Sunday, April 10, 2016

Waugh’s appalling diaries

Evelyn Waugh, author of such famous novels as Brideshead Revisited, Scoop, and Decline and Fall, died 50 years ago today. He was a committed diarist, throughout his life from the age of seven, and his diaries have become an invaluable source for biographies. However, when they were first published, in the 1970s, the literary world found them rather dull, and one US critic even called them ‘appalling’.

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was born in London in 1903, and educated at Heath Mount, Lancing College and Hertford College, Oxford. After leaving university, he taught at a private school in Wales. He also attempted suicide by swimming out to sea, but turned back when stung by a jellyfish. He then tried carpentry and journalism before, in 1928, finding literary success with Decline and Fall. During the next ten years, he published several more novels, including A Handful of Dust and Scoop.

In 1929, Waugh married Evelyn Gardner (the couple becoming known as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn among their friends), but the marriage was annulled in 1936. The following year, he married Laura Herbert and they had six children. During the war, he served with the marines and then as a commando in the Mediterranean. In the latter years of the war, he was assigned to Royal Horse Guards and had time to write what became his most important novel, Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945. Thereafter, he settled in the West Country, and wrote several satirical novels based on his war experiences, as well as travel books (based on trips to Africa and the Middle East) and biographies. He died on 10 April 1966. Further information can be found at The Evelyn Waugh Society, Doubting Hall, Wikipedia, The Atlantic, or The Paris Review.

For most of his life, indeed from the age of 7, Waugh kept a diary, though he stopped about a year before his death. However, there are only 340,000 words in the extant diary material, not a great volume for so long a period. The manuscripts - many on loose sheets, some bound - are kept by the University of Texas where they were transferred after Waugh’s death. There is no evidence that he kept the diary with publication in mind, rather that he wrote it, later on any way, as an aide memoire to assist him in his travel journalism and other writings. The decision to publish his diaries was taken in 1973 by his second wife, Laura, in conjunction with their son Auberon.

The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, as edited by Michael Davie, were first published in 1976 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the book running to over 800 pages. Although portions of Waugh’s early diaries were left out, Davie retained as much of Waugh’s text as he could, apart from twenty or so libellous passages and a similar number of references which could be considered ‘intolerably offensive’.

A short while before publication of the diaries, Collins had published Evelyn Waugh: A Biography written by Christopher Sykes who had had full access to the diary material. Frank Kermode, reviewing the diaries in The New York Times, noted: ‘Sykes, who can hardly have thought it would occur to anybody to publish them almost entire, described the diaries as often tedious and unreliable - tedious because the detailed record of drunken excess must be so, unreliable because of a natural tendency to confer fictive shape and point on facts even at the moment of setting them down in the diary. The general reader might have been better served with a 200-page volume of extracts, leaving the remainder to scholars. Still, here it all is, and readers will have to discover for themselves which parts will shock, amuse or instruct them.’

And Kermode concludes: ‘He constructed for himself a coherent and highly rational world with clear religious, political and esthetic laws. It was a narrow, even a bigoted construction but, like Waugh’s prose, it was a constant and authoritative reproach to the venality and disorder of his contemporaries, or of all but a tiny remnant - his honorable, amusing or wicked friends. The diaries are architect’s notes on the construction and maintenance of this world; that was their value to Waugh. We have the novels, and so need them less.’

John W. Aldridge, the US literary critic, judged Waugh’s diaries even less kindly, titling an essay on them The Appalling Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (this can be found online at Googlebooks in his essay collection Classics & Contemporaries). ‘Waugh,’ Aldridge writes, ‘seems to have been interested solely in keeping a record of his daily experiences and impressions - of public events and private scandals made public, people known and incessantly dined with, parties attended, his own frequently appalling behaviour at them, and monstrous hangovers suffered the morning after. If his portraits of friends and enemies are often harsh, his self-portrait is absolutely uncompromising and presented in strict conformity to his own obnoxious dictum: “Never apologise. Never explain.” ’

3 September 1927
‘How I detest this house and how ill I feel in it. The whole place volleys and thunders with traffic. I can’t sleep or work. I reviewed the books and have begun on a comic novel. Mother is away at Midsomer Norton where Aunt Trissie is dying. The telephone bell is continually ringing, my father scampering up and down stairs, Gaspard barking, the gardener rolling the gravel under the window and all the time the traffic. Another week of this will drive me mad.’

29 November 1927
‘I am getting infinitely tired of London and its incessant fogs. Very little has happened lately. I see Evelyn a lot and a certain amount of Olivia. On Sunday I went to the first night of the Sitwell but was bitterly disappointed and bored. There had been a Sitwell party at Balston’s on the preceding Tuesday. I am getting on with the carpentry - Henry Lamb knows of a place in the country where I might work.’

22 October 1928
‘I had my hair cut and met Martin Wilson. He seems to bear no malice for Decline and Fall. From there to the exhibition of Maillols. The sculpture magnificent but the wood engravings not particularly meritorious. Alathea lunched with me at Taglioni’s, very lovely and vague, with an air of just waking up after an uneasy night. Extraordinarily ingenuous with a fluttery eagerness to skate and go to the theatre and see the latest pictures. After luncheon to my tailor’s to try on a check suit.’

30 June 1955
‘The television people came at 10 and stayed until 6.30. An excruciating day. They did not want a dialogue but a monologue. The whole thing is to be cut to five minutes in New York and shown at breakfast-time. They filmed everything including the poultry. The impresario kept producing notes from his pocket: ‘Mr Waugh, it is said here that you are irascible and reactionary. Will you please say something offensive?’ So I said: ‘The man who has brought this apparatus to my house asks me to be offensive. I am sorry to disappoint him.’ ‘Oh, Mr Waugh, please, that will never do. I have a reputation. You must alter that.’ I said later, not into the machine: ‘You expect rather a lot for $100.’ ‘Oh, I don’t think there is any question of payment.’ ’

18 August 1955
‘The original day’s visit to Birmingham to see the Pre-Raphaelites became extended. With Laura, Teresa, Margaret and £30 we drove off in the afternoon. A letter to propose our stopping at Stanway brought no answer so I presumed Letty Benson to be away. I also wrote to Lady Olivier telling her we shall be in the audience on Friday. We stopped in Evesham while the children had tea. As we approached Birmingham the evening became hotter and heavier. Birmingham was humid and over- powering. We arrived at Queen’s Hotel where I found that our rooms for the night would cost £9. The children had ‘bubble’ baths, the salts for which we had purchased in Cheltenham. Laura and I drank Pimm’s No. 1 Cup in the cocktail bar where there was a cool breeze and an intoxicated dwarf. A ham sandwich and then on foot to the theatre where we sweated through a tedious farce. Back to dinner. The servants very civil in the hotel, the rooms poky, airless and shabby. But the girls in high spirits.’

The Diary Junction

No comments: