Auctions | February 13, 2015

Newly Discovered Waugh Letters at Bonhams

A newly discovered letter by Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) written when he was just 16 features in Bonhams  sale of Fine Books, Manuscripts, Atlases and Historical Photographs in London on Wednesday 18 March.  Letters by the juvenile Waugh are extremely rare and only one is known to predate it. 

Estimated at £1,000-1,500, the letter was written on Wednesday 31 December 1919 to Stella Morrah saying how sorry he is that she is ill and cannot come dancing that evening—New Year’s Eve.  He hopes that she might have recovered sufficiently to go out later in the week. “If you are well enough would you care to come with us to a dance at St Jude’s Hall on Saturday night?  We should be awfully pleased if you could, as we are trying to get a small party together.”  There is no sign here of the sophisticate Waugh was to become when he went up to Oxford in 1922 nor, indeed, of the mastery of English prose on which his fame rests.  He uses the word ‘awfully’ three times in the space of eleven lines and comes across as a typical gauche schoolboy.

Another unknown Waugh letter written much later in his life to his friend and fellow Catholic novelist Graham Greene is also to be sold.  It dates from June 1950 when both men had established successful careers and were engaged on plans for a film version of Waugh’s 1945 bestselling novel Brideshead Revisited for which Greene was to have provided the script.  The letter, however, is dominated by domestic matters, problems with publishers and possible travel plans.  Waugh’s wife Laura was heavily pregnant with their seventh child, Septimus, who was born five weeks later though as Waugh comments, “Experts don’t know within weeks when it is due.  I thought science had made bigger strides than that.”

The novelists shared a French publisher, Robert Laffonte, but Waugh had been persuaded by Nancy Mitford, against Greene’s advice, to make a change.  In the letter Waugh explains his decision, “I thought the printing & paper of my books beastly and so far as I can judge the translations poor.  English publishers are quite exceptionally good now & it’s no good expecting foreigners to be like them. But thanks awfully for your advice. I wish I could take it.”

Although Waugh and Greene had their disagreements they remained close friends for most of their adult lives and had a deep admiration for each other’s writing.  Waugh’s letter ends with regret that he has to turn down Greene’s suggestion of a foreign venture but holds out the prospect of a trip later in the year.  “The prospect of another August appals me. How about a trip to Jerusalem in the autumn?”

Bonhams Head of Books, Matthew Haley said, “Very few of Waugh’s letters from his adolescence have survived so this rather touching insight into a shy unformed young man, far removed from the worldly figure he cut in his 20s, is especially valuable.”