BOOKS, 1939

1939 began with Evelyn Waugh in his library. One way of envisaging this is to travel to the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, obtain permission to access the appropriate hallway, remove the velvet rope protecting Waugh’s desk, and make yourself comfortable in the seat there. After a while you may find yourself declaiming: ‘I am Evelyn Waugh. I want fine carved pedestals on either side of me. And I want them NOW.”

Alternatively, you can stay where you are - slap bang in the middle of OEL. Though, admittedly, I have had more than a little help from the HRC, as it is the indirect source of this important photograph:

Image courtesy of Evelyn Waugh Library, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, via the frontispiece of Evelyn Waugh, A Literary Biography, 1924-1966 by John Howard Wilson.

Waugh was writing up his experiences in Mexico which took him until April. Not a book that he would ever be proud of, indeed a copy of it wasn’t even in the library that Harry Ransom inherited. In early 1939 he was also reviewing books for T
he Spectator. However, he did not keep a diary in the first half of 1939. But stay tuned for the second half of the year. Oh yes, stay tuned for that word fest.

Evelyn reviewed
The Holy Terror by HG Wells in The Spectator of February 10, and Christmas Holiday, by Somerset Maugham, a week later. Our Evelyn’s Library does not contain either book as yet. The cover images below have been taken from copies presently for sale on Not exactly inspiring examples of cover design, are they?


These are two of the 27 books printed in 1939 that are in Waugh’s Library in Texas. There’s no mention of the dust-jackets being present. Richard Oram, the librarian there, has told me that Waugh tended to get rid of these, sometimes sticking a portion of a jacket into the book itself. But on this occasion it’s Waugh’s own reviews of
The Holy Terror and Christmas Holiday that have been mounted on the back paste-down endpaper.

Wells’s book is about a dictator. Waugh writes that: ‘It is all too apparent that Mr Wells’s interest lies in the diffuse political discussions which form the bulk of the book and that the story is incidental.’ Waugh is impressed with the author’s analysis of politics. According to him, Wells ‘refuses to be misled by the preposterous distinctions of Left and Right that make nonsense of contemporary politics.’ The lower-middle brow public for which Wells writes could benefit from accepting that it was the problems that Wells faced in his own youth - ‘religion, nationality, monogamy, the Classics, gentility, general lack of information’ - that they should be getting fussed about. The review ends by regretting the intrinsically poor quality of the writing.

In contrast, the Somerset Maugham book, per our Evelyn, is very well written. ‘For pure technical facility I think his new novel is his best.’ Again the book is about a monomaniac (the presence of Hitler seems to have been hard to ignore in the late 1930s). This time Waugh’s complaint is about the ending: pure bathos. The book’s main character comes back from his holiday in Paris and from the company of the maniac, a slightly wiser man than he had been before!

Next up for Evelyn Waugh, puffing on his reviewer’s cigar, is
The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene, noticed in The Spectator on March 10, and Journey to a War by WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood, which appeared a couple of weeks later. Below are the covers. Again, both books at the Harry Ransom Centre lack dust-jackets (though the Auden & Isherwood one does have an intriguing Planet of the Apes look) and have Waugh’s reviews pasted in at the back.


Evelyn begins his review of Graham Greene’s book by referring in modest terms to his own work on Mexico. He suggests that Greene’s journey was heroic while his own was homely. Moreover, Greene was poor, ill and alone while Waugh was well funded, in robust health, and had good company (his wife). Mexico seems to have disgusted both of the Oxford-educated, Catholic converts. Waugh ends his review by stating in some detail how civilised Mexico had been until relatively recently, and how far it had fallen via a 35-year dictatorship, a century of revolution and the ‘totalitarian-proletarian regime’ whose rule left both writers appalled.

Evelyn has no great objection to Christopher Isherwood’s travel writing, though he doesn’t think it compares well to his fiction, but he has no time for the poetry of Auden which accompanies the Far Eastern travelogue that makes up the bulk of
Journey to a War. Evelyn was so dismissive of Auden’s high ranking in literary circles that a letter of protest from Stephen Spender appeared in the next issue of The Spectator. Waugh’s response to that was crushing and can be read on page 120 of The Letters of Evelyn Waugh.

