4th of July Roundup

–Duncan McLaren has added a coda to his recent posting about Waugh’s friendship (if that’s the right word) with Cyril Connolly. Duncan’s article is entitled “Cyril in Full Flow” and  is based on a visit Cyril made to Berlin in 1928. This time he imagines a discussion between Waugh and Nancy Mitford based on her recent reading of an article by Cyril in a 1930 issue of Life and Letters. It reports a conversation between X, Y and Z, of whom Cyril was one and Harold Nicolson and Raymond Mortimer were the other two. Here’s an excerpt:

Nancy: OK, Cyril’s title: ‘Conversations in Berlin’. Cyril begins by telling the reader that in his text, X is the host, while Y and Z are guests. And that Z’s talk is not so well recorded as Cyril’s own.”

Evelyn: “What about X and Y? Is their talk recorded just as well as Cyril’s?”

Nancy: “Good point. Y hardly features. And there is no reason to suppose X’s talk has been recorded any better than Z’s.”

Evelyn: “Typical Cyril. Smart but shoddy. […] Sharp as a tack but barmy as a fruit cake.”

Nancy: “I am going to start: ‘We had some interesting talks in Berlin. One night we discussed ourselves when young, at what age we should like most now to have met ourselves, and where. X described himself motor-cycling in Germany and held up two days forlornly in Dortmund. I would like to have come across myself at eighteen: droll, earnestly decadent, and rather birdlike among the second-hand bookstalls at Cologne. Z deplored one’s shyness at that age, and we all admitted that at a time when we were longing for intelligent conversations with people older than ourselves we had been too gauche to begin them, and reduced to getting stones from schoolmasters as our only intellectual bread. I said this did not really matter. Youth was a period of misadventure, and should only be enjoyed as such. The long line of missed opportunities were more rich and significant in their maladroitness than the competent never-miss-a-moment grasping philosophy of late youth and middle age…’ I’ll pause there. That gives us enough to get our teeth into, does it not?”

Cyril’s article is also collected in The Condemned Playground published in 1945. But you probably do not need to read the original to enjoy the discussion of it by Waugh and Mitford as presented by Duncan.

–The Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things exhibition, scheduled earlier this year at the National Porait Gallery but postponed due to the Wuhan coronovirus epidemic, may now have to be postponed indefinitely or, worse yet, cancelled. See previous posts. According to the NPG’s webpage and a notice on the ArtUK website, the NPG is now closed until 2023. Here’s the opening of the ArtUK article:

The National Portrait Gallery in London is closed until 2023 for a major refurbishment and a redisplay of the collection. Before the Gallery closed due to Covid-19 on 17th March 2020, it had just opened the exhibition ‘Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things‘ on 12th March. It explored the world of the infamous bohemian group of socialites, through the illustrious lens of the famed British photographer.

The article by Philomena Epps contains many Beaton photographs already displayed in previous articles relating to the exhibition but also includes some artwork that has not been previously circulated. One may hope that an alternative venue can be found, but there is no suggestion in the article that an announcement is imminent.

–The Catholic Herald recently posted a brief, humorous article “In defence of Catholic Snobbery” by Violet Hudson:

In the UK, we have scant little to be snobbish about – our churches tend to be modern and un-romantic, our hymns are dire compared with rousing Protestant numbers, our history is one of persecution and secrecy.[…] Evelyn Waugh is one of the most famous Catholics in this country’s post-Reformation history, and his Catholicism is synonymous with his ardent love for a big house and a delightfully dysfunctional family.  […]

When we think snobbery and British Catholicism we are thinking of the Anglo-Catholicism of Brideshead, of Cardinal Newman, of Jacobite Lairds and priest holes carved into Elizabethan oak. But the vast majority of Catholics in this country are immigrants from the Irish and Polish traditions – and even combined, we make up less than ten per cent of the population.[…]

All things considered, the CH article concludes: “we Catholics welcome all: the very antithesis of snobbery.”

