David Pryce-Jones’s Signed Books

Literary critic and historian David Pryce-Jones has written another memoir. This one is called Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime and consists of 90 memoirs of the authors of books in his collection which contain their signatures. In each case the signings were made at his request, usually in a book he already owned. Typically, the signings took place when he arrived to interview the signer. The book has been reviewed widely (e.g.,Wall Street Journal, National Review and Washington Post) and excerpts have appeared in Standpoint (Arthur Koestler) and The Spectator (several subjects) . It was published in the USA last month and in the UK last week.

Among those memorialized, there are several of Waugh’s generation or the next one up or down. These include Harold Acton, Cyril Connolly, J B Priestley, Rose Macauley, Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, Kingsley Amis and V S Naipaul. According to Joseph Epstein, who reviews the book in the Wall Street Journal, the essays provide a record of the decline of English culture over the period they cover: “traditions in dress, wit, intellectual life, were admirable in all ways” as exemplified in the early periods by those such as Winston Churchill, Evelyn Waugh, Rebecca West and Hugh Trevor-Roper. But those described from more recent times make England “seem more than a touch shabby, dull, dreary, symbolized by those two knights of woeful countenance Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Elton John” as well as the yet unknighted Jeremy Corbyn.

Epstein singles out for special praise Pryce-Jones’s portrait of Cyril Connolly who “was much taken by the endurance of writing. His own, though still readable, has not held up and he never came near writing the masterpiece that was the name of his desire.” That portrait ends with Epstein’s thoughts  “on the relations among Connolly, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell about whom Mr Pryce-Jones writes, ‘These three writers disagreed but their opinion of each other is in the literary centerpiece of the age’.”

It seems odd that Pryce-Jones does not include a memoir of Waugh. But this may well be due to the fact that Waugh didn’t meet the criterion of having signed a book for Pryce-Jones. As noted in a previous post, Waugh seems to have kept him at some distance on the few occasions when they met, which were mostly arranged through the efforts of Theresa Waugh or her mother. Evelyn had a particular dislike for David Pryce-Jones’s father, Alan, and that may have made him wary of befriending his offspring. And it can’t have helped things that David Pryce-Jones wrote an unfavorable review in his 20s (Critical Heritage, p. 272: In an editorial comment, Martin Stannard wrote, “The piece offended Waugh who lost no time in informing its author of the fact”). Waugh wasn’t to know at the time that, after his death, Pryce-Jones would edit what has turned out to be a very valuable source of biographical material: Evelyn Waugh and His World (1973).

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