Simon Schama’s Guilty Pleasure

Historian, author and TV presenter Prof Simon Schama is interviewed by The Book Report column of the Toronto Globe and Mail. After identifying Tolstoy’s War and Peace as the book he has most reread (not too surprising for a historian), he was asked what book was his guilty pleasure. Here is his answer:

Is there a book you consider a guilty pleasure?

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole” – the line sings to me as I pass the Waugh shelf in my library – just one more hoot with Boot. Stupendously politically incorrect and generally outrageous, so all the more delicious on yet another reading. But there isn’t much Waugh I don’t love. Brideshead is a bit mushy, though has one of his great openings. But it was his endings which were startlingly brilliant, the place where he was most brilliant: the eye-poke ending of Vile Bodies; and the most terrifying of all in A Handful of Dust; so terrifying, in fact, that Waugh’s American publisher demanded a different and less merciless conclusion, whereupon Waugh produced something ostensibly kinder but in fact a conclusion of ashen cynicism. Two endings, in bleakness competition – that’s what I call a writer.

The alternate ending for the serial of A Handful of Dust was required due to copyright reasons for its appearance in  Harper’s Bazaar in the USA . The exclusive rights to US magazine publication had already been granted to another magazine (Cosmopolitan) for the story “The Man Who Liked Dickens” that Waugh had incorporated as the ending to his novel. Harper’s retitled its US serial version of the novel “A Flat in London.”

Another bit of Waugh-related name confusion is reported by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian in a story headed “Bear’s Head Revisited”:

Devotees of Evelyn Waugh all over the world have been pained to see photographs circulating online of a new display at the University of Oxford shop in the high street – the officially sanctioned purveyor of Oxford-related gifts and souvenirs to the discerning tourist. There is a sweet teddy bear in the window with a dark blue ribbon and the university crest on the sole of one of his adorable teddy feet. The sign says: “Introducing Sebastian.” If this is a reference to Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, then the teddy should be called Aloysius. Sebastian is the name of its owner, Sebastian Flyte. …

Finally, Peter Hitchins writing in the religious journal First Things considers Oxford as a  setting for books. This is on the occasion of a new book by Philip Pullman set in that city:

…Here is Thomas Hardy’s unhappy Jude Fawley, turned away from the world of learning by insolent snobbery. Here are Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, soaked, dispirited, exhausted and anxious to get back to the modern joys of London. Here is Max Beerbohm’s dangerously beautiful Zuleika Dobson, causing beads of horrified sweat to form on the foreheads of the stone Emperors in Broad Street as she passes, for they know the doom she brings. Here is Evelyn Waugh’s Charles Ryder, looking for the low door in the wall which will take him to Alice’s enchanted garden, or something like it . . . and here is Alice herself.


Posted in A Handful of Dust, Academia, Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, Newspapers, Oxford, Scoop | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Waugh: Letter Writing, Divorce Reform, and Wadham College

The nondenominational religious journal First Things has an article about what is seen as the dying art of letter writing. This is written by R E Colombini and entitled “So Long, Age of Letters”. He uses as a case study of what is lost in the current age of digital communication the correspondence between Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Merton. He finds this described in the recent book by Mary Francis Coady Merton & Waugh:

In Merton & Waugh, Coady mentions that Merton wrote thirteen letters to Waugh, and Waugh only seven to the monk. Waugh’s were all handwritten, as one would expect; but after writing his first in longhand, Merton resorted to a typewriter. As Waugh saw in Merton’s book drafts, the monk with the vow of silence was downright garrulous on paper. Coady notes that Merton himself acknowledged “that long-windedness tended to be a literary fault of silent Trappists who found themselves tapping the keys of a typewriter.” Waugh provides some good advice to Merton in a 1949 letter, the one included in Amory’s collection. “You scatter a lot of missiles all around the target instead of concentrating on a single direct hit,” he writes. “It is not art. Your monastery tailor and boot-maker would not waste material. Words are our materials.”

