A review of the four latest volumes in the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh series is featured on the cover of this week’s TLS. This is written by literary critic Peter Parker and entitled “A Handful of Books: Evelyn Waugh’s failed marriage and spiritual crisis”. Here is a summary from the weekly editor’s column:
The great Waugh juggernaut rolls on. The University of Leicester and Oxford University Press’s forty-five-volume collaboration on a lavish, scholarly edition of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh – letters, juvenilia, poems and graphic art included – continues with the publication of four volumes of fiction and nonfiction, A Handful of Dust (1934), The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), Edmund Campion (1935) and Robbery Under Law (1939). Peter Parker reviews the work in progress.
A Handful of Dust reflects the author’s shame after the failure of his first marriage to the Hon Evelyn Gardner. Waugh’s “darkest novel” was also, according to Parker, coloured by the humiliating rejection of his proposal to Teresa “Baby” Jungman. In Vile Bodies (1930), Waugh had already reached a turning point: thereafter he condemned a civilization that had thrown away its moral compass. Writing to his brother about his intention to divorce his wife, Waugh complained that “the trouble about the world today is that there’s not enough religion in it. There’s nothing to stop young people doing whatever they feel like doing at the moment”. Untethered from hierarchy, tradition and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, we were all, like his doomed protagonist Tony Last, lost. He would scourge the Bright Young Things in his satires.
Waugh’s hagiography of the sixteenth-century Catholic martyr Edmund Campion showed the way ahead. “If Campion began as an act of pietas”, says its editor, Gerard Kilroy, “it had become, by 1946, the cornerstone of Waugh’s future writing”, introducing Catholic themes in all his later books. Yet was Waugh truly at peace? In his penultimate novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, the autobiographical story of a Catholic writer’s breakdown during a sea voyage, hallucinatory voices suggest that his religion is humbug of a social climber. “Everything with him was jokes”, replied his friend Nancy Mitford.
As is so often the case, Waugh’s underrated travel book Robbery Under Law is not even mentioned by the editor aside from its title. Parker’s review gives it more attention. Here’s an excerpt:
The account of sixteenth-century religious persecution [in Edmund Campion] was undoubtedly informed by Waugh’s knowledge of similar purges in his own times, and Robbery Under Law (1939), another of Waugh’s least regarded works, includes a whole chapter on the harrying and murder of Catholics in Mexico. Unlike Campion, Robbery was initially undertaken for strictly commercial reasons. It was commissioned by Clive Pearson, the son of the late Lord Cowdray, whose Mexican Eagle Oil Company had been expropriated by the country’s Marxist government with promises of recompense that were clearly never going to be fulfilled. The contract drawn up between Pearson and Waugh, reproduced in Michael G. Brennan’s introduction, was kept secret to ensure that no one would know that the author had been paid by an interested party to write the book.
The result was that Waugh’s case for Mexican Eagle and praise of its late proprietor appeared entirely objective. Waugh was, however, genuinely appalled by what he found in Mexico, and it seems unlikely that he would have written the book any differently without Pearson’s £1,500 (which was added to his publisher’s advance of £400). […]
One of his biographers, Christopher Sykes, maintained that Waugh came to regard Robbery Under Law “with shame and displeasure”, but there is no evidence for this. Waugh did once liken the book to “an interminable Times leader of 1880”, but this was in a letter to Diana Cooper and need not be taken seriously. The opening sentence acknowledges the book to be a political one, but the first chapter, in which Waugh describes his arrival in Mexico City and his impressions of the capital, is travel writing of a high order. The book also contains some admirable passages of rhetoric, as well as enjoyable satire of the kind familiar from Black Mischief and Scoop. The frequently changing rulers of Mexico and the losses incurred by foreign businesses in the country are now of merely local historical interest, but some of Waugh’s observations remain pertinent, as when he writes that American interventions in countries south of its border have repeatedly “proved disastrous”.
Contrary to Parker’s comment quoted above, there is indeed some evidence that Waugh had disowned the book written under contract. After the war when he compiled a selection of his prewar travel writings, generous excerpts from Labels, Remote People, Ninety-Two Days and Waugh in Abyssinia were assembled for When the Going Was Good (1946). In the introduction, Waugh writes: “There was a fifth book, Robbery Under Law, about Mexico, which I am content to leave in oblivion, for it dealt little with travel and much with political questions. […] So let it lie in its own dust…” Parker’s own observations indicate that Waugh may have been unfair in his judgement of the book, but that does not change the fact that he deemed the book to have been an embarrassment.
Parker also adds this interesting observation about the editorial decision to omit from this Handful of Dust volume of the Complete Works the alternative ending written for the magazine version :
The novel was published in Harper’s Bazaar in an abbreviated version with a different (and happier) ending. A scholarly edition of this novel ought really to have included this alternative ending, which Waugh published under the title “By Special Request” in Mr Loveday’s Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (1936). The reason it does not is that Mr Loveday’s Little Outing will be Volume 5 of the Complete Works, but we have no idea when this will appear, and the omission here is frustrating.
Finally, Parker concludes with some observations about the books’ production and editing. He is annoyed by the blurry photographic reproductions and finds that while some of the detailed discussion
will be of interest only to scholars, much of it will be welcomed by the general reader. Woudhuysen’s observations about architecture in A Handful of Dust, for example, are particularly illuminating.
There is also a mention of some oversights. For example:
…when in Robbery Under Law Waugh compares nations to “horses at ‘Minaroo’, moving at varying speeds towards the same object”, Brennan suggests he “might be referring to a popular fairground game”, the name of which is of “unknown derivation”. Minoru, as it is properly spelt, was in fact a popular board game of the Edwardian period, named after the king’s world-famous racehorse, winner of the Derby in 1909…
There are plans afoot for reviews of these four volumes in future issues of Evelyn Waugh Studies.