D J Taylor Reviews the Complete Works

In the current issue of Literary Review, literary critic and novelist D J Taylor reviews the first four volumes of Evelyn Waugh’s Complete Works. The review, entitled “Author of Himself”, manages to be at the same time thorough, scholarly and amusing. He begins by encapsulating the project’s ambitious goal of publishing 43 volumes:

The appearance of his collected works, monumentally assembled in forty-three stout hardback volumes at £65 apiece, offers the same bewildering spectacle of scholarship running amok through material that, in the majority of cases, was expressly designed to keep scholarship at bay.

He then notes that the editors of Orwell’s complete works managed to fit them into 20 volumes but fails to note that Orwell’s life was even shorter than Waugh’s own. Had Orwell lived to 1966, the year of Waugh’s death at age 62, the volume of Orwell’s output, following the success of Animal Farm and 1984, would surely have rivaled that of Waugh.

Taylor goes on to comment on each of the four volumes published in October, concentrating on Martin Stannard’s edition of Vile Bodies and that by Barbara Cooke and the late John Howard Wilson of A Little Learning. Of Stannard’s edition he notes:

…Waugh’s real entrée to the beau monde came by way of the Bright Young People, the curious amalgam of titled partygoers and arts-world bohemians who romp through the society pages of the late 1920s, form a component part of Decline and Fall and go on to become the principal subject of Vile Bodies. Stannard is good on this, and also on some of the blatant cannibalisations from real life that led to a newspaper article of 1930 entitled ‘People Who Want to Sue Me’.

Of the volume that includes A Little Learning he comments on:

… the many interviews that John Howard Wilson and Barbara Cooke print as addenda. Although these include the famous Face to Face interrogation by John Freeman, perhaps the most revealing is a Frankly Speaking radio feature from 1953, in which serial teasing alternates with patently serious statements about ‘the man in the street’, the welfare state and Waugh’s Catholic faith.

He describes the volume of Rossetti edited by Michael Brennan as “scrupulously annotated” and sees the point “of allowing Martin Stannard to supply twenty-nine pages of microscopically typeset contextual notes to this latest retread” of Vile Bodies. He also thinks that in some cases scholarship may have overstepped its reasonable limits, describing some of the footnotes as “very nearly insane” and citing a nine line example relating to “a man parenthetically mentioned in the Lancing diaries” in the first volume of Personal Writings.

His conclusions about the project as reflected in these volumes is on whole positive:

Taken together, they encourage the Waugh fan to make a variety of individual judgements: on the quality of some of the hack work ferreted out of prewar newspaper archives (not outstandingly high); on the editorial principles brought into play; on the first quarter-century or so of Waugh’s life, the kind of person he was and – a distinction that A Little Learning brings into rather sharp relief – the kind of person he imagined himself to be…As a scholarly treatment of a modern British novelist, The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh looks as if it will stand in a class of its own, not only for its presentation of definitive texts but also for its patient accumulation of large amounts of personal material that have hitherto escaped the biographers’ gaze…What would Waugh have made of this scholarly juggernaut, which appears under the imprint of the university that he left without troubling to complete his degree? As well as being flattered, you suspect he would also have been highly amused.

 The full article is available online at the Literary Review’s website. The foregoing is only a small sample of Taylor’s comments on the CWW project and on Waugh himself. It is well worth reading.

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