Peter Quennell: Reviewer and Rival

Two recent articles by Duncan McLaren have been devoted to Peter Quennell. Waugh had developed a particular dislike of Quennell (similar to that he had of other literary critics such as Alan Pryce-Jones and Edmund Wilson). The acquaintanceship between Waugh and Quennell dates back to Oxford or perhaps even before. In his first article, McLaren attributes Waugh’s aversion to Quennell’s review of his first book Rossetti in the New Statesman.  While not a hatchet job, it was decidedly lukewarm.  Quennell was more receptive to Waugh’s first novels Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, and Waugh reciprocated with a favorable review of some essays published by Quennell.

Over time, however, Waugh’s attitude toward Quennell hardened and McLaren attributes this to jealousy rather than professional rivalry. Quennell wrote well, as Waugh recognized, but he was not jealous on that account. Rather, Quennell seemed to have just the sort of easy success with attractive women which Waugh lacked. Moreover, Quennell formed close friendships with such women friends of Waugh as Diana Cooper and Ann Fleming which Waugh resented. In addition, Waugh resented the fact that Quennell, like his close friend Cyril Connolly, had a good war without having to go through all the boredom and bad treatment meted out to Waugh by the Army which had little use for him (although it did provide considerable future material for his writing).

The first article consists of narratives by McLaren and Nancy Mitford on the relationship between the two writers and comparisons of their writings about each other. The second article, entitled “The Quennell Room”,  is an imagined dialogue between Waugh and Nancy Mitford of a display at the Castle Howard festival of Quennell’s criticism of Waugh’s works. This appeared over his years at the Daily Mail where Quennell worked as chief book reviewer between 1943 and 1955.  McLaren brings up the texts of the reviews as they are displayed on computer consoles at the imaginary exhibit. Few of these have  been reprinted or even discussed by Waugh scholars due to some extent to their having been missed by the compilers of Waugh’s bibliographies. They are on the whole favorable or even adulatory, giving rise to little call for Waugh’s resentment.

Quennell is little mentioned among literary scholars today which is odd considering the large body of work devoted to his contemporary and colleague, Cyril Connolly, to whom Quennell’s career is most obviously comparable. In addition to his position at the Daily Mail, Quennell went on to edit the Cornhill magazine and wrote several books according to McLaren. No posthumous collection of his essays or letters has ever been published. Nor has any biography or comprehensive study of his works been written. DJ Taylor recently gave him a major supporting role in his study of Connolly’s life during his years as editor at Horizon magazine. This was in the recently published Lost Girls.

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3 Responses to Peter Quennell: Reviewer and Rival

  1. David Platzer says:

    Peter Quennell published a book of poems in 1922 when he was only 17. His poetry was praised by Edith Sitwell and Arthur Waley but he stopped writing it when he was in his early twenties. He never went through a homosexual phase while at Oxford and was ‘rusticated’ when he was discovered to have a girl in his rooms overnight.One of several books of his about Byron, Byron in Italy (1941). was included among John F Kennedy’s ten favourite books in 1961. He wrote several highly entertaining books of memoir and and a delightul gem. The Pursuit of Happiness, that appeared in 1989. four years before his death. He will appear prominetly in a new book I have started writing on Harold Acton and his band of aesthetes.

  2. Dave Lull says:

    In 2008 Fionn Morgan remembered “her friend Peter Quennell, writer, editor and former contributor to The Spectator,” and quoted EW on him, in an article for The Spectator:

    “Beautiful, dandified detachment.”

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