The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh

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The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh is both as important and as formidable as the massiveness of the volume and the quality of its paper, printing, and binding would seem to proclaim. Scholars interested in modern British fiction and the social history of the twentieth century can only rejoice at the publication, in convenient book form, of the private journals of a lifetime by one of the greatest novelists of our age. The diaries are virtually complete in this edition by English journalist Michael Davie; except for the omission of a few tediously repetitious segments of the diarist’s accounts of his youth and later travels, the editor has excised only libelous references or references that would (in his judgment) deeply distress living persons. The published diaries are multifaceted and fascinating: there are intimate depictions of English public school life and of the “Bright Young People,” impressions of numerous journeys to exotic places, and a very unofficial view of World War II by a witty and perceptive observer. At the same time it must be added that the diaries do not make easy reading: the sheer length (estimated by the editor at 340,000 words) is forbidding, and it is not mitigated by the amorphousness inevitable in a running account of the random events of the day. Still, Waugh’s diaries, in spite of such defects, are far livelier than the fiction of many current novelists; and their indubitable potential in the interpretation and evaluation of Waugh’s own fiction gives these documents a significance beyond their not inconsiderable worth as informative entertainment in their own right.

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It is important, however, to establish at the outset what the diaries cannot do: a critic cannot track down the incidents behind Waugh’s plots, nor the persons behind his characterizations and expect thereby to discover the “real” meaning of his novels; nor can the value of the novels be judged by determining how closely they reproduce the actual events and persons of the diaries. A novelist is an alchemist who turns the monotonous material of everyday experience into art. The diaries are not a touchstone by which to test the authenticity of the novels; they are rather a testimony to the power of the literary imagination to transform the shapeless welter of human experience into an ordered whole that can be grasped and contemplated by the mind. Hence an acquaintance with the diaries can prepare the reader for Waugh’s fiction (and many other contemporary British novels) by establishing a context which explains the specific details of the literary surface so that the unfamiliar customs and assumptions of what is already a vanishing milieu provide access to the import of the works, and not impediments.

Michael Davie has furnished a number of editorial features which aid the reader in deriving full benefit of the diaries. A brief preface explains the general nature and scope of the diaries and the editorial decisions involved in their publication. There is a chronological table of major events in Waugh’s life, a glossary of proper names with thumbnail sketches of persons who figure prominently in the diaries, and an index of proper names. The diaries have been divided into seven sections with introductions by the editor, and there are frequent footnotes identifying or explaining obscure references in the text. Still, Davie is an Englishman and takes for granted many things that Americans may find puzzling: for example, the error Waugh attributes to a noblewoman in designating herself “The Hon. Mrs. Edward Kidd” in the entry for September 18, 1961. Moreover, Davie does not always identify more than once the last names of persons mentioned in the diaries by first name only. The reader who has forgotten a last name may read for pages about “Katharine” or “Basil” without being able to check the...

(The entire section contains 2508 words.)

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