Roundup: Rereading Black Mischief

–A recent column of The Times “Rereading” series contains a brief essay on Waugh’s 1932 comic novel Black Mischief. The column, published in today’s edition, is by Will Lloyd. Here’s the opening:

One afternoon in the absurdly early Thirties, Evelyn Waugh and some friends were discussing Abyssinia. The only African country to escape the dubious benedictions of European colonisation was in the news. Very soon, Ras Tafari would crown himself as Emperor Haile Selassie in a series of splendid ceremonies in Addis Ababa. Was it true, they wondered, that the legitimate heir to the throne was actually imprisoned in a mountain there? Surely the Coptic Church did not consecrate bishops by spitting on their heads, as was rumoured? Polygamy and drunkenness were everywhere in Abyssinia, Waugh’s friends said. Within two weeks Waugh would find out for himself. He was on a boat to Abyssinia, embarked on what he later called “one of the really amusing journeys left in the world”

That journey was integrated into his travel book Remote People, and transposed into his outrageous third novel, Black Mischief, published in 1932. This is not something that’s safe to read on the London Underground, unless you decide to sheathe it in a protective slip. (I usually place my copy inside the dust jacket of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race.) A book from the Thirties, written by an alltime snob, about Africa? Frankly, it’s a miracle that Black Mischief remains in print, and notable that when Penguin Classics reissued Waugh’s greatest works last autumn, they left this one out of the series.

They made a mistake. Black Mischief is a crucial throat-clearing work, the necessary novel Waugh had to write after his divorce and conversion to Roman Catholicism, before the slam-dunk, reputationsealing A Handful of Dust.

Although Black Mischief is a scream, it is also where Waugh discovers that he is serious. The world of society lightweights that the young satirist filleted in Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies is tempered here by a new concern with grander themes. Such a shift is often a disaster for the comic novelist (see: M Amis), but it only made Waugh more coherent and funnier. […]

After a brief but accurate summary of the plot, noting that the humor arises from the Europeans imported to bring progress to Africa rather than the Africans themselves, the article concludes with this:

Progress was a mirage. As Waugh put it in a 1932 BBC radio broadcast as he worked on the proofs of Black Mischief: “Man’s capacity for suffering keeps pretty regular pace with the discoveries that ameliorate it,” He fully expected “a vast recession of the white races from all over the world” to occur in his lifetime. Waugh’s clarity came at a cost. He wrote Black Mischief, one observer said, “slowly and reluctantly … groaning loudly” in the nursery of a country house. He hated writing. We should always be glad he did it anyway.

–The Sunday Times has published its “Top 10 Literary Adaptations” selected by a panel of experts. This included noted adaptor Andrew Davies as well as Jack Thorne, Heidi Thomas, Daisy Goodwin, Mark Gatiss, Sebastian Faulks, Tim Glanfield and Victoria Segal. Their number 3 choice was the Granada TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited:

Brideshead Revisited (1981) Jeremy Irons’s dulcet narration, some sumptuous title music and a fluffy toy cradled by Anthony Andrews all make this adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel utterly captivating. “The leads are perfect in every high-cheekboned aspect,” Victoria Segal says. Andrew Davies adds: “Ridiculously lush and self-indulgent, but it gets you every time.”

Davies’ 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was number 1 and the BBC’s 1976 series I,  Claudius was number 2.

The same issue of the Sunday Times (29th October) also includes an interview of Andrew Davies by Hadley Freeman. This is entitled “How to write a classic drama”. Here’s an excerpt: In Davies’s eyes a good adaptation will “render a truthful and honest experience of the novel”. In other words, fidelity to the words is less important than fidelity to the emotion. Why do almost 200-year-old books still make such blockbuster TV serials? “Well, they had bloody good stories that went on for a long time,” Davies replies, characteristically forthright. “Whereas contemporary novels seem mostly to divide up into, they’re very well written but there’s sod-all story, or there’s a lot of story but you can’t believe in the characters.”

–The German newspaper Welt has posted an article by Wieland Freund entitled (in translation) “When Evelyn Waugh interrupted the war”. It is focused on explaining how Waugh managed to edit the proofs of Brideshead Revisited while serving in the Army in Yugoslavia. Here’s an excerpt translated by Google:



…Waugh could put Randolph [Churchill] to good use. Somehow the upheaval of “Brideshead” had to reach Topusko. It is with some certainty that no upheaval has had a more adventurous journey, as Waugh described it years later. “Brideshead” was sent by the publisher to Downing Street in October 1944; “From there,” Waugh reported, “it traveled to Italy in the Prime Minister’s mailbag, was flown from Brindisi and parachuted over Gajana in Croatia, then an isolated region of the resistance; it was corrected in Topusko and then taken to Split by jeep when the road was temporarily out of enemy hands; from there by ship to Italy and so home, via Downing Street.”


–The European Conservative has an unsigned essay entitled “Liturgical Conservatism and the Catholic Church.” Evelyn Waugh is one of several writers considered, with particular reference to his novels Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour. Here’s the opening:

The conservatism of some of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century has often baffled, and sometimes enraged, their literary critics, with Evelyn Waugh and J. R. R. Tolkien in particular coming under sustained attack. … One critic protested Evelyn Waugh’s “excessive conservatism” and another, clearly irritated by The Sword of Honour’s critical success, argued that it was a triumph only “for pessimism and conservatism.” Writing in the New Statesman recently, Will Lloyd could not hide his exasperation: “Why the passing decades cannot diminish him ought to trouble our creaking, secular, liberal age.” Well, quite.

If Waugh’s social and political conservatism has been difficult to swallow, his liturgical conservatism has proved to be utterly inexplicable. Many critics seem to believe that the liturgical changes enacted after (not, despite popular belief, by) the Second Vatican Council were proof of the Catholic Church’s belated but inevitable acceptance of the modern world. Waugh’s heartfelt criticism of these changes was, therefore, clear evidence of his reactionary nostalgia: “An ardent traditionalist,” Mary R. Reichardt wrote, “Waugh especially deplored the liturgical changes of Vatican II, sadly convinced that his beloved Church was merely giving in to modernity”…






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