More Letters

Bonhams the auction house has announced another batch of letters that will be of interest to Waugh enthusiasts. See yesterday’s post. These are letters written to Waugh by Ronald Knox in the period 1944-57.  They are not in the BL’s collection of Waugh’s correspondence because they were apparently in the possession of the estate of Christopher Sykes (who died in 1986) when the BL collection was acquired from the Waugh Estate, as is explained on Bonham’s website:

Series of nearly sixty autograph and typed letters signed (“Ronnie”), to Evelyn Waugh, some to Waugh’s wife Laura, comprising some 48 autograph and 10 typed letters; plus a self-addressed postcard by Waugh soliciting comments (“Elegant/ Good/ Bad/ Outrageous”) on which Knox has written comments (“…There is a Mr Samgrass standing for Parliament…”); several letters to Waugh by Henry Hope and others, concerning efforts to secure for Knox a cardinal’s hat (“…Laymen must walk very delicately where matters of ecclesiastical promotion are concerned…”); and forwarded copies of letters by Knox to the press, protesting at the Tablet’s review of Helena and Cyril Connolly’s of Men at Arms; the collection contained in a wooden cigar box (Montecristo: Dunhill Selection Supreme No. 1), with a label pasted on the lid inscribed by Waugh: “Letters from R.A.K to E. Waugh/ 1940-1957”; with the year of each letter added in Waugh’s hand, some 120 pages, one letter seemingly incomplete, 4to and 8vo, Mells and elsewhere, 1944-1957.


‘BRIDESHEAD… WAS BETTER THAN EVER. GOSH IT’S GOOD’ – RONALD KNOX TO HIS BIOGRAPHER EVELYN WAUGH. Knox appointed Waugh his literary executor in 1950, telling him that his solicitor was “rather keen that I should have a real literary executor” and that he had informed him that “the only person whose literary judgement I trusted, outside my own immediate generation, was you” (in another letter Knox is even more unstinting in his praise, telling Waugh that “I am so much an ultra-Realist, that I hold it the true business of the author to wonder ‘Does God find my prose good?’ In the absence of any assurance from that Quarter, I can think of no arbiter whose opinion I would rather go by, than yours”). This resulted in Waugh’s posthumous biography of his friend, published in 1959; and it was clearly with this in mind that the dying Knox wrote his last note, dated by Waugh 17 June 1957, in which he is at pains to set the record straight over his failure to enlist after his conversion to Rome in 1917 and an accusation levelled against him by Cardinal Bourne.

During Knox’s lifetime Waugh edited A Selection from the Occasional Sermons of the Right Reverend Monsignor Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1948), and received the dedication of Knox’s Enthusiasm (1950). In response to Waugh’s letter of thanks (published by Amory, 18 November 1950), Knox demurred: “No, I’m afraid the dedication was really (like all one’s actions) self-regarding in part. I wanted people to notice that the book was (if it is) well written, that it was dished up for the most delicate prose-palate. And I don’t know Max Beerbohm, so there was nothing for it. But I did, also, hope that you’d like having it dedicated to you”.

As Waugh himself wrote in the preface to his biography, he knew Knox ‘primarily as a man of letters rather than as a priest’ (p.x). Knox’s admiration of Waugh’s work, especially Brideshead and Helena, was unstinting, telling him in 1949 that “I finished last night rereading Brideshead as a bed-book, and it was better than ever. Gosh it’s good” and in 1950 that “I think if I were ballooning, and were forced to lighten ship by making so regrettable a choice, Helena would just go before Brideshead. But then (i) I am almost unbalanced about Brideshead and (ii) I admit that as a performance – because so difficult to do – Helena has it”.

Of his own status as priest and author Knox writes: “I am desperately afraid that I’ve left a false impression… The impression, I mean, that I am (or think I am) a creative artist spoiled by having to run in harness instead of roaming the prairie… I suspect that I’m really too unadventurous by nature to have collected or digested much experience. Indeed (since we are mixing the metaphors) I think it’s quite likely the priesthood has made me all the author I am; it’s a dashed good wicket to play on”; much of his efforts, as recorded in these letters, being expended on his translation of the Bible (“….The only false perspective I find in your article is one which non-Catholics would have read into it anyway; I mean the suggestion that I took to Bible translation out of loyal obedience to intransigent superiors. Really it was my own baby all through…”).

Their contemporaries also put in the occasional appearance, including Osbert Lancaster and Cecil Beaton (in a letter misquoted by Waugh in the biography, pp.424-5), and Graham Greene, whose The Power and the Glory had been censured by the Vatican in 1954, sparking the protest from Knox: “It’s shattering about Graham Greene; if I knew him better I’d write to him. As you say, why that book? It makes me despair of the Italian mind”.

The British Library acquired Evelyn Waugh’s incoming correspondence from the Waugh family in 1990. The present group, previously with Waugh’s biographer, Christopher Sykes, has only recently resurfaced.

The auction is scheduled for 27 November 2018 at Bonhams premises in Knightsbridge. The estimated price is $10-16,000. The sale also includes several presentation copies of Waugh’s books to Patrick Balfour, his friend since Oxford days.  Here is a link to the catalogue.


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  1. Pingback: Update: Patrick Balfour Copies | The Evelyn Waugh Society

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