Harriet Waugh

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Waugh, Harriet

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,620 words.)