Alec Waugh, Man of Letters

In a previous post, it was mentioned that a new book by D.J. Taylor somewhat enigmatically displayed Alec Waugh’s name on its cover. This is in Taylor’s study of English men of letters entitled The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918 . Subsequent reviews have provided additional information about how Alec Waugh’s career contributes to the book. The Herald (Glasgow) reviewer, for example, wrote :

The Prose Factory is a fascinating and oddly touching examination of the often ramshackle way something as central to human identity as literature is made and funded. Peopled with rogues and eccentrics, perhaps the most representative figure in the book is the endearing journeyman Alec Waugh, elder brother of the infinitely more talented Evelyn. Developing from an enfant terrible when his 1917 public school novel The Loom of Youth was published, to a solid novel-a-year professional in the 1930s, Waugh was reduced to writing hack-work company histories by the 1950s. Then, utterly unexpectedly, his 1956 novel Island in the Sun became a major best-seller. Serialised in American magazines, optioned for Hollywood and taken up by the Reader’s Digest, Waugh made a quarter of a million dollars in a month. For whatever reason the book chimed with the times, and it changed Waugh’s life. Today, everything he wrote is out of general print.

This week’s New Statesman makes the same point in their review dated 11 January:

And it’s hard not to cheer when the long-suffering, near-suicidal Alec Waugh (brother of Evelyn), who said that “resilience” was the mark of a born man of letters, bets everything on a 900-page novel and wins. “By January 1956,” Taylor writes, “the month of publi­cation, Island in the Sun . . . had racked up pre-publication earnings of nearly $500,000 – enough, as Waugh gratefully acknowledged, to set him up for life.”


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