The Letters of Evelyn Waugh

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)
ph_0111201603-Waugh.jpg Evelyn Waugh Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The overwhelming impression of the world of Evelyn Waugh which emerges from these letters is of names: Pamela and Penelope and Pansy; Diana and Daphne and Cyril and Robin; Bloggs and Honks and Bobo and Pug. They are all here as well as hundreds more. Fortunately for the reader of Evelyn Waugh’s letters, they are almost all identified. The zeal of the editor, Mark Amory, in pinning down Dig and Decca, Boots and Poll, Violet and Elspeth, can only be admired and commended, for without some idea of who is who these letters would be almost unreadable.

Amory has selected 840 of about forty-five hundred available letters, those which seemed to him most interesting or funny. Amory has divided these letters into the period of Waugh’s education (1903-1924); of his schoolmastering, his first literary successes, and the break-up of his first marriage (1924-1929); of his continued accomplishments in letters, his travels, his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and his second marriage (1929-1939); of the war years (1939-1945); of his family years at Piers Court in Gloucestershire (1945-1956); and of his final years at Combe Florey in Somersetshire (1956-1966). The selection is a bit unbalanced, with almost three-fourths of the letters coming from Waugh’s last twenty years, while fewer than fifty letters cover his first twenty-six years.

The editor has supplied a general introduction to the work, a brief biographical sketch of Waugh at the beginning of each section of the letters, capsule biographies of the more important subjects and correspondents, a useful index, and extensive annotation. The most startling example of this last is a letter, of no more than a page and a half in the printed text, which requires thirty-one separate footnotes. This is not to be construed, however, as a fault of the editor but as a reflection of Waugh’s practice of cramming his letters with notes and reflections on all sorts of persons, many trivial and thoroughly forgettable. Indeed, sometimes Waugh’s letters read like the gossip columns so beloved of the Bright Young Things of the 1920’s. The letters are generally sprightly and interesting, often amusing and entertaining but rarely deep or intellectually challenging. Despite the editor’s suggestion, Waugh is probably not one of the great letter writers in the manner of Horace Walpole or Lord Byron.

If one seeks here fresh information on those events or periods of Waugh’s life which might be supposed to have had some watershed importance in his career—his Oxford years, his attempted suicide in 1925, his first marriage and its breakdown, his conversion to Roman Catholicism, his second marriage, World War II, the deaths of his father and mother—one will be disappointed. With the exception of the war, these events leave little or no record in the letters here collected. This can be all the more disappointing because the recently published diaries are also silent or nonexistent for almost exactly the same events. By reading between the lines of the letters and the diary, one can guess a good deal about Waugh, but he is in fact surprisingly reticent about many of the more personal and intimate parts of his life and emotional experience.

As might be expected, Waugh corresponds with a wide variety of people, from close friends to casual fans; it is noteworthy, however, that other than groups of letters to Sir Harold Acton, Graham Greene, Randolph Churchill, and A. D. Peters, his literary agent, his main correspondents were women: Lady Acton, Katharine Asquith, Lady Penelope Betjeman, Lady Diana Cooper, Ann Fleming (wife of Ian), the Ladies Dorothy and Mary Lygon, Nancy Mitford, and his wife Laura. Waugh simply seems to have been more comfortable with the ladies, and the great majority of his letters to them are friendly, witty, chatty, often scandalous, and occasionally risqué. His letters to Nancy Mitford are the most extensive, and those to his second wife are sometimes moving in their expression of a mature and secure love.

For a writer, Waugh speaks little of writing. His letters are blessedly free of theorizing on the nature of his art and of any sort of philosophizing on the function or future of the novel. Such remarks as he does make are those of the thoroughly professional craftsman, dealing with the specifics of his or someone else’s work. One has the distinct feeling that Waugh would have made an excellent editor, a practical man who could give great aid to young, talented writers who needed a sense of economy and discipline. Perhaps this skill in some way derives from the example of his father who was for many years the Managing Director of the publishing firm of Chapman and Hall.

Above all else, the letters are social. They are full of alliances and misalliances, marriages and divorces, parties and country houses, “who gave the ball or paid the visit last.” This is, of course, preeminently the world readers associate with Waugh’s novels and the world, the portrayal of which made his reputation. With due allowance for the exaggeration and farce of the novels, the reader can clearly see from the letters (and the diary) precisely how actual this world really was. If it is an axiom that writers...

(The entire section is 2130 words.)