Colombini sees a future in which this sort of thoughtful communication and its record may be lost.

A legal scholar meanwhile has used Waugh’s writings on impact of divorce law in the 1930s as case study of the need for reform. Here’s the abstract of Henry Kha’s article in the journal Law and Literature:

The article examines the way Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934) and A. P. Herbert’s Holy Deadlock (1934) express popular dissent against the divorce laws of England in the 1930s. These novels satirized the legal process of obtaining a divorce as farcical and tainted by parties colluding to stage “hotel divorces” in order to satisfy the single-fault ground of adultery. This article argues that these novels helped to articulate widespread opposition towards the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which only allowed divorce to be granted for adultery alone. The writings also spurred parliamentary debate and ultimately paved the way forward for the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. Herbert played a unique part in the campaign for divorce law reform. Both as a novelist and as a parliamentarian, Herbert composed legal satires and successfully introduced the Divorce Bill into the British Parliament respectively.

Finally, the obituary appears in The Times of the former student at Wadham College who became the subject of a well-known Waugh anecdote. This is journalist Robin Esser (1935-2017), former editor of the Sunday Express. As described in The Times:

Esser played hockey for Wadham, recalling how returning late from one match landed him an early Fleet Street story. Finding himself locked out, Esser climbed over the wall into the garden of Sir Maurice Bowra, the warden, who was taking a stroll. He was summoned the next morning to account for himself, but when he arrived at Bowra’s office “a rather agitated man in a tweed suit came up” complaining that he had been refused permission to view a painting at Keble College. The man was Evelyn Waugh and Bowra, having forgotten Esser’s indiscretion, instructed him to entertain Waugh with a glass of wine while he finished a telephone call. It turned into several glasses. “The next morning, with a slight hangover, I related the whole occasion to the William Hickey column in the Daily Express,” he said.

According to the report of the incident in Maurice Bowra’s biography (pp. 250-51), it was Waugh, not Bowra, “who demanded [Esser’s] company while the Warden dealt with an emergency.” The source cited by Bowra’s biographer, Leslie Mitchell, was the Wadham Gazette rather than the Daily Express. The Wadham Gazette quotes the student (unnamed in Mitchell’s version):

“I never did get the telling off the Warden intended to give me. I did get a three and a half hour lunch in the company of one of the greatest wits in the university and one of our most brilliant authors. Now that is what I call luck.”

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Waugh Recommendation Resurfaces

An article posted on the booksblog The Literary Sisters recommends a 1953 novel which Evelyn Waugh had selected as a “best first novel” for 1953 in The Sunday Times:

A largely forgotten novel now, Hugo Charteris’ A Share of the World was selected by Evelyn Waugh in the Sunday Times as ‘the best first novel of 1953’.  The blurb immediately intrigued me, as a fan of both historical fiction and books which have been lost to the annals of time.  It describes A Share of the World as a ‘harrowing story of a man lost in his times, bewildered and anguished by both war and love’, and as ‘a masterful portrayal of the human psyche at odds with itself’.  The Times Literary Supplement wrote of the novel: ‘Mr Charteris brings off many arresting descriptions of things seen and felt’, and the Evening Standard said: ‘Hugo Charteris has the temperament of the born writer…  He sees vividly, feels acutely, has a nervous dislike of the commonplace’.

The book was reprinted in 2015. Hugo Charteris (1922-70) was the brother of Waugh’s friend Ann Fleming. But Waugh was not simply doing her a favor. Francis Wyndham declared this book the best first novel since the war, and Charteris’s Wikipedia entry says his other work received great critical acclaim. Waugh’s other book choices in the Sunday Times article (20 December 1953) were L P Hartley’s now classic The Go-Between and Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why. Both of those books are still in print, so Waugh seems to have scored a hat trick on these selections.

