80th Anniversary of Phoney War Marked

The Oldie in anticipation of the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII next month, has an article by literary critic Michael Barber entitled “What was the Phoney War?” As he explains:

Eighty years ago, on 3rd September 1939, that bizarre interlude variously known as the phoney war, the bore war and the Sitzkrieg got under way. People braced themselves for Armageddon. But nothing much happened – except to the nation’s pets, thousands of which were swiftly put down. And, except at sea, nothing much continued to happen for the next seven months.

He goes on to explain other immediate emergency preparations that proved to be less emergent than was anticipated. These included evacuations of children from cities likely to be bombed, mandatory blackouts and gas masks, etc. There was not a lot of literature inspired by this period, but Barber mentions what is probably its best known book:

[…] evacuees exposed the gap between town and country, rich and poor. People were shocked to discover how the other half lived. Theatre critic James Agate was told by a friend that he and his wife so loathed the evacuee children billeted on them that they had decided to ‘take away’ something from them for Christmas. Bored to tears in the sticks, evacuee mothers told their children to wet the bed so that they’d all be sent home, a ploy Basil Seal exploits in Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (1942), the definitive phoney-war novel.

Waugh also mocked the cack-handed Ministry of Information. Few official bodies can have taken so much flak from so many people in so short a time. Staffed by bureaucrats rather than journalists, the ministry turned out such uninspiring stuff that, according to Aneurin Bevan, people were more likely to die of boredom than from bombs.

The Phoney War ended with the invasion of France and the Dunkerque evacuation in June 1940, followed shortly by the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Waugh wrote the book in summer 1941 on the return voyage from the Battle of Crete. This trip proceeded around the Cape of Good Hope and the West Indies, providing quite a lot of time for writing. When he arrived home the Blitz was over after the Axis forces invaded the Soviet Union.

Posted in Anniversaries, Newspapers, Put Out More Flags, World War II | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Waugh’s Illustrators in the News

Two of Waugh’s illustrators have been prominently mentioned in recent newspaper articles, and in one case a TV series:

Rex Whistler provided the illustrations for Waugh’s post war booklet Wine in Peace and War. These were based on drawings he had submitted in his correspondence to his wine dealers Saccone and Speed who were also publishers of Waugh’s book. Whistler features in this week’s episode of the UK Channel 5 TV series Secrets of the National Trust presented by Alan Titchmarsh. This is described in an article in the Daily Mail:

The latest episode of the Channel 5 show sees Alan Titchmarsh visit Plas Newydd House, in North Wales, where the painter worked for a year on a mural for the sixth Marquess’ family, which would become known as his masterpiece. Whistler fell in love with the Marquess of Anglesey’s daughter Lady Caroline Paget, and although the pair became friends, she did not return his affections to the same extent. Tonight’s show unveils letters sent by ‘obsessed’ Whistler to Lady Caroline, telling her, ‘I love you still even though you are so horrid.’ It’s also revealed that he sent Lady Caroline a declaration of love inscribed on a box of Camembert, which only arrived after he’d been killed on his first day serving in Normandy with the Welsh Guards during Word War II.

The National Trust seems to be turning Plas Newydd House into a repository for Whistler’s work. The article explains several recent acquisitions the Trust has housed there in addition to the mural and other works commissioned by the Angleseys. The article by Claire Toureille concludes:

Whether Lady Caroline and Whistler were lovers is a mystery to this day. A nude portrait of the heiress may seem to hint that their friendship might have turned into something more, but some art historians have suggested that Whistler could have painted it from imagination. But out of the heartbreak was born the beautiful Whistler mural that can be admired in Plas Newyyd House.

The TV program can be viewed on demand on My5 in the UK and from overseas with a UK internet connection.

This is the second recent article in the Mail that has featured Caroline Paget. Last month the Mail reviewed an autobiography written  by her adopted son Charles Duff. This is entitled Charley’s Woods. According to the Mail’s reviewer Sebastian Shakespeare:

Described by her aunt Diana Cooper as ‘a dream of physical beauty . . . classic long legs’, Lady Caroline continued to have affairs with men, including her uncle Duff Cooper and the artist Rex Whistler. But, after falling pregnant at 36, she urgently needed a husband. An arranged marriage followed with Michael Duff. They were ill-suited — he had a stammer, was a half-wit and gay — but he liked the idea of marrying a marquess’s daughter, needed an heir and he hoped more children might follow. No wonder Isaiah Berlin called it ‘a very peculiar marriage’. […]

The highly unusual domestic set-up provoked endless speculation among his parents’ friends about Charles’s true paternity. Charles details his parents lives being fueled by alcohol, sex abuse and drugs. He remembers wondering why his father wanted him dead. For years, it was thought he might have been the son of Sir Anthony Eden, another of Caroline’s conquests, who mistakenly believed he was the father.[…] The startling, heart-stopping twist in this extraordinary tale is that Charles was not high-born at all, but was adopted as a baby by Caroline ten days after she had a miscarriage. ‘I was the understudy for the baby who died,’ he remarks, ruefully. No more children followed.

