Waugh in History

Former Conservative MP and European Commissioner and now Life Peer Christopher Tugendhat has written a book called A History of Britain Through Books: 1900-1964. In his introduction, he explains that the book has “two wellsprings”. The first is his own collection of books by British authors between 1900-1964 and the second is historian Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects in which he uses the objects as a discussion point for history. In the same way, Tugendhat uses his books:

…as a prism through which to convey the British experience through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. It was a tumultuous period that began with the British empire at the plenitude of its power and ended with the empire’s dissolution and the reversal of a population flow that had been in place for some two centuries. Instead of people going out from these islands to settle overseas, people from the former colonies began to come here. Because of the two wars, the build-up to them and the Cold War the nation was for much of the time facing an existential threat. It witnessed a transformation in the lives of the great mass of the people from poverty to prosperity. And it saw some traditional prejudices begin to crumble while others endured…

Tugendhat considers both fiction and nonfiction and both canonical texts and some that have been forgotten. He sets up several categories in which they are considered along with other books reflecting upon the same historic topic. This process can throw up “unexpected insights that in turn stimulate a reassessment of received opinion”. He offers three examples. The first is that it is not so much the suffragettes as it was the women in the trade union movement that brought the advancement of women’s rights. Another is reflected in John Braine’s A Room at the Top where the working class narrator and RAF airman Joe Lampton manages to secure his advancement into a middle class accountacy career by studying materials supplied by the Red Cross while being held prisoner in Germany after his plane was shot down. This wartime success story is at variance with the usual patriotic themes in the period’s writing.

Evelyn Waugh provides the third surprise. This is included in the section of Tugendhat’s book called “Imperialist Perspectives.” Waugh was, according to Tugendhat, despite his archreactionary views:

perhaps the first person to call time on the British empire in Africa […] in his 1931 travel book Remote People. One of its sections is on Kenya where, with the active encouragement of the British government, men and women from this country were between the wars building new lives in the expectation that British rule would last beyond their lifetimes. He wrote with approval of their efforts to reproduce the life of the English squirearchy in Africa and with sympathy of their colour bar and discrimination against the Africans. Yet he forecast that the European colonization of Africa might not last for more than another twenty-five years, which proved to be only a few years out.

The other Waugh books included in Tugendhat’s odyssey through these years are his novels Scoop (1938) and Brideshead Revisited (1945).These not discussed in the book’s introduction, but their relevance does appear from one of the book’s reviews. They fall into a section which comes just before the conclusion called “Diverse Perspectives”. The review in The Herald (Glasgow) explains this section as what the reviewer (Alastair Mabbott) describes as:

A final miscellany [that] draws together writings on the public school system, Elizabeth David’s pivotal book on Mediterranean cookery, Evelyn Waugh’s attitudes towards the press and the landed gentry and two contrasting takes on the Bright Young Things of the 1920s.

The other books mentioned in the quoted passage include Graham Greene’s The Old School, a collection of essays “by divers hands” published in 1934. The contrasting takes on the Bright Young People are, presumably, Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat (1924) and Noel Coward’s The Vortex (1924).

There are also several other books considered in other sections of Tugendhat’s book that have a Waugh connection. In “War 2–Warnings and Reality” the book Darling Monster: The Letters of Lady Diana Cooper to Her Son John Julius Norwich is considered and the Conclusion includes Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Nineteeen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. The book’s Introduction, Contents and the first few sections can be viewed as samples on Amazon.com at the link above.

 

 

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