Blacking

John Bayley

  • Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939 by Martin Stannard
    Dent, 537 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 460 04632 2

Evelyn Waugh never wanted to be a writer, still less a novelist. That may explain both the weakness of his books and their remarkable and continuing popularity. Readers love an amateur with no intellectual pretensions – one of themselves, in fact – who is also an expert craftsman: and Waugh’s novels are as solidly made as the best furniture. Among his most genuinely enthusiastic recollections was the ‘brilliant and completely speechless little cabinet-maker who could explain nothing and demonstrate everything. To see him cutting concealed dovetails gave me the thrill which, I suppose, others get from seeing their favourite batsman at the wicket or bullfighter in the ring.’ In the same magazine article of 1937 he remarked that Dickens never forgave his parents for trying ‘to force him into a blacking factory instead of letting him write’ and claims that he had made desperate efforts to get a job with a firm which, among other things, manufactured blacking. ‘But the manager was relentless. It was no use my thinking of blacking. That was not for the likes of me.’

This kidding on the level conceals a true awareness. Waugh was a craftsman adventurer, with none of the slowly maturing instincts and sensibility of the novelist. When he was not playing his role in society, it was cutting concealed dovetails that gave him his greatest satisfaction. And sometimes the dovetails remained flagrantly unconcealed. Henry Green, a born novelist, objected strongly to the technique employed in A Handful of Dust:

I don’t think the Demerara trip is real at all, or rather I feel the end is so fantastic that it throws the rest out of proportion. Aren’t you mixing two things together? The first part of the book is convincing, a real picture of people one has met and may at any time meet again ... But then to let Tony be detained by some madman introduced an entirely fresh note ... it seemed manufactured and not real.

It would be easy to reply that every novelist has to combine the manufactured with the ‘real’, but Green’s criticism goes deeper than that, as is shown by the disingenuousness of Waugh’s reply to it. He describes Mr Todd’s imprisonment of Tony Last at the end of the novel as ‘a conceit in the Webster manner’, and goes on to call his ‘scheme’ that of ‘a Gothic man in the hands of savages – first Mrs Beaver etc, then the real ones, finally the silver foxes at Hetton’. The quest for a lost city he dovetails into the man-without-God atmosphere of the book, calling it ‘justifiable symbolism’.

So it was, no doubt, but in this kind of way almost any bad novel can be made to sound like a good one. Waugh’s is too obviously a well-carpentered object, with his original story ‘The Man Who liked Dickens’ having the rest of the novel dovetailed onto it. Martin Stannard is surely right to point out here that ‘so skilful was Waugh’s literary carpentry that he managed to join the tale to the novel almost without alteration,’ the story’s original typescript being incorporated into the chapter ‘Du côté de chez Todd’: but that does not meet Green’s point that this is no way to write a novel. The original story bears a striking resemblance to a very early effort of Waugh’s, a story called ‘Anthony, Who sought Things that were Lost’, written as an undergraduate for Harold Acton’s avant-garde student magazine Oxford Broom, and never afterwards republished. ‘Anthony’ is a typical undergraduate effort, silly, sadistic, and modish only in one respect: it exploits the revival of interest in Elizabethan macabre made fashionable by Rupert Brooke’s pre-war study of Webster.

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