The review goes on to describe some of the rackety details of “Charley’s” life as a child and teen-ager as detailed in his book. Also mentioned are

…some splendid pen portraits. My favourite? His beloved great-aunt Diana Cooper, with whom he lodged in London in exchange for alcohol, was wont to lie in bed all day with her chihuahuas, in pink nylon sheets. ‘They never need ironing,’ she trilled.

On his parents’ death, [their estate at] Vaynol was left to his cousin, Andrew Tennant, as the law at the time forbade adopted children from inheriting. As a result, Charles felt robbed twice over — deprived of his real parents and of his childhood home. A reconciliation with his birth family offers some consolation.

Waugh seems to have known Caroline (or at least knew of her), through his friendship with her aunt Diana Cooper. I believe she is mentioned in his letters but cannot confirm that at the moment. Both of these Daily Mail articles are accompanied by detailed illustrations depicting the people and items discussed in the articles.

Quentin Blake is the other illustrator. He drew the cover art for the Penguin editions of Waugh’s books published in the 1960s: “I like them; I did them all.”. He is still active at age 86 and is featured in an Evening Standard article:

Right now, at 86, he’s bringing out the Quentin Blake Papers, a “suite of pictures, like a tiny exhibition” on themes that he likes: five are published tomorrow, with more to follow. “I can’t get exhibitions up fast enough,” he explains, “so this is the format instead”. A Mouse on a Tricycle is one — “the mouse is a joke; it’s a pretext for people’s reactions,” he says, one being that of a horrid little boy who’s about to hit it with a mallet. […]

It’s not his only project. He’s recently had an exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings of spikily suggestive drawings of uncanny forms of transport called The Only Way to Travel, now published as a book, Moonlight Travellers, with an accompanying text by Will Self (“he was very eloquent about it and very enthusiastic”). So instead of illustrating other people’s words, people are writing to his drawings.

His Waugh covers began to appear in the early 1960s when Penguin shifted from orange to gray for what came to be its “Penguin Classics” editions. The Evening Standard refers to “dust jackets” designed by Blake, but Penguin had dropped those during the war because of paper shortages and never resumed them.

Posted in Art, Photography & Sculpture, Evelyn Waugh, Newspapers, Television Programs, Wine in Peace and War | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Waugh and “Mrs Bluefeet” in New Book

The latest Literary Review has an essay by novelist and literary critic D J Taylor about what he calls “biographer’s luck”. The was inspired by his latest biography to be published next month in the UK. An American edition entitled The Lost Girls: Love and Literature in Wartime London will appear in January. This is about Cyril Connolly and the group around him that produced the wartime and postwar magazine Horizon, especially the young women members of that group.

One of those was Janetta Parlade who is mentioned by Waugh in several contexts. See previous post. Taylor explains one of them:

If Janetta tended to play second fiddle to better-known convives such as Barbara Skelton and Sonia Brownell – soon to become the second Mrs Orwell – then this isn’t to diminish her importance to Connolly and his circle. She was, for example, present on the occasion when the 6,000 copies of a Horizon number that contained the word ‘bugger’ (in a short story by Julian Maclaren-Ross) had to be struck out by hand by the magazine’s staff after the printers objected. A horrified Evelyn Waugh, to whom she once opened the door without having put on her shoes, christened her ‘Mrs Bluefeet’ and gave her a minor role in Unconditional Surrender (1961). As Sonia’s bosom companion she visited Orwell as he lay dying at University College Hospital and was a witness at his wedding.

In Waugh’s novel she was one of the pair named Frankie and Coney who were part of the group hovering around Connolly. Others in that group such as Sonia Brownell (later Orwell) and Lys Lubbock also contributed to these characters.

Taylor, who also wrote a biography of George Orwell, was pleased to find some new material from Janetta’s papers relating to that subject. He also includes an explanation of his inspiration for his new book:

Where do biographers get their inspiration? If novelists are usually happy to admit to the sudden flash of insight – Orwell got the idea for Animal Farm by watching a small boy goad a cart-horse along a country lane – life-writers tend to take refuge in the much more downmarket prompt of saturation. You are interested in a particular subject; basic research hardens this interest into an obsession, after which the subject becomes an unshiftable part of your mental furniture. Curiously, Lost Girls developed out of a single incident. Sitting talking to the daughter of a Lost Girl, in her North Norfolk kitchen, and impressed by the number of appearances her enigmatic mamma had racked up in the literary autobiographies of the post-war era, I made a rather naïve remark about the glamour of being born into a world where the man snoozing in the deckchair at the bottom of the garden might turn out to be E.M. Forster.

