The New Criterion magazine has posted an essay on the writing, publication and history of Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One. This is by John P Rossi who is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. While not mentioned, this essay’s publication may be related to the fact that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the book’s publication. See previous post. Here’s the opening paragraph:
Edmund Wilson argued that there were two Evelyn Waughs: the great comic genius of his early novels—Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), Scoop (1938)—and the religiously obsessed author of Brideshead Revisited (1945), whose success made Waugh internationally famous and in Wilson’s view no longer interesting. But just three years after Brideshead, Waugh returned to his first theme in what is perhaps the bitterest yet one of the funniest of his comic works: The Loved One (1948).
After opening with a description of Waugh’s 1947 visit to Hollywood in unsuccessful pursuit of a film contract for Brideshead Revisited, the article notes that The Loved One was the major benefit Waugh secured from the trip. He also points out something I had not realized:
Nancy Mitford, the novelist and close friend of Waugh, suggests that the character of Mr. Joyboy was based on the flat-faced, pug-nosed Cyril Connolly, a friend whom Waugh loved to taunt and tease. “Joyboy was not a handsome man,” writes Waugh, “but every girl in Whispering Glades gloated over him.” Like Joyboy, Connolly was notorious for surrounding himself with beautiful women, in his case at his journal Horizon.
After describing how Waugh wrote the book quickly on his return to England, the article oversimplifies the publication history which was rather complicated:
Among those he showed [the book] to was Connolly, who agreed to devote an entire issue of Horizon to it in February 1948. The Horizon issue sold out and Waugh gave the royalties to various Catholic charities—perhaps to expiate any guilt he felt for savaging the Yanks. The novel appeared in book form that same month [sic] in England and the United States.
Waugh received no royalties from Connolly to whom he gave the magazine publication rights in exchange for his monthly subscription in recognition that the magazine was struggling financially. The book appeared in Horizon’s February 1948 issue, and then was published in the USA in book form by Little Brown in July 1948. UK book publication followed in November of that year. The book royalties may have been donated to the church. This was the only time that US publication of a Waugh novel preceded UK release. The delay was due to the UK publisher’s concern that The Loved One not interfere with sales and promotion of Scott-King’s Modern Europe which had been published in the UK at the end of 1947.
After a description of the overall positive critical reception of the book in the US, Rossi finds some dissent in a likely spot:
Edmund Wilson, who had never forgiven Waugh for Brideshead and for snubbing him during a visit to London, called the novel sketchy and incomplete, saying he found the participants in Whispering Glades more sensible and less absurd than the priest-ridden Waugh. But Waugh would get the last word. When asked during a television interview if he found Wilson’s criticism illuminating or helpful, Waugh asked if he was an American and then added, “I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest.”
Wilson did not review the book but did write a brief addendum to reviews of earlier books. This appeared in his collection Classics and Commercials (NY, 1950, pp. 304-05). It is not wholly negative; after the quoted brush off, Wilson wrote that the book was “extremely funny” and a “farcical satire on those de luxe California cemeteries that attempt to render death less unpleasant by exploiting all the resources of landscape gardening and Hollywood mummery.” The addendum concluded with Wilson’s familiar objections to Roman Catholicism.
After a brief reference to the unhappy episode of the book’s Hollywood film adaptation in 1965, Prof. Rossi’s article concludes:
How does The Loved One hold up today? The novel generates smiles and laughs, but there is a meanness to it that doesn’t reflect the depth of Waugh’s religious feelings. It also lacks the development of Waugh’s early satires. The character of Barlow is never as likable a rogue as Basil Seal of Black Mischief, nor is there any character who generates sympathy like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall. There is also a rushed quality about The Loved One, as if Waugh could not wait to get his reactions to America down on paper. Still, it is a fun read, one that not only keeps you smiling but also shocks throughout.