A radio interview with the director of the Australian stage production of Brideshead Revisited is available on Radio Adelaide. The production by Adelaide’s Independent Theatre will open later this month for a limited run.

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Mary Wesley Letters Published

The letters between novelist Mary Wesley and her second husband Eric Siepmann have been published and are reviewed by D J Taylor in The Times. The book is entitled Darling Pol and is edited by Wesley’s biographer Patrick Marnham. Wesley and Siepmann met during the war and remained together (more or less) until Siepmann’s death in 1970. Wesley did not begin to publish novels until about 10 years after that and, according to Taylor, there are few references in those books to the sometimes tempestuous love affair reflected in the letters.

Waugh is implicated in their story only by the fact that he and Siepmann were classmates at Oxford. According to Taylor:

An Oxford contemporary of Evelyn Waugh (with whom he never got on), [Siepmann’s] talents as a screenwriter, novelist and foreign correspondent were regularly undermined by bouts of nervous depression. He was described by one reminiscing ex-girlfriend as “the wickedest man I ever met”.

In Marnham’s biography of Wesley Wild Mary (2006), this is elaborated somewhat. Waugh mentions Siepmann dismissively in letters to Nancy Mitford where he is identified in a note as a friend of Peter Rodd. According to Marnham:

The reasons for Waugh’s settled hostility to Siepmann remain obscure. They had much in common: both had joined the Royal Marines, converted to Catholicism and were friends of Nancy Mitford. Mary thought the mutual loathing dated back to Oxford, where they were contemporaries for one year. Waugh and Seipmann shared many Oxford friends including Patrick Kinross, Douglas Woodruff, Christopher Hollis, Claude Cockburn, Graham Greene and Maurice Bowra. The most likely explanation for their enmity is that Siepmann was also a close friend of Basil Murray and Peter Rodd. Waugh disliked both these young men and drew on them for his character Basil Seal. Waugh once described Murray as ‘satanic’. while Murray described Siepmann as ‘the Devil’. Waugh’s reasons for disliking Murray included the fact that the latter once ‘quietly but efficiently’ beat him up. Unusually, Waugh made no exception for Siepmann after Eric’s conversion to Catholicism; they remained enemies. Mary remembered them glaring at each other over Caroline Cobb’s open grave. (pp. 167-68, Footnote omitted.)

Caroline Cobb was one of the owners of the Easton Court Hotel in Chagford, Devon, where Waugh often stayed and the Siepmanns lived in a cottage nearby.

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Rules Reigns

Two websites have recently featured articles about Rules, the restaurant near Covent Garden, in both of which Evelyn Waugh is mentioned. Eater London has a background article on the restaurant, its ambience, and its food. The article opens with this:

Rules describes itself as specialising in “game cookery, oysters, pies and puddings,” and it has appeared in books by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, as well as John Le Carré. It also stakes the claim of being London’s oldest restaurant, and of having once served Dickens. When under threat of demolition in the early seventies, it was another author, John Betjeman, who leapt to its lyrical defence in a letter to The Greater London Council: “A place which has been constantly used by actors, managers and famous people, as Rules has,” he wrote, “acquires an invisible atmosphere, just as a church frequented by praying people acquires an atmosphere. We have all experienced it in our lives. We can sense it and it will not photograph.”

Betjeman’s support is commemorated with a dining room in the resstaurant named for him and another room is named for Graham Greene. These are both mentioned on the Bloomsberg news site which recommends the best private dining rooms in London. Here’s what they say about Rules:

When the lights are dimmed, it looks as if nothing has changed since this Covent Garden restaurant opened more than 200 years ago. Rules traces its history to 1798, when Thomas Rule sold oysters on Maiden Lane. The restaurant has featured in novels by Graham Greene, Dorothy L. Sayers and Evelyn Waugh… There are two private rooms and a hidden cocktail bar worth seeking out. But it’s not just for tourists. Rules is a charming restaurant with first-class British food.

