Roundup: Public Schools, Pronunciation and Epigraphs

–The Daily Telegraph has an essay by Rupert Christiansen reviewing the English obsession with Public Schools. This begins with a consideration of several novels, films and stage plays that center on the miserable lives suffered by both students and teachers in these establishments. Although none by Waugh is mentioned in this section, the play South Downs by David Hare is noted as a reflection of his unhappy days at Lancing College, a school where Waugh in an earlier generation was, according to his own recollections, largely happy. The focus then shifts to more positive or comic descriptions of the public school experience:

The mood of public-school culture is not always so negative, however. As I remember from my own boarding-school incarceration, hysterical laughter saved one from sinking into anger and despair, and comedy is rightly the dominant note of anything set in prep-schools, where the complicating stresses of adolescent hormones have yet to set corrosively in.

Two fictional creations stand out here. One is contained in Evelyn Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall, with its hilarious portrait of Llanabba Castle, an institution of toxic mediocrity, staffed by the dregs of the establishment and humiliated in a farcically disastrous sports day. The other is the immortal character of Molesworth, the scourge of St Custard’s and the jaundiced narrator of four much-loved books by Geoffrey Willans written in the 1950s and now valuable records of a lost lore and lingo (as in ‘chizchiz’, and ‘hello birds hello sky’).

Waugh’s depiction of public schools in his novel is based more on his experience as a teacher in his post Oxford career than in his schooldays at Lancing. The essay then concludes with a discussion of girls schools.

–On the website Literary Hub, Thomas Swick considers the art of the epigraph. After discussing several examples from multiple authors, he comes to Waugh:

Often authors use epigraphs […] to reveal the sources of their titles. Evelyn Waugh, not a regular practitioner, prefaced A Handful of Dust with the passage he’d cribbed from The Waste Land.

While it is true that Waugh did not regularly use epigraphs, he does include them in Vile Bodies (from Alice Through the Looking Glass) and Put Out More Flags from Lin Yutang. In the latter example, as in the one cited by Swick, Waugh uses the epigraph to explain the origin of the book’s title. In addition, one might consider the title of Book One of Brideshead  Revisited as an epigraph: “Et In Arcadio Ego“.

–The New Statesman carries a feature length story about another and earlier humorist who once lived in Combe Florey, Somerset and whose wit is worthy of consideration alongside that of a later resident of the village:

He was born in 1771, 250 years ago this month, and died, aged 73, in 1845. His name was the Reverend Sydney Smith. As his simple title implies, he did not reach high office in the profession to which he was, in effect, conscripted by his father. This was partly because he was so witty and thus not seen as serious by the church hierarchy. He was the man who described heaven as “eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets”. Also: “What bishops like best in their clergy is a dropping-down-deadness of manner.” And his musing on episcopal romance: “How can a bishop marry? How can he flirt? The most he can say is: ‘I will see you in the vestry after service.’” These were not lines calculated to win preferment.

The article is by Matthew Engel and is a good, concise survey of Smith’s career. While he was vicar of the Combe Florey parish, he was not a full time resident. As was the practice in those days, the income from his living afforded him the ability to hire a curate for full time church duties, allowing Smith to enjoy the company of his fellow bon vivants in London. As the article explains, Smith was able to combine his incomes from various appointments at other ecclesiastical establishments to support his more worldly exploits:

As the Tories faltered in the late 1820s, Lord Lyndhurst became Lord Chancellor and slipped him in as a prebendary of Bristol Cathedral. To that was added the post of rector of Combe Florey in Somerset, which must count as the funniest village in England; it was later the home of both Evelyn and Auberon Waugh.

In 1830, the Whigs came to power at last, bringing forth many of the reforms for which Smith had campaigned. Both their prime ministers that decade, Lord Grey and Lord Melbourne, claimed they wanted to make him a bishop. But it never happened. The final consolation prize was to be made a canon of St Paul’s. This enabled him to adorn London dinner tables regularly while ministering part-time to Combe Florey. The canonry also involved a good deal of administration, which he did with pernickety efficiency, as if proving a point.

The article concludes with a reference to a literary society established in Smith’s name that is the repository of a cache of his unpublished letters in which, no doubt, further evidence of his wit abounds and will soon be released upon his admirers.

–In another article posted by the Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse addresses the ever vexing problem of pronouncing the English language. Toward the end of the article, after covering considerable ground littered with examples of common and (at least sometimes) avoidable mistakes, he concludes with this:

My favourite two words almost always mispronounced are pejorative and flaccid. There is a choice with pejorative, but the nobby U-pronunciation is to stress the first syllable: PEE-jorative, as you can hear Evelyn Waugh saying in his celebrated television interview with John Freeman. With flaccid there is no leeway. Most people say flassid, but it should be flak-sid. It’s the law, or would be if we British tried to control our language as the Académie Française pretends to in France.

Yet I wouldn’t dream of correcting anyone who innocently got it wrong, unlike the 35 per cent of survey respondents who admitted to relishing the opportunity. It would be like sneering at their clothes. When it comes to pronunciation, we all live in glass houses.

A quick browse of the BBC interview quoted shows the interviewer John Freeman using the word “pejorative” to describe Waugh’s public references to the BBC (Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, v. 19, p. 563). Perhaps I overlooked Waugh’s own utterance of the word.

–Finally, author Ben Macintyre (who specializes in the subject of espionage) was recently interviewed in the Guardian column “Books that made me.” Near the end, this exchange appears:

Q. My comfort read
A. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh. I know, I know: racially insensitive, viciously snobbish, but still the best satire of journalism ever written.





Posted in A Handful of Dust, Anniversaries, Brideshead Revisited, Combe Florey, Complete Works, Decline and Fall, Interviews, Newspapers, Put Out More Flags, Scoop, Vile Bodies | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Midsummer Night’s Roundup

–The Jermyn Street Theatre has announced a production that may be of interest to Waugh enthusiasts:

Mr and Mrs Nobody is […] adapted from the popular comic novel Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon GrossmithKeith Waterhouse‘s Mr and Mrs Nobody promises to be a blissfully funny headliner for the final third of Jermyn Street Theatre’s reopening Footprints Festival. […]

Jermyn Street Theatre Artistic Director Tom Littler said: “Evelyn Waugh said that The Diary of a Nobody was the funniest book ever written, and it’s hard to disagree. It’s a story of domesticity, marriage and class that’s both of its time and persistently recognisable. Keith Waterhouse‘s delightful script summons the spirit of the age and brings the Pooters to life.”

The theatre is located in London SW1. Performance dates and booking details are available at this link.

–The New York Times has posted a detailed archive of many if not most of the reviews and articles it has printed over the years relating to the writings and person of Evelyn Waugh. This includes in full several interviews as well as reviews of books by and about Waugh, and works published after his death such as diaries,  letters and biographies. No subscription is required. It is effectively a free and well researched tour of the NYT’s archives relating to Evelyn Waugh. Don’t miss the slide show linked at the bottom.

–Critic and novelist D J Taylor has written an essay for the TLS entitled: “Larger than life: How to go about writing an obituary.”  Here is an excerpt:

How do you write an obituary? Who are your audience? What rules are you supposed to follow, and what lilies – even in a plain-speaking age – might you find it prudent to gild? All these questions were nudged into gear by a request from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) to write a notice of the late Janetta Parladé (1921–2018), war-era “Lost Girl” and associate of Cyril Connolly – not, strictly speaking, an obit, but still a task requiring large amounts of minutely particularized judgement. To fix on only one aspect of the contested terrain that lies ahead, Janetta had four husbands and no fewer than six surnames. Doing justice to the woman whom Evelyn Waugh, fascinated by her habit of going around barefoot, christened “Mrs Bluefeet” will clearly require tact and discrimination.

–The Guardian explains in a recent fashion history article how women wearing trousers achieved acceptability (and how Waugh may have in a small way contributed):

In Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published in 1930, Agatha Runcible is turned away from a country hotel on account of wearing trousers. (“They made Miss Runcible stay outside, and brought her cold lamb and pickles in the car.”) In 1951, Katharine Hepburn used the staff entrance during her stay at Claridge’s because the London hotel did not permit women to wear “slacks” in the lobby. It is a backstory that brings, still, a certain swagger to a woman in a pair of grandly tailored trousers.

–An essay in a Spanish language newspaper (El Mañana) published in Reynosa, Mexico, is devoted to Waugh’s humor. This is entitled “Tremble after laughing” and is written by Maria Vila Zanetti. Examples from The Loved One, Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust are described, and an analysis of a photo of Waugh from the 1920s is included. If you open the article linked above on the Chrome browser and click in the lower right corner when it opens, you may choose an English translation that will automatically appear.


Posted in A Handful of Dust, Adaptations, Humo(u)r, Newspapers, The Loved One, Theater | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Flag-Day Roundup

–A movie blog ( has posted a preview of a new TV adaptation under preparation for Netflix. This is based on the fantasy comics series The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. According to the report, the story has a Waugh connection:

This week, Netflix revealed a first look at its highly anticipated adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s The Sandman comics — kind of. Rather, we saw a behind-the-scenes preview given by none other than Gaiman himself, who toured the U.K.-based Shepperton Studios where the fantasy-horror series is being made. And in that behind-the-scenes video, Gaiman was introduced to all sorts of props and pieces of concept art as he explored the set.

But were there any Easter eggs or details we could glean from the short behind-the-scenes video? More than you think.In one shot of Gaiman being shown the props from the TV series, we can see a copy of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh […] The novel follows a man who is betrayed by his wife and joins an expedition to the jungle, only to find himself imprisoned by a madman — a nice parallel to the imprisonment of Dream (Tom Sturridge) at the beginning of the series by occultist Roderick Burgess (to be played by Game of Thrones‘ Charles Dance), the Lord Magus of the Order of the Ancient Mysteries. …

–Cecil Beaton’s biographer Hugo Vickers has written a memoir of his collection of research for the book about Beaton that was published in 1985. The memoir is entitled Malice in Wonderland  and is reviewed in The Spectator by Michael Arditti:

…his biography is both a measured account of Beaton’s myriad achievements as photographer, painter, designer and memoirist and a rounded portrait of his rich and at times rackety life. Thirty-six years on, Vickers has published the diaries written during his research for the book, in which gossip abounds.

