Some of the most incongruous moments in literature come when the fancifully extravagant collides head on with the soberly punctilious, and brightly coloured butterflies are plucked out of the sky to be broken on pedagogy’s slowly turning wheel. John Gross once suggested that the idea of a graduate seminar on the novels of Ronald Firbank would itself be Firbankian – a net flung over soap bubbles, a nail hammered through gossamer threads, or rather, in strict procedural terms, an attempt to interpret something that can occasionally seem to be written only to defy interpretation. Much the same, you suspect, can be said of Evelyn Waugh (1903–66). The appearance of his collected works, monumentally assembled in forty-three stout hardback volumes at £65 apiece, offers the same bewildering spectacle of scholarship running amok through material that, in the majority of cases, was expressly designed to keep scholarship at bay.
None of this, naturally, is to disparage the work of the series’ general editor, Waugh’s grandson Alexander. And neither, if it comes to that, will any self-respecting Firbank fan be able to keep his or her hands off Richard Canning’s long-promised critical biography of the author of Valmouth. It is merely that the gap between the circumstances in which a novel like Black Mischief (1932) was written and the conditions in which a 21st-century critic sits down to evaluate it can sometimes seem an unbridgeable abyss. Most of Waugh’s early writings were, as he readily conceded, produced on the hoof. Some of the journalism from this time was so desperately ad hoc that the editors who had commissioned it wrote to his agent, A D Peters, to protest. Selina Hastings’s 1994 biography quotes a letter from Mark Goulden of the Sunday Referee, describing what had been vouchsafed as ‘one of the most uninteresting and uninspired contributions it has ever been my misfortune to publish’.
The cavalier manner in which Waugh approached his early work is engagingly explained in the preface to a 1965 edition of Vile Bodies (which first appeared in 1930), published a year before his death: ‘This was a totally unplanned novel. I had the facility at the age of 25 to sit down at my table, set a few characters on the move, write 3000 words a day, and note with surprise what happened.’ And instantly you can see the point of allowing Martin Stannard to supply twenty-nine pages of microscopically typeset contextual notes to this latest retread. Just as the proofs of Vanity Fair’s monthly instalments are strewn with last-minute add-ons and ultra-topical allusions designed to drag Thackeray’s readers headlong into his text, so Vile Bodies offers the spectacle of Waugh semaphoring at the books he was reading and the films he was watching as the novel took shape.
The first five tranches of this epochal undertaking – for purposes of comparison, Peter Davison’s Orwell: The Complete Works extends to a modest twenty volumes – run to a little over 2,200 pages. They encompass thirteen years’ worth of juvenilia (beginning with a seven-word postcard from 1908 and ending with his Lancing diaries), Waugh’s first full-length published work (Rossetti: His Life and Works from 1928), his first decade’s worth of journalism (including gossip paragraphs in which he is advantageously quoted), his second novel (for some reason his first, Decline and Fall, also published in 1928, has tugged free from the opening batch), and A Little Learning (1964), the first volume of a projected three-stage autobiography, left unfinished at his death. Taken together, they encourage the Waugh fan to make a variety of individual judgements: on the quality of some of the hack work ferreted out of prewar newspaper archives (not outstandingly high); on the editorial principles brought into play; on the first quarter-century or so of Waugh’s life, the kind of person he was and – a distinction that A Little Learning brings into rather sharp relief – the kind of person he imagined himself to be.
Personal myth-making was important to Waugh: like many a 20th-century literary man, and one or two literary women, he spent a lifetime constructing a new and supposedly better version of himself out of what was essentially the same material. Malcolm Muggeridge, always shrewd on matters of social provenance, bracketed him alongside Orwell as a ‘bovarist’ (as in Madame Bovary), bent on disguising the reality of his affiliations under glossy camouflage. A notably pious teenager, resentful of the favouritism shown by his father to elder brother Alec, high-spirited and melancholic by turns, he was also, as even his son Auberon allowed – see the latter’s DNB entry on Waugh’s friend and biographer Christopher Sykes – an arriviste, a middle-class publisher’s son from Hampstead who made it his business to associate with people richer and grander than himself. Painless as this process of assimilation may have been, there were moments when he overplayed his hand, mistook acquaintanceship for blood-brotherhood or failed to get the measure of some tantalising fragment of upper-class lore. Anthony Powell remembered him once waving off Lord Glenconner’s wife with the words, ‘Give my love to Christopher.’ ‘But he doesn’t know Christopher,’ Lady Glenconner loftily demurred.
