The London Review of Books has posted a feature length article by Seamus Perry relating to several of Waugh’s books. This is entitled “Isn’t London Hell?” The article ostensibly reviews 5 of the 6 Waugh novels published late last year as Penguin Classics in hardback editions with new introductions. See previous post. Those listed for review are Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour. But the topics range well beyond the new Penguin editions to include discussions of Black Mischief, Remote People, Helena, and even Rossetti, as well as briefer mentions of several others. Indeed, the only two novels that are not mentioned are The Loved One and Put Out More Flags. Here’s an excerpt from the opening paragraphs:
‘A novelist is condemned to produce a succession of novelties, new names for characters, new incidents for his plots, new scenery,’ reflects the beleaguered hero of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh’s portrait of the artist as a middle-aged car crash. But really, as Pinfold goes on to say, ‘most men harbour the germs of one or two books only; all else is professional trickery of which the most daemonic of the masters – Dickens and Balzac even – were flagrantly guilty.’ Pinfold is by admission a self-portrait, so Waugh must have expected readers to speculate on how this observation applied to his own career, and whether he was a one or a two-book man himself. In 1958, a Cambridge don called Frederick J. Stopp produced a study of Waugh – uniquely, Waugh himself gave ‘generous assistance’ – which warmly endorsed the idea that he had basically ‘two books in his armoury’, the first featuring the ‘contrast between sanity and insanity’ and the second ‘sanity venturing out into the surrounding sphere of insanity, and defeating it at its own game’. Whether this particular dualism had Waugh’s approval is unclear, but either way it doesn’t seem entirely satisfactory since the two alternatives look like variants of the same thing. Less well-disposed readers have thought that Waugh’s books divided on much more rudimentary lines: the good ones, which are funny, and the bad ones, which are pious. There is the string of brilliant, brittle social comedies in the 1930s, and then there is whatever started happening with the publication in 1945 of Brideshead Revisited. Stopp reported, presumably with his master’s sanction, that ‘Mr Waugh’s reputation among the critics has hardly yet recovered from the blow.’ Brigid Brophy had the best joke: ‘In literary calendars, 1945 is marked as the year Waugh ended.’
But maybe Dr Stopp was on to something when he implied that the two Waughs are really dual aspects of a single cast of mind. No doubt one side of his writerly nature, the devout and romantic, exerted itself more completely as he aged – so that what Brophy took to be the authentic Waugh, the brilliantly sardonic farceur, was ‘conclusively eaten by his successor, Mr Evelyn Waugh, English novelist, officer (ret.) and gentleman’. But the co-existence of startlingly different elements was there from the off. His first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), established at once the distinctive atmosphere of Waugh’s 1930s books: ‘the world’, as Malcolm Bradbury summarised it, ‘of comic absurdity and anarchy, in all its animalism and madness’… Decline and Fall is one of a number of Waugh’s books to have been reissued recently by Penguin, in hardback and with new introductions…
Not much more is said about the Penguin editions themselves. And no mention is made of a sixth novel that was published at the same time as these five. That was Scoop with an introduction by Alexander Waugh. The books are not for sale in America so far as I can see. But the good news is that Penguin has kindly posted on its UK promotional website copies of the covers and the introductions by well known Waugh scholars Martin Stannard (Sword of Honour), Barbara Cooke (Decline and Fall), Paula Byrne (Brideshead Revisited), Simon J James (Vile Bodies) and Philip Eade (A Handful of Dust). Here’s a link.
Seamus Perry is a professor of English at Oxford and also appears in LRB podcasts with Mark Ford in a series called “Close Readings”. Perhaps we can look forward to a Waugh episode in that series.
UPDATE (4 August 2023): The 5 books that are the stated subject of the review are listed in the opening paragraph.