Beaton himself was an astute, if waspish, diarist, who offended many by publishing six volumes of diaries in his lifetime. […] The range of Beaton’s activities may have led him to dilute his talents, but it introduced him to a far wider society than if he’d confined himself to one art form. So, Vickers encounters royalty, including the Queen Mother, whose wartime image Beaton played a large part in crafting. He visits the last of the Bright Young People, whom Beaton photographed in the 1920s, including Stephen Tennant, a portly recluse in his Wiltshire manor, and the Jungman sisters, once beloved by Evelyn Waugh, now fallen on hard times.

Vickers becomes a regular guest at aristocratic cocktail and house parties, and at times it is hard to tell the Lauras from the Loelias. He strikes genuine friendships with two of his hostesses. The first is Lady Diana Cooper, once described as ‘the least dumb blonde’, who greets him in bed, having instructed her maid to tell him not to look at her too closely, and whom he subsequently squires around town. The second is the 60-year-old Clarissa Avon, the widow of Anthony Eden, with whom his growing intimacy fuels rumours of an impending marriage…

US publication is scheduled for October.

–The books weblog has an article by Judy Moreno about a literary theme called the “Failure to Launch Syndrome”. This is explained as follows:

Symptoms of Failure to Launch Syndrome vary but can include a lack of ambition (like not wanting to get a job), a reluctance to make decisions, a fear of commitment, and a resistance to making and sticking to plans. Apparently, it’s more common in males (I see you, Peter Pan), but there are plenty of women who struggle with it, too.

One of Waugh’s novels is included on the list. This is Brideshead Revisited:

Sebastian Flyte is a tragic character in this book so richly imagined that it’s been reinvented for the screen many times with yet another BBC remake planned for 2022. Sebastian isn’t the main character — that honor belongs to Charles  — but the former makes such an impression on the latter that it lives on with readers decades later. The two meet at Oxford college in England, and Sebastian seems utterly charming though admittedly devoid of responsibility and gravitas while blissfully ignorant of reality.

He never really grows out of his college state, though; in fact, even in college he totes around a beloved teddy bear he’s named Aloysius, so one might argue that he’s stunted in an even younger age. As he gets older in years, he gets no older in wisdom and tries to alleviate his increasing torments with alcohol. Eventually, he dies in destitution from his addiction, and Charles remains haunted by the memories of his old friend. Sebastian seems eerily reminiscent of what Peter Pan could have become if he’d been plucked from Neverland and placed into the circumstances of this novel instead.

YouTube has posted a walking tour of the Canonbury Square area of North London. The entire tour comprises about 38 minutes, but if you skip to about 8:00 you will catch the discussion of George Orwell’s residence at 27b in 1944-47 and, around the corner, Evelyn Waugh’s in 1928-29. The presenter notes the Islington Borough plaque on the Orwell site, which was remounted in 2016 to reflect the correct dates, and the lack of same on the Waugh site. He also claims that both Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall were published while Waugh lived here in 1928-1930. Decline and Fall had been finished in April 1928 and was published a few days after the  Waughs moved into their flat at 17a on 11 September 1928. Vile Bodies was written in June-October 1929, mostly in rural venues. Waugh would not have physically lived at 17a after July 1929 when his wife revealed her affair with John Heygate.




Posted in A Handful of Dust, Adaptations, Biographies, Brideshead Revisited, Newspapers, Television Programs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

D-Day Roundup

–On yesterday’s 77th anniversary of the D-Day landings, The Herald (Scotland) posted a story by Ron McKay recounting how various people were occupied on the actual day of the event. Among those there were two writers:

… JD Salinger, who landed on Omaha Beach, where there would be 2,400 US casualties, with six chapters of his unfinished novel Catcher in the Rye in his backpack. In one of those spooky coincidences Evelyn Waugh, recuperating with his leg up after injuring it in paratroop training, finished the final chapter of Brideshead Revisited in Devon.

Waugh’s recuperation had been completed by February 1944 when he requested leave to write what became Brideshead Revisited.  The Army granted him leave specifically for the purpose of writing the book.

Another incident recounted in the article involved some one important to Waugh’s Army career:

Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, landed at Sword Beach with a wading stick he used for salmon fishing and his personal piper Bill Millin whom he instructed to pipe the commandos ashore, in defiance of strict orders not to do so. When Millin, the only man in the invasion to wear a kilt, demurred, Lovat said: “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”

So Millin played Highland Laddie, The Road To The Isles and All The Blue Bonnets Are Over The Border, in the kilt of the Cameron tartan his father had worn in the Great War as his comrades fell around him. He talked later to German snipers who were there that day and asked them why they hadn’t shot him – they replied that they couldn’t because they thought he was mad. And he surely was.