There had been upper-class friends at Oxford, but Waugh’s real entrée to the beau monde came by way of the Bright Young People, the curious amalgam of titled partygoers and arts-world bohemians who romp through the society pages of the late 1920s, form a component part of Decline and Fall and go on to become the principal subject of Vile Bodies. Stannard is good on this, and also on some of the blatant cannibalisations from real life that led to a newspaper article of 1930 entitled ‘People Who Want to Sue Me’. In the preface to the 1965 edition of Vile Bodies, Waugh notes merely that ‘“The Bright Young People” with whom it deals, and of whom I was a member rather on the fringe than in the centre, were one of the newspaper topics of the time.’ Like Cecil Beaton, the movement’s court photographer (whom Waugh detested), his relationship to the originals of the Hon Agatha Runcible (Elizabeth Ponsonby), Miles Malpractice (Eddie Gathorne-Hardy) and the gossip columnist Simon Balcairn (Patrick Balfour) was – up to a point – that of the outsider looking in, and the urge to satirise can sometimes seem compromised, or at any rate illumined, by a straightforward desire to belong.
The light, Wodehousian tone of Vile Bodies veered sharply off course at the moment in its composition when Waugh’s first wife, Evelyn Gardner, decamped with his friend John Heygate. If, ultimately, it is the novel in which he bids farewell to the group of people who had helped fashion his career, then it also offers a certain amount of evidence for one or two of the other inner battles – some aesthetic, others broadly ideological – that are being contested in his early books. Rossetti, scrupulously annotated here by Michael Brennan, is an old-fashioned life and times, with a combative preface aiming a series of pot shots at fashionable biographers of the day (the target of Waugh’s complaint that ‘the corpse has become the marionette. With bells on its fingers and wires on its toes it is jigged about to a “period dance” of our own piping’ is pretty clearly Lytton Strachey). Vile Bodies, meanwhile, is a devious example of Eliot-style right-wing avant-garderie, a dispatch from the modernist front line, steeped in essence of Firbank, yet deeply conservative in most of its political assumptions.
Some of the novel’s oddest moments – odd, that is, in the context of its talking-heads dialogue and its characters’ breathless rush from one locale to another – come when Waugh stands back from the text to deliver a little homily on the action, or hint at where his sympathies really lie. One takes place at the ball at Anchorage House, where, in contrast to the bright young horde rampaging through other parts of Mayfair, Lady Circumference’s guests are ‘people of decent and temperate life, uncultured, unaffected, unembarrassed, unassuming, unambitious people’. In the essay on Waugh that he never lived to complete, Orwell marks this passage down as ‘an irrelevant outburst’, while noting its absolute centrality to the view Waugh held of the world. The hidebound fogeydom into which he lapsed is lavishly on display in A Little Learning. Waugh’s lapidary style and antiquated literary manners here would have made the work seem old-fashioned half a century before. The same air pervades the many interviews that John Howard Wilson and Barbara Cooke print as addenda. Although these include the famous Face to Face interrogation by John Freeman, perhaps the most revealing is a Frankly Speaking radio feature from 1953, in which serial teasing alternates with patently serious statements about ‘the man in the street’, the welfare state and Waugh’s Catholic faith. The most deeply felt response comes in the final exchange: ‘Mr Waugh, how, when you die, would you like to be remembered?’ ‘I should like people of their charity to pray for my soul as a sinner.’
As a scholarly treatment of a modern British novelist, The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh looks as if it will stand in a class of its own, not only for its presentation of definitive texts but also for its patient accumulation of large amounts of personal material that have hitherto escaped the biographers’ gaze. I was particularly struck by a ‘private communication’ to the editors of Personal Writings, in which John Chancellor, ticked off by Waugh for wearing the wrong clothes at a wedding, remembers asking him, ‘Mr Waugh, why do you keep calling me Chandler when you know my name is Chancellor?’ Waugh replied, ‘When I was at school they called me “Wuffles” – I didn’t blub about it.’ The footnotes, meanwhile, are very nearly insane. Sample, of a man parenthetically mentioned in the Lancing diaries:
Francis Alexander (Sandy) Ferguson (1905–82), s. of Sir Arthur Ferguson, inspector of constabulary for Scotland (1904–27), scion of a rich landed family (formerly of Pitfour, Aberdeenshire), reduced to a nomadic lifestyle by his grandfather’s gambling excesses; Fields House, LC (Sep 1918–Jul 1922); second-tier member of EW’s Corpse Club (587, n. 2); became a professional soldier; served with Royal West Africa Frontier Force (WWII) and in the Burmese Arakan campaign with the 81st (West Africa) Division (Feb–May 1944). His br. Angus Ferguson was chief constable of Northamptonshire.
What would Waugh have made of this scholarly juggernaut, which appears under the imprint of the university that he left without troubling to complete his degree? As well as being flattered, you suspect he would also have been highly amused.