Harriet Waugh Essay - Critical Essays

Waugh, Harriet

Waugh, Harriet 1944–

Ms Waugh is an English novelist.

[In Mirror, Mirror, Miss Waugh displays] a worried and violent imagination, and the sequence of conventional human emotions is consigned to the graveyard of the nineteenth century. The prose is detailed but hallucinatory, and the novel is invaded by the fear of madness, and the closeness of death. The protagonists loom like a squad of rubbery giants—too inhuman to touch, but creepy enough to scare. Damp skin, vomit, hair and saliva litter the narrative since the body itself is the villain of this purple comedy. Miss Waugh keeps at a distance all that is palpable and visible, and the mass masochism of the final pages is only the culmination of the novel's fantasy. All that exists is lacerated and will be destroyed.

This is not to say that the book is not 'well-written'. The prose is garish without being in the least rhetorical, and Miss Waugh has a gift for lyricism that undercuts the grotesquerie of her theme: "He had looked at the eyes that did not shift from him and at the flesh that passed by him without retraction or stiffness, and he had become muslin waving in a wind of his own joy …". This is fine, feminine writing and Miss Waugh has a perceptiveness that is all the more attractive because it seems so casual. I only wish that it had been employed within a less conventional and personal context. It is bitterness and world-weariness which ruin the book. Of course the theme of the 'outsider' is a well-worn one, especially when it is used by Miss Waugh to satirise the insiders. I wish she had not made it all too clear that the 'straights' are as unspeakable as the 'freaks', and that all forms of life are equally monstrous. We all know this is true, and we all know that it is not true. End of argument, beginning of a better novel….

The authoress is trapped by her own novellageist, since the interest of the novel stems from a mood that remains stubbornly outside the narrative itself, and could no doubt be found floating somewhere between the writer and the writing. A novel should not be at the service of emotion; it should create it. (p. 43)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 12, 1974.

Rather too much of Harriet Waugh's first novel [Mirror, Mirror] consists of competent but directionless reportage from [a] too-familiar waste land. To sharpen the impact, however, she spikes it with horror-fantasy and theological allegory….

In general, her originality is rather less than the blurb suggests: the echoes of her father [Evelyn Waugh] are particularly numerous, though tiny. As a novelist, she needs to be warned against the alluring snares of ecclesiasticism, and even of theology when too pertly considered, and she relies to an imprudent degree upon knockabout death and related low-cost horrors. But she displays, in a reasonably new version, her family's characteristic liveliness of mind and pen: once she has mastered the laborious art of economy, she should be able to delight us all.

"Severed Head," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 18, 1974, p. 47.

Summarising the plot of Harriet Waugh's first novel [Mirror, Mirror] gives a quite misleading picture of macabre tastelessness. Enough to say that it follows the life and times of Godfrey Pettlement, a man born so monstrously ugly that all who see him are filled with the desire to flee or gouge his eyes out. He gets into Oxford by wearing bandages to his tutorial interview, later sending his room-mate mad. After leaving the university he is able to afford extensive plastic surgery. He then uses his new beauty for revenge by starting a death cult of massive proportions, only to meet a gruesome biblical end himself. The sub-plot, following the adventures of some fairly unremarkable girls, looks incongruously realistic beside the preceding.

Two novels of differing quality have been crammed into one: a novel about that self-regarding, flat-sharing brigade of middle-class young Londoners too often written about, and at the same time a very fine piece of black fantasy. To be fair, Miss Waugh is very amusing when she is flaying sacred cows, like guilt about the Third World, or satirising glib young revolutionaries. But if she had spared us her girls industriously scrambling eggs in their flatlets it might have been better. This is an uneasy, neurotic book, but the obsessions give it a lot of drive. (p. 86)

Timothy Mo, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 18, 1974.