At the end of June, 1939, Waugh resumed his diary. A month later he tells us that he has rewritten the first chapter of Work Suspended] about six times and at last happy with it. It’s a pity he didn’t resume his diary in May, because then he could have mentioned his trip to the Royal Academy and his study of the Charles Spencelayh paintings on display. The first chapter of Work Suspended is called DEATH and is about the death of the father of the protagonist, John Plant, a painter in the Victorian tradition as was Charles Spencelayh. In the first chapter, Plant’s father dies with his 1939 picture for the RA still unfinished. John Plant had seen it, however. ‘It was to be called Again? and represented a one-armed veteran of the First World War meditating over a German helmet. My father had given the man a grizzled beard and was revelling in it.’ In other words, Evelyn described such a painting in the immediate aftermath of seeing this one, called Why War? by Charles Spencelayh:


It’s a gas mask rather than a German helmet the old soldier (he’s wearing medal ribbons) is mulling over. The general decor of the room is decidedly Victorian - the thistle-motif wallpaper is magnificent, in its way - though the newspaper on the chair reports Chamberlain’s now infamous visit to Hitler where he returned with the piece of paper entitled ‘Peace in our Time’. Letters from EW to Diana Cooper suggest that looking at the Spencelayh’s at the Royal Academy became an annual treat for Evelyn. He may even have bought one or more, as, while living in Piers Court, he did put together a collection of traditional paintings.

Waugh tells us in his diary that an enormous pair of portraits of George III and his wife came his way in August, 1939, and that he didn’t know what to do with them. On 8 August, he wrote that the ‘sham bookbacks’ he’d ordered had been delivered and put in place. If you look at the photograph of Waugh in his library at the top of this page, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the books in the top shelves behind Evelyn are the sham ones.

On 17 August, 1939, he writes that when sitting in his library he is opposite the portrait of George III and that he intends to keep things that way.

I’ve drawn that below on a plan of the library provided by an estate agent.


While the portrait was being fitted, Evelyn thought of writing ‘scribble, scribble’ on a ribbon across the top. As instruction of a king to his subject? Words of admonishment from on high? Perhaps, but also a reference to a comment that the king’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester, made in 1781 when presented with a copy of
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by its author, Edward Gibbon. The Duke said: "Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbon?"

On the 1st of September, Waugh wrote that his man had finished the new arrangements of panels in the library. The west wall was symmetrical and, with the George III portrait, ‘looks absolutely splendid’.

The picture in question was by the Scottish painter, Allan Ramsay, and was a copy of the portrait of George III that hangs in Buckingham Palace. Waugh had already made a joking reference to Buck Pal when a party invitation he designed shortly after his first marriage included directions on how to get to the Evelyns’ Islington flat from Buckingham Palace. I believe there is also a seated portrait of George III by Ramsay, but when I checked with Richard Oram as to whether the portrait, now in Texas, was of a seated George III he was very definite that the figure was NOT sitting. The picture below is the right one then: the painting that Evelyn chose to look up at when giving his eyes a break from whatever he was writing or reading in late 1939:


Alas, Evelyn didn’t get to enjoy the new ambience of his library for long. With war looming, he decided that he should play an active soldier’s role in it. Note the sword tied around the king’s waist in the portrait of George III. One can almost hear the monarch urging: “Less ‘scribble, scribble’ and more ‘sword of honour’, Evelyn.”

Evelyn further decided (even though Laura was the mother of a one-year-old child, with a second baby on the way) that the house should be rented out until the inevitable war was over. By the end of September a convent of nuns had moved into Piers Court and the Waugh family had moved out.

At least Evelyn, Laura and baby had somewhere to go. Laura’s family owned Pixton Park, an enormous country house in Somerset, which Evelyn (according to his oldest son, Auberon, who spent his first few years there), ridiculed in terms of old fogeyness at the beginning and end of
Scoop. Waugh’s diary tells us that there was already a household of 54 when they arrived at Pixton, including 26 evacuated children.