–In one of what must be Roman Catholicism’s more remote outposts in North America (the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico) a new director of religious education has been appointed. This is Kathleen Zelasko who was interviewed by the diocesan newspaper, Voice of the Southwest. Here’s an excerpt from the Q&A:

Do you have a favorite book or author?

My favorite book is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. When I was in low times – it reaches everyone. There’s a character in there that can reach everyone. It’s just a beautiful book.

It is perhaps worth recalling that the Diocese of Gallup falls within the territory of what may the oldest Roman Catholic jurisdiction in the United States with its archbishop in Santa Fe. Early missions date back as far as the 16th century. A 19th Century incumbent was once the subject of a novel by Willa Cather.

–Finally, the British singer-songwriter Maisie Peters is interviewed in the music news journal Atwoodsmagazine.com. She got her start in 2017 by posting her work on YouTube and has since released two EPs on Atlantic Records UK. She has also started a book club which is a subject raised in the interview


Maisie Peters: Yeah, it’s crazy. I’m doing it with a friend of mine called Abby who’s in publishing, and we’ve been friends for like 5 years now. So that’s really special because we get to work together. She’s in the world of publishing, so she’s been able to suggest books. […]  I’m reading so many books. I just finished a book called “A Handful of Dust” by Evelyn Waugh. It’s super old; I think it literally came out in thirty. It’s honestly amazing. I was kind of unconvinced for the first third then the last two-thirds are wild. Honestly, the ending is like one of the most disturbing and chilling things I’ve ever read. If you read it, you’ll read the first third and be like why the f**k did Maisie recommend this? Then you’ll read to the end and but like oh god, this is really insane. But now, I’ve got to choose what to read next and I’ve four different ones to pick. It’s so stressful.

It was published in 1934.


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Saccone & Speed Profiled in Spanish Paper

The Spanish language newspaper Diario de Jerez has published a feature story on the wine merchants Saccone & Speed. The firm was founded and located in nearby Gibraltar and imported wine from, inter alia, the province of Jerez. A portion of the article is devoted to Evelyn Waugh’s brief connection to the firm:

The famous English writer, Evelyn Waugh, considered that Gibraltar enjoyed a unique position in this part of Andalusia: “A piece of Spain, linked by the narrow neck of neutral territory to the historic vineyards of Jerez”.

The Russian prince Vsévolod (1914-1973), was a director of the firm in London, and a friend of the acclaimed English writer Evelyn Waugh, whom he asked to write something about the wines in order to give it to a select group of his distinguished clientele .

On March 18, 1946, Waugh recorded in his diary the meeting he had with the Russian aristocrat in his office to deal with this matter, but not before obtaining in advance a box of Jerez and two burgundies. The agreement established a payment in kind: two dozen 1928 Roederer champagne, the result was one hundred copies, a beautiful booklet with illustrations by the artist Rex Whistler:  Wine in Peace and War (London 1947). Currently in high demand by collectors and bibliophiles.

A year earlier, his novel, Brideshead Revisted, had been chosen as Book of the Month in the United States, which meant a significant amount of money. Waugh had a substantial gross income and anything else he earned would be taxed at 80%. Hence the suggestion that Waugh receive his remuneration in bubbles.

Of our wines, he writes: “Sherry is a very poorly used name, and even in the strictest sense, applicable to a wide variety of wines, from Manzanilla, as pale and dry as the color of noble wood, to heavy wine, sweet and dark that is sold under a variety of names, often like ‘East India’ or Solera … Nothing can be more delicious than a glass of pale Fino, very dry, cold, mid-day mid-summer. admirable before and at the beginning of the meals.

Like all good wine, it is best enjoyed in tranquility. The Sherry Party that has become fashionable recently is an abomination to me. However, as long as people continue to have fun between six and eight in the afternoon, they will find that Amontillados and Amorosos are a useful resource, less damaging and less expensive than cocktails.

