90th Anniversary of Black Mischief Marked

A feature length article in the academic journal The Conversation marks the 90th anniversary this month of the publication of Waugh’s third novel Black Mischief. This is by Naomi Milthorpe who is also the editor of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh volume for that novel and longtime member of the Society. The novel was published in October 1932 in both the UK (Chapman & Hall) and US (Farrar & Rinehart). The UK edition was reprinted six times in its first month. Here’s an excerpt from Milthorpe’s article:

…Black Mischief was the Book Society choice for October 1932. The Book Society was an interwar subscription book club established in 1929. Members were often from non-metropolitan UK or English dominions, such as Australia, and used the Book Society to access new English books that were otherwise hard to get. The result was that Waugh’s novel did quite well in the UK.

It was published simultaneously in the United States. For whatever reason, it failed to move US readers. But the novel’s financial failure in the US was only a small concern in the face of its critical savaging by the Catholic press at home.

For a reader today, the offensive parts of Black Mischief are its representations of race. This is a novel that uses racial slurs. It depicts its Oxford-educated African Emperor as a fool and a lunatic, susceptible to “the inherited terror of the jungle”. Africans are described as “black, naked, anthropophagous”.

When it was reprinted in 1962, Waugh included a series of his own illustrations, which had previously appeared only in a limited large paper edition issued to family and friends. In these, his drawings of African characters resemble the clichés of blackface minstrelsy, a staple of British music hall and US popular entertainment in the early 20th century.

The reviewers of 1932 did not have a problem with Waugh’s depiction of race. Instead, the major controversy of its publication centred on the question of his violation of standards of decency…

As explained by Milthorpe, the Roman Catholic Church, like the reviewers, was not troubled so much by the book’s racist attitudes:

…Ernest Oldmeadow, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, […] called the novel “nauseating” in its depiction of adultery and cannibalism. Oldmeadow argued that Waugh violated Catholic civility by showing Basil and Prudence’s loveless sexual affair (there’s a suggestive image of a cigar limply unfurling in a hip-bath), and Prudence’s grisly end, “stewed to pulp among peppers and aromatic roots”. He called into question Waugh’s good faith and even suggested the work was blasphemous…

Milthorpe goes on to describe in some detail the prolonged debate between Waugh and Oldmeadow regarding these issues.

A Penguin edition appeared in 1938 and was (according to some sources) reprinted even during the war when paper was in short supply. I have yet to see one of those wartime editions which are not listed on Pengiun’s copyright pages. Later Penguin editions (starting in 1965) also include Waugh’s illustrations mentioned in the article. The article includes several interesting and well-produced illustrations and is available at this link.

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