Mitford and Merton and Waugh

The London Magazine has published on its website a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s 1960 review of Nancy Mitford’s last novel Don’t Tell Alfred:

While looking through our archive recently we came across this review by Evelyn Waugh of Nancy Mitford’s novel Don’t Tell Alfred from 1960. Displaying a characteristic mix of erudition and passion for story telling (alongside more than a hint of bitterness), we thought that it was a weird slice of literary history that needed to be shared once more. From The London Magazine December 1960, Volume 7, No. 12.

Waugh’s review was politely positive but with reservations. He especially praised Mitford for her recycling of characters who had proved successful in previous novels, but at the same time noted that some had to be recreated due to untimely demises. He makes other subtle references about how she might have modified the text, but he had long since given up trying to help her to improve her writing style. It is a rather long review but fun to read. TLM might have pointed out that, although the book sold well, its overall critical reception (especially from reviewers Nancy respected) was so negative that she did not attempt to write another novel.  She relied on biographical/historical works for the remainder of her career.

Unfortunately, the copy of Waugh’s review that TLM has posted is replete with typos. It is to be hoped that some one will point this out and the posted copy can be corrected. It is also available in Essays, Articles and Reviews, p. 553.

–Novelist Mary Gordon has published a book entitled On Thomas Merton.  It is reviewed this week in America: The Jesuit Quarterly. This book grew out of a lecture Gordon was asked to give at the opening of an exhibition of Merton’s writings at the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This was on the occasion of the centenary of Merton’s birth which would have been 2015. Gordon says she was selected  because she was the only one on the Columbia campus (where she teaches at Barnard) who was known to be a practicing Roman Catholic. She opens her book with this:

If Thomas Merton had been a writer and not a monk, we would  never have heard of him. If Thomas Merton had been a monk and not a writer, we would never have heard of him.

In her opening chapter she considers what writers influenced Merton’s writing, or not as the case may be. And the first case considered is that of Evelyn Waugh. She draws on their correspondence in the late 1940s when Waugh had edited, deleted and rewritten material in the UK edition of The Seven Story Mountain, Merton’s most popular book. The abridged UK version was entitled Elected Silence. Waugh later wrote to urge Merton to write more carefully and pare down his prose, but Merton didn’t listen and Waugh lost interest. It might be noted in this regard, that Waugh’s revised edition of Merton’s major work is out of print, while the original version is still selling. The two Roman Catholic converts fell further apart after Vatican II reforms which Merton embraced and Waugh opposed. Gordon relies heavily in her discussion of their relations on the recent book by Mary Frances Coady, Merton & Waugh (2015), an early version of which was presented at the Evelyn Waugh Society’s 2012 conference at Loyola-Notre Dame Library in Baltimore.

–Waugh tried to influence the writing of both Mitford and Merton, sending them each copies of Fowler’s and his own suggestions on editing their works that he had reviewed in draft form. Neither paid him the least attention and went on writing and publishing in the marketplace of the 1950s-60 where their works continued to find buyers while Waugh’s sales struggled until they were rescued by the success of the 1981 Brideshead Revisited TV series, 15 years after his death.

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