Waugh’s Eton Envy

Commonweal magazine in its current issue has a review of Adam Sisman’s biography of novelist John le Carre. The review is by Jeffrey Meyers who has also written biographies of  several literary figures. Waugh features in the review in connection with le Carre’s brief career as a teacher at Eton College. This comes from Jeffrey Meyer’s own correspondence with le Carre in which Meyers had proposed to write his biography :

 In 1989 I had an angry exchange of letters with le Carré about my proposed biography, which he first allowed and then forbade. Later, he either forgot or forgave our quarrel and sent me two long handwritten letters. …. In a letter about Orwell (real name: Eric Blair) at Eton, le Carré wrote, “It always amused me that Blair-Orwell, who had been to Eton, took great pains to disown the place, while Evelyn Waugh, who hadn’t been to Eton, took similar pains to pretend he had.” He added that “Orwell remains an ideal for me—of clarity, anger, and perfectly aimed irony.”

Waugh may have wished he’d been to Eton (or even, for that matter, Sherbourne) rather than the more humble Lancing. But I don’t think he ever stooped to wearing an Old Etonian tie or exhibited other indicia of having “pretended” to have been a student there. One is reminded of Anthony Powell’s description of an exchange he once had with Waugh on this subject. Powell was discussing with Waugh his friendship with Ronald Knox, who was Powell’s neighbor in Mells, Somerset. In his memoirs, Powell wrote: 

I never saw much of Ronnie Knox, but always found him a man of delightful humour. Waugh had written that [Knox] could be chilly if surroundings were in the least unsympathetic. I said I had never noticed that. ‘You were at Eton and Balliol,’ Waugh replied. Anthony Powell, The Strangers All Are Gone (London 1982), p. 40.

Knox, like Powell, was an Old Etonian whose Oxford college was Balliol.

NOTE (14 April 2016): There is more on this topic in a recent Guardian story by Michael White about the troubles of David Cameron (tax shelters) and Archbishop Justin Welby (paternity), both Old Etonians:

What the two stories have in common, apart from eye-popping posh detail, is the glimpse they provide into how the other half – by which I mean the 5% – live, even in tough (for them) times. It is a world where there is always sensible tax-planning to be done and houses to be passed on efficiently to the next generation, sometimes in an atmosphere of sexual licence that might not be tolerated on a rough council estate. We know all this from fiction. The Etonian Anthony Powell’s mid-century novels and the dark comedies of Evelyn Waugh, more biting by virtue of his envious outsider status, tell the whole story, as newspaper readers were denied the real-life versions at the time by press lords’ censorship.

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