Twice a year (on the Queen’s Birthday and New Years) the London papers can be expected to drag out their list of those who in the past have rejected honours offered them just as the papers announce the latest list of honourands. And Evelyn Waugh is now firmly implanted in the newspaper archives on the “rejector” list for having turned down a CBE in 1959. This fact is stated recently in both The Mirror and the Huffington Post. Waugh was, according to his biographers, expecting a knighthood, such as had been awarded to his friend Maurice Bowra in 1951. Ironically, Bowra’s biographer says that Sir Maurice was disappointed not to have been offered a peerage. But once he had rejected what was offered, Waugh realized that the possibility of a knighthood was now probably off the table (although sometimes later offers of enhanced titles are made). Bowra for his part was later awarded a Companion of Honour (but not a peerage).
Waugh later expressed regret to Graham Greene for turning down the CBE at the time Greene himself had rejected a Companion of Literature (C. Lit.) in 1964. Waugh had accepted a C. Lit. which was awarded in the previous year (1963) by the Royal Society of Literature, not the Government. The RSL was headed up by Waugh’s friend Freddy Birkenhead, and Waugh told Nancy Mitford he thought it would be “stuck up and unfriendly to Freddy if I refused.” He was deputed by Birkenhead to ask Greene to reconsider. Greene again refused and told Waugh he himself had previously turned down a CBE and had no regrets. A few years later in 1966 Greene was awarded and accepted a Companion of Honour (CH). Waugh wrote a letter of congratulations expressing the thought that “one of your characters remarks that its is the only public recognition worth having.” Greene responded a few days later telling Waugh that he felt a “bit snobbish in accepting it … you should have had it first & then I could happily have followed in your footsteps, but you probably refused it.” That was their last written communication. Greene was later offered the C.Lit. again and accepted it in 1983, along with the Order of Merit in 1986.
Waugh’s friend and fellow novelist Anthony Powell was awarded and accepted a CBE in 1956, and Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford at the time that he thought it the sort of award appropriately made to “sccond grade civil servants” but was “WRONG” for writers. “I trust you will stand out for CH or Dame.” Mitford accepted a CBE in 1972. Powell himself later turned down a knighthood in 1974 which he ironically thought inappropriate for writers. He was also concerned that this would would cause endless confusion as to how his wife should be addressed. She was “Lady Violet” by birth but might be addressed in the less exalted form “Lady Powell” as wife of a knight. That sounds like a joke, but in Powell’s case that concern may have been a serious one. In 1988, Powell was offered and accepted a Companion of Honour.