What a fabulous year 1937 was for Evelyn Waugh! By that I don’t mean that, at 34, he’d got married to a 21-year-old fellow Catholic from an old English family, Laura Herbert. Nor do I mean that, after years of homeless wandering, Evelyn finally had a house of his own, thanks in part to a gift from his mother-in-law, Lady Herbert. Instead, I simply mean that the purchase of Piers Court, Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire, meant that - AT LAST - Evelyn would have a library he could call his own.
Piers Court, Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire, England.
What a wonderful year 1966 was for Laura Waugh. I don’t say this sarcastically because her husband - Evelyn Waugh, the father of her seven children - died at the relatively young age of 62. Nor do I mean that, after years of hoovering up First Folios, manuscript collections and personal libraries from around the world, a rich Texan, Harry Ransom, was going to make sure that Laura Waugh had enough funds to cover Death Duties. I mean that - AT LAST - Laura was going to be free of all those damned books!
Actually, it was 1968 when the deal was concluded re Evelyn’s library, but let the above stand. Laura was paid $8,500 for the lot. There were nearly 3000 books in the library, many of them written in by Evelyn Waugh or dedicated to him by such contemporaries as John Betjeman and Graham Greene. And the deal included about 100 Waugh manuscripts, plus the fancy shelving that Evelyn had commissioned, and even a marble bust of the author. What is the present value of the Waugh Library? Oh, millions of pounds, even if you took out the manuscript of Brideshead Revisited.
The situation reminds me of a passage in Decline and Fall - Waugh’s sparkling first novel, the manuscript of which is now with the rest of the spoils in Texas - when that eminently charming yet deliciously dangerous character, Margot Beste Chetwynde, inherited the country seat of King’s Thursday. She immediately ordered the centuries-old building to be demolished and replaced with ‘something clean and square’. Step forward, the young Texan - sorry, architect - Professor Silenus, to design a modernist monstrosity.
Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas, USA.
The original idea was that Evelyn’s library would be recreated in Texas as it was in Combe Florey House, Somerset, the fine home to which the Waughs had moved in 1956 and in which they remained until Evelyn died. And, although the library shelves, paintings and other accoutrements were all shipped across the Atlantic, this hasn’t happened. The manuscripts are kept in folders in numbered boxes. For instance, box one, folder six, contains the manuscripts of Black Mischief and Brideshead Revisited. If it helps you picture the situation, imagine the boxes look like the HRC building itself. The books from Waugh’s library that were once shelved so particularly are now shelved, as a group, but in general stacks in regular library ranges in a most democratic way that Evelyn would have deplored.
But there is a light at the end of those miles of grey corridor. For a recently employed computerised filing system means that the contents of Evelyn Waugh’s library is now - in a curious but concrete way - available to everyone on the planet who has a computer that connects to the internet.
In other words - at least if I have this project properly conceived and have the wherewithal to see it through - what a fabulous year 2013/16 is going to be for English Literature! Or at least for that important section of it labelled ‘Waugh Studies’.