A couple of days after arriving at Pixton, Waugh seemed to have settled down. At least he was able to write that he was reviewing a badly edited, collected edition of Lewis Carroll.

The Carroll book must have found its way to Piers Court eventually. Certainly, the copy is part of the Waugh LIbrary currently held at the HRC in Texas. And I’m pleased to say that it’s part of Our Evelyn’s Library here in Blairgowrie. I’m delighted with the volume I bought for £5. It’s the same edition that came out as
The Penguin Complete Lewis Carroll in 1982, and which I bought round about then. When I opened the paperback earlier this week, to check that it was the exact same edition, the opening pages floated free of the glue binding. There will be no such problem from the Nonesuch book, a well-made hardback with all its thousand-plus pages securely stitched into place.

Waugh’s review concentrates on two points. First, that the volume’s editor had muddled together Lewis Carroll texts with Charles Dodgson ones, despite the author’s consistent attempts to keep the names completely separate during his lifetime. Second, that Sylvie and Bruno, the dream-children that haunt the eponymous story, play no part in the substance of
Sylvie and Bruno. They were there because of some ‘psychological peculiarity’ of the author’s. Waugh concluded that Dodgson’s faith was so precarious that, to keep his mind from rational speculation, he got into the habit of day-dreaming, peopling his inner world with outlandish characters.

Evelyn couldn’t settle at Pixton and took himself off to the hotel at Chagford where he would sometimes retreat in order to write. It’s where he wrote part of
Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust. It’s where he put together Mr Loveday’s Little Outing and Other Stories. In seclusion, he wrote the second chapter of the haunting story that would be published in 1942 as Work Suspended. That second chapter, titled BIRTH, is about a pregnancy, echoing Laura’s own pregnancy at the time, and Laura did travel from Pixton to join Evelyn at Chagford for his 36th birthday weekend at the end of October, 1939.

November and December involved trips to London, interviews for military jobs, medical boards and an interview with his agent that turned into gossip about what was happening at the Ministry of Information. Waugh’s idea of a wartime magazine was frustrated by Cyril Connolly having got in there first with such a scheme. Evelyn went to the Slip-In and drank three bottles of champagne and a bottle of rum with Kathleen Meyrick.

The next day, Evelyn wrote that his hangover ‘removed all illusions of heroism’. Perhaps so, but by December 6, Waugh was back in London, trying on uniforms. Evelyn had joined the marines. As demanded by his sense of duty to King and country, he had finally exchanged his country house for a barracks.

So what was going on back at Piers Court? Were the nuns remembering to dust Evelyn’s books? I can’t drop in on the place in December 1939, as Doctor Who could, but this photo of me looking in to the appropriate room at Piers Court was taken in December 2006, so let it stand in place of more ambitious time travel.

pierscourt2006 - Version 2

I suspect that if Evelyn had been here, at home, when he’d received
The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll he’d have felt able to concentrate on different aspects of the wonderful material. After all, in 1944, in a mood of nostalgia, again at Chagford, he wrote about Charles Ryder going to Sebastian Flyte’s rooms at Christ Church, and eating plovers’ eggs there with Anthony Blanche et al. Christ Church is the college that Charles Dodgson was a fellow at all his adult life. And it was from Christ’s Church that Dodgson set off with Alice Liddell - the daughter of the Dean of the college - for a day’s rowing on the river that would be turned into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The same afternoon on the river later inspired the equally sublime, though more melancholy, Through the Looking Glass. The Dodgson and Alice rowing expedition got as far as Godstowe that glorious afternoon in 1862. Which is exactly where Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte returned to eat dinner following Charles’s first glorious visit to Brideshead Castle in 1923.