That is the same Lord Lovat (nickname “Shimi”) who tried to force Waugh out of the Army by having him reassigned to basic training in the Commandos. He failed in this attempt, and Waugh ended up serving out the war in Yugoslavia, in often dangerous circumstances. That is where he made the final edits to Brideshead on a page proof copy parachute dropped to his remote base in Croatia. Brideshead was published in the UK just as the war in Europe was ending in May 1945.

–In the current TLS, the weekly “NB” column is devoted to presentation copies. This describes certain offerings in the catalogue of Jonkers Rare Books in Henley-on-Thames entitled “From the Author”:

We find ourselves peculiarly drawn to what might be called the “author to author” presentations. […] Presentation copies of Charlotte’s Web are “exceptionally rare”; this “very good” copy is priced at £15,000.

The same sum could secure you the Basil Seal Rides Again that Evelyn Waugh presented to Graham Greene – or the Black Mischief (in which the indolent Mr Seal also figures) Waugh gave to Lady Mary Lygon, a daughter of the house – Madresfield Court in Worcestershire – where much of the novel was written. […] Then again, there is Keep the Aspidistra Flying, inscribed by [George] Orwell for Anthony Powell (£25,000), or Venusberg inscribed by Powell for Edith Sitwell (£6,000). Choices, choices. Don’t get us started on H. G. Wells’s gift of Mankind in the Making – “This little bale of Serious Reading” – to that specialist in nautical tales W. W. Jacobs (£4,500), complete with a jovial drawing of “W. W. J.” unwittingly about to be crushed, dockside, by a not-so-little bale of cotton.

–Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA has announced an event in its Online Intensive Literary Seminar Series that may be of interest. This will  take place in August:

If you have been looking for a novel that is as sumptuous as Downton Abbey or The Crown—and as smart and satirical as John Oliver, read Brideshead Revisited with us! Named one of the top 100 novels in English by Modern Library, Time, Newsweek and the BBC, Waugh’s magnum opus is the most delicious of escapes.

The work is nostalgic in the best of ways, while also tackling large issues such as religion, classism and sexuality. The novel is amazing enough but as a bonus, the Jeremy Irons TV adaptation (from 1981!) really holds up. Join us for a summer in the English countryside!

Join Kimberly Ford, for this two-part seminar series on Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisited. We will be hosting this two-part series on the following dates:

Monday, August 2 – 5:00-6:30 pm

Monday, August 9 – 5:00-6:30 pm

There are several ticket options that include books with purchase, books shipped to home, books picked up at Kepler’s Books or seminar only.  Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor all shipping costs will be waived for the literary seminars. The books should be read prior to the meeting date.

–Finally, the website Artribune has posted a 1963 photo of Waugh with Diana Cooper and some one identified as Georgina Masson. This was taken in Rome during Waugh’s visit for Easter of that year. The visit was Diana’s idea and she was apparently staying with some one named Mrs Milton Gendel.  MWMS, pp 296-301. Waugh went on to visit Harold Acton in Florence after celebrating  Easter in Rome.

I do not recall seeing this photo previously and wonder whether it may be the one mentioned in Waugh’s letter to Cooper dated 25 April. According to her Wikipedia entry, Georgina Masson (1912-1980) was an author and photographer with a particular interest in Italian gardens. The occasion of the 1963 photo, which must have been taken at a picnic on the grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphilj in the Janiculum where she lived in a grace and favor cottage, is explained in a brief memoir of Masson by Milton Gendel:

A picnic she organized [at the Villa Doria] in the spring of 1963, in honor of Evelyn Waugh, who had come to Rome, as he said, to do his Easter devotions, was attended by his great friend, Lady Diana Cooper (the Mrs Stitch of his novels), the Duke of Leeds, Lady McEwen, Judy Montagu, Alvise and Betty di Robilant, and Patrick and Jenny Crosse. Waugh provoked [Masson] and the other English guests by refusing to sit on the ground, as he preferred to eat comfortably and unpicnic-like at a table.

The memoir is posted at this link.

“Mrs Milton Gendel” is the married name of Diana’s friend Judith Montagu, daughter of Conservative politician Edwin Montagu and Venetia Stanley. She is frequently referred to in the Waugh-Cooper letters as Miss Judy or some such. She married American photographer Milt0n Gendel in 1963, both of whom were living in Rome. He may be the source of the photograph in Artribune. The letters record another Easter meeting in Rome in 1964, but that did not go so well, for which Cooper apologized in a letter of April 1964 referring to her “complexion”. She notes that Waugh was “most universally loved in Rome.” MWMS, p. 306.

UPDATE (8 June 2021): Last paragraph added to clarify identities of Mr and Mrs Milton Gendel.



Posted in Anniversaries, Basil Seal Rides Again, Black Mischief, Brideshead Revisited, Events, Letters, Newspapers, Photographs | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Bridey’s Bombshell” Queried

In his Daily Mail blog, Peter Hitchens wonders whether Evelyn Waugh got it wrong about the Roman Catholic view of marriage in Brideshead Revisited, at least as it has been applied to the recent marriage of twice-divorced Boris Johnson in Westminster RC Cathedral.  He cites the scene he describes as “Bridey’s Bombshell” (Book II, Ch. 2, revised ed., 1960, pp. 218-19) where Lord Brideshead announces to the assembled family that Rex Mottram’s marriage to Julia Flyte cannot go forward, at least not in a Roman Catholic church. He quotes the entire scene but the crucial lines are these:

‘Don’t you realize, you poor sweet oaf,’ said Julia [to Rex], ‘that you can’t get married as a Catholic when you’ve another wife alive?’

