Henry Yorke and Evelyn Waugh

Waugh’s friend from Oxford Henry Yorke (who wrote as “Henry Green”) has joined his other friends on the growing list appearing on Duncan McLaren’s website. This latest entry is in the form of a narrative of the relations between Yorke and Waugh as they developed and deteriorated over the years. The narrative is as if written by Nancy Mitford who was a friend of both writers. She is writing while at Castle Howard awaiting the convening of the now postponed Brideshead Conference. Here’s a link.

Waugh and Yorke met after Waugh had left Oxford but was still returning there on a regular basis. Yorke was 2 years behind Waugh. He admired Yorke’s first two books Blindness and Living and praised both of them in letters to Yorke. He also reviewed Living twice, once in Vogue and about a year later in the Graphic where he called it a “neglected masterpiece.” The latter review is reprinted in EAR and A Little Order. McLaren includes this remark as indicative of Waugh’s regard for Living:

In June of 1929, Evelyn wrote again to Henry, beginning his letter: ‘I have just got back and read Living.’ He goes on to discuss the book in some detail. A crackpot researcher, Duncan McLaren, points out that a copy of Living takes pride of place – top of the pile – in a photo that was taken of the Canonbury Square flat that the Evelyns lived in in north London.

The photo is reproduced in the posted article.

The “Mitford narrative” explains how Yorke reciprocated Waugh’s praise in letters to him regarding Waugh’s 1930s books (although Yorke didn’t think the ending of A Handful of Dust worked) in a period (1931-38) when Yorke wasn’t publishing anything. When he finally came out with Party Going in 1938 Waugh wrote with some reservations but overall favorably. It is only fair to say that both Living and Party Going were mostly (or exclusively) dialogue and would have been considered “Modernist” and “Experimental”, not the sort of thing that Waugh wrote–at least not after Vile Bodies.

During and after the war they drew apart to the point where Waugh was writing to Mitford in the 1950s that he thought Yorke had gone mad. This assessment was supported by a visit of the Yorkes to Piers Court that did not go well. As might be expected, McLaren/Mitford pulls all this together in a quite readable narrative, supported with helpful illustrations.

Since he died in 1973, there have been several attempts to revive Henry Yorke’s reputation. The first was lead by John Updike in the late 1970s. At the turn of the century a biography by Jeremy Treglown was published and some of his works returned to print. More recently, the New York Review of Books has weighed in to put  his works back into print and other books and articles devoted to his life and works have been published. But I think he will always be a writers’ writer. Much of what he wrote looks like the response to an assignment in a Creative Writing class by a graduate student who tries too hard to be original, and less hard to tell a  readable story.


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