Never the twain

Mark Amory

  • Evelyn Waugh, Writer by Robert Murray Davis
    Pilgrim Books, 342 pp, $20.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 937664 00 6

In a letter to Cyril Connolly in 1948 Evelyn Waugh listed the ideas that had been in his mind when he was at work on The Loved One: immediately after ‘over-excitement with the scene at Forest Lawn’ came ‘The Anglo-American impasse. Never the twain shall meet.’ Not a new thought even thirty years ago, but, though we may run into one another occasionally in the corridors of the Humanity Research Center of the University of Texas (their territory), or share a train compartment on the way to Combe Florey (ours), it still holds good for those in the Waugh industry. The English and American schools remain distinct, superficially polite, but with impatience at least and very occasionally something more like contempt lurking beneath the surface. We are not weighty figures. No major critic on either side of the Atlantic has yet undertaken a serious study (Malcolm Bradbury’s slender introduction is the nearest approach). Many of Waugh’s English acquaintance have written brief, anecdotal accounts based on their memories of him – John St John’s To the War with Waugh has 56 pages, Frances Donaldson’s Portrait of a Country Neighbour 118, while those collected in Evelyn Waugh and his World are naturally shorter still. It is true that Alec Waugh returned several times to the subject of his brother and wrote at some length: but then he flaunted his love of America and American ways. Their contributions have been more rigorous, factual and detailed and include a study of Waugh’s life up to 1939 and a Checklist of Primary and Secondary Material, while there is a whole book about his relationship with his agent on the way, as well as a study of the comic novels rumoured to be longer than all of them put together.

Broadly, we produce slight works that they think insubstantial and sloppy: they research minutely and accumulate so many tiny shrubs that, in our opinion, the outline of the forest is lost. Our Christopher Sykes set the tone in 1975 when he described the (American) Evelyn Waugh Newsletter as ‘overloaded with pedantic debate about trifles’. I have not seen the Newsletter’s review of his official biography, but one American claimed to have counted 217 mistakes. When I was approaching people in search of Waugh’s letters, Americans sent copies of trivial postcards preserved over the years, while the English were sure they had some somewhere – perhaps in the attic, or were those the ones from Somerset Maugham?

The Waugh industry has been purring happily along for the last few years. A study of his aesthetic preferences was expanding into a biography when I last heard, while Alan Bell, whose work on Sydney Smith is drawing to a close, plans to move up the street in Combe Florey and produce ‘a biographical study’. Though a West Country recluse can hardly be the centre of a literary movement, the comparison with Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury is not absurd. It emerges that what is required for popularity is a certain reputation, occasional brushes with high life and lengthy diaries and letters filled with sharp gossip about your famous friends; and Waugh has the advantage that he is still widely read. Penguin keeps all the novels in print, though none of the biographies. Reluctant to give all the details, they allow that Decline and Fall is the top seller at about 25,000 a year, The Loved One a surprising second, Brideshead Revisited doing nicely at about 18,000, with Vile Bodies, my candidate, scarcely scraping into the teens. That was before The Most Expensive Television Adaptation Ever Made, which has rocketed Brideshead to somewhere near 300,000 since the beginning of last year. The significant statistic about Brideshead was not the cost (largely a result of the strike), nor the viewing figures (less than ten million, which may be a lot in the book world but is not going to make Coronation Street tremble), but the length – almost twelve hours. This was an attempt (as was the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby) to dramatise the whole of a serious book and never mind how long it takes. The distillation and elision that have always been the main concern of adapters suddenly seem out-dated. Harold Pinter’s reduction of Remembrance of Things Past to 163 sparsely covered pages, however brilliant, is a thing of the past itself. The only serious approach is to take the necessary time. That is the effect Brideshead should have had on television: the effect that television will have on Brideshead and Waugh’s position in general is not yet clear. An American who was telling me many bewildering facts about the future of video concluded, ‘It is no longer a problem of geometry, it is a problem of calculus,’ which seemed to mean that the success in America would be huge. Sebastian comic strips and Mr Joyboy tee-shirts may be on the way; Brideshead made Waugh popular and famous in America in 1945 and may now do so again. Whatever changes occur, this book by Professor Davis, associate editor of the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, will stand as a monument of industry and dedication in the American style.