Okay, I think I’ve got to where I wanted to be. Let’s see if my calculations are right about that:


I'll tell thee everything I can;
There's little to relate.
Ev saw a noble noble man,
A-standing elongate.
"Who are you noble man?" Ev said,
"And how is it you live?"
And his answer trickled through Ev’s head
Like water through a sieve.


He said "I look for butterflies
That sleep among the wheat:
I make them into mutton-pies,
And sell them in the street.
I sell them unto men," he said,
"Who sail on stormy seas;
And that's the way I get my bread--
A trifle, if you please."


But Ev was thinking of a plan
To dye Vile Bodies green.
And always use so large a fan
That it could not be seen.
So, having no reply to give
To what the fine man said,
Ev cried, "Come, tell me how you live!"
And thumped him on the head.


His accents mild took up the tale:
He said "I go my ways,
And when I find a mountain-rill,
I set it in a blaze;
And thence they make a stuff they call
Rowlands' Macassar Oil -
Yet twopence-halfpenny is all
They give me for my toil."


But Ev was thinking of a way
To write a book with batter,
So it would go, from day to day
Getting a little fatter.
Ev shook George well from side to side,
Until his face was blue: "Come, tell me how you live," he cried,
"And what it is you do!"


George said "I hunt for haddocks' eyes
Among the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat-buttons
In the silent night.
And these I do not sell for gold
Or coin of silvery shine
But for a copper halfpenny,
And that will purchase nine.

"I sometimes dig for buttered rolls,
Or set limed twigs for crabs;
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of Hansom-cabs.
And that's the way" (he gave a wink)
"By which I get my wealth -
And very gladly will I drink
Your Honour's noble health."


Ev heard him then, for he had just
Completed his design
To keep Decline and Fall from rust
By boiling it in wine.
Ev thanked George much for telling him
The way he got his wealth,
But chiefly for his wish that he
Might drink his noble health.

And now, if e'er by chance Ev puts
His fingers into glue
Or madly squeezes a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe,
Or if he drops upon his toe
A very heavy weight,
He weeps, for it reminds him so,
Of that fine man he used to know—
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo--
That summer evening, long ago,
A-standing elongate.


I have to say that all the way through the above, I’ve had to resist the temptation to slip in a reproduction of the Charles Spencelayh painting in place of the portrait of George III. The old soldier’s head of white hair, luxuriant moustache and lugubrious look are perfect for that half of the poem, as is the thistle wallpaper and all-embracing Victoriana. Indeed, if I looked hard enough at the painting I feel I might see a bottle of Rowland’s Macassar Oil on the table and even a wheel from a Hansom cab under the chest of drawers.

More than that, I can sense how much Evelyn Waugh loved that original Spencelayh but had settled for the much more affordable copy of the Ramsay. Never mind, he would be adding to his collection of Victorian art in due course.

But for the moment, there was something more urgent to attend to. What was that again?

Bookplate, prior to annotations, courtesy of Alexander Waugh.


Thanks to John Howard Wilson for information and advice.

Thanks to Alexander Waugh for not minding my annotations to Evelyn’s armorial bookplate and to the Harry Ransom Center for taking an employee off general stacking duties and putting him on an advanced carpentry course so that, one day, two finely carved pedestals will again flank Evelyn Waugh’s desk.

It was Ann Pasternak Slater, giving a talk called ‘On Work Suspended’ at the Evelyn Waugh Conference in 2011, who first brought my attention to Waugh’s debt to Spencelayh’s
Why War?.

Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘A-Sitting on a Gate’ which I quote above in slightly adapted form, was a tribute to his friend the Victorian fantasist, George MacDonald, author of
The Princess and the Goblin, the book that Enid Blyton read a dozen times during her childhood. At least that’s what I argue in ‘The George MacDonald Diary’ which appears in George MacDonald 1824-1905.

If any copyright holder wants a more formal credit to be given, please let me know. If any reader has an unwanted copy of a book that was in Evelyn Waugh’s library in 1939, then please consider donating it to Our Evelyn’s Library where it will be book-plated and, in due course, shelved. All donations to:

35 Reform Street
Perthshire, UK
PH10 6AZ