‘But I haven’t. Didn’t I just tell you we were divorced six years ago?’

‘ But you can’t be divorced as a Catholic.’

‘I wasn’t a Catholic and I was divorced. I’ve got the papers somewhere.’

Hitchens asks:

If I have got the current rules right, Rex’s marriage to Sarah Evangeline Cutler didn’t count because it wasn’t a Roman Catholic marriage, and would not have been even if Rex was a baptised Roman Catholic at the time. So why the fuss? But in that case, if Rex had married Julia in an RC Church, a large chunk of the rest of the book would not have made sense. By the same token, Julia’s non-Catholic marriage to Rex Mottram would have been no bar to her marrying Charles Ryder  and so the book’s ending, when she refuses to marry him, could not have come about either, at least not in that way. So, was Waugh wrong? Or have the rules changed since then? Or am I missing something?

The same question occurred to me as soon as I heard about Johnson’s wedding ceremony. According to a recent article in the Daily Telegraph (see previous post), what made Boris Johnson’s situation different from Rex’s is that Johnson was indeed a baptised Catholic, and his earlier non-Catholic marriage and divorced non-Catholic wives were not a barrier to his later Catholic marriage to a new Catholic wife. The RC church simply treated the first marriage as non-existent.  What is complicated and what Waugh oversimplifies a bit is how this same situation is different if the later marriage involves a convert to Catholicism.  In that case, as I understand the DT story, the church recognizes the earlier marriage as valid as between the two then non-Catholics and requires that it be annulled before the later Catholic marriage goes forward. So Julia’s statement as quoted above is over-broad as a general matter but correct as applied to Rex, a convert. Whether or not the interpretation offered in the DT is based on rules or interpretations that were not applicable in the 1930s is not addressed in the article.

The second question is, I believe, unanswerable, at least based on the DT’s interpretation. Both parties in this case have a divorced spouse still living. Julia (a baptised Catholic) might be eligible to marry, but Charles a non-Catholic at the time of his earlier marriage to another non-Catholic would seem to require an annulment such as Waugh himself had to obtain. Charles would also need to have converted to Catholicism in order to marry Julia in a Catholic ceremony. I don’t, in any event, recall any discussion in the novel in which either of them assumed that they would have a Catholic ceremony.

For the record, the posting makes one statement that is partially inaccurate:

[Waugh] spent three years, from 1933 to 1936, obtaining an annulment of his marriage to Evelyn Gardner from the RC church authorities, allowing him to marry Laura Herbert, an aristocratic Catholic from an old RC family, in an RC Church. [Emphasis supplied.]

According to Selina Hastings (p. 321),  Laura’s mother converted after her husband’s death in 1923 much to the dismay of her staunchly Protestant mother-in-law Lady Carnarvon. Laura herself, who was seven when her father died, converted some years later in her teens (but probably before she met Waugh).

Anyone wishing to explore the matter further may wish to accept the invitation to comment on Peter Hitchens’ Daily Mail weblog at this link.

UPDATE (4 June 2021): Clarification was added on Boris Johnson’s status and Charles Ryder’s marital issues. In addition, this article in The Tablet may be relevant relating to Canon 1085 adopted in 2015, although as read literally, it doesn’t appear to change things in the case of Boris Johnson and was, according to The Tablet,  not in effect at the time of Rex Mottram’s or Evelyn Waugh’s marriages.


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Memoir of Combe Florey

Sophia Waugh, Auberon’s daughter and Evelyn’s grand daughter, has written a bittersweet memoir of Combe Florey House on the occasion of its sale. This appears in a recent issue of the Catholic Herald.  Here are some excerpts:

…My grandfather bought the house, Combe Florey, because his wife Laura Herbert’s family came from the area. Both her sisters and her brother lived within 20 miles and the vast cousinship of the Herberts became part of Waugh life. Laura had seven much-loved cows and a cart horse called Dinah, and later turned the two walled kitchen gardens into a market garden. I remember the great treat of going to stay with her after my grandfather’s death and accompanying her to market with her metal tubs of daffodils. We would wander round the cattle market considering the merits of cows neither of us had any intention of buying.

This, of course, is not the image of the house that has been passed to the outside world. It has been painted as a sort of permanent literary festival, before literary festivals became part of middle-class life. In fact, by the time my grandfather moved there his output was slowing down. While there he wrote his biography (A Little Learning), also Unconditional Surrender and his life of Ronnie Knox, probably none of which have caught the attention of the hyperventilating estate agents.