The first and essential thing to keep in mind about wine is that it is something made to be enjoyed. The pleasure it provides is the only definitive measure of any harvest.

The corollary of this is that, like all good works of man, its pleasure is greatly enhanced by knowledge and experience.

The translation is by Google with minor edits. The language quoted from the book has with one exception (in the opening paragraph) been retranslated into English from a Spanish version of the text. The last five lines in the excerpt seem to be from Waugh’s text but I have been unable to account for them.  The text of the book has never been reprinted in full but will, in good time no doubt, be included in volume 28 of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh: Essays, Articles and Reviews 1946-1955.

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Three Country Houses in the Telegraph

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen describes three post war novels that each celebrated the English country house in a different way. The first was Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. According to Christiansen:

…its reception was largely enthusiastic and its sales soared. Fellow novelist Elizabeth Bowen expressed the majority view by calling it “supremely and triumphantly romantic”, and it has gone on to assume classic status, bolstered by the epic television adaptation of 1981. Another novel published at exactly the same time stands in fascinating counterpoint to Brideshead – Henry Green’s Loving. Both are focused on the spiritual condition of the upper classes and the fate of the great house, but they address the issue from opposite ends of the telescope.

Waugh and Green (born Henry Yorke) were old friends from their days as Oxford undergraduates. Green was a generous admirer of Brideshead Revisited: “the whole thing seems to me deeper and wider than any book you have written” he told Waugh. But there was a subtle sting in the tail of his encomium: “it is so curious that we should choose subjects, each of us, so distasteful to each other. Quite soon now another one of mine about the proletariat and about children will be on is way to you … and which you will find quite unreadable.” He appears to have been right on the last score – Waugh confided to his diary “Henry has written an obscene book named Loving about domestic servants” [..]

Christiansen then summarizes Loving which he denominates “the anti-Brideshead” and contrasts it to Waugh’s novel in several respects, one of which is the starkly different writing style adopted by Green

The writing is idiosyncratic in its elisions and inversions, with dialogue that is often oblique, even opaquely Pinterish. Waugh, who aimed at a prose of classical translucency, told Green that he was “debasing the language vilely”, but others have been enchanted by a style that is fresh, buoyant, untrammelled. […] While Loving debunks the country house, Brideshead Revisited mourns its demise.

The third country house novel that is considered is

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day – not published until 1948, but largely written in 1944-5… [This] presents it more positively as symbolic of a future fed by its past, through a perspective coloured by the author’s inheritance of the Georgian Anglo-Irish mansion of Bowen’s Court, near Cork. Set in 1942 when victory over the Nazis began to look possible, The Heat of the Day presents Bowen’s Court thinly disguised as Mount Morris. […]

In contrast to Green and Waugh’s negativity, Bowen invests her vision of the future in the continuities of Mount Morris; it is ironic that although she loved Bowen’s Court deeply and expended much time and effort post-war on upkeep, debt forced her to sell up in 1959 and the buyer demolished the house a year later. “A clean end,” she wrote bravely, “At least Bowen’s Court never lived to be a ruin.”

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Waugh and the 1945 General Election

Waugh returned to England via Italy from his assignment in Yugoslavia on 15 March 1945. He devoted the last few weeks in Italy to stirring up opposition to the new Communist regime of Marshall Tito. He spent most of the time in the Hyde Park Hotel with brief trips to Pixton Park where his family was located as well as to Oxford and Belton. During this period he also became acquainted with the American literary critic Edmund Wilson; he was not impressed. He spent some time trying to disengage himself from the Army, and Fitzroy Maclean gave him permission to present his position on the Tito regime to government officials, editors and others. In May, he retreated to Chagford to start work on Helena and avoid V-E Day. See previous post.

