Charm Offensive

In the Wall Street Journal a review by Thomas Vinciguerra of Joseph Epstein’s new book Charm: The Elusive Enchantment begins with this:

There was no avoiding it. On page 26 of Joseph Epstein’s excursion into the nature of charm, there popped up the character of Anthony Blanche from “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh (who, Mr. Epstein notes, was “as comically uncharming as possible”). And so the voice of Nicholas Grace, who played Blanche—the stuttering homosexual Oxford aesthete—in the epic 1981 Granada Television production of “Brideshead,” kept echoing in my head. As I recall, every other word that passed from his rouged lips was “charming”—pronounced, with maximum loucheness, CHAAH-ming.

The comment about Waugh is perhaps a bit misleading. He could turn on the charm when it was in his interest to do so but is remembered more for his irritability. One of our readers (Dave Lull) has posted a comment with additional context from Epstein’s book relating to his judgment regarding Waugh’s “uncharming” nature:

Christianity does not feature charm as one of its important qualities… [C]onsider Evelyn Waugh, a man who set himself up to be as comically uncharming as possible. When a woman he had offended upbraided him by saying that he was one of the rudest and most inconsiderate men she had ever met and, being so, how could he consider himself a Christian, Waugh responded: ‘Ah, yes, Madame, but just think what I might be like if I weren’t a Christian.’ Waugh said many charming things, but most of these were in the nature of put-downs, nicely laced with malice, more amusing to read or hear about than to witness firsthand and not at all amusing to be the target of. Evelyn Waugh was many things, but charming wasn’t among them. [Charm: The Elusive Enchantment, pp. 16-17]

From the rest of the review it sounds as if Epstein’s book relates primarily to charm among American entertainment and political celebrities. At least the reviewer mentions fewer British examples (Oscar Wilde notably excepted).

The Daily Mail also has an article about an English contemporary of Waugh noted for his charm. This opens with this header:

The middle-class gigolo for upper-crust women! That’s how an adventurer was described by a literary snob… but, as his gossipy letters reveal, there was a reason no woman could resist Patrick Leigh Fermor’s charms.

The article is by Adam Sisman based on his recently published second volume of Leigh Fermor’s letters More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor. The “literary snob” mentioned in the header is Somerset Maugham. His animus to Leigh Fermor was revealed in a 1956 letter from Ann Fleming to Evelyn Waugh, also quoted by Sisman:

‘Paddy was invited [to Somerset Maugham’s house in the South of France] for lunch and arrived with five cabin trunks, parcels of books and the manuscript of his unfinished work on Greece strapped in a bursting attaché case,’ she writes. ‘Despite this inauspicious start, luncheon went like a marriage bell… so when coffee was finished I was not entirely surprised to hear Willie [Maugham] invite Paddy to stay and the minions carried in the trunks to a magnificent suite.

‘But, alas, that evening Mr and Mrs Frere of Heinemann came to dinner and Paddy, who never travels without a bottle of calvados, appeared more exuberant than one small martini could explain. The Freres left at ten o’clock. Willie saw them to the door, returned to the living room and said to Paddy, “Goodbye. You will have left before I am up in the morning.”

‘He then vanished like a primeval crab, leaving a slime of silence; it was broken by Paddy, who cried, “Oh what have I done, Oh Christ, what a fool I am” and slammed his whisky glass on the table. It broke to pieces, cutting his hand and showering the valuable carpet with blood and splinters.’

The quote unfortunately leaves out the story’s punch line. According to Fleming:

…it was the Feast of the Assumption…[While Maugham] haltingly complained of religious holidays Paddy broke in–“Darling Annie, when I was with Robin Fedden in the Louvre we saw the vast Mantegna painting of the Assumption and Robin said with that delightful stutter ‘that is a m-most un-un-warrantable assumption.'” (Ann Fleming Letters, p. 185).

Maugham was also notorious for his stammer and quite sensitive about it.  Leigh Fermor was a friend and correspondent of three of Waugh’s closest friends: Ann Fleming, Diana Cooper and Nancy Mitford. Waugh had to tolerate Leigh Fermor but seldom mentions him.

Members of another group, known more for their bad behavior but probably capable of charm in the right situation, are also in the news. This is Oxford’s Bullingdon Club. According to a BBC report, its members have been banned from holding positions in the university’s Conservative Association:

Satirised over the years by writers ranging from Evelyn Waugh to Laura Wade, it has long been banned from holding events on university premises after repeated episodes of loutishness and vandalism.

The expanded ban presumably will not be recognized outside the bounds of the party’s university branch. Otherwise, members such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson would have to stand down. Waugh satirized it as the Bollinger Club in his novel Decline and Fall.

UPDATE (13 October 2018): Dave Lull has kindly sent an additional quote from Joseph Epstein’s book relating to his views about Waugh. This has been incorporated into the text as noted above.


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