Size: The John Betjeman Room can seat 10 and the Graham Greene Room 18.
Cost: There are room charges of £200 and £350, respectively, for weekday dinner; no charge for lunch and weekends. You choose from set menus costing from £62.50 to £80.50.

The restaurant has, perhaps somewhat presumptuously, posted a historic plaque on its premises which also recites, inter alia, its associations with the writers cited above as well as several others. The plaque notes that Waugh has mentioned the restaurant in his fiction, although neither Paul Doyle (A Waugh Companion) nor Iain Gale (Waugh’s World) contains any references. These citations are difficult to trace, however, as Waugh was in the habit of referring to “Rules” as such and not identifying it as a restaurant, assuming his readers would know what he meant. Your correspondent read such a reference to the restaurant in the past week, probably in Put Out More Flags, but has been unable to relocate it.

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Waugh Featured in Spark Memoir

Alan Taylor in his recently published memoir of Muriel Spark (Appointment in Arezzo) considers what writers most influenced Spark’s works. This was published in connection with Spark’s centenary next year and is included in what is apparently an excerpt from his book in the Glasgow Herald (now called HeraldScotland):

Critics have suggested that in the beginning she was influenced by the likes of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, sharing their adherence to Catholicism and their interest in metaphysics. Of the two, Waugh, with his deft comedic touch, seems to me the better fit. He loved Memento Mori and rarely failed to mention it in glowing terms whenever Muriel sent him her latest novel. But in truth it is hard to find other novelists, stylistically and tonally, not to mention their world view, whose books sit comfortably alongside Muriel’s. She was, as her companion Penelope Jardine has said, simply “sui generis”.

Momento Mori (1959) is not one of Spark’s books that Waugh reviewed, but he must have mentioned it in letters to her. The only one of her books mentioned in his collected Letters addressed to her is The Bachelors. In an October 1960 letter he thanked her for a copy of that book and described it as “the cleverest & most elegant of all your clever & elegant books.” He also offered her a blurb for the publisher if one was wanted: “I am dazzled by The Bachelors” and agreed to the use of “anything else in the foregoing homage” (Letters, p. 551). The publishers apparently took him up on his offer as his description of the book as quoted from the text of the letter still appears in the listing.

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Interview with The Loved One’s Scriptwriter

The San Francisco Chronicle has reprinted an interview with scrptwriter Terry Southern from 28 October 1964. This would have been after he had finished the script for the film adaptation of The Loved One and perhaps while the film was still in production. The interview was reported by Judy Stone and begins with a discussion of how Southern changed the name of a dog belonging to Mrs Heinkel that was buried in The Happy Hunting Ground. In the book it was named Arthur; he changed it to Barry. He then launches into a history of the script:

Southern said that the Waugh novel, published in 1948, was a classic of that time. But four early drafts, including ones by Elaine May and Luis Bunuel, showed that it had to be brought up to date if it was to retain its impact. Christopher Isherwood, author of “Prater Violet” provided the basic structure of the new version.

“We’ve reduced the emphasis on the British writers’ colony and added the retirement cities. (“Resurrection … Now!” is their motto.) Jessica Mitford’s book caused renewed interest in the racket aspects of funerals. And we’ve brought in the religious cultists and the strange architectural thing in Southern California. I think that what will emerge in “The Loved One” will be a very strong comment on the charlatan aspect of the funeral business, smugness and hero worship. We even go after the military again, inasmuch as it falls within the scope of what we’re doing.” (A 10-year-old science prodigy designs a rocket with possibilities for private enterprise. It could be launched with the cooperation of Air Force Gen. Foster Brinkman to orbit human remains inexpensively and “get the stiffs out of the cemetery” and the land back on the real estate market.)

The story continues with a discussion of some of Southern’s other work and concludes with his thoughts on the importance of satire.

