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  • Cultural Record Keepers:The Evelyn Waugh Library, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin
  • Richard W. Oram

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Early bookplate of Evelyn Waugh, ca.1920, designed by Waugh. Courtesy Evelyn Waugh Library, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Evelyn Waugh's 3,500-volume library, now at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, is a monument to the novelist's bibliophilic interests. Waugh (1903–66) was a genuine bibliographical connoisseur with a strong and nearly lifelong fascination with books as physical objects. Waugh's letters and diaries are filled with observations on book illustration, collecting, fine bindings, paper, and other bookish lore. Waugh's bibliophilia in turn led him to a nearly obsessive concern with the design and appearance of his own published works.

The bookplates in the Waugh Library have considerable biographical as well as bibliographical interest. Many books bear the armorial bookplate of Arthur Waugh, Evelyn's father, a noted publisher and Edwardian man of letters. As a child Evelyn regarded his father's library [End Page 325] as a place of refuge and intellectual stimulation, but as their relationship cooled he came to despise many of the authors (and their works) closely associated with his father, especially Dickens, whose works Arthur Waugh had edited for the Nonesuch Dickens series. In the mid-1930s Evelyn accidentally set a portion of his father's library on fire with a cigar after a night of heavy drinking. A few singed volumes are still in the family's possession. Arthur was understandably not amused. Upon Arthur's death portions of the library went to Evelyn and his brother Alec.

At Lancing College and later at Oxford Evelyn Waugh began to collect fine bindings, prints, and books about books. His collecting career temporarily came to an abrupt halt because of mounting university debts, which eventually led to an auction of the choicer items. This traumatic episode was the basis for Waugh's early short story "TheBalance" (1926).

His earliest library bookplate bears the author's strong personal stamp. It features a spare modernist design in black and red, with the author's full name (Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh) proudly displayed in the center and phrases from the marriage ceremony around the perimeter. Although it is not known when Waugh actually designed and began using this plate, it seems in style and spirit to belong to the early 1920s. Only a handful of earlier books from Waugh's library bear it. In his youth Waugh had taken a strong interest in art, design, and calligraphy. He is, of course, one of the few major novelists to have illustrated his own work (most notably, his first novel, Decline and Fall [1928]). During his school days he designed several woodcut bookplates for friends; examples of these may be found in the Ransom Center collections, and the efforts are more than creditable. Lord de Tabley's Guide to the Study of Bookplates may be found in the Waugh Library, and it is apparent that the subject was one of considerable interest to Waugh. His early modernist bookplate also reflects Waugh's youthful (and often overlooked) affinity for avant-garde art. One of his first publications at Lancing College, for example, was a defense of cubism.

A somewhat puzzling aspect of the early bookplate is the use of the marriage vows ("for better for worse"). Is Waugh referring to his relationship with his books? Here one recalls Waugh's infamous wartime diary entry in which he defended his decision to evacuate his library, but not his family, from London: "The truth is that a child is easily replaced while a book destroyed is utterly lost; also a child is eternal; but most that I have a sense of absolute possession over my library and not over my nursery."1 The uncomfortable truth may be that Waugh bonded more strongly to books than to the people closest to him. [End Page 326]

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Figure 1.

Evelyn Waugh bookplate featuring Waugh family coat of arms. Courtesy Evelyn Waugh Library, Harry Ransom...


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pp. 325-328
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