My friend rose up out of her chair and loomed over me. ‘You have no idea’ she said, ‘quite how awful my childhood was.’ Suddenly, the ghosts of Forster, Connolly and Evelyn Waugh receded, and we were left with the vision of a small, terrified child, who, I later discovered, was sent to a children’s home at the age of two for fear of what her step-father might do to her.

The friend to whom Taylor refers is no doubt Janetta’s daughter, artist Nicky Loutit whose memoirs (New Year’s Day is Black) were recently published. See previous post.


Posted in Biographies, Newspapers, Unconditional Surrender/The End of the Battle | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Waughs on Wine and Brexit

The Bridgwater Mercury and Breitbart News have announced that Alexander Waugh will stand as the candidate of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party for the Parliamentary constituency of  Bridgwater and West Somerset. This would apparently be in the next general election, whenever that may be.

In the Somerset County Gazette, Alexander explained his decision:

“Irritated at the way in which both the EU and the British Parliament has chosen to play fast and loose with our democracy, I have taken the decision to stop whining about it to my friends and to stand up and be counted.

“If I am elected to Parliament I shall do everything in my power to help to restore honesty, integrity, trust and democracy to our now broken system of government and to ensure that Britain is put back in command of its own money, laws and borders.

“When these things are achieved, when we are once again a properly democratic nation, I shall return to the gorgeous green pastures of West Somerset to get on with the rest of my life.”

The story was also reported in the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the New Statesman.

Alexander’s grandfather, Evelyn, abstained from politics. His father Auberon once stood for election to Parliament for the Dog Lovers’ Party in the North Devon constituency of Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. Thorpe lost his seat, but not to Auberon, who lost his deposit but made his point.

In a recent issue, The Times reviews the reprint of Auberon’s 1986 book Waugh on Wine. See previous post. The reviewer, Roger Lewis, clearly enjoyed the book and Auberon’s writing generally, subject to a few reservations. Here is an excerpt:

It is fascinating hearing about the nine bat-haunted, barrel-vaulted cellars at Combe Florey, the Waugh seat near Taunton in Somerset, with its brick bins. Waugh certainly made better use of the facility than his father. Evelyn refused to stock claret (having once been mocked for pronouncing it “clart”), experimented with “wines from unlikely places like Chile” and “came back from Rhodesia one day announcing a new discovery from Portugal called Mateus Rosé, and drank it through one whole summer”.

The apparent philistinism would have been a typical joke against wine snobbery by the author of Black Mischief, who also never opened a bottle until he was ready to drink it — no nonsense about letting wine breathe — and “he drank splendid burgundy at temperatures which many would judge too cold for sauternes”.

[…] Like his father’s, Auberon Waugh’s genius was for being abusive, not informative, and thankfully good manners do eventually abate and he hits a sort of stride, describing some of the wine he has come across as “blue ink and curry powder”, “a collapsed marquee fallen into a rotting silage pit”, “Ribena-flavoured beetroot soup”, and “the smell of French railway stations or ladies’ underwear”. That’s what we want — Waugh saying his drink is like “all mud and gross, peasant smells”. When, in The Spectator, he described a burgundy as “anal”, stocks ran out. Waugh could not take Australian wine seriously “after Barry Humphries”, and Californian wine resembled “sanitised lavatory seats”. […]

Lewis (and Auberon) may have been unaware that Evelyn, while traveling in the USA in the late 1940s, found he preferred California wine to French, at least as the latter was served in the United States. He thought the French wine was spoiled by the long ocean voyage and was improperly cellared after arrival. His favorite California tipple was Paul Masson burgundy. That was in the years when Masson was producing high quality, small production wines from its pinot noir grapes grown in the Santa Cruz mountains. This was several years before the company was bought by mass producers and promoted its products in TV commercials featuring Orson Welles (“We will sell no wine before its time”). The review concludes:

I worship Waugh without reservation, but this must be the most pointless reprint in the history of publishing. The practical information has not been updated. “Various addresses are no longer valid and a few of the companies mentioned are no longer in existence,” [publisher Naim] Attallah, says. Is he having a laugh?

UPDATE (6 August 2019): Additional information was added regarding Alexander Waugh’s Parliamentary candidacy.

Posted in Alexander Waugh, Auberon Waugh, Newspapers, Non-fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Waugh to Appear in Mystery Novel

According to the advance publicity for an upcoming mystery novel, Evelyn Waugh will play at least a cameo role in its plot. The book is entitled The Mitford Scandal and is written by Jessica Fellowes. It is the third in a series of mystery novels involving the Mitford sisters and will be published in the UK in September followed by a US publication in January.

The publisher’s announcement describes the plot:

The year is 1928, and after the death of a maid at a glamorous society party, fortune heir Bryan Guinness seizes life and proposes to eighteen-year-old Diana, most beautiful of the six Mitford sisters. The maid’s death is ruled an accident, and the newlyweds put it behind them to begin a whirlwind life zipping between London’s Mayfair, chic Paris and hedonistic Berlin. Accompanying Diana as her lady’s maid is Louisa Cannon, as well as a coterie of friends, family and hangers on, from Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh.

When a second victim is found in Paris in 1931, Louisa begins to see links with the death of the maid two years previously. Now she must convince the Mitford sisters that a murderer could be within their midst . . . all while shadows darken across Europe, and within the heart of Diana Mitford herself.

Two previous books have been published in this series: The Mitford Murders and Bright Young Dead. Both appeared within 6 months of each other last year in the USA. The UK editions were published in September 2017 and October 2018. The series is written by Jessica Fellowes who made her name writing companion volumes for Downton Abbey, the TV series that was, in turn, written by her uncle Julian Fellowes.

According to a November 2018 interview of the author Jessica Fellowes by Elise Cooper, the working title of the upcoming volume at that time was Cruel Bodies and it will focus on Diana Mitford. There was no suggestion in the press reports that Waugh appeared in either of the earlier books. The second book (Bright Young Dead) must have come close to a cameo appearance by Waugh since it involved the Bright Young People of the late 1920s of which we was the primary chronicler.

There was a brief appearance in the second novel by Noel Coward, and a BYP treasure hunt was part of the plot. As explained by Fellowes in the 2018 interview:

I have never done a scavenger [i.e., treasure] hunt because they didn’t exist after the 1920s, though I wouldn’t mind trying one out! I discovered them when I was researching another project some years ago, and it was when I was putting together the plot for Bright Young Dead that I thought this would be the perfect place to use them. I liked the idea of a murder happening in the middle of a scavenger hunt, and how that could frame several suspects at once. The Bright Young Things were notorious in their time, with their antics and parties frequently reported on in the papers. There was plenty of authentic detail for me to draw on, too, which is a real bonus in a novel like mine.

Fellowes also elaborated somewhat on the role played by the Mitford sisters in the novels:

In terms of the two sisters, Nancy, a twenty-one-year-old, was a complicated person, I think, possibly born into the wrong time. In a more modern era, she would have lived a life that perhaps did not place such emphasis on a need to get married and have children. Despite her many accomplishments, there’s a sense of sadness that she did not create her own happy family. Her ambition made her spiky and her defensiveness, or jealousy, could lead her to tease her sisters in ways that were at times just plain mean. But then again, she also had a wonderful, true sense of humour and must have been huge fun. Of all of them, Nancy’s the one I’d have liked to go out and have a few cocktails with.

Pamela was quite different from all the other sisters. While they were all headstrong and wilful, unabashed about causing storms and headlines, Pamela was quiet and steady. She was more interested in horses, gardening and cooking than any political mantra, which is not to say she didn’t hold her own strong views. But I think she was the ballast of the family, the rock that kept them moored.

The first novel (The Mitford Murders) is set in 1919-21. The girls would have been much younger and, at that time, no connection with Waugh (then a student) would have yet existed.


Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Early August Roundup

–In The Timesauthor Lynne Truss (best known for Eats, Shoots and Leaves) has found it useful in the present unrestful circumstances to turn to comic novels as a way to reduce stress. She recommends 5 examples. Here is a quote:

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)
The influence of Jane Austen on Gibbons and Waugh is obvious, so I should probably have chosen Pride and Prejudice, but there you are; I can’t change it all now. Decline and Fall is one of the funniest books, the tale of the hapless Paul Pennyfeather, innocently dragged into disgrace and ignominy by the worldly and profane. Astonishingly, the recent BBC dramatisation did it credit, and is really worth watching. Favourite moment: at the school sports, when a drunken Mr Prendergast shoots little Lord Tangent in the foot with his starting pistol (later, the foot has to be amputated).”

Others include Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbon and The Code of the Woosters by P G Wodehouse.

