The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

ph_0111201603-Waugh.jpg Evelyn Waugh Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

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 identity in the glossary or run down the original reference in the index. In a volume which indexes more than 1,000 names, it is easy to forget a few. Nevertheless, considering the enormous problems entailed by such a lengthy and complicated manuscript, Davie has generally handled his editorial tasks with skill and discretion, managing to answer most questions without being pedantic or intrusive.

Most of the disappointments in the diaries are Waugh’s own doing. The whole is written with a peculiarly detached and reticent tone for a personal journal. The author seems very rarely to have laid aside the satirist’s mask; even among family and friends, as we may infer from the diaries, he was continually assuming a role. Hence the accounts of his first marriage and his conversion are curiously unemotional; even in a personal diary Waugh betrays few confidences about himself. Only occasionally, in unguarded entries during the courtship and immediately after the marriage, does he reveal his deep love for his second wife, Laura Herbert (1916-1973). Certain critical periods and events are entirely omitted. Davie speculates that Waugh himself destroyed diaries covering his Oxford years and a sea voyage, during which he suffered drug-induced hallucinations which form the basis for The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). There is also no diary for the time during which Waugh’s first marriage to Evelyn Gardner (b. 1903; “She-Evelyn” to their friends) broke up, ending in divorce on January 18, 1930. Perhaps the most astounding omission comes between the autumn of 1933 and July 7, 1936, when Waugh records the arrival of a telegram from Archbishop Godfrey announcing Rome’s final decree of the nullity of this first marriage. During the preceding three years, the diaries contain not a single reference to the progress of the case in the marriage tribunal nor to the grounds on which the annulment was sought; but without this annulment Waugh, who had been received into the Catholic Church in September, 1930, could not have married Laura Herbert.

The evasions and omissions are perhaps more revealing than anything actually in the diaries. The burden of the novelist—especially when his subject is his...

(The entire section is 2475 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Atlantic. CCXL, December, 1977, p. 110.

Booklist. LXXIV, November 1, 1977, p. 453.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, August 15, 1977, p. 918.

New York Times Book Review. October 16, 1977, p. 1.

Newsweek. XC, October 31, 1977, p. 102.

Saturday Review. V, November 12, 1977, p. 26.

Time. CX, October 17, 1977, p. 102.