Presidents’ Day Roundup

The London Magazine has posted two articles from its recent offerings that comment on Evelyn Waugh. The first is from an unsigned Poetry and Politics column:

Contemporary parliamentarians, in my experience, are not specially attuned to contemporary verse. There are significant exceptions. The former culture secretary, Chris Smith, presides over the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage, a venue for poets, and is an expert on the Romantics. Kenneth Baker, a former Home Secretary, has compiled fine anthologies for Faber. When in the 1970s and 1980s I worked in Parliament, many members had enjoyed, or suffered, a classical education. Enoch Powell was a full Professor of Greek at the age of 25. Quintin Hailsham, Lord Chancellor when I joined the Cabinet, knew reams of Greek and Latin poetry by heart. Denis Healey, still happily with us, was famous for his cultural hinterland. Of these three, Powell wrote and published a few poems. They are quite death-directed (he reminds me of Ludovic in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour war trilogy) and a bit creepy; certainly less well composed than his speeches…

The other reference is from an article entitled “And the Night Watchman Talks On” about the 20th Century writer W W Jacobs. According to the article, he is today remembered only for a short story entitled “The Monkey’s Paw”.  But in earlier times his writings were widely admired:

…Greene considered Jacobs, along with Wodehouse and George Birmingham, one of the top three English comic writers of the past century. Priestly called Jacobs ‘a most finished conscientious and delicate artist’. Pritchett said Jacobs was one of ‘the supreme craftsmen of the short story’ and praised his ‘pellucid economy’. Evelyn Waugh said Jacobs ‘developed an exquisite precision of narrative’. And Ian Hay wrote ‘
Jacobs was much more than a writer of amusing or creepy tales; he was one of the greatest masters of story construction, especially short story construction, in our language. Moreover, he invented an entirely new form of humorous narrative. Its outstanding characteristics were compression and understatement’…

Waugh’s opinion of W W Jacobs work is taken somewhat out of context.  It is not from a review of his work but  rather from an assessment of his family which had become well known and close to Waugh’s own as a result of his brother Alec’s engagement to Barbara Jacobs, one of the writer’s many children.  The quoted passage from Waugh’s autobiography continues:

…[W W Jacobs] was at the height of his power and reputation when I came to observe him, but I was not impressed. His stories had been read aloud at Heath Mount; I did not regard them as ‘literature’; they were ‘prep school’ stuff; nor did his children take any pride in his achievements. They were taught to see him as a niggardly breadwinner.  Lately [early 1960s] he has come to the notice of serious students of fiction. I doubt whether he often raises laughter among the young as he used.[…] He was a secular puritan, one of those ‘who have not got the faith and will not have the fun’, and all his opinions were those of Lord Northcliffe. But concealed behind this drab facade, invisible to my boyish eye, there lurked a pure artist. (A Little Learning, p. 118)

Thanks to Dave Lull for sending along this cite.

–London tabloid The Sun carries a story describing previous attempts by British candy and soft drink makers to offer new products that failed but might now be worth reviving. One of these was a chocolate bar named Flyte:

The Flyte was basically a two-pack of Flake-shaped Milky Way bars with a new wrapper… THE marketing department at Mars must have thought they were on to a winner when they imagineered these back in the mid-nineties. They seemed to promise so much – twin bars of whipped nougat covered in chocolate and with less fat, too. It was basically a two pack of Flake-shaped Milky Ways with a new wrapper. Still, it wasn’t exactly diet food. Maybe that was its undoing. The fact it shared its name with the tragic hero of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited meant it was probably doomed to failure.

A color photo of a Flyte bar accompanies the story but does not appear to offer any incentive to try one.

–The New Statesman has a review of a new musical that opened at the Old Vic. This is called Sylvia and is based on the life of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. Here’s an excerpt:

…Sylvia was an artist, newspaper editor and journalist – her diverse campaigning skills continue to resonate with today’s young. So does her work on maternal and universal healthcare, cost-price restaurants for the precariat, and committed vegetarianism. She went on to work with her erstwhile opponent Winston Churchill in raising the alarm about European fascism. She took up the Ethiopian cause against Mussolini’s invasion when the likes of Evelyn Waugh were writing in the Evening Standard that it was “a barbarous country”…

–An article in The Conversation reconsiders the present standing of the British aristocracy:

They don’t dominate parliament, they don’t own Twitter and they don’t star in big Hollywood movies. Yet the British aristocracy’s capacity to intrigue and enthral seems boundless.

The continuing popularity of the TV and film series Downton Abbey, Evelyn Waugh’s upper-crust novel Brideshead Revisited and Nancy Mitford’s autobiographical The Pursuit of Love underscore the popular appetite for all things aristocratic…This has intensified recently with a wave of biographies and memoirs (long predating Prince Harry’s royal hand grenade, Spare). A notable publishing phenomenon was 91-year-old Lady Glenconner’s 2019 autobiography, A Lady In Waiting which became a New York Times bestseller, and 2020’s well-received Diary of an MP’s Wife by Baroness Sasha Swire…

The attraction is peering inside aristocrats’ mysterious world, to feel its privilege and strangeness, its peculiarly gilded yet feudal lifestyle and wealth. Aristocrat biographies reveal the secrets behind the persistence of ancient privilege in modern Britain. But academic studies and fictional accounts of the British aristocracy have painted a glummer picture. Whether you read David Cannadine’s definitive history The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy or Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the message remains the same: like their grand estates, aristocrats have fallen into ruin. Which portrayal is correct? …

The Economist has printed a letter in reply to its recent article (previously noted) comparing Rishi Sunak’s career to that of Paul Pennyfeather in Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall:

The university of life

I disagree that “things only get worse” for Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall” after he is sent down from the fictional Scone College in Oxford (“Rishi Pennyfeather”, January 28th). Pennyfeather’s adventures in a series of situations teach him far more about life than he would have learned from his schooldays, his university career, or his intended profession as a clergyman.

He meets and gets an understanding of the “preposterous inhabitants” of the private school where he works for a while as a teacher. He is initiated into sex by a beautiful and wealthy woman. He hears confessions from a series of vivid characters, among them a child abuser, a clergyman who is lacking faith, a criminal impostor, and a successful rags-to-riches politician. He undergoes the experience of prison, where, like anyone who has been through the public-school experience, he feels “comparatively at home”. He will in due course be ordained as a clergyman, but one endowed with a far deeper and richer acquaintance with human nature and life than would have been the case if he had never been debagged by the Bollinger (aka Bullingdon) Club.

Rishi Sunak, as you correctly say, “is surrounded by colleagues whose decisions cause him harm”. The effect on Paul Pennyfeather of the decisions made by others is, ultimately, to do him good.

simon jackson

UPDATE (22 February 2023): The reference to Waugh’s discussion of W W Jacobs that appeared in The London Magazine has been updated to provide a fuller context.

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