Over the past few years, it just so happens that I’ve read a fair number of memoirs, biographies (D. J. Taylor’s Bright Young People, Paula Byrne’s Mad World, and Michael Byrne’s Anthony Powell: A Life) and romans à clef (Powell’s twelve novels of A Dance to the Music of Time) dealing with the milieu in which Evelyn Waugh lived and it would appear for the most part thrived. I was, therefore, pleased to find this volume so that I could read from the source as it were. While, for whatever reasons, I’m not so keen on Waugh’s heavily satiric novels, I always tell people should they ask that if I could write a novel of the calibre of Brideshead Revisited, I’d consider my life pretty well spent.
Waugh captures one’s attention with his opening sentence: “Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography.” Is that actually true? Do I agree? Is the future “the dreariest of prospects”? (1). I’m not sure. Perhaps after one reaches a certain age the future doesn’t beckon with any great promise while the past becomes bathed in an ever more misty, golden glow of reminiscence. Perhaps not. Whether one agrees with Waugh or not, his opening certainly sets the tone for the rest of his book.
After a chapter “Heredity” devoted to his family background and diagrammed in a kind of family tree entitled “Professional Antecedents,” Waugh covers the period from his birth in 1903 to his life as a schoolmaster in a private preparatory school in the early nineteen-twenties. He seems to suggest that he was genetically predisposed to a career as a writer, for interspersed among the civil servants, lawyers, soldiers, doctors and clergymen, who were his forefathers, there were also writers.
A Little Learning describes a world that Waugh, writing in the early nineteen-sixties, felt was already gone, a world when Hampstead still felt very rural, a world of family visits to relatives in the west country, of rides on buses to museums; a world of maiden aunts and pony traps, the sunny ordered world of an Edwardian childhood. Into this idyll come the Great War and for Evelyn Waugh, too young to be a soldier as his brother became, the harsh reality of Lancing College with its rules, its hierarchies, and, horror of horror for a child raised as Waugh had been raised, its doorless latrines.
Life improved somewhat as Waugh moved up the school, but Waugh recalls himself as “weary of life” and forming a “‘Corpse Club’” who wore “black ties, a black tassel in . . .[their]button holes and [who] wrote on mourning note-paper.” Waugh held “the chief office as ‘Undertaker’” (138). When one remembers one’s own self at eighteen, one does, perhaps, recognize a certain self-indulgence in hyperbolic disillusion. More apt to raise one’s eyebrows than Waugh’s youthful melancholia is his description of the curriculum. He went to university, “completely ignorant of Geography and all the natural sciences. In Mathematics,” he and his contemporaries “had advanced scarcely at all” since leaving prep school (140). In fact, Waugh concludes the chapter by observing that his education “was the preparation for one trade only; that of an English prose writer” (140).
While one does perhaps sympathize or at least smile indulgently at Waugh’s adolescent intellectual posturings, I find I have less sympathy for the undergraduate who admits to being drunk a good proportion of his time in Oxford and to being so constantly in debt. I suspect that the difference in response lies in Waugh’s own difference in attitude with regard to his school and university experiences. He admits embarrassment about his school self but claims that his “only serious regret of . . .[his] Oxford life is the amount of time. . .wasted on. . . [his] books in . . [his] last term” (207). But then, one asks oneself, if Waugh had not dallied his time away so that despite the feverish work of the last term he earned only a third class degree, would we have had Brideshead? Would I ever have discovered the joys of champagne and strawberries had my undergraduate self not been required to read that particular novel?
There are other moments in the book, too, that precipitate slight discomfort. Waugh refers to the female students present in the Oxford of his day as “undergraduettes.” How one’s teeth grind. Even though A Little Learning is nearly fifty years old, and one realizes that one must accept the book in its context—Waugh was in his sixties when he wrote it, so one must allow him, I suppose, to be a product of his own time and upbringing—the word “undergraduettes” does rankle. Similarly, his tone when discussing the benefits of even “superficial classical studies” is dismissive of those “who have not been so taught—most Americans and most women” claiming that “unless they are guided by some rare genius, [they] betray their deprivation.” One is tempted to respond with a vulgar “Says who?” I did have the benefits of a classical education—the fact that it was only superficial was my own fault—so I can empathize with Waugh’s assertion that he has “never read Latin for pleasure” and would be “hard put to it to compose a simple epitaph” (139). Nevertheless, I am not totally convinced that only classical studies allow “a boy [what about a girl?] to understand that a sentence is a logical construction.” And I am not comfortable with his assertion that “words have basic inalienable meanings, departure from which is either conscious metaphor or inexcusable vulgarity” (139).
My other disappointment with the book, and disappointment is really too strong a word, is that I would have liked more explanation of his religious views. He mentions his conversion to Roman Catholicism and includes a very short chapter “A Brief History of My Religious Opinions,” and one isn’t surprised by his adolescent atheism. However, while not expecting a complete Apologia in a Newmanesque vein, I had hoped for a little more than he gives.
Despite this lack and despite my concerns about his attitudes to women (and Americans?), I enjoyed this book. Yes, its attitudes are a little dated, its mood occasionally elegiac, and given this nostalgic tone, I was a little surprised that Waugh included no photographs. Waugh appears candid and self-insightful; I wish he had written the second volume. I would have liked to have known more about the writer who abandoned a suicide attempt when stung by a jelly fish and who had the courage/audacity to write a novel about “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters” (Preface 1959 Brideshead Revisited).