Sophia grew up in the house after her parents bought it from her grandmother:

Like the Mitfords, we had a secret cupboard in the attic where some of us would gather with friends to write books and gossip. When my mother sold the house in 2008, I took a last walk around and visited the cupboard for the first time in years. Abandoned on the floor was a notebook with a story. It wasn’t very good. […]

It is not so much that my grandfather and father would not recognise the “décor” of the house, as that the essence of the house seems to have been so bastardised that is saddening. Of course, the owners did much good and necessary work to the house – wiring and pipes etc were all pretty ancient – but if the house was anything between 1956 and 2008, it was a family house, and that it seems to be no longer. […]

I wonder if, next time the house is sold, it will still be linked with the Waughs. That link seems ever more tenuous. The brass plate on the bedroom door saying “Miss Waugh” – first my aunt’s and then mine – will one day be unscrewed and thrown away. A house which was once full of good books and good food is now a showpiece, with a “servants’ village” built on the field, a “party barn” and poolhouse where there were once sheep and cows. […] The place is now guarded by staff who call it an “estate”, the windows are never lit. It’s Great Gatsby’s house without the parties, a Waugh house without family.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” wrote LP Hartley in The Go-Between. I don’t know if it’s the past or the present that is foreign. But Combe Florey House has certainly become so to me.

The full article is available at this link.


Posted in Combe Florey, Newspapers, Waugh Family | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Memorial Day/Spring Bank Holiday Roundup

–Historian Niall Ferguson writes about his latest book in the Daily Mail. This is entitled Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. He opens with the observation that the British have made a habit of laughing in the face of death, offering several examples. He continues:

When the novelist Evelyn Waugh visited the United States in 1947 he was struck by the American tendency to wrap death in euphemisms, a difference that inspired his satirical novel, The Loved One, on the funeral business in Los Angeles. To this day, Americans don’t die — they ‘pass’, a word more usually associated with football here.

And yet the Covid-19 pandemic has been responsible for a serious sense of humour failure in Britain. Footage of wards filled with comatose patients on ventilators and exhausted doctors and nurses struggling to keep them alive at the height of first and second waves were certainly no laughing matter.

What follows is an entertaining disquisition on why and how this failure occurred.

–Hugh Thomson in The Spectator has taken up the previously reported story about the Tate Gallery’s consideration of one of its best known paintings:

In 1926, Rex Whistler was commissioned to paint a mural around the Tate’s basement restaurant. He was only 20 and still a student at the Slade, so a bold choice but one he amply justified. The resulting mural, In Pursuit of Rare Meats, shows a party of epicures travelling across a fantasy rococo landscape dotted with architectural capriccios. Just as with Evelyn Waugh’s first novels written at much the same time, along with the brio of Bright Young Things, Whistler gives us a tart reminder of the horrors of the First World War – we see a gravestone for Whistler’s brother – and of slavery: a young black child is led by a length of string. As with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, there is a deliberate dissonance in the mural to create asperity.

… the mural has now been outed as culturally insensitive. A guerrilla art group calling themselves White Pube – a name Evelyn Waugh would have enjoyed – launched a Twitter attack pointing out the presence of a young black slave in the mural, as if Whistler was somehow approving the concept of slavery, rather than adding a tart reminder that there were thorns to the roses even in paradise.[…]

But watch this space. We are rapidly moving into territory beyond satire, where it will be easier to send a piece of art to the tumbrils than to argue in its defence.

–BBC Radio 4 has reposted an April 2010 episode of its series The Reunion. This related to the 1981 Granada TV production of Brideshead Revisited. The announcement explains:

In this episode of The Reunion, Sue MacGregor brings together the cast, the producer and the director of the iconic TV drama Brideshead Revisited. Brideshead became one of the most popular TV shows ever made when it first aired on ITV in the autumn of 1981. […]

Based on the best-selling novel by Evelyn Waugh and adapted by John Mortimer initially and then also Derek Granger, it told a poignant story of forbidden love and religious faith set prior to the Second World War. The size and scale of the series was unprecedented. To make eleven fifty minute episodes, shot entirely on film and all on location was a huge undertaking. And no expense was spared with glamorous costumes, vintage cars and exotic locations including Venice, Malta and the QE2. It was one of the most expensive ITV serials ever made and set the benchmark for others to follow, notably Jewel in the Crown in 1985.

Sue is joined around the table by: Jeremy Irons, who played the narrator of the story Charles Ryder; Anthony Andrews, who was Sebastian Flyte; Claire Bloom, who played Sebastian’s mother Lady Marchmain; the series’ director Charles Sturridge; Derek Granger the producer; and Diana Quick who was Lady Julia Flyte, Sebastian’s sister.

You may listen to the 45 minute episode on BBC iPlayer at this link.

The Independent newspaper last week published a list of the 40 best novels to read during lockdown. That seems an odd occasion to inspire such an effort since lockdown is supposed to be ending next month in the UK. One of the novels recommended is Brideshead Revisited:

Evelyn Waugh bottles the intoxicating vapour of a vanished era in this novel about middle-class Charles Ryder, who meets upper-class Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University in the 1920s. Scrap the wartime prologue, and Charles’s entire relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia (Dear Evelyn, thank you for your latest manuscript, a few suggested cuts…) and you’re looking at one of the most affecting love affairs in the English language. CH

–Finally, the Daily Telegraph carries a story by Catherine Pepinster that explains (or tries to) how Boris Johnson managed to get married in a Roman Catholic Church–the Westminster Cathedral, no less. Here’s the explanation:

…what on earth was going on in Westminster Cathedral on Saturday afternoon when the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds got married, given his two previous marriages and – it has to be said – a somewhat rackety private life? Surely indissolubility rules out a wedding for Boris Johnson, according to the rites of Holy Mother Church?

