William Boyd’s A to Z of Evelyn Waugh

Lancing College has posted a report of the talk at the college’s annual Evelyn Waugh Lecture given last month by novelist William Boyd. Here’s Lancing’s description of the event:

William Boyd, the master story teller, novelist and screenwriter delighted his Lancing audience with a revealing A-Z presentation on Evelyn Waugh. William told us that the idea for this approach was prompted by a conversation with [OL] David Hare, Field’s 1960-1964 and it worked to great effect. We were led skilfully through a wealth of knowledge about the subject, which began at the age of 14 and has become, as William admits, a ‘life-long obsession’. ‘C’ stood for comedy and we discovered that William thought this was Waugh’s true literary legacy, ‘E’ was naturally for Evelyn but actually it was Evelyn Gardner, Waugh’s first wife, known as ‘She-Evelyn’, ‘O’ was for Oxford, of course, where William lived, studied and taught for 8 years during which time the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was screened and ‘X’ was for X-rated because Waugh didn’t write very much about sex.

There is also a photo gallery of the lecture and related events.

The text of the talk is also linked and is available here. Many of Boyd’s points are familiar, but there are several mentioned for what may be the first time. For example, Boyd says (at V is for Vile Bodies) that, because of Waugh’s depression following the break up of his first marriage, he had difficulty writing and plagiarized parts of Vile Bodies from William Gerhardie’s Jazz and Jasper (1928). He is considering developing his argument in detail but makes no promises.  As the scriptwriter of the C4 series Sword of Honour, he was also responsible for securing the role of Guy Crouchback for Daniel Craig (in his pre 007 days) and explains what a difference that made to the drama (S is for Scoop and Sword of Honour). He also offers some interesting insights (I is for Ian) about Waugh’s friendship (or lack thereof) with Ian Fleming and mentions “an amicable literary-academic spat” he had based on a letter Waugh wrote to Fleming’s wife Ann about Waugh’s participation in the withdrawal from Crete (L is for Laycock). Boyd’s exchange was with

one of Waugh’s editors [who] profoundly disagreed [with Boyd]. Articles were written and we had a to and fro of forensic letters each advancing the other side of the argument. We eventually stopped, honours-even. But I still think Waugh’s over-the-top false outrage expressed to Ann Fleming is the great giveaway. There is more evidence in his journals. Waugh was both profoundly ashamed that he’d slipped away from Crete and too honest a writer not to deal with the issue some way in his fiction.

The editor was Prof Donat Gallagher who differs from Boyd on his interpretation of Waugh’s actions during the Crete withdrawal as well as he does from several other aspects of Waugh’s military career as presented by Boyd. Here is Prof Gallagher’s response on the Crete matter:

Professor Gallagher is grateful to William Boyd for the courteous way in which he recalls their encounter and fully understands how his argument arises. On the other hand he strongly disagrees with the argument. Of course Waugh was ‘profoundly ashamed’, but it was for ‘running away,’ or more politely  surrendering, not for having acted dishonourably or for flouting orders to remain. Having read the entire NZ war historian’s archive, which embraces British and Australian records, he is conscious that ‘shame’ was the signature word written and spoken by countless common soldiers and realistic officers after Crete. It is pure fantasy to suggest that Laycock and Waugh slipped off early and contrary to orders.  Every piece of evidence shows that they were on the beach to the end and were among the last to be taken on board a warship.

Boyd clearly knows his Waugh and says he’s read everything he published. He also told Lancing that he planned to post a recording of the lecture on a podcast. If so, he may want to check at least one assertion under the letter Z is for Zeller. There he states that: “Dom Hubert van Zeller, a Catholic priest, was Ronald Knox’s confessor. Ronald Knox was the priest who had instructed Waugh when he was being received into the Catholic church.” The first part of that statement is true, but Waugh was instructed for his conversion by Fr Martin D’Arcy, not Knox. Diaries, pp. 320 ff. He was received into the church by D’Arcy on 29 September 1930.

UPDATE (18 May 2019): Professor Gallagher has kindly pointed out that William Boyd did not describe their exchange over Crete as a “row”. The posting is corrected with Boyd’s exact words, and Professor Gallagher’s response is inserted in the text.

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