80th Anniversary of Robbery Under Law

This year marks the 80th anniversary of EvelynWaugh’s book, Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object Lesson. This was published in the UK in June 1939 and an American edition followed in September under the title Mexico: An Object Lesson.  The book was subsidized by a grant of £1500 plus expenses (worth over £95,000 in buying power today) from the Pearson family whose oil production properties had recently been expropriated by the Mexican government. Because the government had also taken actions to close down the Roman Catholic Church and persecuted priests and parishioners, Waugh saw an opportunity to include that story as well.

Waugh took his wife with him on the trip in July-October 1938. When he returned, he worked diligently on the book so that he could begin writing on the idea of a novel he had conceived. The book first appeared in serial form in The Tablet beginning on 29 April 1939. According to Selina Hastings’ biography (376), the book consisted of three parts:

…a journalistic account of his experiences as a tourist; a cumbersomely documented essay describing the outrageous treatment of Pearson’s company by the Mexican government; and lastly, an impassioned history of the state’s persecution of the Church.

Hastings (379) goes on to describe the UK critical reception of the book (which had the working title Pickpocket Government) as one of “little more than polite interest”. The Guardian called it “admirably written” and an “ably” described view of Mexico while Harold Nicholson dismissed it in the Daily Telegraph as “dull” and “jejune”. Hastings writes that it received a “warmer response” in the USA where the New York Times described it as “outspoken” and “soberly conceived and wittily executed”. These reviews are all included in the Evelyn Waugh Critical Heritage volume edited by Martin Stannard. Hastings also notes that Waugh himself thought so little of it that he included no excerpt from it in his 1946 travel writing collection When the Going was Good, the only one of his pre-war travel books that was left out.

The book is largely ignored today except for occasional references in conservative political and Roman Catholic media. These sometimes mention the political credo Waugh included in the book, which Hastings also quotes (378-79), as well as his descriptions of religious persecution and martyrdom. It was never reprinted in Waugh’s lifetime (except for a 1940 Catholic Book Club edition in the UK). A Spanish translation was issued in Mexico in 1996 (Robo al amparo de la ley) and a US reprint was published in 1999 by Akadine Press, Pleasantview, NY.  It was also included in the 2003 Everyman Library collection edited by Nicholas Shakespeare, Waugh Abroad, and a Penguin hardback edition was published in the UK in 2011.

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