–Two posts independently made the same point earlier this week relating to Jewish-American writer Chaim Potok. Potok wrote mostly of the Orthodox Hassidic Jewish community. The first notice appeared on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac:

When he was about 14 years old, Chaim Potok happened to pick up a copy of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, and it changed his life. He said, “I lived more deeply inside the world in that book than I lived inside my own world.” Potok went on to write about boys who were in conflict between religious community and mainstream, secular society in books such as The Chosen (1967) and The Promise (1969).

The second was on a French-language website devoted to Jewish news

As a boy, Chaim showed gifts for drawing and painting and dreamed of becoming an artist. This did not meet with favor at home. In the orthodox tradition, the arts are regarded with disdain as “narishkeit-yiddish” for “silly things” – as is any hobby that interferes with the study of Torah and Talmud. In addition, the visual arts constitute a violation of the Second Commandment taboo against the production of graven images.

He turned instead to literature. As a teenager, Chaim, like [one of his characters] Danny Saunders, devoured secular books in secret at the public library. The first title he took off the shelf, almost at random, was Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” followed shortly by James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” These two novels of Catholic writers Potok remembered later, would chart the course of his future.

Both notices were posted on the occasion of Potok’s birthday (17 February 1929) but are otherwise unrelated. In a way, the Hassidic community in America may bear a certain resemblance to the interwar Roman Catholic community in Britain. Both were relatively closed to outsiders and would have contained boys who were rebelling between their religion and secular society. The translation of the French article is by Google with a few edits.

–The BBC History Magazine’s website has an article about Henry VI’s de facto sainthood. Although he was a failure as king–losing territory in France and causing the War of the Roses in England–he nevertheless became venerated as a saint after his death:

His cult became so popular that the abbots of Westminster and Chertsey both tried to secure possession of his body. Henry VII planned the great chapel that he built at Westminster as a shrine for his saintly kinsman, who would be reburied there when canonised. However, diplomatic problems with Rome blocked the canonisation. Until the day he died, Henry VIII venerated his great-uncle. In 1528, he asked that he should be canonised. Even after breaking with the papacy and ending pilgrimages to Windsor, he left instructions in his will for the tomb in St George’s Chapel to be made more imposing and for the banner of ‘King Henry the Saint’ to be carried at his funeral.

Recusant Catholics continued to venerate him, Alexander Pope referring to the ‘Martyr-King’ in his poem Windsor Forest. During the 1920s there were attempts to secure his canonisation and he became one of the author Evelyn Waugh’s favourite saints. The 1970s witnessed another, unsuccessful, campaign to have him canonised.

I’m not aware what authority there may be for Henry VI having been one of Waugh’s favorite saints. He is identified as the “St Henry” to whom Waugh refers in a somewhat cryptic letter to Christopher Sykes dated 10 April 1953: “I am sure that St Henry in heaven constantly prays for the rescue of the unhappy little victims of his perverted foundation, and that he is to be thanked for this triumph of his grace”(Letters, p. 399). The “perverted foundation” would probably be Eton College where one of Sykes’ sons may have resumed a recently interrupted education.

The Times prints a story by veteran journalist Max Hastings reporting from a winter holiday in Malaysia. He has been asked by several of his friends if, given the present state of affairs in Britain, he ever intends to return. He concludes that at his age he has little alternative but thinks that younger Britons should be considering their options:

The words “emigrate” and “work abroad” […] have overwhelmingly positive connotations. “Exile” sounds uglier. It suggests a flight from bad things, rather than an embrace of better ones. Calais, Boulogne and Le Touquet in the 19th century hosted sad colonies of ruined Englishmen and their families, for a time including that of the young Anthony Trollope. Evelyn Waugh was merely the most contemptuous critic of WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood for bolting to America in 1939, to escape the unpleasantness of Hitler. […]  If I were young, however, I would gaze long and hard across the sea, not with thoughts of mere flight from things that seem wrong with our own country but because youth should display boldness, embrace novelty, seize opportunity.

If the British people insist upon pursuing a retreat towards a lost past, a quest for the rainbow’s end, I can imagine my grandchildren instead reaching out towards a sustainable future elsewhere. […] I hope that, a decade or two hence, our dear old country will still offer promise to a new generation. If not, then go west, young man — or east, or south. Do not risk stagnation in yesterday’s world.

Waugh’s condemnation of Auden, et al. for scarpering from Britain to America in the face of an expected German invasion was written in Put Out More Flags (1942) where he depicted them as Parsnip and Pimpernell. Waugh’s French publisher has just announced a new edition of that book: Hissez le grand pavois. Waugh was writing in that novel about what came to be called the “phoney war”. Maybe these early days of 2019 will come to be called the “phoney Brexit”, or not, as the case may be.

–A recent article in the Irish Times explains why country houses play a lesser role in Irish novels than they do in those with English settings:

The Big House has always been a popular theme in fiction. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, EM Forster’s Howards End and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca may not be at the top of everybody’s reading lists but the place these books hold in popular culture is undeniable. The place of the Big House in Ireland’s cultural psyche, and in our fiction, is a thornier issue. This is perhaps due to their use as a representation of more than simply the seats of the ruling classes but also as mirror-images of the fall from power of Anglo-Irish society.

Built by the ruling Protestant ascendancy classes who came to power after the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland, many of these houses were built in the first half of the 18th century. […] A combination of events brought an end to the indulgent lifestyles of the Anglo-Irish that played out in the houses. Successive land acts enabled Irish Catholics to purchase land. Many landlords had driven themselves into significant debt, having spent vast amounts of money upgrading and maintaining their houses. Without the income from vast swathes of land, and the labour of their former Catholic tenants to support their extravagance, the landed classes and their houses began to fall into decline. Added into the mix were the large number of houses that were burned or bombed during the Irish revolutionary period. By the mid-1920s many of the houses that had survived the War of Independence and the Civil War were sold or simply abandoned. Given their turbulent history and their place as symbols of our colonial past, it’s no surprise that Big Houses have not been celebrated in Irish fiction as they have in English.

Exceptions are novels by Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Bowen, and more recently the author of the article Antoinette Tyrrell has written one entitled Home to Cavendish.


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