Looking back at the war, he wrote in his diary:

I regard the greatest danger I went through that of becoming one of Churchill’s young men, of getting a medal and standing for Parliament; if things had gone, as then seemed right, in the first two years, that is what I should be now. I thank God to find myself still a writer  and at work on something as “uncontemporary” as I am. [Diaries, 6 May 1945, p. 627]

He was also probably looking forward to the General Election that was inevitable after V-E Day and was, later in the month, called for 5 July 1945. Waugh had left Chagford, “deeply depressed”, and went to London via Pixton. On 28 May, he commented in his diary: “All my friends and enemies are standing for parliament. I do not envy them at all.” (Diaries, p. 627).  By 1 July, writing from Pixton, he declared: “The General Election is being a great bore.” (Diaries, p. 628) The day before the results were announced he wrote his wife from London: “Now that the election results are imminent, I have got quite excited about them.” (Letters, p. 209) The ballots were not counted until 25 July because of the need to collect votes from troops stationed overseas. After the results were announced, Waugh wrote on 28 July: “Election day, the day before yesterday, was a prodigious surprise. I went to White’s at about 11. Results were already coming in on the tape and, in an hour and a half it was plainly an overwhelming defeat.” (Diaries, p. 629)

Anthony Powell was later to comment in a review of the published Diaries that Waugh’s feigned relief at not having been standing with his friends for a seat was an example of his “complete lack of self-awareness regarding himself and his own behavior” despite the fact that in other respects Waugh’s diaries provided an “unvarnished picture of himself.” The Conservatives and most of “Churchill’s young men” (including his son Randolph) decisively lost the election, not that Waugh ever stood much of a chance of being selected as a candidate. It should perhaps be noted that Randolph had been “elected” to Parliament in 1940, standing as a Conservative in an uncontested wartime by-election. That was the seat he lost in 1945. A few days after the loss, according to Waugh, Randolph was again looking for a chance to regain his MP status in a safe district by-election.

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Waugh and the Abdication (More)

Alexander Larman’s new book The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to Abdication is reviewed in yesterday’s issue of The Times. The reviewer, David Aaronovitch, thinks Larman has overstated the seriousness of the issue, at least among the British public if not not the upper classes and Conservative government. He notes, for example, that there were no efforts to measure public opinion on the question since such polling was not on offer from the Gallup organization until after the abdication had been carried out. As an example of public indifference, he cites Evelyn Waugh’s statement in his diary quoted by Larman in his book:

… paradoxically, given his conviction that the abdication was a crisis that “threatened the stability of the British state”, Larman begins his book with an extract from Evelyn Waugh’s diary in which the perceptive author writes that “the Simpson crisis has been a great delight to everyone . . . There can seldom have been an event that caused so much general delight and so little pain.”

So my thought on finishing this always interesting book was to ask the question that it decides not to: wasn’t the whole abdication business a ruling-class psychodrama that distracted the courtiers and the barons and the King’s ministers from the far more serious set of crises unfolding in 1936?

I haven’t seen the quotation as cited in Larman’s book, which is not scheduled to be published until next week, but there is more in that passage that seems to support Aaronovitch’s conclusion, as has been noted in previous posts. In his Diaries, 8 Dec. 1936, p. 415, Waugh wrote :

The Simpson crisis has been a great delight to everyone. At Maidie’s nursing home they report a pronounced turn for the better in all adult patients. There can seldom have been an event that has caused so much general delight and so little pain. Reading the papers and listening to the announcements that there was no news took up most of the week… .

Maidie refers to Maidie Hollis, wife of Waugh’s Oxford friend Christopher Hollis. She had been in a nursing home in Bristol since September after a miscarriage (Ibid. pp. 407-08). Waugh goes on to mention that:

Conrad [Russell] lunched with me on Sunday, very happy with the crisis. Perry [Brownlow] is out with Simpson in Cannes. If it had not been for Simpson this would have been a very bitter week. [Ibid, p. 415]

Waugh’s friend Perry Brownlow was Lord-in-Waiting to Edward VIII.

