Mid-December Roundup

–Posted on the website of the Australian literary journal Quadrant, an article by Mark McGinness marks the 75th anniversary of Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love. This was published on 10 December 1945 about 6 months after Brideshead Revisited had appeared. McGinness comments on how Waugh influenced the book (or at least tried to):

…As Diana [Mitford] saw it, “in its way just about perfect. I can’t find a criticism. Evelyn couldn’t have done it.” Interestingly, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy’s great friend and correspondent, was a valued mentor and played a key part in Pursuit. Nancy had favoured the title My Cousin Linda and it was Waugh who suggested The Pursuit of Love. He had sent her an early copy of his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, published in May 1945, and as she relayed their worldly friends’ views on the classic (she was well-informed, having created a salon at Heywood Hill’s bookshop in Mayfair), she confessed,

“I am writing a book, also in the 1st person. (Only now has it occurred to me everybody will say what a copycat – never mind that won’t hurt you only me) It’s about my family, a very different cup of tea, not grand and far madder. Did I begin it before reading B.head or after I can’t remember….I’m awfully excited my fingers begin to itch.”

After a description of Nancy’s career following the success of Pursuit,  McGinness also summons Waugh:

… Again Waugh advised her on finding her voice and a readership when she turned to history — in this case Madame de Pompadour; “Write for the sort of reader who knows Louis XV furniture when she sees it but thinks Louis XV was the son of Louis XIV and had his head cut off.”

–In his recent diary column for The Times, Patrick Kidd included this recollection by Antonia Fraser of her first encounter with Evelyn Waugh:

Evelyn Waugh had high expectations of infants. Speaking at an event for the charity Give a Book, Lady Antonia Fraser said she met the novelist when she was a few weeks old. “Saw F Pakenham’s baby and gave it a book but it can’t read yet,” Waugh wrote in his diary, which made her feel indignant when this was later drawn to her attention. “I learnt to read jolly soon after that,” she insists. As a teenager she found Brideshead Revisited on what her mother called her “banned shelf” and naturally read it but did not see what was so naughty. “Was it the adultery or the alcoholism?” she asked and ma replied: “I thought it might put you off Catholicism.”

Fraser’s mother was Waugh’s friend, writer Elizabeth Harman, who married another friend Frank Pakenham. They later acquired the name of Longford when Frank inherited the family title and estate from his brother Edward.

–Novelist William Boyd has reviewed the recent biography of Graham Greene in the New Statesman. As mentioned in previous posts, this is by Richard Greene and is entitled Russian Roulette. In his discussion of Greene’s religious beliefs, Boyd includes this:

…It’s a matter of some note that three of our greatest 20th century novelists – Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark – all converted to Catholicism. Waugh was genuinely devout – his faith was his safety net, his life-raft. But I’ve long struggled with Greene and Spark’s declared belief in a supernatural being. It has always struck me as both conveniently useful to them as writers and fundamentally bogus. However, the other revelation of Richard Greene’s biography is that, having converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, Vivien, Greene’s faith, while it wavered from time to time – he made a nice distinction between “faith” and “belief” – was a remarkable constant in the ups and downs of his life. He went to mass, he received the sacrament, Roman Catholic priests were close friends. On his deathbed he had a Catholic priest read him the last rites.

Anton Chekhov once declared that he could never understand how an intelligent person could believe in a god – an opinion I share. Greene’s agonised personal life, however, was not noticeably inhibited by the injunctions of his faith. Richard Greene recounts one particularly complicated situation in 1952. Greene’s relationship with the wealthy American beauty Catherine Walston – the second longest love affair of his life – was going through one of its regular rough patches…

–Boyd, writing in the Guardian, also reviews a recent collection of letters, entitled Love in the Blitz and written during WWII by Eileen Alexander , a young Jewish woman who lived through the war in London. As described by Boyd:

Love in the Blitz covers the passage of time from the summer of 1939 to 1946 in the form of a series of love letters written by a young woman, Eileen Alexander, to her lover, Gershon Ellenbogen. It makes for a fascinating subjective account of an individual life over these years, unfiltered by any ambitions of literary posterity or knowingness. The frankness and guilelessness of these letters grant them an astonishing authenticity.

Waugh’s own wartime correspondence is also cited and contrasted:

Evelyn Waugh once scolded his wife, Laura, for her uninspired wartime letters to him, odiously reminding her: “A letter need not be a bald chronicle of events … I simply am not interested in Bridget’s children. Do grasp that. A letter should be a form of conversation; write as though you were talking to me.” [Her lover and correspondent] Ellenbogen would have no need to rebuke Alexander for any similar failing. Her voice is absolutely, beguilingly conversational – and she was reputedly a great conversationalist in life. The letters are witty, clever, subversive, candid…

–Also in the Guardian, a new entry in its Top 10s books compilations deals with “House Parties in fiction”.  Among the selections is this one by Waugh:

3. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)
I can’t think of a funnier house party than the one that Margot Beste-Chetwynde throws at her scarily modernist country house, King’s Thursday, and then decides not to attend. My favourite line concerns Margot’s teenage son, Peter, who serves the cocktails: “Downstairs Peter Beste-Chetwynde mixed himself another brandy and soda and turned a page in Havelock Ellis, which, next to The Wind in the Willows, was his favourite book.”

The list was compiled by David Leavitt who also included Henry Green’s Party Going and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.



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