–The Daily Telegraph asked several of its writers who are recent university graduates what advice they would give today to their younger selves if they were just starting out. Here’s what Sasha Slater: Oxford 1990-94 would offer:

Dear younger me,

“‘You’ll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first.’ That’s the warning Charles Ryder gets from his horrible cousin Jasper in Brideshead Revisited. Not true. In fact, the people you meet in the first week could be your best friends for the rest of your life. One of them’s your husband now. So, nurture those friendships and look after those people.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean you should spend time having fun to the exclusion of practically everything else. A tiny bit more concentration on your studies wouldn’t hurt. And nor would squeezing a few more activities besides booze into your schedule. So, do get out of bed a little bit earlier – it really won’t kill you. And try to make it to the odd lecture. Just the odd one will do. Don’t be knocked back if you aren’t made editor of the student mag – write for it instead. And so what if you don’t win the starring role in the college play? You could do the lighting or props and still learn something and enjoy yourself.”

The Daily Beast has published an article by Michael Weiss which explains that Boris Johnson can best be understood as an “Anglo-American farce”, considering he was born in the USA. The article concludes with a comparison of the character named Barlow and based on himself in Johnson’s novel Seventy Two Virgins with a similarly named character in Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One:

Dennis Barlow is Evelyn Waugh’s has-been English poet and transplant to the United States—well, Los Angeles, anyway—in The Loved One. He fails to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood and becomes a minor embarrassment to a close-knit and tightly self-regulated coterie of fellow exiles, all of them witting self-parodies of stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen. 

“We limeys have a peculiar position to keep up, you know, Barlow,” says Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, who routinely traipses through Bel Air in a cape and deer-stalker cap because it’s what the yanks expect of him. “They may laugh at us a bit—the way we talk and the way we dress; our monocles—they may think us cliquey and stand-offish, but, by God, they respect us.” […]

The [Cricket Club] raises the money to send Barlow home where he at least can live out his life in discreet disgrace and not ruin things for the rest of the monocled castaways on the coast. This result, one senses, was what Barlow was searching for all through his steady descent into personal and national ruin: a free ride. That certainly sounds familiar, as does Waugh’s subtitle for The Loved One: “an Anglo-American tragedy.”

–The Amman, Jordan-based website MENAFN.com (Middle East North Africa Financial News) has posted a column explaining how the rise in popularity of margarine became a signifier of social class as reflected in literature of the 1930s. Examples from two Orwell novels, D H Lawrence and Dorothy Sayers as well as this excerpt from an essay by Evelyn Waugh are offered:

In a column penned by Evelyn Waugh for The Spectator in 1929 , margarine represents a general post-war lack of good taste. During the war, writes Waugh, ‘[e]verything was a ‘substitute’ for something else’, the upshot being ‘a generation of whom nine hundred and fifty in every thousand are totally lacking in any sense of qualitative value’ as a consequence of ‘being nurtured on margarine and ‘honey sugar’.’ Such a diet, according to Waugh, makes them ‘turn instinctively to the second rate in art and life’.

The article concludes with this:

Margarine functions as an extended metaphor for the tawdry world of fakes and counterfeits. At the same time that Sayers’ novel pokes fun at the consumer products of modernity, it dishes out scorn at the snootiness which ranks butter eaters as superior to those who choose margarine.

Margarine stands for the novel and the innovative. It stands for technology and progress. But margarine also embodies anxieties about the prevalence of mass culture and the fear surrounding the dissolution of boundaries between the high and the low, the real and the fake. Margarine is so threatening a symbol as it represents the potential contamination of society with what the early 20th-century elites might have seen as infectious mediocrity.

–Playwright David Hare was recently interviewed in the Financial Times. Here are some excerpts:

Q. Private school or state school? University or straight into work?  

A. I was a scholarship boy, at Lancing College, then Cambridge. My parents would not have been able to afford that education. I had great teachers at Lancing, in Harry Guest, who taught us modern languages, and Donald Bancroft, head of English. […]

Q. Ambition or talent: which matters more to success? 

A. Neither. There’s a quote from VS Naipaul: “A writer is in the end not his books but his myth.” What he means is that Virginia Woolf doesn’t matter because she wrote Mrs Dalloway, she matters because she was a great feminist. Evelyn Waugh doesn’t matter because he wrote Brideshead Revisited, he matters because he is the greatest stylist of the 20th century. You have no control over your myth.

Hare’s adaptation of Peter Gynt is currently playing at the Edinburgh International Festival through 10 August and will open at the National Theatre on 8 October.





