Officers Among the Islands

Duncan McLaren continues his visits to locations associated with what he calls Evelyn Waugh’s Piers Court years. The first of these is “An Arsonist’s Progress” which explores the evolution of what became Waugh’s story Love Among the Ruins. This began its gestation in the 15-month period between the completion of Helena and the beginning of his work on Men at Arms in June 1951. His early drafts were called “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” but when he circulated them among possible publishers they excited little interest. McLaren begins his discussion with a comparison of this early version with what finally emerged in 1953 as the published novella. He uses the description of that early draft in Robert Murray Davis’ 1989 study Evelyn Waugh and the Forms of His Times. McLaren explains how events in Waugh’s life during this period influenced both the early version and the changes he incorporated in the final version. There were several foreign trips, including the one to the Middle East which resulted in The Holy Places, and the birth of his youngest son, Septimus. McLaren had previously posted an entry on the final text of Love Among the Ruins, which should be read before this latest contribution, at least by those interested in the book rather than Waugh’s life story. They are separated by some intervening articles in McLaren’s index.

Another recent entry, “With Evelyn to Arran or Offs and Toffs,” deals with the first part of Officers and Gentlemen and includes a description of McLaren’s recent trip to the Scottish isles where Waugh trained as a commando. Among McLaren’s usual interweaving of present locations with the ones described in Waugh’s novel, diaries and letters is a brilliant re-creation of the dinner of Guy Crouchback and Tommy Blackhouse at the castle of Colonel Campbell, the Laird of Mugg, the fictional island where they are stationed. McLaren is able to identify the castle on the island of Arran which Waugh used as a model and further connect it with Waugh himself, using the recent memoirs of a former resident of that structure. To say any more would risk spoiling the enjoyment of one of McLaren’s best efforts along this line. It is highly recommended.

Randolph Churchill also plays a major role in this essay as he was training in the islands at the same time as Waugh but with a different unit. McLaren rearranges things to suit his own narrative that brings them together frequently. The essay ends with McLaren’s hilarious reworking of some of Winston Churchill’s famous lines from his early wartime speeches appearing in a volume (Into Battle) edited by Randolph and published in early 1941. Be sure to read to the end of the essay to pick these up.

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