Roundup: Public Schools, Pronunciation and Epigraphs

–The Daily Telegraph has an essay by Rupert Christiansen reviewing the English obsession with Public Schools. This begins with a consideration of several novels, films and stage plays that center on the miserable lives suffered by both students and teachers in these establishments. Although none by Waugh is mentioned in this section, the play South Downs by David Hare is noted as a reflection of his unhappy days at Lancing College, a school where Waugh in an earlier generation was, according to his own recollections, largely happy. The focus then shifts to more positive or comic descriptions of the public school experience:

The mood of public-school culture is not always so negative, however. As I remember from my own boarding-school incarceration, hysterical laughter saved one from sinking into anger and despair, and comedy is rightly the dominant note of anything set in prep-schools, where the complicating stresses of adolescent hormones have yet to set corrosively in.

Two fictional creations stand out here. One is contained in Evelyn Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall, with its hilarious portrait of Llanabba Castle, an institution of toxic mediocrity, staffed by the dregs of the establishment and humiliated in a farcically disastrous sports day. The other is the immortal character of Molesworth, the scourge of St Custard’s and the jaundiced narrator of four much-loved books by Geoffrey Willans written in the 1950s and now valuable records of a lost lore and lingo (as in ‘chizchiz’, and ‘hello birds hello sky’).

Waugh’s depiction of public schools in his novel is based more on his experience as a teacher in his post Oxford career than in his schooldays at Lancing. The essay then concludes with a discussion of girls schools.

–On the website Literary Hub, Thomas Swick considers the art of the epigraph. After discussing several examples from multiple authors, he comes to Waugh:

Often authors use epigraphs […] to reveal the sources of their titles. Evelyn Waugh, not a regular practitioner, prefaced A Handful of Dust with the passage he’d cribbed from The Waste Land.

While it is true that Waugh did not regularly use epigraphs, he does include them in Vile Bodies (from Alice Through the Looking Glass) and Put Out More Flags from Lin Yutang. In the latter example, as in the one cited by Swick, Waugh uses the epigraph to explain the origin of the book’s title. In addition, one might consider the title of Book One of Brideshead  Revisited as an epigraph: “Et In Arcadio Ego“.

–The New Statesman carries a feature length story about another and earlier humorist who once lived in Combe Florey, Somerset and whose wit is worthy of consideration alongside that of a later resident of the village:

He was born in 1771, 250 years ago this month, and died, aged 73, in 1845. His name was the Reverend Sydney Smith. As his simple title implies, he did not reach high office in the profession to which he was, in effect, conscripted by his father. This was partly because he was so witty and thus not seen as serious by the church hierarchy. He was the man who described heaven as “eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets”. Also: “What bishops like best in their clergy is a dropping-down-deadness of manner.” And his musing on episcopal romance: “How can a bishop marry? How can he flirt? The most he can say is: ‘I will see you in the vestry after service.’” These were not lines calculated to win preferment.

The article is by Matthew Engel and is a good, concise survey of Smith’s career. While he was vicar of the Combe Florey parish, he was not a full time resident. As was the practice in those days, the income from his living afforded him the ability to hire a curate for full time church duties, allowing Smith to enjoy the company of his fellow bon vivants in London. As the article explains, Smith was able to combine his incomes from various appointments at other ecclesiastical establishments to support his more worldly exploits:

As the Tories faltered in the late 1820s, Lord Lyndhurst became Lord Chancellor and slipped him in as a prebendary of Bristol Cathedral. To that was added the post of rector of Combe Florey in Somerset, which must count as the funniest village in England; it was later the home of both Evelyn and Auberon Waugh.

In 1830, the Whigs came to power at last, bringing forth many of the reforms for which Smith had campaigned. Both their prime ministers that decade, Lord Grey and Lord Melbourne, claimed they wanted to make him a bishop. But it never happened. The final consolation prize was to be made a canon of St Paul’s. This enabled him to adorn London dinner tables regularly while ministering part-time to Combe Florey. The canonry also involved a good deal of administration, which he did with pernickety efficiency, as if proving a point.

The article concludes with a reference to a literary society established in Smith’s name that is the repository of a cache of his unpublished letters in which, no doubt, further evidence of his wit abounds and will soon be released upon his admirers.

–In another article posted by the Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse addresses the ever vexing problem of pronouncing the English language. Toward the end of the article, after covering considerable ground littered with examples of common and (at least sometimes) avoidable mistakes, he concludes with this:

My favourite two words almost always mispronounced are pejorative and flaccid. There is a choice with pejorative, but the nobby U-pronunciation is to stress the first syllable: PEE-jorative, as you can hear Evelyn Waugh saying in his celebrated television interview with John Freeman. With flaccid there is no leeway. Most people say flassid, but it should be flak-sid. It’s the law, or would be if we British tried to control our language as the Académie Française pretends to in France.

Yet I wouldn’t dream of correcting anyone who innocently got it wrong, unlike the 35 per cent of survey respondents who admitted to relishing the opportunity. It would be like sneering at their clothes. When it comes to pronunciation, we all live in glass houses.

A quick browse of the BBC interview quoted shows the interviewer John Freeman using the word “pejorative” to describe Waugh’s public references to the BBC (Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, v. 19, p. 563). Perhaps I overlooked Waugh’s own utterance of the word.

–Finally, author Ben Macintyre (who specializes in the subject of espionage) was recently interviewed in the Guardian column “Books that made me.” Near the end, this exchange appears:

Q. My comfort read
A. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh. I know, I know: racially insensitive, viciously snobbish, but still the best satire of journalism ever written.





This entry was posted in A Handful of Dust, Anniversaries, Brideshead Revisited, Combe Florey, Complete Works, Decline and Fall, Interviews, Newspapers, Put Out More Flags, Scoop, Vile Bodies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.