Evelyn Waugh, Writer (the words on Waugh’s tombstone) is not a critical study, nor is it a biography, though it contains elements of both. Davis has gone through all the drafts of the novels, noted the variations and corrections and drawn conclusions as to what Waugh’s intentions were. Vile Bodies and Put out more flags are skimped because he has dealt with them separately elsewhere, Scott-King’s Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins are shrugged off as of little interest, which is all right with me. Brideshead Revisited receives 78 pages, while the others get about twenty each. Davis has also studied the circumstances under which they were written, what Waugh had recently read, his diaries and recent journalism, to discover what was in his mind (the letters arrived too late for more than footnotes and the odd correction). He is painstaking, accurate (as far as I can tell), and rarely succumbs to the humourless overelaboration that constantly threatens such an enterprise. Decline and Fall ‘deals with the problems of identity but it does so in social and largely negative terms’ – this is mild and acceptable stuff. Has he entirely grasped the exact tone in which Waugh referred to Brideshead as his Magnum Opus (I do not imply that he did not mean it)? And is it really capping the theme of gluttony glorified when Cordelia has a meringue? Perhaps not, but a book like this one is bound to search for significance in unlikely places and Davis has defined his problem in his closing sentence: ‘Waugh wanted to sell books; more than that he wanted to have them read and understood, and, as this book has attempted to show, he always took great trouble in these matters.’ Waugh is as easy to understand as he is to enjoy; he did not want scholars to puzzle for a lifetime over his meaning and thought James Joyce, who did, ‘dotty’. So there are no revelations as to what he is saying, just an examination of how he says it. Nor did Waugh quite start at random and see what happened, though his early books feel as if he did: he boasted that he could, when young, contain a whole novel in his head. Muriel Spark is said to sit down at her desk, take a clean piece of paper and begin, say, ‘Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark. Chapter One’, before she has thought further. Not so Waugh, who set about carrying out his planned intention in hard, pellucid prose. So new characters are not introduced nor startling roles for old ones discarded. The themes are elaborated and clarified, scenes are often expanded, jokes are added, and, least interesting to me, the structure is altered with new chapter breaks and divisions. Waugh’s final version is invariably an improvement, which is as it should be, but means that there is comparatively little treasure to be trawled from the manuscripts. Davis is picking over, not a rich cadaver, but a highly polished skeleton.

Nevertheless there is much incidental information of interest, at least to me. In particular, when editing the letters, I had puzzled long and hard over the sentence ‘Duck into hare shall stop,’ a paragraph on its own written to his agent. What could it mean? Something sporting or a literary reference unknown to me? My eventual guess is here confirmed and I can remove the ‘perhaps’ in the footnote: Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited gives Charles Ryder a meal in Paris which started as saddle of hare and became pressed duck, ‘to allow’, Davis explains, ‘ “the music of the press” to punctuate the meal luxuriously’. A remaining mention of the discarded hare must have been pointed out and Waugh was promising to correct it. Perhaps name changes are of more general interest. In Decline and Fall Peter Chetwynde started without a Best and Dr Benito, the press secretary in Scoop, was originally Bonham Carter Jackson. Brideshead is much altered. Charles Ryder began as Peter Fenwick and was then in Debrett, the second son of a second baronet: ‘Very obscure,’ says Sebastian, whose sister was not at first Cordelia, but Bridget, the name of Waugh’s devout sister-in-law. Sebastian himself was then merely ‘Honourable’, as Waugh had not yet elevated Lord Marchmain from an earl to a marquis. Hooper was at first called Haydon after a general Waugh disliked. Julia’s golden hair later turned dark; Beryl Muspratt, having been a year or two younger than her husband Bridey, overtook him. Anthony Blanche was made less exotic and compared, not to a lizard, but to a more conventional peacock. Lady Marchmain first read aloud from The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which was exchanged for The Wisdom of Father Brown at the same time that the quotation from the latter about ‘a twitch on the thread’ was inserted.

These are scraps. There are more considerable changes, which make you wish Professor Davis had written a different book. For instance, Anthony Blanche, whose exact tone caused Waugh much trouble, first describes ‘Boy’ Mulcaster through his appearance, ‘with clothes that are a kind of negative photograph – I mean they flap on his little concavities, and where he bulges, they cling’; then ‘Boy’ is changed to being rather personable at a distance, ‘but look at him closer and his face falls to pieces in an idiot gape. People are rather free with the word “degenerate”. They have even used it of me. If you want to know what a real degenerate is, look at Boy Mulcaster.’ In 1960 he also becomes an oaf and a cad. Davis points out that Mulcaster is being contrasted with Blanche, as a different, though equally unacceptable face of Society, and with Sebastian as all that is worst in the peerage. Waugh has often been accused of confusing both grace and Grace with the glamour of the pre-war upper classes. Davis’s labours have given him a close-up of Waugh’s mind at work, put him in a position to pronounce on his attitudes and support his pronouncements with detail: but he rarely strays so far from his examination of the texts. Similarly he knows that Waugh was passionately fond of his daughter Margaret, nicknamed Meg, but discusses without reference to her the fact that the Margaret, nicknamed Meg, in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is the only one who loved the poor mad writer. Such matters are outside his self-appointed limits.

Davis allows that Waugh knew most of the story when he started a novel, but finds that he only discovers his deeper purpose as he writes. Thus he speaks of ‘Waugh’s growing understanding of his major themes as well as his plot’ when discussing Scoop. His great coup is with The Loved One. The heroine had been called Kraft and Sprott, but ‘as Aimee Thanatogenos – the loved one born out of death – she acquired a significance that even by the end of the manuscript Waugh had not fully realised.’ Davis does feel that it would be an exaggeration to claim that the revisions had given Aimee a soul, but they have ‘given her one of the novel’s few existences in any kind of spirit’. Her admirer Dennis, remembered chiefly as a plagiarist, is also revised upwards into an artist and the chapter is called ‘Thinking About Death and Art’.

All of which is a reminder of how firmly the book belongs in the American school. Davis is not too beastly to the British. He corrects a reading in the diaries here, a date in the biography there and mutters impatiently: ‘Sykes the critic forgets, as he does so often, what Sykes the biographer has recorded ...’ The ‘as he does so often’ was not strictly necessary, but then nor was Sykes’s phrase about pedantic debate. The twain still have not met and have difficulty in corresponding.