Waugh: Letter Writing, Divorce Reform, and Wadham College

The nondenominational religious journal First Things has an article about what is seen as the dying art of letter writing. This is written by R E Colombini and entitled “So Long, Age of Letters”. He uses as a case study of what is lost in the current age of digital communication the correspondence between Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Merton. He finds this described in the recent book by Mary Francis Coady Merton & Waugh:

In Merton & Waugh, Coady mentions that Merton wrote thirteen letters to Waugh, and Waugh only seven to the monk. Waugh’s were all handwritten, as one would expect; but after writing his first in longhand, Merton resorted to a typewriter. As Waugh saw in Merton’s book drafts, the monk with the vow of silence was downright garrulous on paper. Coady notes that Merton himself acknowledged “that long-windedness tended to be a literary fault of silent Trappists who found themselves tapping the keys of a typewriter.” Waugh provides some good advice to Merton in a 1949 letter, the one included in Amory’s collection. “You scatter a lot of missiles all around the target instead of concentrating on a single direct hit,” he writes. “It is not art. Your monastery tailor and boot-maker would not waste material. Words are our materials.”

Colombini sees a future in which this sort of thoughtful communication and its record may be lost.

A legal scholar meanwhile has used Waugh’s writings on impact of divorce law in the 1930s as case study of the need for reform. Here’s the abstract of Henry Kha’s article in the journal Law and Literature:

The article examines the way Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934) and A. P. Herbert’s Holy Deadlock (1934) express popular dissent against the divorce laws of England in the 1930s. These novels satirized the legal process of obtaining a divorce as farcical and tainted by parties colluding to stage “hotel divorces” in order to satisfy the single-fault ground of adultery. This article argues that these novels helped to articulate widespread opposition towards the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which only allowed divorce to be granted for adultery alone. The writings also spurred parliamentary debate and ultimately paved the way forward for the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. Herbert played a unique part in the campaign for divorce law reform. Both as a novelist and as a parliamentarian, Herbert composed legal satires and successfully introduced the Divorce Bill into the British Parliament respectively.

Finally, the obituary appears in The Times of the former student at Wadham College who became the subject of a well-known Waugh anecdote. This is journalist Robin Esser (1935-2017), former editor of the Sunday Express. As described in The Times:

Esser played hockey for Wadham, recalling how returning late from one match landed him an early Fleet Street story. Finding himself locked out, Esser climbed over the wall into the garden of Sir Maurice Bowra, the warden, who was taking a stroll. He was summoned the next morning to account for himself, but when he arrived at Bowra’s office “a rather agitated man in a tweed suit came up” complaining that he had been refused permission to view a painting at Keble College. The man was Evelyn Waugh and Bowra, having forgotten Esser’s indiscretion, instructed him to entertain Waugh with a glass of wine while he finished a telephone call. It turned into several glasses. “The next morning, with a slight hangover, I related the whole occasion to the William Hickey column in the Daily Express,” he said.

According to the report of the incident in Maurice Bowra’s biography (pp. 250-51), it was Waugh, not Bowra, “who demanded [Esser’s] company while the Warden dealt with an emergency.” The source cited by Bowra’s biographer, Leslie Mitchell, was the Wadham Gazette rather than the Daily Express. The Wadham Gazette quotes the student (unnamed in Mitchell’s version):

“I never did get the telling off the Warden intended to give me. I did get a three and a half hour lunch in the company of one of the greatest wits in the university and one of our most brilliant authors. Now that is what I call luck.”

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