According to the complicated world of Catholic canon law, it does not. It decrees a Catholic ceremony can take place if at least one of the parties is a baptised Catholic. That is certainly the case here: Boris, christened Alexander, was baptised, taking the religion of his mother Charlotte. There’s also some speculation that Carrie is a convert.

Then there’s the issue of divorce. You certainly cannot marry in a Catholic church if a previous marriage that ended in divorce was also a Catholic one. It must be annulled. But there’s another get-out clause: if you are Catholic and your previous marriage, or marriages, were not Catholic ceremonies, the Church sees those as invalid. You are free to marry in a religious ceremony. That seems to be what has happened here.[…]

To which the only reply must be, dust off your old Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh novels. These Catholic authors filled their pages with most unlikely individuals enjoying the full embrace of the Church.

This seems to explain why Waugh, a convert and not a “baptised Catholic” as in the case of Boris Johnson, had to wait several years for an annulment before he could marry his second wife, Laura Herbert, also a convert.




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Max Mosley 1940-2021 R.I.P.

The death was announced yesterday of Max Mosley, best remembered as the head of Formula One racing, who sorted it out during his tenure. He is also well known as the son of Diana Mitford and her second husband Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. Max was also a battler against invasion of privacy by the British press. He contributed to the demise of News of the World against whom he prevailed in a privacy case stemming from a 2008 story. It may have helped that he was a qualified barrister.

The Daily Mail, not a friend of Mosley, runs two obituaries. The briefer (and less unkind) by Jonathan McAvoy carries the following description of his mother and his career:​

Mosley died on Sunday night, aged 81, after one of the most significant and controversial contributions to [Formula One’s] history […] His mother was described by Evelyn Waugh as possessing a beauty that rang through a room like a peal of bells. […] In Formula One circles, he was a central figure. Tall, taut, clever with words, he never lost an argument. He delivered his every line with precision and never ducked a fight. His whole demeanour was dressed up in punctilious politesse.

The reference from Waugh is taken from his novel fragment Work Suspended (Penguin, p. 173). The heroine in that novel, Lucy, is a thinly disguised portrait of Diana Mitford, Max Mosley’s mother. See previous post.

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–The exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s works relating to the Bright Young People of the 1920s has reopened in Sheffield. This was originally scheduled for exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London last spring but was forced to close after one week due to the coronavirus lockdown. It is now on exhibit at the Millennium Gallery of the Sheffield Museums. Here is their description:

Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things explores a deliriously eccentric, glamorous and joyful era of British cultural life during the 1920s and 30s through the lens of the renowned British photographer. The exhibition presents a dazzling leading cast of society figures, artists, writers and partygoers, each seen through the prism of Beaton’s portraits. Featuring 150 works, many of which are seldom exhibited, the images on display present a playful spectacle of costumed theatricality and unbridled creativity.

Among the works on display are portraits of Evelyn Waugh. Details are available at this link. See also earlier posts for reviews of the exhibition when it originally opened in London.

–Comedian Alexei Sayle is this week’s guest in BBC’s long-running radio series Desert Island Discs. Here is an excerpt of a summary he provided in a recent interview:

His chosen tracks included Joe Hill by Joan Baez, which had been sung at the funeral of his communist mother; Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers, and the Battle Hymn Of The Soviet Air Force, technically known as the Aviators’ March, which he said would be the national anthem of the Tropical Socialist Republic Of Alexei Sayle he would set up on the fictional island.

His luxury item was a Chinese broadsword, both because he enjoys martial arts as a hobby but also because he could use it as a machete, and he chose Evelyn Waugh’s  Sword of Honour as his book…

This episode is available on BBC Radio 4 over the BBC iPlayer at this link.

–The Financial Times has a story about the welcome announcement that foreign travel is about to be reopened to the British people. The article is by Tom Robbins who thinks this is in general a good thing. Here’s an excerpt:

Not everyone is so delighted. The truth is that tourists have always been unpopular. […] By the latter half of the 19th century, tourists were already being likened to dumb animals, collectively described as herds, flocks or droves. Paradoxically, seeing the world was becoming an increasingly universal aspiration, the doublethink required enabled by an emerging distinction between the free-willed “traveller” and sheeplike tourist. “Every Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist,” wrote Evelyn Waugh in 1930.

–In the Indiependent newspaper, Ed Bedford writes that the new adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love owes more to the 1981 Granada TV adaptations of Brideshead Revisited than to previous adaptations of Mitford’s novel:

Before going into the detail of these allusions, it is worth noting that some level of similarity is bound to occur as both Mitford and Waugh both had similar backgrounds, and were themselves writing about the same groups of people. What should be stressed is that the allusions this article covers are limited to this specific TV adaption. It would be a great disservice to think that Mitford’s novels are in any way derivative of Waugh’s.

