The Oxford University Press commissioned a review of three early volumes of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh from its sister publication Essays in Criticism. A review of these volumes (Vile Bodies, Precocious Waughs, and Rossetti) has been ably written by Lisa Mullen of Worcester College, Oxford. Her review (entitled “And Who is Not Amused?”) takes up seven pages of the current issue (v. 68, no. 4, October 2018).
The review begins with the observation that in these early works, rather than expressing the conservative views with which he is so often associated, Waugh “seems tempted by revolution or at least the idea that his generation ought to break new ground […] These volumes reveal different aspects of Waugh’s youthful plasticity and show how his adult persona developed as he tested himself as a writer.” After explaining the mechanics of the Complete Works project, Dr Mullen examines Precocious Waughs and finds in the childish drawings it copiously reproduces one of that volume’s “greatest pleasures.” In the early diaries she discerns a reflection of Waugh’s “harsh self-assessment” of his somewhat exhuberant childish nature.
In her review of Rossetti, Dr Mullen notes with approval Michael Brennan’s assessment that Waugh was in this book “rehearsing profound questions about art, aesthetics and morality” that he would return to at greater length in his later books. His approach to Rossetti’s life is compared to the “insubordinate” biographical method of Lytton Strachey then in fashion. She sees in “Waugh’s recoil from ugliness the path that will lead him to Catholicism.” She also praises Brennan’s introduction for its description of the circumstances affecting Waugh’s life when he wrote the book.
She then provides her own linkage between the writing of Rossetti via Decline and Fall and Waugh’s composition of the next book under review, Vile Bodies. This is based to some extent on information provided in Martin Stannard’s introduction to that volume, explaining how Waugh’s marriage and divorce overshadowed the whole book, not just the second half. Dr Mullen provides a useful summary of Stannard’s introduction showing how a study of the manuscripts illustrates linkages between what Waugh was writing and the emotional stress he was experiencing in his life at the time. She concludes her review with this reference to a diary entry Waugh wrote at the age of 17:
“As sometimes walking in the middle of London one has a sudden impulse to run”, he writes, “I feel I must write prose or burst.” Unwittingly, he was summing up the very quality of creative energy which pulses unmistakably within these volumes–and stands as Waugh’s lasting retort to his father’s appeal to dullness.
Oddly, after taking the time, trouble and expense of securing this thoughtful and detailed review, the copy posted on the internet by Essays in Criticism (which is also published by OUP) has been put behind a paywall. It may make sense to encourage subscriptions by limiting the internet availability of essays and articles, but reviews are intended in major part to help readers decide whether or not to buy a book. OUP won’t shift many copies with a paywalled review.
Meanwhile, your correspondent has been advised by a reader in the UK that the copies of the Complete Works thus far published are not available consistently in all of the UK’s depository libraries. For instance, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh lacked the Vile Bodies volume. The only deposit libraries with all five volumes are the British Library and the Bodleian. The other three deposit libraries that are entitled to them (Cambridge University Library, National Library of Wales, and Trinity College, Dublin) have either no copies or incomplete sets. Under the applicable statutes, only the BL receives copies automatically. The others must request copies and the publisher is obliged to provide them at no charge. Readers living near these other libraries might want to suggest to them that they should seek copies of all volumes from OUP as they are printed.