Posted in Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall, Newspapers | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy 1933-2019: R I P

The Daily Telegraph has reported the death of writer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy at the age of 86. He was the son of a younger son of an upper class family, but his father lacked access to inherited wealth and was unable to earn a living as a physician due to his alcoholism. They frequently lived a fairly hand-to-mouth existence as described in his autobiography Half an Arch (2004). He also wrote novels, short stories, biographies and children’s books. One of his best known books is The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny (1972). According to the Daily Telegraph obituary: “Wherever he was, intimacies poured from him–which, slightly too often, involved lack of money.”

He is best known in the Evelyn Waugh community as the nephew of Eddie Gathorne-Hardy who contributed to a character in Decline and Fall originally named Martin Gaythorne-Brodie. On advice of counsel, the name was changed in the second printing to Miles Malpractice. There was apparently never any suggestion that Eddie Gathorne-Hardy objected to the the name similarity. As Miles Malpractice, the character also appeared in the later novels Vile Bodies and Put Out More Flags.

His second wife, who survives him, also has a Waugh connection. She is artist Nicky Loutit, daughter of Janetta Parladé, one of Cyril Connolly’s young women friends during his Horizon days. See previous post. Waugh met her on several occasions and was taken with the fact that she frequently went about without shoes. He applied to her the nick-name “Bluefeet” in his gossipy correspondence with Nancy Mitford. Her story, along with that of several other young women associates of Connolly, will soon be available in D J Taylor’s book The Lost Girls to be published in September.

Posted in Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh, Newspapers | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Harold Acton’s Estate Subject of Lawsuit

The New York Post’s celebrity gossip website PageSix,com has posted a story relating to Harold Acton’s bequest of his estate near Florence, Italy to New York University. Acton died childless in 1994 and left most of his fine art and property to NYU with a smaller bequest to the British Institute of Florence.  NYU uses the estate known as Villa La Pietra as a base for “study abroad” students and faculty. The artwork is also open to the public for visits by appointment.

For some time the bequest has been contested by the late Liana Beacci and her daughter Mrs Dialti Orlandi who claimed that Liana Beacci, described as a Florentine hotelier, was the illegitimate daughter of Arthur Acton, Harold’s father. She was born of an affair between Arthur Acton and his secretary who was Liana Beacci’s mother. Under Italian law, at least since 2013, it is unlawful to discriminate against children born out of wedlock. Whether Harold Acton was aware of Mrs Beacci’s claim at the time he bequeathed his property to NYU isn’t clear from the Post’s story, or those of the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail which have both picked it up. The Florentine civil court ruled on 18 July that Mrs Beacci was fathered by Arthur Acton. This is apparently based, inter alia, on DNA results. But there has been no ruling on whether she was entitled by law to a share of the estate.

What will happen now is unclear. The property is worth approximately £800 million according to the press reports. Mrs  Orlandi, who is pressing the claim and talking to the newspapers, says she doesn’t need the money but is fighting the case as a matter of principle.

The stories all note that Harold Acton was a friend of Evelyn Waugh at Oxford and afterwards and was the model for the character Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited.  Waugh and Acton were friends and Waugh respected Acton’s artistic taste. It was  based on Acton’s assessment that Waugh destroyed the draft of his first novel The Temple at Thatch, and he was among the few people invited to Waugh’s first wedding where he acted as best man.

A later, and expanded story in the Daily Mail adds more information about Harold Acton and his career, some of which implicates his friendship with Waugh. Not all of this new information is accurate. According to the Mail’s later story:

Among Acton’s guests [at La Pietra] was Evelyn Waugh. The pair had been lovers when they were at Oxford and Acton somewhat vituperatively nicknamed the author ‘little faun’.

Waugh had immortalised Acton in the novel Brideshead Revisited, saying that he was, in part, the inspiration for the ‘aesthetic b***er’ character of Anthony Blanche, a flamboyant, stammering intellectual with an encyclopaedic knowledge of high art and culture.

Blanche was overtly homosexual during an era when it was still seen as scandalous. Like Blanche, Acton had strong — some might say obsessive — ideas about beauty and refinement.

Waugh visited Acton in Italy at least twice after the war. He saw La Pietra in 1950 but was not a guest of Harold. At the time of Waugh’s visit, La Pietra was still occupied  by Acton’s parents and he lived nearby. Waugh stayed at the Pensione Villa Natalia and was probably escorted to La Pietra by Harold. In a letter to Nancy Mitford, Waugh  pronounced La Pietra as “very fine. Much more than I expected.” After that visit, he described Bernard Berenson’s villa at I Tatti as “a miserable hole” in comparison (Letters, p. 324). He also travelled with Acton to Sicily and Naples in 1952 but did not stop in Florence on that trip. The trip did not go well, and they saw each less often after that. Acton inherited the villa in 1953 upon his father’s death.

