Roundup: A Florentine Dinner Party, Some Interviews and a Pub

–The latest issue of Catholic Herald includes an article about Evelyn Waugh. This is written by Mark Roberts and is taken from his recent book noted below. In it, he describes an unpleasant dinner party in Florence that Waugh attended while on his first of several postwar visits to Harold Acton in that city. The party took place in 1950 at the Florentine house occupied by American novelist Sinclair (“Red”) Lewis on an extended visit. Acton took Waugh to a restaurant where Lewis was also present. Lewis recognized Waugh and came bounding over to their table to chat up his “his dear old pal.”  This took Waugh by surprise but then he and Acton were soon re-connected with Lewis when the latter invited them to a dinner party at his house. The dinner party did not go well at least from Waugh’s perspective. Here’s an excerpt:

The guests were offered tiny glasses of weak vermouth and a poor dinner of tepid spaghetti, veal and sweet whipped cream cake with watered wine – watered by the secretary because Lewis was apt to drink too much of it! These horrid catering arrangements evidently did not improve the mood of the guests. Their host did not touch his food and burped loudly and long several times during dinner.

Waugh’s face was a study, as he flinched and sat back in his chair. Some of the halting and awkward conversation is reproduced in Acton’s More Memoirs of an Aesthete, published in 1970:

“Evelyn flinched in his chair on the host’s right with an expression of growing alarm. ‘What is that frightful noise?’, he kept asking me. Red’s speech was incoherent but at length he noticed that Evelyn was fasting and he urged him to taste the veal, the spécialité de la maison.

“Evelyn answered severely: ‘It’s Friday.’ Diverted by this, Red prompted his companion, who had been an army captain serving in Trieste, to entertain us with the saga of his war exploits. … According to Acton’s memoirs, Lewis was provoked by what he took to be Evelyn Waugh’s standoffishness, and “delivered a panegyric upon the vigour, the splendour, the creative genius of America, which was moving in the circumstances despite its platitudes…Red’s bloodshot eyes bulged, his fingers trembled clutching the chair, as he wound up with a denunciation of contemporary English literature…Evelyn reddened more with embarrassment than resentment, but he endured it all most patiently and politely. I suspect he was aware of the pathos underlying this…defiant monologue.

“‘I can’t think what got into him,’ said Lady Troubridge when we escorted her home. ‘I’m afraid poor old Red is off colour. He doesn’t usually behave like that, I assure you.’ ‘I rather enjoyed the latter part of it,’ said Evelyn. ‘I was only afraid he might burst a blood vessel.’”

A year later Lewis was dead. The Catholic Herald’s article concludes with this:

Evelyn Waugh is one of over a hundred writers discussed in Mark Roberts’ new book ‘Florence Has Won my Heart: Literary Visitors to the Tuscan Capital, 1750-1950’.

The Catholic Herald’s article is available here. The book is on offer from at this link.

–The book about Florence is reviewed in a recent issue of the Daily Telegraph (4 May 2024). The review by Christopher Howse is entitled : “Sacred Mysteries: Florence and the worst dinner party ever.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Have the English missed the point of Florence? “Over tea and crumpets,” observed that sharp and readable satirist Aldous Huxley, “they talk, if they are too old for love themselves, of their lascivious juniors; but they also make sketches in watercolour and read the Little Flowers of St Francis.”

It’s enjoyable to consider that question while reading Florence has won my Heart by Mark Roberts. Published this week, it gives sketches of 100 English-speaking visitors to the city between 1750 and 1950. The author has lived there for 50 years and there his five children were born, like Florence Nightingale, though she never went again.

The title is from Samuel Rogers (1763-1855), who decided that “in Florence I should wish to live, beyond all the cities of the world”. He returned at intervals, staying at its most expensive hotel amid “perpetual bustle, and never-ending odour of soup”…

The review concludes with a brief description of the Sinclair Lewis dinner party discussed above.

–This week’s “By the Book” literary interview in the New York Times has a Q&A involving Evelyn Waugh. The writer interviewed is Robert Kagan:

Q. What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

A. That Evelyn Waugh blamed the evils of the modern industrial world on Protestantism in almost the same words as Patrick Deneen blames the evils of the modern world on liberalism. Discuss among yourselves.

Another, more extensive interview has been reprinted on the American Enterprise Institute’s website. In this one, Christopher Scalia discusses several of Waugh’s novels and notes their particular interest to Roman Catholic readers. Here’s the link.

–The TLS reviews a new novel entitled Henry, Henry. According to the opening paragraphs, there are Bridesheadian connections:

Allen Bratton’s debut novel, Henry Henry, is notionally a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Henriad, with the setting transferred to 2014. This is a world of grand houses, gilded youths and guarded secrets. There are also more than a few hat tips to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, not least in the courtesy title given to the protagonist, Hal, the Earl of Hertford, which refers to Waugh’s Oxford college.

The novel concerns a triad of Henrys, with Hal at the centre. He is gay, in his early twenties and a classic wastrel. In contrast to him are his devout Catholic father, the repressed Henry, Duke of Lancaster, whose family has long been beset by scandals (sexual and financial), and Harry Percy, do-gooding scion of a neighbouring gentry family and the very model of a Gap Year Guardianista, who loftily informs Hal that “Jesus was an immigrant”…

Tatler has a review of a new sculpture exhibition at Castle Howard. This displays the work of Tony Cragg. Tatler’s reviewer (Harriet Kean) notes what she sees as the relevance of some of the works to Brideshead Revisited, both adaptations of which were filmed at Castle Howard., the website of the Bristol Post, has an article that provides an update on the status of a Combe Florey landmark that is “one of the best pubs in Somerset.” This is:

…the Farmers Arms, at Combe Florey… The small village down in the vale on the Taunton-to-Minehead road is where Evelyn Waugh lived in the 1950s. He regularly frequented the Farmers Arms with various members of the London literati, as did his writer son, Auberon.

The charming thatched pub dates back to the 15th century, but there have been times when it almost became a footnote in history, thanks to that thatch. The place has gone up in flames more than once – most recently in 2017 when it was almost completely destroyed. Owners Tim and Jane had the place rebuilt to a very high standard and it really is now an excellent venue for a drink or a meal. Partly thanks to fire, ironically enough. The Farmers Arms is one of the few pubs I know with a charcoal-fired Jasper oven, a fact which tends to lift anything that’s grilled into another realm.

This area, that lies between the Quantocks and the Brendon Hills to the west, is special. A famous agronomist during the Second World War described it as “Dingly Dell Land” – and it is just that. A rather mysterious, highly wooded area of tiny hamlet and myriad lanes – one that’s hardly ever visited by tourists…

The article is available here.




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