Waugh on Valentine’s Day

A website offering varying forms of love letters that might be sent by a prospective suitor includes one that Evelyn Waugh sent to his second wife. This is in TheLily.com (a Washington Post affiliate):

4. Write short, and don’t be dull

A love letter shouldn’t be a dissertation. It’s better to be brief than boring. […] There’s no magic page count to shoot for, but keeping your letter to a sheet or two seems sensible. Consider what you want to say before you start writing, and aim to only include the most interesting updates, memories or anecdotes. In other words, avoid tedium.

Several decades before our attention spans were hammered to bits by smartphones, Evelyn Waugh begged Laura Waugh (who evidently decided to accept his marriage proposal) to zhuzh up her dispatches.

“Darling Laura, sweet whiskers, do try to write me better letters. … Do realize that a letter need not be a bald chronicle of events; I know you lead a dull life now, my heart bleeds for it, though I believe you could make it more interesting if you had the will,” he wrote. “But that is no reason to make your letters as dull as your life. I simply am not interested in Bridget’s children.”  [Letters, Dubrovnik, 7 January 1945, p. 195.]

Waugh did not always follow his own advice and could also write syrupy, banal, plaintive love letters when he put his mind to it. Here’s an excerpt from one he sent to Teresa Jungman (31 July 1933) who turned him down multiple times during his roughly two-year courtship:

I think of you all the time…I believe you are the first woman I have ever been in love with…I love you so much…I don’t think of much except you—your beauty, so fragile and intangible, a thing of fresh water and the early morning and the silence of dawn and mist just alloyed with gold and deep, saturated restful greens like sunrise on that river I travelled down last winter—and your intimate character, all mystery and frustration, a labyrinth with something infinitely secret and intimately precious at its centre…I couldn’t  understand anyone less and want anyone more…Darling Tess your beauty is all around me like a veil so that every moment apart from you seems obscure and half real.  (Philip Eade, Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited  (2017) Ch. 14).

The Daily Telegraph has compiled a list of books recommended by its staff for reading on Valentine’s Day. Not all of them are happy love stories. Here’s the one of Waugh’s that is recommended:

A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

It’s a truism that love can drive you mad, but few vignettes bring this home with such a bleak punch as the famous scene in Waugh’s 1934 novel when Lady Brenda Last, who is having a supposedly casual fling with John Beaver, a younger man she knows to be second-rate, hears over the telephone that “John” has died in an accident. When she realises that it’s her infant son, not Beaver, who has died, Brenda says: “John… John Andrew… I… Oh, thank God.” Love conquers all, but here it’s not a good thing. Iona McLaren

In addition to several collections of romantic poems, the Telegraph lists other novels, including Pride and Prejudice, Brigette Jones’s Diary and The Old Devils.

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