The Letters of Evelyn Waugh edited by Mark Amory (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 14.50).
'FOR YOU and me this is the publishing event of the year. A -first reading is as good as a new novel by Evelyn Waugh; it is not a work of art, just a slice of the greatest Catholic novelist this country has produced. Mr Amory has selected 840 of the 4,500 letters he ferreted out.
There are some sad gaps: those to Fr D'Arcy his instructor in the Faith. and Teresa Jungman are not availably — why? Those to Lady Diana Cooper and lady Pansy Lamb are largely lost. There are 50 cuts for reasons of libel.
That is a pity. It is very kind of the living whose characters the letters spotlight or distort to allow publication. Mt Amory has had to apologise to M r Peter Quennell no less than three times. Waugh writes in two letters that Mr Quennell had collapsed from sexual excess. In fact he had a hangover. Waugh also writes of him: "Fuddy Duddy Fish Face, who has nothing to'say but has in his dry, vacuous way a mastery of the language." It is important to remember Waugh's method of joking.
To Alex Comfort on his first book he writes: "Your imagination was not so obsessed by your subject that it had to find literary expression. And that is
the only way a good book can result." Dr Comfort has since had a best-seller called The Jok. of Sex.
• Auberon Waugh comes in for some rough handling. The boy Jives for pleasure and is thought a great wit by his contemporaries. I have tried him drunk. I have tried him sober ..." At school, "he told his headmaster that I had separated from Laura and 'lived purely in Africa.' " When Logan Pearsall Smith left his money to John Russell, Waugh wrote: "It was a painful shock to find old Smith being imposed on by Trevor-Roper. I hope he gave that old blackguard expectations of a legacy." One could go on and on, with stories about John Betjeman, the Duchess of Windsor, Lady Caroline Thynnc, Mr Tom Bums. Among further information which I would wish to unearth is whether Maurice Bowra's comic poem on Princess Margaret and John Betjeman still survives.
Among his notes, the editor does make mistakes. he would not have said that Graham Grcene's play The Living Room was the first to make use of the lavatory on stage if he had read Ben Jonson's The Alchemist.
Professor Hans Kling did not die helped some people when Waugh wrote to his wife after an aeroplane journey: "I am afraid you have lost your first chance in the £50,000 draw." He was referring to an insurance policy.
Mark Amory is called by his publishers a friend of the Waugh family. He claims not to be writing biography. But the book is of the utmost biographical interest. With incidental imbalance, the letters point up Waugh's life admirably: from reckless aesthete to believer, then family man, soldier in danger of death, novelist, the amazing 'Pinfold' madman and the bored boozer.
Waugh's religion is prominent. He bullied John Betjeman so much that his wife had to ask him to stop as the poet would wake up at night trembling and sweating at the thought of Hell We hear of Waugh's giving up drink in Lent, no small sacrifice when he was downing seven bottles of wine and three of spirits a week even when he moderated.
He wrote a pained and paintful letter to Clarissa Eden on her apostasy. Of Macmillan, he writes that his appOintment of TrevorRoper as Regius shewed malice to the Church. "Perhaps he may find his soul in retirement." In Waugh's own dotage, he had to hang on to the Faith by his finger tips, with the Vatican Council's changes — "The buggering up of the Church is a deep sorrow to me."
Humour pervades the correspondence. For people like Lady Mary Lygon he had a private language: To Laycock to chuck an engagement; Dutch = unaccommodating (after Teresa Jungman); Jaggering sycophantic; Beast = priest; Highclere (the Herbert seat) = a grand house; 5 to 2 = Jew. So from '5 to 2 land' he writes: "They have a wall where the Jews blub. V. sensible idea."
Similarly. he calls Emma Laycock a negress, which she was not. Among the rude and funny instructions to Lady Mary Lygon on joining the London Library is: "When very drunk it is permissible to fall into a light doze but not to sing."
On St Bartholomew's day he writes to Nancy Mitford: "Today is a glorious anniversary in the sad history of your adopted country." To Christopher Sykes he writes: "You should have made the full Wednesday Sunday stay at Downside. You would have seen Abbot Lucius fall dead singing a ribald song." There are a lot of very funny stories too long to quote.
There are reflections on novelwriting. Of Brides/wad. he says: "I should not think six Americans will understand it." When it was a huge success there, he had second thoughts about its worth. This explains his rudeness to An American lady complimenting the book on television.
There is some light thrown on snobbery (p.255), but on balance the snobbery and rudeness were worth the solid friendships Waugh made. He was also remarkable for forging a strong marriage after his first annulment. His friends' lives are punctuated by divorce.
The book is expensive, but in real terms only one sixth the price of Pride and Prejudice when first published. Buy it.