Evelyn Waugh, Apprentice, nicely edited by Robert Murray Davis, will not appeal to the general reader. For reading Waugh's earliest efforts at prose, poetry, and dialogue has much the same sort of charm that looking at faded childhood photographs of friends and acquaintances has—a very little goes a long way. But the reader who is interested in the youngster who became one of our century's most elegant stylists and stylish wits will relish the emergent voice that ultimately distinguished the mature artist. And in this collection it is possible both to hear and to enjoy that voice: "a great work of art can only be appreciated by a small portion of the world"; "It was said of him that he had once cut the headmaster in London because he met him wearing a brown overcoat with evening dress"; "The time has come to find something outrageous and original to say if you want a hearing." The piece titled "Conversion" gives the reader an appreciation of Waugh's ear for spoken language, and the poem titled "The World to Come" makes the reader grateful Waugh gave up poetry for prose. "The National Game," a story about biotherly influence, perhaps the most finished of the early pieces, concludes with the observation that money is better spent on "dining well and going to the theatre" than on cricket—everyone to one's own tastes, older brothers included.
Jacqueline McDonnell's Waugh on Women exerts a peculiar fascination on the reader, for despite the fact that many of the observations are irrelevant to an appreciation or understanding of Waugh's artistry, they do suggest the creative processes and the relationship between the observed world and the world of the imagination. McDonnell's study, furthermore, indicates both the advantages and limitations of feminist criticism. [End Page 733]
Attempting to identify from life the individuals who were transformed into characters in Waugh's fiction, McDonnell goes so far as to ascribe eye and hair color derived from various women of his acquaintance. This leads her to make meaningless statements: "There is much about Cordelia and Helena that is Lady Betejeman, and there is a lot that is not. Waugh's imagination obviously seized on various characteristics of his female friends, and he used some of the characteristics as seeds from which to grow his fictional characters. Evelyn Waugh enjoyed socializing with women, and from their company he gained an immediate ear for their language." McDonnell's attributions for such characters as Julia Stitch depend largely on her reading A Little Learning, the diaries, Christopher Sykes's biography, as well as statements by Auberon Waugh and others, and one cannot be certain that they are always correct. To determine exactly who inspired whom and in what degree would involve a great deal of reading and checking that ultimately suggests much ado about nothing. It appears likely, however, that someone will eventually deal with this matter, for gossip has its own charms.
McDonnell's observations about the limited intelligence of Waugh's female characters are both provoking and provocative. She sees, for example, Waugh's most attractive women as largely "bitches"—here she quotes Sykes—but she fails to follow through. Does the satirical purpose or the comic form of the particular work permit a characterization of depth? To characterize Nina Blount of Vile Bodies as a woman who uses sex appeal for security and who wants only marriage obscures a mind-set occasioned by the economic depression of which she is a victim. The great need of Waugh's Bright Young People is for permanence, an observation made in that novel by Father Rothschild, S.J. in properly pompous rhetoric, the theme that emerges overtly in A Handful of Dust, again in Brideshead.
As for Lady Marchmain, perhaps Waugh's most challenging female character, McDonnell observes that her "eyes are obviously so blue that she doesn't need eye shadow." Based in part on the...