Ambrose Silk + Anthony Blanche = Brian Howard

Duncan McLaren has posted another of his profiles of Waugh’s friends as they foregather at Castle Howard in anticipation of a literary festival. The recent postponement of that event may require some adjustment in the arrival of future participants, but the latest addition to McLaren’s list, Brian Howard, one of Waugh’s most interesting if not beloved friends, is not coming in person in any event.

Waugh’s relationship with Brian Howard may have been even more prickly than that he had with the most recent previous arrival, Robert Byron. Since Brian is not expected to attend the Brideshead Festival, McLaren’s presentation on him is written as a monologue of Nancy Mitford as she researches materials for Brian’s biographical profile. From this it is shown, through Waugh’s writings and those of Mitford, as well as others, how Brian contributed heavily to two of Waugh’s fictional characters: Ambrose Silk in Put Out More Flags and Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. As spelled out near the end of McLaren’s posting:

… in March, of 1958, Evelyn wrote to Earl Baldwin [on the occasion of Brian’s death]: ‘I used to known Brian well – a dazzling young man to my innocent eyes. In later life he became very dangerous – constantly attacking people with his fists in public places – so I kept clear of him. […] There is an aesthetic bugger who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names – that was 2/3 Brian and 1/3 Harold Acton. People think it was all Harold, who is a much sweeter and saner man.’

Having made something of a study of this, I [Nancy Mitford] have to correct Evelyn. Ambrose Silk may indeed be 2/3 Brian and 1/3 Harold, but for Anthony Blanche the fractions are surely reversed.

That this is a fair point is made clear from the writings about Brian (some few written by him) as well as about Harold Acton. These are quoted and discussed in the earlier pages of the posting. Indeed, after reading Nancy’s jottings, it seems fair to say that Brian, who never produced any writings worth mentioning, did nevertheless make two important contributions to 20th Century British literature. These are  two of Waugh’s most memorable and humorous characters who could not have been created without a heavy contribution from Brian Howard.

McLaren’s posting is, as usual, amply illustrated, but in this case it is the quotations from Waugh’s novels that tell the story, with a little help from Mitford. One thing they illustrate is that Ambrose Silk is an equally or, perhaps, even more interesting or fully developed character than Anthony Blanche. Anthony has benefitted considerably from his portrayal by Nicholas Grace in the 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. Ambrose has missed out on that sort of opportunity, but one day an adaptation of Put Out More Flags is bound to happen and Ambrose will surely achieve character stardom.


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