Estate of Waugh

In this week’s New Statesman, lead book reviewer Leo Robson expands his horizons to consider the question of how literary estates have affected literary history. There are four books listed as the subject of the review, but these are barely mentioned in a wide-ranging consideration of the subject-matter. He begins with the estate of Tennyson as administered by the poet’s family to preserve his reputation as they preferred to see it. Also considered are the estates of TS Eliot, Franz Kafka, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, JD Salinger, Jane Austin, Emily Dickinson and others. One of those mentioned is the Estate of Evelyn Waugh and its relations with Waugh’s biographer Martin Stannard:

At the height of “Brideshead fever”, sparked by the 1981 Granada TV production of Brideshead Revisited, the academic and would-be biographer Martin Stannard battled with Evelyn Waugh’s spiteful and forgetful son Auberon. As Stannard recalls in his superb essay “Estate Management”, also collected in the Companion, the younger Waugh charged extortionate permission fees for quoting from Waugh’s writing and papers, and then blocked Stannard from writing an introduction to The Loved One. “Do I take it that I shall never be allowed to ‘edit’ or to quote extensively from his writings?” Stannard asked at one point. “As a scholar who has devoted his entire professional life to the study of Evelyn Waugh, this would come as a mortal blow.”

Stannard is keen to emphasise the sheer vulnerability of anyone seeking the favour of a literary estate: “It remains, whatever anyone might proclaim about free speech and open scholarship, a relation between one in power and a supplicant. The privileges can be withdrawn at any moment, ‘access’ denied.”(Although archives are purchased for vast sums by institutions such as the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, there’s no guarantee that visiting scholars will receive clearance to quote their findings.)

The Companion is one of the books under review: A Companion to Literary Biography, edited by Richard Bradford. Unlike some examples mentioned, however, Stannard was able to complete his well-documented two-volume biography of Waugh, which remains the definitive biography after 25 years from its completion. In other cases, projected biographies and critical works had to be abandoned or curtailed due to interference by the estates in the works of a biographer or critic. Indeed, as Robson recognizes, the Stannard/Waugh experience has a happy ending: “Martin Stannard is currently overseeing a complete critical edition of Evelyn Waugh’s work.” It might also be mentioned, as does Prof Stannard at the end of his essay, that he is working on the project as Co-Executive Editor alongside Alexander Waugh, who is General Editor and currently the Executor of the Waugh Estate.

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