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Summer Solstice Roundup

–Peter Quennell may be having a revival. Duncan McLaren (see previous post) has now been joined by A N Wilson in recounting his career. Wilson in a memoir posted by The Oldie discusses several first hand meetings he had with Quennell over the years as well as some anecdotes he picked up from other sources. The fraught relationship between Quennell and Waugh is one of the subjects he writes about:

Evelyn Waugh hated PQ so much that he once came up to him in White’s and jumped up and down on his feet, the sort of bullying you would expect in a school playground, not at the hands of a distinguished novelist in his fifties in a gentleman’s club. The hatred went back to their young manhood when Q had reviewed Waugh’s first book, a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Q, who had been at Oxford with Waugh, pretended that “Evelyn” was a woman and referred throughout his review to “Miss Waugh”.

Waugh in his journals or letters, I have not found the reference, made the fair point that Fuddy Duddy Fishface, as he called Quennell, was a better writer, technically, than anyone in his generation, but that he had nothing to write about. Although his books are mellifluous and beautifully crafted – volumes on Baudelaire, Byron, Ruskin etc., you never feel he was writing from compulsion. I wonder whether something got sealed off in his youth.

It was not Quennell’s reference to him as a woman that ruffled Waugh. That error was committed by the TLS reviewer (Letters, p. 28). It was rather Quennell’s negative tone from some one he knew personally that offended Waugh and sparked an exchange of letters.

–The trade press of the publishing industry contains another round of stories about the new owners of Waugh’s literary estate (and also includes some clarification of the extent of their ownership interest as it applies to Waugh’s works). Here’s an excerpt from The Hollywood Reporter:

International Literary Properties, the newly former London- and New York-based company that earlier this month acquired the estates of 12 late authors, has signed a first-look deal with BBC Studios, marking its first major production partnership. Under the deal, announced Tuesday, BBC Studios Production, the production arm of BBC Studios, and its portfolio of independent producers can explore the intellectual property owned and managed by ILP. Set up last year, the company currently holds the rights for authors including Georges Simenon, Eric Ambler, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Bolt, Richard Hull, George Bellairs, Nicolas Freeling, John Creasey and Michael Innes as well as 20 percent of Evelyn Waugh’s estate.

Twenty percent is not exactly a controlling interest as was was wrongly suggested in the first round of stories about ILP’s acquisition. Just how they will work with the other owners has yet to be explained.

–Alexander Larman writing in The Critic joins several others in celebrating the 75th anniversary of Brideshead Revisited’s publication. After a discussion of the context in which it was written, its mixed initial reception, and its popularization by the 1981 TV serial, Larman concludes:

I read Brideshead Revisited for the first time when I was about 11, a decade or so after the TV series had appeared. I still remember the circumstances in which I encountered it, lying on my bed one summer afternoon. I didn’t understand everything in it, either the language or the situations described, but it made me feel transported, as if I had travelled to a new world that I had previously only dimly perceived the existence of. Like Charles, I thrilled to the description of prelapsarian Oxford; delighted in the straight-faced tomfoolery of Mr Ryder; enjoyed the farce of the worst tutor in literature, Mr Samgrass; and, above all, revelled in the vividly evoked sense of another, richer world. While my peers lost themselves in science fiction and fantasy novels, I, precocious little prig that I was, took my escapism from Evelyn Waugh. […]

Yet three-quarters of a century on, and nearly four decades after Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons made standing around in central Oxford looking wistful with a teddy bear the height of chic, Brideshead Revisited remains one of those quintessentially iconic stories that encapsulates not just aristocratic privilege, but our communal yearning for something glorious yet unattainable. Not for nothing is one of the sections of the book called ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, nor is there much more Proustian in English literature than Charles’s comment, revisiting Brideshead during WWII, that ‘I had been there before; I knew all about it’. As tourists flock to Christ Church to take photos of the fountain of Mercury in which Anthony Blanche was dunked, and the book continues to sell in its thousands every year, it remains the classic that Waugh hoped it would be, and, in its combination of glacial beauty and lovelorn desperation, speaks to all readers, be they precocious 11-year olds or their older and hopefully wiser selves.