It is not clear from what information the Mail has concluded that Waugh and Acton were lovers. Selina Hastings (p. 95) wrote that Harold was attracted to Evelyn but the feelings were not reciprocated. She also notes that Harold was jealous of Evelyn’s relations with the men with whom Waugh did reciprocate his feelings, Richard Pares and Alastair Graham. Most Waugh scholars have argued, as the Mail notes later in its article, that Acton shared the honors as a model for Anthony Blanche with his friend Brian Howard, who also knew Waugh at Oxford but was not close to him afterwards. See below. According to Selina Hastings, Waugh also named him as the model for Ambrose Silk in Put Out More Flags.

The Mail goes on to describe what it calls the “Curse of Brideshead” and concludes that it may now be extended to Acton posthumously. According to the Mail, if the legal proceedings against the NYU bequest succeed:

… Acton will become the latest victim of the so-called Curse of Brideshead, which has struck a succession of the real-life individuals connected to the famous novel and its author. They include Hugh Lygon, who allegedly inspired Lord Sebastian Flyte and died at 31 after falling off a kerb; David Plunket Greene, whose hedonistic life was the basis for Waugh’s Vile Bodies, about the ‘bright young things’ of the Twenties (suicide at 36); Brian Howard, another purported inspiration for Blanche, who killed himself at 52 after the death of a boyfriend; and Robert Byron, a travel-writer friend of Waugh who died at sea aged 35.

Most Waugh scholars have concluded that Sebastian Flyte was inspired for the most part by Alastair Graham, one of the lovers of whom Acton was jealous, although Hugh Lygon may well have contributed some features to his character. Whether Plunket Greene’s life was the primary inspiration for Vile Bodies seems a stretch and neither he nor Robert Byron had anything to do with Brideshead aside from being friends of the author,

On a lighter and concluding note, Harry Mount, editor of The Oldie, has also joined the reportage by posting an article on The Oldie’s weblog about a 1983 trip he made to La Pietra with his family at age 11. They  were hosted by Harold Acton on a visit that was arranged by Mount’s great-uncle Anthony Powell, another friend of both Acton and Waugh:

…Acton had recited The Waste Land, from his window in Christ Church, Oxford, at passing rowers 60 years previously, as Blanche does in the book. In this same voice, according to John Betjeman, Acton said, while at Oxford, ‘My dears, I want to rush into the fields and slap raw meat with lilies.’ And in this voice, he asked my brother, sister and me, ‘Would you like some crisps?’ They were quite the most delicious crisps I’d ever had – bacon-flavoured, but with none of the coarse, bacony flavour of Frazzles, the bacon crisps popular in Britain at the time…

Posted in Academia, Brideshead Revisited, Newspapers, Put Out More Flags | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Waugh Pilgrimage in The Spectator

This week’s “Low Life” column in The Spectator describes a Waugh-themed literary/artistic pilgrimage in Wiltshire and Dorset. This is by Jeremy Clarke who starts with an Augustus John exhibit in Salisbury before proceeding to the Henry Lamb exhibit in Poole. This is where his first Waugh encounter takes place:

[Lamb’s] portrait of Waugh was three times larger than I thought it was. […] Waugh sat for Lamb at Lamb’s Poole studio in 1928. At the time Waugh had taken a room at the Barley Mow  pub on the Wimborne Road to finish his comic novel Untoward Incidents, named after the Duke of Wellington’s terse assessment of the annihilation of the Turkish fleet at Navarino. Chapman and Hall needed Waugh to pad out his virtuoso beginning to bring up the word count before publishing the funniest book in the world as Decline and Fall. Lamb spent boozy evenings with Waugh and their prospective fiancees at the Barley Mow. Eating a pilgrims lunch there would make a seamless transition from the painterly to the literary part of our tour. […] I imagined that at the Barley Mow, self-identifying Evelyn Waugh nuts on pilgrimages would be greeted by the landlord with a sly, highly civilised little smile. Perhaps their attention would be drawn to an old Windsor fireside chair or a brash little signature in the visitors’ book.

Alas, the stop at the Barley Mow does not end as expected when the pilgrims arrive a bit late for lunch. But the article concludes with a properly Wavian flourish.

Clarke mentions Waugh’s association with other watering holes such as the Easton Court Hotel in Chagford, Devon and the Abingdon Arms in Beckley, nr Oxford. In the course of that discussion the Evelyn Waugh Society is credited with the erection of the Blue Plaque commemorating Waugh’s association with the Abingdon Arms. The Society certainly supported that effort but credit for the plaque as well as celebratory events at the venue (perhaps “binges” does not strike quite the right note) must go to the pub and the residents of Beckley who took over the pub’s ownership and management when its commercial owners decided to close it.