The most apparent of these allusions can be found in the music. Most of the music choice is deliberately anachronistic, blending a range of time periods and styles to wonderful effect. One musical choice that stands out, however, is the use of Georges Delerue’s Le Grand Choral as the narrator Fanny first approaches and enters Alconleigh, the house of the decidedly eccentric Radlett family. As Fanny steps across the threshold, the melody includes a phrase that is uncannily similar to one of the main motifs of Geoffrey Burgon’s theme for the 1981 ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

Other allusions discussed are the scenes where a cigarette is passed by Linda to Fanny and where Charle Ryder passes one to Julia Flyte and the mannerisms of Andrew Scott’s Lord Merlin compared to those of Anthony Blanche as portrayed by Nicholas Grace.

UPDATE (26 June 2021); Edits made in final entry relating to the recent Pursuit of Love BBC adaptation. Thanks to Ed Bedford for pointing out the errors.



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Mid-May Roundup

–Nicholas Lezard, writing for the New Statesman opens his article on cold weather angst with this:

I was reading Evelyn Waugh’s first travel book, Labels, which for some inexplicable reason I had never got round to before, and I was barely a couple of pages in when he mentioned the Mediterranean seaboard. I was hit with a hammer-blow of longing to travel there, anywhere along there really, to sit in my shirtsleeves at a harbour café, a plate of freshly grilled sardines and a chilled carafe of the local white in front of me, sky-blue fishing boats bobbing gently. You know, the works.

–The religious/cultural website The Imaginative Conservative has posted an article by David Deavel about Waugh’s literary style, a difficult subject to write about. The article opens with this:

Evelyn Waugh understands that if a writer is to develop, he “must concern himself more and more with Style.” By approaching words with the attention and craft of a tailor, the literary artist not only communicates but also gives pleasure to others.

–Literary critic Laura Freeman has posted a brief appreciation of 2oth century artist Scottie Wilson. This appears in The Spectator:

Scottie has been called a ‘primitive’ or an ‘outsider’ artist. Hopeless terms, really. Ragged nets to catch a lot of queer fish. Maori bushmen are primitive, Henri ‘Douanier’ Rousseau is primitive, African carvings are primitive, the paintings at Lascaux are primitive, Alfred Wallis is primitive. All it means is: didn’t go to school, or didn’t go to the right school, or didn’t get into the salon, or didn’t play the game. […]

Evelyn Waugh had a dig at Scottie — or Scottie’s fans — in The Loved One. Sir Francis Hinsley, reading a copy of Horizon, complains to Dennis Barlow: ‘Kierkegaard, Kafka, Connolly, Compton-Burnett, Sartre, “Scottie” Wilson. Who are they? What do they want?’ Sir Francis points to a page: ‘Those drawings there. Do they make sense to you?’ No, says Dennis. No, says Sir Francis.

The Spectator has also posted a list by Stephen Arnell of “10 films about the upper classes” that he thinks might appeal to those who are enjoying the BBC’s current adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. These include 2 based on Evelyn Waugh novels:

Brideshead Revisited (2008). This is the film version that the article admits is “entirely superfluous compared to the excellent Granada series” from 1918. It is worth watching for the “pretty good” cast and the adaptation skills of Andrew Davies although lacking in the graphic depiction of what Waugh might have termed “Naughtiness”. The article also questions why with the BBC has started a remake of the series given these earlier efforts.

Bright Young Things (2003). This was Stephen Fry’s misfired attempt to adapt Vile Bodies. Again, a good cast but what worked on the page didn’t translate to the screen.

–The Daily Mail has a review of a new book entitled Elegy for a River by Tom Moorhouse. This is his account of a career studying river creatures in English habitats for Oxford University. Among the creatures he includes is one immortalized by Evelyn Waugh. The review opens with a reference to that:

William Boot, the hapless hero of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, famously observed in his nature notes column for the fictional Daily Beast: ‘Feather footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.’

That just shows how little Mr Boot really knew about voles. They are not feather footed and they do not quest but move with a sort of rapid waddle, says Tom Moorhouse, who knows more about the behaviour of the water vole than is entirely healthy.

As described in the book, these creatures are not doing very well, through no fault of Waugh.

–Finally, in this week’s “Weekend Essay” in The Times, Michael Henderson writes what may be the first of many pieces in recognition of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. He urges that Dylan be applauded for what he is: a great singer-songwriter and not for what he isn’t: a poet, philosopher or prophet. As to the latter, Henderson offers this:

He is not a prophet. “Don’t criticise what you can’t understand” made a big splash in the Sixties, when it was all too easy to see the times they were a-changin’. Evelyn Waugh, not known for revolutionary fervour, expressed something similar in Brideshead Revisited, 20 years before young people were encouraged to turn on and drop out. Dylan, to be fair, wasn’t a hippie either. He seems to have had no time for those charioteers of “the alternative society” who became bankers and bought agreeable homes in Connecticut.




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