Larman also mentions an artist named Felix Kelly (1914-94) as one of Waugh’s possible inspirations for the character of Charles Ryder. Others have frequently mentioned Rex Whistler in this connection, but this is the first I have seen a reference to this artist. Some additional explanation might have been helpful. For example, according to his Wikipedia entry, Kelly painted, inter alia, many country houses and enjoyed staying in them.

–After his financial success with Brideshead, Waugh considered moving to a home located where less ruinous taxes applied. One of these was Gormanston Castle in Ireland. The Independent newspaper  has published a story about the recent development of that property and mentions in passing Waugh’s experience:

After the passing of a series of land acts, the Prestons [then owners] were forced to divide up the estate and sign over land to tenants. By the time Ireland had gained independence, the estate was in a perilous financial state. The writer Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited, had planned to buy Gormanston Castle, but was deterred when he learned of Billy Butlin’s plans to build a holiday resort at the nearby beach at Mosney.

Instead, the Prestons sold the castle and the remaining estate in 1947 to the Franciscan order, which set up an all-boys’ boarding school called Gormanston College in the grounds. The alumni of the college include actor Colin Farrell and former ministers Charlie McCreevy and James Reilly.

In Stamullen, just across the M1 from Gormanston College and its nearby beach, Glenveagh Properties is building a scheme called Silver Banks on land that likely once belonged to the Gormanston estate.

The development of 202 homes near the Co Dublin border is sandwiched between mature housing and St Patrick’s GAA’s playing grounds. The scheme will appeal to families commuting to Dublin or Drogheda by motorway or train and who want to be close to the beach.

Waugh would no doubt have been equally appalled by the middle class housing estate as he was by the prospect of being a neighbor to Butlins. Indeed, it was the postwar encroachment of suburban housing in Dursley as well as UK taxes that had prompted his decision to make an exit from Gloucestershire.

–Finally, the TLS has a review of a collection of obituaries (or brief lives) by Nicholas Barker. The collection is entitled At First, All Went Well…. Although apparently not a subject of one of the essays, Waugh gets a mention:

At First All Went Well… pulls together half a century’s worth of Barker’s pieces, some from the Independent, most from The Book Collector. Taken together, these pieces represent more than simply an anthology of individual lives. Barker paints a picture, an accidental sociology, of the book world in the twentieth century, its dealers and collectors, publishers, printers and scholars. The early obituaries – representing lives that ended in the 1960s and 70s – have the effect of telescoping time, pitching us, at one degree of separation, among the Edwardians and the Bright Young Things of the interwar years. When the bibliographer Graham Pollard was still young enough to travel around Putney by pram, he encountered the aged Swinburne, who poked at him with a stick. (The following day Pollard asked his nanny if they might take a different route on their perambulations.) It was Pollard too who introduced corduroy trousers to the Oxford fast set and defeated Evelyn Waugh in the university’s 10-foot spitting contest.




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Campion in La Prensa

The Buenos Aires paper La Prensa has published a review of Waugh’s biography Edmund Campion. The review, which is unsigned, opens with this:

Evelyn Waugh wrote this book between 1934 and 1935, in homage to the Jesuit College of Oxford University (Campion Hall) and Father Martin D’Arcy SJ, who years earlier had guided him in his conversion to Catholicism. Although it is an unusual work In his production, his portrait of the English martyr contains vibrant narrative passages and a sound historical survey, valid for Catholics of all times, from the cruel persecutions of the Elizabethan era.

