Correspondence in Spectator re Waugh’s Oxford “Degree”

Alexander Waugh’s letter in the 25 November 2017 issue of The Spectator regarding the conclusion of his grandfather’s Oxford career has engendered a chain of responses comparable to those in which his grandfather used to engage. Alexander’s letter stated: “Evelyn Waugh did not ‘scrape a third at Hertford’, he never graduated from Oxford or anywhere else.” This in itself was in response to an earlier Spectator article in which a recent book written by Alexander was discussed. See earlier posts.

In the December 9th edition, a letter from Dr Geoffrey Thomas responded:

If Evelyn did not attend the graduation ceremony, then he did not graduate from Oxford. All reference to a third is not out of place, however, since the Oxford University Calendar, 1932, lists him in the third class ‘In Historia Moderna’ for 1924 (p. 232). By what margin he was assigned to this class, I have naturally no idea. ‘Scraped’ might be the right word.

In fact, both are correct. The Oxford University Calendar records the results of Evelyn Waugh’s examination in which he passed in the third class category. He never secured a degree, however, because he was required to remain in residence for another term. His low grade on the exam cost him his scholarship, and his father refused to pay the costs of the additional term, so he went down without a degree. Under current academic practice, once he had passed his exam, the residence requirement would almost certainly have been waived, and he would have graduated with a third class degree.

A further comment on this issue is offered in a subsequent Spectator issue. This comes in a letter by Timothy O’Sullivan. He  cites Evelyn’s autobiography A Little Learning, and explains why Evelyn had taken the exam in the middle of the year instead of at the end of his final term:

Eager to have his second son’s education completed, Arthur Waugh despatched him to Oxford after he had won a scholarship at Hertford. Evelyn consequently arrived in a by-term, Hilary 1922. He achieved a third in his finals eight terms later, or one term short of the nine required in residence to be eligible to graduate. ‘My father decided that a Third Class BA was not worth the time and expense of going up for a further term.’

Another Spectator commenter (Peter Loring) gives a further possible explanation for Evelyn’s poor academic performance:

I wonder if Brideshead Revisited offers a clue to the origins of this mystery. When Charles Ryder arrives at the university, he is firmly advised by his cousin Jasper: ‘You want either a first or a fourth. There is no value in anything between. Time spent on a good second is time thrown away.’ If Waugh did get a third, as Dr Thomas suggests, perhaps he didn’t want anyone to know.

There is evidence that Evelyn Waugh was not completely embarassed by his poor degree. Alexander is in possession of a certificate issued by the university in 1928 (four years after he took the final examination) attesting to his having passed. The date suggests to Alexander that Evelyn may have wanted to use the certificate to prove to potential employers that he had not left Oxford for failure to pass final exams. This was at the time he was courting Evelyn Gardner and was anxious to impress her family as to his respectability. See “Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford University Certificate, 17 May 1928” in EWS No 45.2, p. 14.


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