Roundup: Orphans and Entrecote

This week’s roundup relates mostly to books and book reviews:

–In reviewing the book Orphans: A History by Jeremy Seabrook in The Spectator, novelist Philip Hensher considers several eaxmples of how orphans have been treated in literature by various authors, including Evelyn Waugh:

Of course, frequently the figure of the orphan­ is used for heartbreaking ends: poor Eppie in George Eliot’s Silas Marner, or Jo in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. But there is also the question of the briskly sensible orphan, unsentime­ntal about their fate. Mildred, in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, assures the lachrymose Julian, sighing over his fiancee’s condition: “Well, of course, a lot of people over 30 are orphans. I am myself. In fact I was an orpha­n in my twenties.” Other novelists take a sharply cynical view of the condition, such as with the appalling Connoll­y children in Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, for instance. When, in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, it becomes known that the millionaire Boffins are searching for a suitable orphan for adoption, excitement breaks out…

Now that the state of being an orphan is relatively rare in the West, we have a tendency to assume novelists were preoccupied with orphan­s for abstract, narrative reasons. But of course orphans were much more common in ages of high mortality. What to do with them, and how institutions could fulfil the duty of care that ought to fall to parents, became questions of public debate from the 16th century onwards.

Whether the Connolly children were technically “orphans” is unclear. When he introduced them into the novel, Waugh wrote that they had “no credentials” and that “nothing was ever discovered about their parentage.” (POMF, Penguin, 1976, pp. 79-80). They were put onto the evacuation train by an “Auntie” with whom they had been living, who absconded from her former residence without leaving a trace as soon as the train had left the station.

–The New Criterion in its “Critic’s Notebook” column, reposts a 2008 review of the book by David Lebedoff, entitled The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War. The review is by David Pryce-Jones who also edited the 1973 collection of essays Evelyn Waugh and His World. Lebedoff’s book is brief and thought-provoking and Pryce-Jones is provoked accordingly to write what is a very entertaining and informative review. It ends with this:

Lebedoff concludes by arguing that rejection of moral relativism brings the writers together as two of a kind. Their moral absolutes might be different, but they nonetheless had a common belief that there is such a thing as a moral right and a moral wrong. Lebedoff is on to something there. Orwell and Waugh both saw clearly that what was coming would be worse than what was now, whether it was to be the Airstrip One of 1984, or the philistine vacuity of Hooper. In either case, the future would owe nothing to the past. Fortunately the worst did not happen and Soviet Communism is no more, but little enough is left of England as they knew and appreciated it, and their legacy has the haunting echo of the Last Post.

It is odd that neither Lebedoff nor Pryce-Jones took the opportunity to compare Waugh’s own dystopian novella Love Among the Ruins with 1984 even though it was printed only a few years after Orwell’s book. Lebedoff’s book is still in print and both it and Pryce-Jones’ review are worth reading.

Tablet, a US-based magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture (not to be confused with the British magazine The Tablet, containing similarly broad-based subject matter from the Roman Catholic perspective) in a recent “Bookworm” column by Alexander Aciman recommends books to take to the beach. These are described as books “that you can pick up and put down midparagraph when someone calls your name, ones you can finish in a day but still leave you longing for more, ones with stunning clear prose that mimic the foggy pace of your brain after a day in the salty heat.” Among the three recommended is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh:

This book wears beach-read camouflage. It has almost all the characteristics: an easy story and a nostalgic narrator, flashbacks to a simpler time, syrupy prose that is somehow clear even when it rambles on a bit. A lightness of touch. You can picture yourself reading it aloud to someone on a hammock. But it’s all a trap. Brideshead Revisited is actually one of the most sophisticated English books written since WWII.

If it’s almost impossible to produce any meaningful spoilers about Brideshead Revisited it’s because even under the pretext of plot (which unfolds over many years), it’s a book about nothing. Somewhere in this story of romance and friendship and the English countryside is a much deeper, more compelling story about yearning, and specifically in that a subdued, English fashion. …[I]t’s widely acknowledged to be a gay love story even though nothing explicit ever really happens between the two friends. It’s easy to confuse English restraint for repression. In reality, however, this kind of restraint in craft is so precise and so focused that the product is overwhelmingly sensual. Reading this book makes you feel the kind of ache that belongs only to dreams. You feel suspended in the gray, dewy air of an English country morning…

Other books recommended are Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

–A weblog called MyDomaine.com has collected recommendations for books to read on long flights. This one includes a Waugh novel:

Half of my family lives in England. Whenever I visit them, I’m likely to re-read Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh or Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. … I do so because I am a chronic re-reader (you yourself are different from the last time you picked up the book, so why wouldn’t the book change as well?) and because there’s such humor, subtlety, and important social commentary in both books that end up serving as a refresher course on aspects of the culture I’m about to immerse myself in.

–The Daily Mail has an article about 4 writers taking nostalgic holidays. One of them is Daisy Waugh, daughter of Auberon, who recently went back to her family’s favorite holiday spot when she was a child:

It was my mother who discovered it. Directed to L’Entrecote in Toulouse by a distant French cousin, she took my older sister there in a carrycot. That was in 1962. My family has been going ever since.As the natives know (there’s a queue outside, seven days a week), this inexpensive, one-dish restaurant is the most delicious one in the world. My husband Peter and I recently returned to L’Entrecote for the first time in 21 years. Nothing had changed. Same yellow tablecloths, same tartan wallpaper, same brisk French service, same salade aux noix first course, same steak and chips with the same fameuse sauce secrete for main. The Parisian who opened the first L’Entrecote and created said sauce bequeathed its secrets to his children, who created near-identical chains…

The sauce is so exquisite that 50-odd years ago my parents used this restaurant as the fulcrum around which to search for a holiday house. They bought a ramshackle farmhouse a 40-minute drive away, and our trips to Toulouse, and L’Entrecote, three or four times each summer — to buy satchels for school, to celebrate exam results; any excuse, really — are a highlight of my childhood.

–Finally, The Sheen Center has announced an upcoming Great Books Series that may be of interest to our New York area readers. This series:

… will focus on three outstanding Catholic novels, beginning with Graham Greene’s masterpiece, The End of the Affair (1951), continuing with Evelyn Waugh’s classic, Brideshead Revisited (1945), and concluding with Walker Percy’s dystopian existential comedy, The Thanatos Syndrome(1987). The series will be taught by author and playwright James P. MacGuire. Jamie is the author of over ten books and two produced plays.

The Brideshead lecture is scheduled for 14 November at 7pm at The Sheen Center, 18 Bleeker Street, NY 10012. Tickets are available here.

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