Waugh’s Oxford (more)

The TLS has a review by Miranda Seymour of Barbara’s Cooke’s book Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford. It opens with a discussion of Waugh’s drawing of Harold Acton on the back flap of the dustwrapper (also p. 25) and continues:

Barbara Cooke’s emphasis here on Waugh’s graphic art – of which the Bodleian owns a splendid little collection – provides a useful corrective to our knowledge of a literary life that has been more sparklingly analysed by Selina Hastings, Paula Byrne and, most recently, Philip Eade. (Christopher Sykes’s engrossing biography of Waugh, published in 1975, remains endearingly tainted by his inability to write with sufficient detachment about one of his oldest friends.) Cooke may fail to sparkle, but she is tenacious in her determination not to mask Waugh’s manifold flaws.The first and better half of her book – it later descends into a historic trail guide (one beguilingly illustrated by Amy Dodd) to the famous and infamous locations of Waugh’s years at Oxford – potters across familiar ground.

The familiar ground is summarized as Waugh’s early life leading up to Oxford. Seymour thinks Cooke might have been more forthcoming about some of the more louche details of Waugh’s undergraduate years but…

Her interest revives when she turns to the novelist’s precocious gift for drawing and his early interest in film-making. Waugh shared Virginia Woolf’s fascination with silent film, and made many of his student friendships through Terence Greenidge, a fellow film enthusiast. Together they produced The Scarlet Woman, which was partly shot at Underhill, and featured, alongside Evelyn and Alec, Elsa Lanchester, who later starred in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Both Cooke and her publisher do full justice to Waugh’s early career as a graphic artist. It’s good to be reminded that woodcuts preceded Waugh’s work as a novelist – and to be shown in detail just how good his work was. The five Oxford types that Waugh drew as a frontispiece for Cherwell in 1923 were still being used by that magazine as late as 1940. When his comic novel Decline and Fall was published by Waugh Senior’s publishing firm in 1928, he provided his own illustrations. Clearly inspired by both Eric Gill and Aubrey Beardsley, Waugh’s darkly mischievous caricatures prefigure the exuberant wit of his early novels.

Our readers are reminded that an important phase of Waugh’s Oxford years will be commemorated next weekend on Saturday, 28 July at 6pm when a memorial plaque will be unveiled at one of his favorite pubs, the Abingdon Arms. This is just a few minutes cab ride north of Oxford in Beckley. For details and Waugh-themed menu of the feast planned after the event, see here.

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