In the preface to the American edition, Waugh explained that he had not set out to write a scholarly biography of St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581), but “to select the incidents which would strike a novelist as important, and put them into a narrative which I hope may prove readable. ” We can affirm that he achieved that purpose, and that he did it with the command of the English language that is habitual in all his books, and with his typical tense, compact, precise style, which says more when it seems to say less.

This is followed by a well written and concise summary of the book and concludes with this:

In 1946, when he wrote the preface to the American edition of the book, Waugh (1903-1966) warned that the world of that year, at the beginning of the Cold War, was in a better position to understand the martyrdom of Saint Edmund Campion than the more tolerant Victorians. Perhaps the same can be said of this deranged 2020. With other excuses, the “unending war” on faith continues and promises to intensify. Waugh warned the reader: “The hunted, trapped, murdered priest is amongst us again, and the voice of Campion comes to us across the centuries as though he were walking at our side.”

The book was translated into Spanish and published in Madrid in 2009. The reviewer seems, however, to have read it in an English language edition that included the 1946 introduction. The introduction was written for the American edition which appeared after the success of Brideshead Revisited but has also been included in UK editions printed since then. The computerized translation of the article into English is quite readable with very few minor adjustments. In the excerpts above, the language from the book that quotes Waugh’s writing has been taken from the original and substituted for the retranslation from Spanish.

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Harold Acton (and Martin Green)

Duncan McLaren has added Harold Acton to Waugh’s pantheon of friends. On this occasion he writes it up as a straight narrative rather that as an addition to the crowd gathering at the now postponed Brideshead Festival at Castle Howard.

He breaks their relationship into three periods: Oxford and After, China and Travel, and Post War. This works quite well, as the Oxford and After period is already covered in other biographies and is well summarized by McLaren. He also notes that Acton’s decision to move to China coincides with Waugh’s adoption of a nomadic life following the breakup of his first marriage. A useful description of Acton’s life and work in China is also provided, a period that is less well known. After the war they met each other from time to time and leave descriptions of those meetings in their memoirs and letters. These are well covered in the article.

Acton’s reputation rests as much or more on his friendships with other writers such as Evelyn Waugh than with his own writing. Waugh relied on Acton’s opinion to consign his first novel to the fireplace and dedicated Decline and Fall to him, but, as time went on, McLaren explains how Waugh became less enamored of Acton’s own writing. That opinion seems to have held up, as little of Acton’s writing aside from his memoirs remains in print. Even those could not be described as “easy reading”.

McLaren also introduces the book Children of the Sun: A Narrative of ‘Decadence’ in England After 1918 (1976) into the article. This is by Martin Burgess Green (1927-2010) who taught at Tufts University for many years. This set out to describe the group of aesthetes and intellectuals who formed around Harold Acton and Brian Howard in the 1920s. McLaren provides some interesting background on Green’s research for the book as well as Acton’s rather negative reaction to it. The book is still in print although you may have to search more diligently than usual to find it. Here is a link to the entire article.

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Brideshead @ 75: A N Wilson, The Oldie and The Folio Society

The Oldie has posted A N Wilson’s introduction to the Folio Society’s 2018 reprint of Brideshead Revisited. While this may not be denominated by Wilson or The Oldie as a commemoration of the novel’s 75th anniversary, we should be entitled to regard it as such. Wilson begins by placing the book’s plot in historic context and explaining how the story would play out both the same and differently in today’s social and religious environments. His discussion of the religious context is of particular interest. He then provides his own assessment of the story itself:

…So, Brideshead Revisited is a period piece. The aristocratic way of life which Waugh believed to be doomed, still continues, albeit in modified form. The seemingly immutable Holy Mother Church has shifted some of her sterner stances.