The Loved One also recently appeared in Entertainment Weekly where it was selected as among the 25 most irresistible novels about Hollywood:

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Russian Article on Waugh Available Online

Waugh scholar Irina Kabanova has written an article entitled “Evelyn Waugh and the USA”. This was published in December 2016 in the Russian language journal Literatura Dvukh Amerik (Literature of the Two Americas). It is now available online at this link. The English language abstract is published below:

Abstract: Evelyn Waugh’s critical reputation has soared today to that of the foremost British novelist of the XX century. Naturally he had to deal with one of the shaping factors of English XX-century culture, American influence. Waugh’s stance on the USA comes under scrutiny: the diaries and letters are used to recreate biographical context; American visits’ of 1946-1950 description is based on biographical and critical accounts. Simultaneously the American characters from the early travel writings and the novels are analyzed. «The Loved One» gets special attention as Waugh’s single fiction set in the USA, and among non-fiction works – the article «The American Epoch in the Catholic Church». Waugh’s general outlook (his vision of modernity as the age of decline of traditional values, absurd and chaos, loss of meaning, his political conservatism and misanthropy) is shown to predicate his negative attitude to the US as the triumph of democratic principle, which Waugh famously denounced as “the age of common man”. The evolution of Waugh’s opinions on the USA is traced from the slightly xenophobic prejudice, common in his circles, through a series of business interactions with American publishers and Waugh’s growing financial dependence on the US royalties, to his most anti-American work, «The Loved One», and somewhat unexpected repentance of its critique in the panegyric of the article, where he proclaimed America the future leader of the Catholic Church. That was Waugh’s form of acknowledgement of the post-1945 Pax Americana.

Kabanova teaches at the N G Chernyshevsky State University in Saratov, Russia. She presented a paper (“Sovereign Power in Waugh’s Edmund Campion and Helena”) at the Evelyn Waugh Centenary Conference at Hertford College, Oxford in 2003 that is available in A Handful of Mischief.

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Alexander Waugh to Chair Panel at Literary Leicester Festival

A panel has been announced for the Literary Leicester Festival on the subject “Remembering Alexander Chancellor (1940-2017).” He was editor and contributor to several journals, including most notably The Spectator. The panel will he chaired by Alexander Waugh, his son-in-law and Evelyn Waugh’s grandson. The panelists will include journalists Ferdinand Mount, Craig Brown, and Geoffrey Wheatcroft and TV presenter Anne Robinson. According to an announcement in The Oldie it will consider the theme: “Editors are variously admired, hated, respected or held in contempt for their incompetence while being well-liked for their ability to buy rounds at the pub.”

The panel is scheduled to convene on Wednesday 15 November from 4-5:30pm. Entry is free and bookings may be made at this link. Thanks to Milena Borden for sending us this information.

UPDATE (17 November 2017): This report on the panel appears in The Oldie’s newsletter for today:

Ferdy described Alexander [Chancellor] with his cigarette in one hand and the metaphorical blue pencil in the other – often in a plume of his own smoke. They talked about his laid-back greatness and his contradictory nature, charming and brilliant; yet with a simmering streak of anarchism; as reflected by his regular recounting of his back-to-back sackings (never from The Oldie). Anne Robinson remembered that he even managed to charm the Guardian readership, despite occasional references to his privileged Eton schooling and Italian holiday home.


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Boris Johnson Wins “Pennyfeather Prize”

Michael Deacon writing in the Daily Telegraph reports on Boris Johnson’s overblown responses to parliamentary questions:

Virtually his every answer was a speech, lasting two, three, four minutes…Whether the committee found Mr Johnson’s views enlightening, I couldn’t say. But as he powered remorselessly on, I found myself recalling the scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, in which beleaguered schoolmaster [Paul Pennyfeather] attempts to set his unruly class to work by offering “a prize of half a crown for the longest essay, irrespective of any possible merit”. In that class, one suspects, Mr Johnson would have made a mint.

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