Harriet Waugh—granddaughter of Arthur, niece of Alec, daughter of Evelyn, sister to Auberon—must come compelledly to the novel. Alas, the novel comes less compliantly to her. If, however, its middle and ending fall a bit short, Mirror, Mirror can at least claim a startlingly arresting beginning…. A black comedy with Papish leanings appears exhilaratingly imminent.

Unfortunately, however, Miss Waugh doesn't really know yet how to make much that's coherent of her grisly comic property. So [Godfrey] Pettlement [protagonist of the novel] falls by the wayside, languishing among the cast from another novel, less interesting because more frequently written…. (p. 183)

Valentine Cunningham, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Valentine Cunningham), February 7, 1974.

It is clear from the first page of [Mirror, Mirror], even to an eye untutored in such things, that one is in the presence of black humor, a prospect that need not invariably fill one with delight. Least of all does one feel delight in the way the blackness manifests itself in Miss Waugh's main character, Godfrey….

In the interests of black humor and spectacle, Miss Waugh … dissipates her energies on a good many characters, none of them as interesting as Godfrey. This is not to say that there are not some worthwhile moments in Miss Waugh's novel, for there are—notably some scathing assaults on evangelistic piety. Still, it all comes apart midway when the army of Miss Waugh's underdeveloped characters, all of whom seem very like one another, are required to assume major symbolic roles in one long and excessively talky denouement. It is proper that something should happen in a novel, but it is also necessary that it should happen to characters whose fate matters in one way or another to the reader, a condition Miss Waugh's characters do not meet, laboring as they do under the weight of symbolic identity and little of any other kind. (p. 27)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 22, 1975.

Aside from Papa Evelyn's brittle demonstrations that the world is tacky and absurd, it would seem to be the opinion of the Waughs that most things are bosh.

The first woman to win an Olympic chariot race, a Spartan, signed in as "the daughter and sister of kings," by which she meant that things were expected of her. In Miss Waugh's case these expectations must have been a positive burden, more the family curse than a tradition to uphold….

[In "Mirror Mirror"] one senses the mere desperation of an unskilled writer groping for effects. Papa precipitated the grotesque from the dullness of people who scarcely knew what they were saying or doing, and when doom fell on his characters you knew that it was their own doing and that vengeance was the Lord's.

Like a woman telling a joke, Miss Waugh starts with the punch line and asks us to be patient while she fills in. A lumpier plot does not exist. Occasionally the story hits a lucid streak, and … these few crisp pages only contribute to the book's unevenness. (p. 6)

What in the world could [the novel] mean? Is it satire? Comedy? Allegory? A sermon? I take it that coherence in a work of art is an absolute condition, like life in an organism. It follows that there is no such thing as an almost coherent novel. For what it's worth, "Mirror Mirror" may have the distinction of being well out in the lead, if any such competition exists, among the worst novels published in this century. (p. 7)

Guy Davenport, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 8, 1975.

When satire slackens or dulls, what is generally left is too much hyperbole for a first-rate novel and too few laughs for happy, vivid comedy. Readers who peer into Harriet Waugh's Mirror Mirror will see just that sort of quirky and uneven middle ground. There is some horror here but not much hilarity, and the result is an interesting but essentially lusterless black comedy….

Miss Waugh jabs here at hypocrisy in many of its personal and ideological guises, but she is particularly drawn to the themes of her father, Evelyn: loss of purpose, and spiritual and emotional bankruptcy, in contemporary English life. Mirror Mirror has its mild successes—it is, for example, a fresh refurbishing of some old symbolic material—but Miss Waugh's satire doesn't work as well as it should. She is an intelligent writer, but she lacks enough delicacy of style to distract from the seams and contrivances of the story, and her occasionally awkward narration lurches forward when she feels she must get us somewhere fast.

The book ultimately stands or falls on the strength and piquancy of its comic effects, and Miss Waugh's stiff humor provides unreliable footing. People with an interest in the Waugh literary tradition will find Mirror Mirror worth reading, but it is still a rather dull reflection of its own possibilities.

Susan S. McDonald, "Flawed Mirror," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), July 18, 1975, p. 786.