Two Essays: Orwell’s Comic Novels and Waugh’s Oxford

There are two well written and interesting essays this week relating to Waugh. The first is by Jonathan Clarke and appears in the quarterly City Journal. This is entitled “Orwell’s Humor” and relates mainly to his two 1930s comic novels Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939). These are frequently overlooked by Orwell readers since they have little to connect them to his major (and more popular) works. After a discussion of Aspidistra (probably the funnier of the two) Clarke writes:

Orwell’s exact contemporary, Evelyn Waugh (also born in 1903), succeeded as a comic novelist to an extent that Orwell did not, and the comparison is instructive. Waugh had several advantages over Orwell. He had been one of the “Bright Young Things” of postwar London and therefore had the social confidence of an insider. For Orwell, the pain of not having the right parents, of not having enough money, and of not performing the jeux d’esprit that only these two things permit, made impossible the light, bright, heartless tone that Waugh did so well. Waugh was also quite comfortable with his own sadism and turned it outward, while Orwell’s was mostly internalized as self-loathing. The fate of Tony Last in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, the decent but feckless aristocrat captured and forced to read Dickens to an illiterate bush tyrant, is somehow funny; in Aspidistra, Gordon Comstock’s more prosaic suffering cuts deeper because we recognize it as Orwell’s own.

The second essay is by Daisy Dunn and seems directed to those critics who complained that the Brideshead connection to her recent interwar Oxford book was underdeveloped. This was entitled Not Far from Brideshead and is discussed in several earlier posts. Her essay is posted on The Oldie’s blog and concludes with this:

In some cases, the aftershocks of war were even magnified. In the 1920s, students were reminded repeatedly by their tutors and domestic staff of the courage and superiority of their predecessors who had served King and Country. Waugh’s portrait of the university was not unblemished – Anthony Blanche could attest to that – but the realities of postwar Oxford were in some ways underplayed.

Pansy Lamb’s words – there was ‘something baroque and magnificent on its last legs’ about 1920s society – wouldn’t have surprised Waugh or many other Oxonians by the end of that decade.

Writing in Cherwell in 1930, in the wake of the Wall Street Crash, a student journalist mourned the death of the postwar university and the arrival of an era he described, with clear vision, as ‘uninspiring’.

Looking around at the rather dour students, fun-loving Bowra asked, ‘Where are the aesthetes of yesteryear?’

The frivolities of the 1920s might have seemed vacuous – or even misplaced. But they gave a colourful veneer to a deeply scarred age. Something changed at the end of the ’20s.

The world of Brideshead, in all its contradictions, vanished so quickly that you could be forgiven for asking whether it had even existed at all.

Dunn’s book was published in the UK but is also available for sale in the US. Here’s a link to Amazon sellers. I don’t know whether there is a distribution to US bookstores.

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