Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford (More)

Two new reviews have been published relating to Dr Barbara Cooke’s book Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford. The first is by literary critic and novelist D J Taylor in the current issue of The Oldie magazine. Taylor opens by placing Waugh’s Oxford career in the context of those of his contemporaries who also became writers:

Almost to a man – the exception was George Orwell – the gang of major English writers born in the period 1900-1910 spent three years of their late teens and early twenties at Oxford University. Again, almost to a man, their scholastic achievements at this seat of learning were feeble in the extreme. Cyril Connolly and Anthony Powell took third-class degrees. Graham Greene managed a moderate second. Evelyn Waugh’s third was nullified by his refusal to complete the statutory nine terms needed to graduate, while Peter Quennell was sent down for sexual misconduct.

This catalogue of humiliation tends to give the Oxford sections of the average literary memoir a somewhat sober edge. Greene’s A Sort of Life barely mentions his time at Balliol. Powell’s Infants of the Spring climaxes with his 20 year-old younger self admitting to a hugely affronted Maurice Bowra that he disliked the place and burned to leave. It was left to Waugh, both in Brideshead Revisited (1945) and his lapidary autobiography A Little Learning (1964), to lay on the Ruskin-esque aquatint in which all memories of what now gets known as the ‘Brideshead Generation’ have come to be drenched.

Taylor goes on to discuss Cooke’s treatment of the subject in her book which he describes as “handsomely produced” and “less an exercise in debunking than a series of exercises in creative cause and effect … followed by some explorations of ‘Waugh’s Oxford’, nicely illustrated by Amy Dodd, in which Cooke considers the incidental role played by various colleges, institutions and landmarks in Waugh’s fiction.” He also remarks on the illustrations which he describes as “superlative” and concludes with this:

All this offers a fascinating gloss on the literary-cum-artistic tradition in which Waugh might be thought to repose. On this evidence, his real forbear was not Dickens but Thackeray, whose knack of producing drawings which both reflect the text they illustrate and comment on them as well he clearly shares. Meanwhile, the photograph of the Oxford University Railway Society reunion dinner of 1963, in which Waugh and his convives can be found ponderously reassembled on the station platform, offers a ghastly reminder of the fate of thrusting young satirists who grow old. Waugh and Connolly (both just turned 60) look about a hundred; their chins, alas, are beyond computation.

The second review is by your correspondent and appears in the current issue of the Anthony Powell Society Newsletter (No. 71, Summer 2018). This will ultimately be published on the Society’s website. This review offers a more detailed summary of the book’s contents and notes how Waugh’s friend and fellow novelist Anthony Powell fits into Waugh’s Oxford career and, more particularly, the years in London immediately following. For example, Dr Cooke explains how Arthur Waugh’s Oxford career affected that of his son:

… the sources of Arthur Waugh’s theatricality are explained in the entry for ‘The New Theatre’ and his Oxford academic career in that for ‘New College.’ I had not knownthat Arthur also received a third class degree (to a large extent accounted for by his time spent ontheatrical matters)—so it must have been more his son’s extravagance than his poor scholarship thatcaused Arthur to refuse to pay for the final term needed for his degree. Moreover, I had not realized thatEvelyn was the 5th generation of his family to attend Oxford. (Although not mentioned, there were at least two more after him, his children Teresa and Auberon, and his great granddaughter, Mary. There are perhaps others, although the line seems to skip the generation of Evelyn’s grandchildren.)

The review concludes: “Dr Cooke’s book is an enjoyable and informative introduction to the Oxford of AP’s years. It is well produced and nicely bound and printed on high quality paper. The illustrations, which are numerous and of excellent quality, are well integrated with the text.”

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