In Duncan McLaren’s latest series of articles, Evelyn Waugh’s friends from Oxford are collecting at the Brideshead Festival. The last of these, by my count based on Duncan’s own projections, is Graham Greene. The first installment of the Greene episode begins with this:
Alone in his room on the first floor of the West Wing, Graham Greene was thinking about how he could contribute to the Brideshead Festival. Thinking hard about how he could use it to further his own reputation.
Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh had much in common. One was born in 1903, the son of a publisher, the other in 1904, the son of a headmaster. Both read History at Oxford, though it was Evelyn who had a good time with Alastair Graham, while Graham suffered bouts of near-suicidal depression. Both had first novels published in the late twenties, The Man Within (dour and romantic) and Decline and Fall (a book that in later life Graham would admit to having read several times). Graham converted to Catholicism in 1926, because his wife-to-be was a Catholic. Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930 after his first wife had deserted him. By the mid 1940s both were famous novelists and practicing Catholics, with success coming in America for Evelyn with Brideshead Revisited and for Graham with The Heart of the Matter.
But it is something else that happened in the mid 1940s which Graham wants to explore. There was a five-year gap between the publishing of The Ministry of Fear (1943) and The Heart of the Matter (1948). In between these books he’d tried his hand at being a publisher, and had helped transform the fiction list of Eyre and Spottiswoode. One of the books he’d seen into print was a masterpiece, one that stood comparison with Brideshead Revisited. Which was exactly what Graham was going to do. He was going to compare two classic novels.
So let’s go through this material slowly. The other book in question is Titus Groan and its author was Mervyn Peake, he who had produced his own stunning cover art.
After his comparison of Titus Groan and Brideshead (probably the most interesting part of the essay), Graham rather wanders around the premises poking his way into rooms occupied by other of Waugh’s friends, such as Nancy Mitford, Robert Byron and Anthony Powell. The narrative wanders a bit as well, and Graham never manages to set up the sort of imaginary dialogue with any of these others as those that populate Duncan’s previous episodes. Graham does have occasion, however, based what he finds in the other rooms, to contemplate his own odd description of Evelyn’s death, the enmity between Evelyn and Robert Byron and the view taken by Anthony Powell of Graham’s books. The full episode is available at this link.