Letters from the Great Names of 20th-Century English Literature at Bonhams

Remarkable letters to the novelist Anthony Powell from some of the most famous names in 20th century English literature - including Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin - are to be sold at Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts Sale in London on 15 June. They have a combined estimated value of more than £70,000.

Evelyn Waugh

The most extensive series of correspondence, 42 letters and cards estimated at £30,000-40,000, is from his lifelong friend Evelyn Waugh. The first was written in 1927 when Waugh was finishing work on his first commercially published book, Rossetti, which Powell was to publish in his capacity as an assistant at Duckworth’s. The following year, Waugh was writing about his first novel, Decline and Fall, which had been offered to Duckworth’s and was near completion. Waugh writes, “...I hope the novel will be finished in a week. I will send it to you as soon as it is typed & then want to revise it very thoroughly and enlarge it a bit. I think it at present shows signs of being too short. How do novelists make their books so long? I'm sure one could write any novel in the world on two postcards.”  

In the event, Duckworth’s turned down the novel which was then published by Chapman and Hall where Waugh’s father, Arthur, was managing director.

Many of the letters contain Waugh’s commentary on Powell’s own books, starting with A Question of Upbringing, the first in the 12 volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. Waugh wrote perceptively about each volume as it appeared ending with his comments on the seventh, The Valley of Bones in 1964 - he died a few months before the eighth in the series was published.

An unusual item in the collection is a telegram sent by Waugh to Powell in July 1929. Waugh’s ten-month old marriage to Evelyn Gardner (known to their friends as ‘She-Evelyn’) was disintegrating after she confessed to an affair with the BBC news editor John Heygate.  Powell - a friend of all three parties - was touring Germany with Heygate when he received, via the British Consulate in Munich, Waugh’s telegram demanding Heygate’s immediate return. (A set of letters to Powell from ‘She-Evelyn’ before, during, and after her marriage to Waugh is also in the sale, estimated £2,000-3,000).  

Graham Greene -  ‘A bloody boring book’

Powell’s relationship with Waugh’s fellow Catholic novelist, Graham Greene, was less close though friendly nonetheless.  Most of the 16 letters in the sale cover business matters, Greene being the director of fiction at Eyre & Spottiswode, publishers of Powell’s early novels. Their professional relationship came to an end when they fell out over Greene’s assessment of Powell’s Life of John Aubrey as ‘a bloody boring book’.  Powell asked to be released from his contract and Greene, exceeding his authority, agreed. Shortly afterwards, Greene resigned when the directors of the company disapproved of what he had done. This went some way to restoring their personal relationship.  As Greene wrote, "Now that we are again in the position of friends and not of author and publisher, do look in for a drink!"  The letters are estimated at £4,000-6,000.

Philip Larkin - ‘Poetry packed me up about five years ago’

The 17 letters and cards from Philip Larkin, estimated at £3,000-4,000, span the period 1958-1985, the year of the poet's death. The letters from the last few years of Larkin’s life are particularly poignant as he contemplates both the process of ageing - ‘How dull old age is apart from anything else!’ - his status as a grand old man of literature when his creative powers had waned - ‘Poetry packed me up about five years ago’  - and his own mortality - ‘very fed up at present; all going or gone, wrong.’ In the last letter of the series Larkin writes warmly of A Dance to the Music of Time, "My convalescence at home is currently enlivened by re-reading The Music of Time. I am simply racing through it, and my only regret is that it is so short.”

Other correspondents include TS Eliot, John Betjeman, Nancy Mitford - including her famous account of a disastrous lunch with the literary critic Cyril Connolly - Benjamin Britten whom Powell had consulted on the accuracy of the musical milieu in which the fifth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is largely set - and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Powell had met Fitzgerald, by appointment, in the canteen at MGM in 1937 when the American novelist’s work - now universally famous - was hardly known in the United Kingdom and Fitzgerald’s health had already been ruined by the alcoholism which killed him three years later.

Bonhams Head of Books and Manuscripts, Matthew Haley said “Anthony Powell was at the very heart of literary and cultural life in Britain for much of the 20th century. Looking through these amazing letters, you realize that there was no one in the world of literature that he didn’t know and correspond with. The letters provide a fascinating window into this world - the authors’ rivalries and their views on each other’s work. Although this correspondence has been available to scholars, it hasn’t been offered for sale before and so I expect a great deal of interest.”

Anthony Powell (1905-2000) was an English novelist and man of letters best known for his twelve-volume work A Dance to the Music of Time published between 1951 and 1975. The novels trace the lives of a large cast of characters over many decades and the series has been compared to Marcel Proust’s novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).  

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