This in no way spoils our enjoyment of the novel , which many would consider Waugh’s masterpiece. Those of us who love his work, and reread it often, must often have felt torn between appreciation of the brittle comedies of his youth and young manhood, and the august achievement of the Sword of Honour trilogy, one of the undoubted works of literary genius, in any language, to emerge from the Second World War. The early comedies, owing so much to Ronald Firbank, but so distinctively themselves, make us laugh aloud. The sports day at Llanabba Castle in Decline and Fall, the oafish customs inspectors in Vile Bodies, confiscating Dante’s Inferno because it sounds foreign and therefore pornographic, the hatefulness of the Connolly children in Put Out More Flags, these are crystalline comic vignettes which are cruelly and perfectly constructed. The Sword of Honour books retain the comedy (who can forget Apthorpe’s thunderbox?) but follow the themes of all great literature, love, war, death, with unmatched seriousness. Brideshead Revisited, lush, colour-splashed, romantic, comes between these two bodies of work. It is Waugh’s Antony and Cleopatra. It is his richest, and most passionate book…

Wilson’s introduction continues through other topics and ends up on the often overlooked success of the book’s comic characters:

Given the solemnity of the theme, “the operation of divine grace”, you might have expected Waugh’s humour to have failed him in this book, but even the hilarity of the early novels is outshone by the comic characters in this one. Charles’s father, Anthony Blanche, or the awful Samgrass take their place among the immortals with Dr Fagan and Captain Grimes. Even the figures whom Waugh and Ryder hate – Hooper and Mottram – are funny. And even non-Catholics have laughed at Cordelia’s hoodwinking Rex into believing that there are sacred monkeys in the Vatican.

To which might be added the character of Bridey who raises religious cluelessness to previously unattained heights of humour.


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Bright Younger People

In yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, Toby Young writes about his days at Oxford in the 1980s, energized to do so by a new book out later this week by Dafydd Jones. This is entitled Oxford, The Last Hurrah. The US edition will be out early next month. Young begins his essay with a description of the first time he encountered Boris Johnson:

The audience at the Union roared with laughter – and it was laughter of appreciation, not ridicule. There was something so winning about this befuddled yet strangely charismatic 19-year-old that you couldn’t help warming to him. This was the first time I ever set eyes on Boris Johnson. I’d been at Oxford for about a week by then, searching in vain for the Bright Young Things I’d found so appealing in the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

It was watching that ITV series that had made me want to go to Oxford in the first place – there was something irresistible about the Olympian insouciance of the characters. And here at last, performing a comic turn honed to perfection over five years at Eton, was someone who conformed to the Oxford stereotype. Blond, handsome, oozing with confidence and humour, it was as if Boris had sprung, fully formed, from Waugh’s imagination.

It was only later that I learned he was the son of a middle-class farmer on Exmoor who was himself the grandson of a Turkish immigrant. After landing at Eton on a scholarship, Boris had set about recreating himself as a cartoon version of a posh public schoolboy […] The number of people pretending to be posher than they were was one of the striking things about Oxford in those days.

Looking like you’d been born with a silver spoon in your mouth hadn’t been fashionable in Britain since Labour won a landslide Election victory in 1945. But for a brief period in the mid-1980s, it was surprisingly cool to be privileged. It’s hard to imagine today, but people from quite ordinary backgrounds would go to parties wearing tailcoats and silk dressing gowns, as if to the manner born. The 1960s gave us hippies and the 1970s gave us punks, both determined to overthrow ‘the system’.  The 1980s, by contrast, gave us Sloane Rangers and Young Fogeys, as if a new generation were reacting to the misery of the previous decade by thumbing their noses at the finger-wagging egalitarians.

Young goes on to describe his first encounters with other members of these Bright Younger People such as Hugh Grant, David Cameron and Nigella Lawson. Toward the end, he offers a roll call of the entire decade at Oxford, including BYPs in the years before and after his own Oxford career, some of whom came as a surprise to your correspondent. The story is illustrated with several photographs from the book, which are what it’s all really about. Dafydd Jones seems to have done for this new generation what Cecil Beaton did for his own contemporary BYPs. There are several amusing photos of the people Young describes with evident retrospective enjoyment as well as one of him enjoying himself first hand.

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