Harold Acton (and Martin Green)

Duncan McLaren has added Harold Acton to Waugh’s pantheon of friends. On this occasion he writes it up as a straight narrative rather that as an addition to the crowd gathering at the now postponed Brideshead Festival at Castle Howard.

He breaks their relationship into three periods: Oxford and After, China and Travel, and Post War. This works quite well, as the Oxford and After period is already covered in other biographies and is well summarized by McLaren. He also notes that Acton’s decision to move to China coincides with Waugh’s adoption of a nomadic life following the breakup of his first marriage. A useful description of Acton’s life and work in China is also provided, a period that is less well known. After the war they met each other from time to time and leave descriptions of those meetings in their memoirs and letters. These are well covered in the article.

Acton’s reputation rests as much or more on his friendships with other writers such as Evelyn Waugh than with his own writing. Waugh relied on Acton’s opinion to consign his first novel to the fireplace and dedicated Decline and Fall to him, but, as time went on, McLaren explains how Waugh became less enamored of Acton’s own writing. That opinion seems to have held up, as little of Acton’s writing aside from his memoirs remains in print. Even those could not be described as “easy reading”.

McLaren also introduces the book Children of the Sun: A Narrative of ‘Decadence’ in England After 1918 (1976) into the article. This is by Martin Burgess Green (1927-2010) who taught at Tufts University for many years. This set out to describe the group of aesthetes and intellectuals who formed around Harold Acton and Brian Howard in the 1920s. McLaren provides some interesting background on Green’s research for the book as well as Acton’s rather negative reaction to it. The book is still in print although you may have to search more diligently than usual to find it. Here is a link to the entire article.

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