English and Drama blog

06 September 2013

Evelyn Waugh manuscripts at the British Library

Attending a colloquium at Leicester University earlier in the summer in connection with a new AHRC funded research project - to produce a mammoth edition of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh - prompted me to revisit the British Library’s holdings of Waugh manuscripts. The colloquium was the first event of a five-year project, led by Leicester, whose partners include the Waugh Estate, Oxford University Press, the Bodleian Library, and the Universities of Texas, Leeds and Milan as well as the British Library. As well as the main focus – to produce a definitive critical edition of Waugh’s writing, including his travel writing, essays, journalism, criticism and incidental writing, as well as the plethora of well-known novels – the project involves a number of events and initiatives to disseminate the research to a wider audience as well as to contribute to current understanding in the art of textual editing.

University launches Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project

Evelyn Waugh, photographed in about 1940

The British Library holds an extensive Waugh collection, at the heart of which is Waugh’s incoming correspondence. These letters, dating from 1921 to 1966, the year of his death, were acquired from the Waugh family in 1990 and were selected by Waugh himself (showing him taking some steps towards what we might term ‘self-archiving' and shaping posterity’s view of him). Waugh’s correspondents range from family members to society friends, from friends and acquaintances from the literary and arts worlds and the Roman Catholic Church, to occasional communications, many of which relate to publishing and the business side of writing. The letters vary from extended series over several decades – the most substantial being from Nancy Mitford – to single communications, often congratulating him on his most recent publication.

Among the first letters in these files is a series from Harold Acton, a fellow Oxford student who became a lifelong friend. An early letter of Acton’s, reminding us that Waugh initially saw his future in the visual arts rather than as an exponent of the written word, complements Waugh on his ‘Fires of Youth’ wood engraving and emphatically declares: “At last you are the MODERN you were always intended to be.” The majority of letters are occasioned by responses to his reading of Waugh’s works, responses that are deeply felt. He describes his experience of reading Brideshead Revisited as being “swept alternatively by pleasure and pain: pleasure at your ever-increasing virtuosity and mastery of our fast-evaporating language…; pain, at the acrid memories of so many old friends you have conjured”. Another letter by Daphne Acton recounts that everyone in her circle has been bowled over by the brilliance of Brideshead. Adding her own congratulations, she writes, diffidently: “For all that it seems to me like writing to tell Shakespeare that I think well of Macbeth”.

Waugh’s Christian faith and conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930 bear crucially on any understanding of his writing. Among the letters at the British Library are a series from Father Philip Caraman, Jesuit priest and editor of the Catholic periodical, The Month, and another from John Douglas Woodruff, editor of The Tablet. Caraman’s letters include several references to a 1948 film called The Miracle of Bells, against which Waugh has written a diatribe in one of the newspapers. Endorsing Waugh’s slating of the film’s portrayal of Catholicism, Caraman goes on to suggest that Waugh write a more general essay criticising the Hollywood concept of religion as whole, essentially, as he writes: “its treatment of Catholicism as a box-office stunt”. Other letters suggest an idea for a Jesuit biography, outline his editorial purposes with The Month (a Catholic review of literature and the arts, with an appeal mainly to non-Catholics – “an Horizon, with Catholic thinking instead of the fluff”) and refer to Waugh’s various contributions to the review (one offering remuneration in the form of caviar). Later letters from Edith Sitwell in 1955 discuss her hopes that she will soon be received into the Roman Catholic Church, and refer to her instruction by Fr Caraman.

Some intriguing snippets of information are to be found in the occasional letters. There is an interesting run, for example, from Joan Saunders at Writer’s and Speaker’s Research, a Kensington-based agency which offers a facts and figures answer service. Among these are responses to Waugh’s queries on topics including ‘Tanks for Russia Week’ in 1941, ‘Red Sunday’ (21 June 1942), London air raids and other news items in 1941. (She tells him, for instance, that clothes rationing was introduced in June of that year and that, in December, three miles of Hyde Park railings were removed in connection with the war effort.) Other letters comprise genealogical enquiries. In contrast, the final letter in the run – on a rather more esoteric note – concerns mythological sources for the rejuvenating properties of water and the information that, according to Plutarch, the average life expectancy of a water nymph is 9,620 years. I’m not sure if that detail ever found its way into any of Waugh’s writings, but it was no doubt useful knowledge to have.

As well as within other manuscripts collections at the British Library (including the archive of Edward Sackville-West, papers relating to Christopher Sykes’s 1975 biography and the Society of Authors’ Archive), important Waugh resources can be found within the Library’s collections of printed material and drama and literature recordings. The opportunity to listen to readings of works in an author’s own voice and to hear little-known broadcasts of talks, interviews and events offers an illuminating perspective on the man and the work. The Library’s Waugh recordings span a period of 25 years, from the earliest preserved recordings of his voice in 1938 to a speech given at the Royal Society of Literature in 1963, just three years before his death. Some of them were published on CD as part of the Library's Spoken Word series a few years ago.

I’m looking forward to being involved with the project as it progresses. It marks a defining moment in Waugh studies and may well prove to be the largest ever scholarly edition of a British author. More Waugh-related blog posts may be on their way between now and 2018!


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