majors” from the Great War stymying the younger generation’s chances of preferment, are barely out of their thirties.

Waugh was writing in the Evening Standard in an article entitled "Too Young at Forty." It is reproduced in Essays, Articles and Reviews at p. 45.

As Taylor explains, after WWII life expectancy and incomes increased and middle age expanded to include those well above the 40s. Within these years, the occurrences of the "mid-life crisis" and  "male menopause" were added. No doubt if he had lived beyond post-war middle age, Waugh would have also had something interesting to say about these concepts,

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Evelyn Waugh's Old Neighborhood

This week's Observer ran an article about the recent transformation of the borough of Islington from the London home of New Labour's founder Tony Blair to a district that now seems to be exemplified by a movement to revert the Labour Party to its socialist roots. The latest upheaval is lead by Jeremy Corbyn. He is MP for Islington North and is also a resident.

The article also briefly summarizes Islington's history as a haven for artists and intellectuals in earlier years. Among those mentioned are Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Lenin, and Evelyn Waugh. In fact, when Waugh lived there briefly in the late 1920s, after his marriage to Evelyn Gardner, it was described as the sort of place where City gents rented spaces for their mistresses. The Waughs' flat was in Canonbury Square, now heavily gentrified.  This was the only London residence Waugh ever called home as an adult, independent of his parents who lived further north in Hampstead. After his first marriage broke up, Waugh lived a rather nomadic existence until his second marriage to Laura Herbert in 1937 when they settled in Gloucestershire.

Another later resident of Canonbury Square was George Orwell who lived there in the 1940s and whose flat is marked by a plaque. Waugh's Islington flat, unlike Orwell's, is not marked by a plaque, but Waugh would probably prefer it that way, since the brief part of his existence that was lived there was not one he cared to remember.

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Evelyn=Basil and Audrey=Angela

Duncan McLaren, author of Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love, has given us the results of another of his ambitious research projects and much to think about. He follows the trajectory of the relationship between Waugh and Audrey Lucas, which goes from their North London childhoods to an affair that followed Waugh's first marriage. He also plots Audrey's life after the affair, when she became a novelist, leaving intriguing allusions to her life with Waugh in her published works. McLaren makes an interesting case that Audrey inspired the character of Angela Lyne in Black Mischief, playing the neglected woman in an affair with Basil Seal (who McLaren argues is heavily autobiographical).

McLaren concludes his article, published on his website, with a thoughtful assessment of Audrey's impact on Waugh's life and career:

Lucas's importance, as far as Evelyn Waugh's history is concerned, was in loving him in 1930 and in giving him the confidence to portray himself as Basil Seal in Black Mischief. Equally, I suspect it was the recovery of Evelyn's self-confidence as a sexual being that allowed him to go on to write in depth and with maturity about the failed affair with She-Evelyn.

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Waugh Letter Read on Video by Geoffrey Palmer

Waugh's 1942 letter to his wife recounting the Commando's farcical attempt to remove a tree stump from the estate of an aristocrat near their training base in Scotland is read out to great humorous effect by TV actor Geoffrey Palmer. The letter was also recently read at the Hay Festival by another actor, Jude Law. See earlier post. Palmer is best known for his roles in TV series such as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and As Time Goes By. The video of his reading was posted last month by Letters Live, which also sponsored the Hay Festival reading.

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