Profile in Hatred: Evelyn Waugh and Robert Byron

Biographer and literary critic Jeffrey Meyers has written a biographical profile of travel writer Robert Byron, with particular reference to the mutual hate – love – hate relationship between Byron and Evelyn Waugh. This appears in the online journal The Article and is entitled “Fierce Friends and Bitter Enemies”.

Meyers mines Waugh’s letters and diary as well as his journalism for expressions of his feelings for Byron. There was jealousy and adversity at Oxford followed by friendship in the late 1920s. Indeed, Meyers goes into some detail to explore how the two were on friendly terms at the time of Waugh’s 1928 marriage to Evelyn Gardner. Byron was one of the few who was invited to the wedding and the couple were actually in temporary accommodations across from Byron’s house where they spent most of their time prior to the wedding due to the “disgusting” nature of Waugh’s lodgings. Byron described his role in the wedding service: “to fetch Evelyn Gardner to the church and I know she won’t come.” After the wedding, the two writers fell out again and remained at odds until Byron’s death in WWII. Meyers offers this explanation for their post-marital renewal of ill-will:

The most obvious reason for the rupture of Waugh’s friendship was Byron’s virulent anti-Catholic attacks, which shook the precarious foundation of Waugh’s newly acquired faith. Byron’s hostility, favouring Byzantine over Catholic art and architecture, was aesthetic as well as spiritual. Douglas Patey pointed out that “all Byron’s books of the twenties pause to attack Rome, the papacy and Catholic art, favouring instead Byzantine and Islamic styles. Waugh also meant to irritate Byron by consistently mocking ‘the glamour of the East,’ by running down the Orthodox churches he visited (always unfavourably compared to Catholic), and by his wholesale, deliberately Blimpish condemnation of Islamic art and culture.”

Byron’s role in the wedding was a topic considered at some length in an article in EWS 41.2 by John Howard Wilson, “A Neglected Address: 25 Adam Street.”

In addition to citing and analyzing Waugh’s vituperative feelings toward Byron at some length, Meyers offers descriptions of Byron by Anthony Powell, Christopher Sykes, Harold Acton as well as others, and sometimes comments on what may have motivated their attitudes toward him. Some are familiar, others less so. He also offers an explanation of the detailed circumstances of Byron’s death during WWII, something previous biographers have overlooked. One almost gets the suspicion that Meyers is (or was) writing or considering a book length biography of Byron (or Waugh) and selected some of the more entertaining bits for this article.

Meyers concludes his article as to Waugh’s side of the relationship with this:

Waugh’s self-loathing and competitive spirit combined with Byron’s tirades against Catholicism and vehement political views were the most obvious causes of Waugh’s violent hatred. But there were also more subtle reasons. Byron had been an eyewitness and painful reminder of the two most discreditable and humiliating episodes in Waugh’s life: his Oxford homosexuality and disastrous first marriage. The cuckolded Waugh wanted to suppress and forget them, while the antagonistic Byron always remembered and ridiculed them.[…] Finally, Waugh felt guilty about the effect of the war on their lives and reputations. He had secured an army commission, had an undistinguished record during the British retreat from Crete and his military liaison with Tito in Yugoslavia. He survived the war and died straining himself on the lavatory. Byron, whose violent temper prevented him from getting a commission, was Waugh’s only close Oxford friend who died through enemy action. The dead Byron seemed to emerge from the war with more glory than the living Waugh. In venting his hatred, despite the great achievement of his novels, Waugh must have felt, as Gore Vidal sharply observed, “it was not enough to succeed, others [like Byron] must fail.”

Meyers’ article is well written (if a trifle repetitive) and amusing throughout. Even the repetitive sections bear repeating since they offer a different perspective on a matter mentioned previously. One can only hope that it may be the harbinger of a longer work. It should be recalled that Meyers previously published an article on Waugh’s war service in Yugoslavia; this appeared in EWS 50.2. Perhaps these are parts of an extended narrative or  collection.

 

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