English Men of Letters

Critic and novelist D.J. Taylor’s new study The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918¬†is being reviewed in advance of its January 7th U.K. publication date. The book¬†is primarily devoted to those who made their livings as men (or women) of letters in¬†the 20th Century. Although that is a career which has been under threat, it does seem to survive, perhaps most noticeably in the person of Mr. Taylor himself who makes multiple appearances¬†in print or broadcast media every¬†month and publishes multiple¬†works of fiction and non-fiction every year. So far as your correspondent¬†knows, Taylor¬†doesn’t have a day job.

Although the book’s contents and index are not yet available on the internet, the front cover itself names 20 some English writers active in the period since WWI.¬†These include both those specializing in criticism such as F.R. Leavis, J.C. Squires, Cyril Connolly and William Empson and those active both as both novelists or poets and critics such as Waugh’s contemporaries Anthony Powell, T.S. Eliot, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf. Conspicuous by his absence is Evelyn Waugh who would seem to qualify as a man of letters. He wrote regularly in several genres including fiction, travel, biography and criticism and from an early age lived off his writings exclusively. Perhaps making his absence¬†from the cover list even more poignant is the inclusion of his brother, Alec Waugh. Taylor has previously made allusions to Alec’s largely forgotten work.

According to one review already published, Waugh does at least get mentioned. This is from Saturday’s edition of the Times:

Every bit as interesting as the big themes are the vagaries of literary fame and fortune. Just after the First World War, Arnold Bennett, a novelist barely read now, was making the equivalent of 1 million pounds a year from his books and journalism. By 1930, the publication of Vile Bodies¬†had made Evelyn Waugh an established society figure, a role he relished. As he noted in his diary, “after dinner I went to the Savoy Theatre and said, ‘I am Evelyn Waugh, please give me a seat.’ So¬†they did.”

Although internet access to the Times¬†requires a subscription, an excerpt¬†from the review was helpfully posted on Twitter by a Waugh enthusiast. The quote is from Waugh’s Diaries for 26 May 1930 (p. 211).

NOTICE (12 January 2016): See later post.

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