Posted in Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh, Humo(u)r, Newspapers | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Late July Roundup

–The latest issue of The Oldie has an article by David Horspool comparing the WWII novels of Lev Grossman (Stalingrad), recently published for the first time in a complete English translation, and Joseph Heller (Catch 22), recently adapted into a TV series. Both were written by novelists with first-hand experience of the combat and other events that they describe and both books were published several years after the events. In both cases according to Horspool

…we are reading about a genuine experience. But the ambition of these novels goes far beyond that, so that the fact of being an eyewitness is subsumed into a much larger ambition […] and their historical context would have informed their writing. The only contender the English novel can put up to the classics of witness by Grosman and Heller is Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. Along with Put Out More Flags (1942), the trilogy made use of Waugh experiences in the Royal Marines and as a commando.”

Horspool goes on to mention the well-known classics War and Peace and The Red Badge of Courage as well as several lesser known British novels based on first-hand experience soon to be published by the Imperial War Museum, including one based on the homefront. This is Kathleen Hewitt’s Plenty under the Counter. In that connection, he might also have mentioned the recent republication of a novella and memoir about the homefront; this is called Blitz Writing by Waugh’s friend Inez Holden. See review in current issue of Evelyn Waugh Studies.

–A recent article in the Daily Telegraph has the title “Better four good friends, Ed Sheeran, than 100 you can never get rid of”. Sheeran is a British singer-songwriter who records albums with titles such as “+” and “÷”. The article, written by Jane Shilling refers to advice given to Charles Ryder by his Cousin Jasper in Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (London: 1945, p. 25) regarding friendships made as an undergraduate at Oxford: “You’ll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first.”

–Journalist Patricia Nicol writing in the Mail-on-Sunday includes Brideshead Revisited among the books about summer holidays that her children should read in their own:

It is the summer of 1923 that features so memorably in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Charles Ryder is in hell in London with his remote father. Then summons arrive from his friend Sebastian Flyte, who has broken a leg and demands a holiday companion. Brideshead, then Venice, beckon.

–The weblog PublicationCoach.com last week chose as its word of the week “mésalliance”, offering this explanation:

Craig Brown’s book, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, is enormous fun, even for people who aren’t fans of the royals.

A kind of a meditation on the art — and limitations — of biography, the book turns the genre on its head by providing alternative scenarios and by debating which of several competing accounts of the same story might be true.

The book is not only splendidly written, it also gave me a word of the week, mesalliance. Here’s how Brown employed it, using a quotation from the noted English writer Evelyn Waugh:

Like all loyal subjects of the monarchy, I am appalled by the proposed mesalliance. […]

The quote comes from a letter Waugh wrote to Ann Fleming on 28 April 1960 (Letters, p. 537).

The Spectator in its “Australian Notes” column has an item entitled “Superglued to the Greens”. The story opens with this reference to Evelyn Waugh:

The great satirical novelist Evelyn Waugh once catalogued a fictional, remote and newly-converted Christian sect who continued to engage in cannibalism but not during Lent and only with ‘special and costly dispensation from their bishop’. […]

Take this month’s superglue protests. Queenslanders gave emphatic support to the Adani mine at the recent Federal election, so two environmental activists thought the best response was to superglue themselves to Queen Street, holding up traffic in Brisbane’s CBD for three hours.

They were somewhat thoughtful in their preparation. Presumably expecting that three hours superglued to a hot, bitumen Brisbane street could be rather uncomfortable, the activists thoughtfully brought along their own yoga mats to comfort them through their ordeal.

The reference to the fastidious cannibals comes from Scoop, Book II, Chapter 1, “Stones £20”.

Filmmaker Magazine has posted on the internet for the first time a 2000 interview with Mary Harron. This  involves her role as co-screenwriter and director of the contemporaneous film adaptation of the novel American Psycho. The novel was written by Bret Easton Ellis and published in 1991. According to Harron:

It is a black comedy/horror film. I am sure that this mix of genres will make some people uncomfortable, since it goes from being funny to unsettling without any transition […] When I first read the book, it reminded me of Evelyn Waugh’s first novels, like Vile Bodies, a satire on the 1920s in London. It is a more benign book than American Psycho, but it has some of the same surreal black comedy — a comedy of manners of a decadent, crazy world of money and privilege.

Based on IMDB data, the film appears to have been successful. It was made for the relatively reasonable budget of $7 million and took in $34 million worldwide.


Posted in Brideshead Revisited, Film, Letters, Love Among The Ruins, Newspapers, Sword of Honour, Vile Bodies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment