The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography
by Douglas Lane Patey
Henry James and sexuality
by Hugh Stevens
While he was a pupil at lancing, Evelyn Waugh tried to start a discussion on the subject of homosexuality. As an editorial in the school newspaper, he published a ficti tious conversation between a visitor and a schoolboy like him. lie wanted to show that passionate friendships between pupils were not necessarily disruptive or corrupting, and that the authorities were wrong to intervene in an area that did not concern them
A few years before, his brother Alec had launched a great offensive against the public schools through his acclaimed novel, The Loom of Youth (1917).?w In a less well-known work, Public-School Life. Boys, Parents, Masters (1922) he gives a very detailed description ol homosexuality in the public schools, defends romantic friendships and denounces the hypocrisy that surrounded the subject. Noting that the system of the public schools is (in this respect) contrary to nature, he says that one must expect results contrary to nature. He calls the time spent in public school a phase of sexual transition; and says that most of the “active immorality in the schools” takes place between fifteen-and sixteen-year-old boys; not, as is frequently imagined, between the younger and older boys.” He says that, like everything else at school, homosexuality has to conform to rules; there arc rules for everything, and friendships, like personalities, must fit the mold. It is the endless talk about homosexuality that keeps interest alive and ensures that the phenomenon will be reproduced.
Waugh also highlights some neglected aspects of homosexual life in the public schools. First of all, having 18 or 19 year old boys in some of the houses can only create a difficult climate, for at this age sexual impulses more definitely demand physical satisfaction. Then, romantic friendships can have harmful consequences for the younger boys. A young one who becomes the friend of an older boy finds himself suddenly propelled to the top of the school hierarchy; he gets to know other boys in the upper forms, and he receives various privileges; boys in Iris own form become jealous or hate him, and he loses contact with reality. When his guardian leaves the school, he finds himself alone and unwanted. Moreover, constantly separating love from sex can cause trouble for the lads later in life. To change this situation, Waugh became an advocate of coeducation; he called for a freer discussion of these subjects, and for better public information:
- There is so much ignorance to dissipate; the ignorance of the mothers, the ignorance of the fathers who have not themselves been in public school, the conspiracy of silence among the pupils, alumni and masters. We make too much of immorality, and at the same time we do not pay enough attention to it. The headmasters assure us that it only crops up occasionally, but their attitude is like that of a doctor who suspects his patient lias a grave illness and simply goes on observing him, looking for signs.
These attempts to start a discussion of homosexuality were not the only ones and it wasn’t only the pupils who were concerned.
A history of homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris, 1919-1939, volume I & II
by Florence Tamagne
A history of homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris, 1919-1939, volume I & II
by Florence Tamagne
And so, Oxford in the 1920s became a myth, the symbol of the triumph of homosexuality in England. Alumni -turned writers sought to describe the happiness of their youth; examples include Christopher Isherwood’s Liens and Shadows, Stephen Splender’s World within World and, especially, Evelyn Waugh with Brideshead Revisited the book that most successfully disseminated the mythical image of Oxford as a homosexual paradise. Waugh captures the very essence of Oxford, the romantic passions (between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte). the unrestrained aestheticism and flamboyant homosexuality (Anthony Blanche) and the nostalgia for adolescence (embodied by Aloysius. the teddy bear that Sebastian refuses to leave). Beyond the idyllic picture of a place that a whole generation would struggle to regain, he offers us a life like description of homosexual life in those years. Love comes first and foremost, and the rivalry between the athletes and aesthetes is reported with humor. but homosexual pride in particular is displayed for all to sec with panache, irony and lubricity.
The character of Anthony Blanche, facetious and extravagant, allows Evelyn Waugh to describe with a great flourish the cult of homosexuality that suffused the Roaring Twenties:
At the age of fifteen, lo win a bet, [Anthony Blanche) allowed himself to be dressed as a girl and taken to the big gaming table at the Jockey Club in Buenos Aires; he bad occasion to dine with Proust and Gide, and knew Cocteau and Diaghilev well. Firbank sent him his novels, embellished with enthusiastic dedications; he caused three inextinguishable vendettas in Capri, practiced magic at Ceplialonie; got into thugs and underwent detoxication in California, and was cured of an OEdipal complex in Vienna
This passage touches all the literary and society landmarks of the homosexual world in the inter war period. Homosexuality, for the elite, was more than a sexual proclivity; it was a style, a way of life.
In a scene where he is confronted by the athletes, Anthony Blanche shows his total lack of inhibition, his lack of complexes, and his natural affirmation of his homosexuality — and ends up defeating his adversaries:
- He was approached by a horde of some 20 young people of the worst kind, and what do you think they were chanting? “Anthony, we want Anthony Blanche,” in a kind of litany. Have you ever seen anyone declare himself so. in public?...“My very dear fellows.” I said to them, “you resemble a band of very undisciplined lackeys “Then one of them, a rather pretty bit, honestly, accused me of sins against nature. “My dear,” I said to him, “it may lie that I am an invert, but 1 am not insatiable, even so. Come back and see me some day when you are alone.”
The character of Anthony Blanche embodies the cult of homosexuality; confronted by a hostile or disconcerted society, the “invert” no longer bides his true nature. Once more, the contrast with the neighboring countries is great. In France, for example, there was no establishment that could entertain the myth that homosexuality was intellectually superior, the way Oxford and Cambridge did. Of course, there are some personal accounts reporting on homosexual experiences in the universities, but they are individual cases which one cannot equate with a widespread social phenomenon. Daniel Guerin describes drinking with a good looking neighbor who was a fellow student at the Saint Cyr Military Academy and the rough housing, pillow fights and wrestling that verged on more, and the arousal that resulted.
Blanche is here presented not as he really is but as the narrator sees him, unusual, defying traditions and displaying decadence. For Green (1984: 123-24), Blanche stands for modem aestheticism, but also middle-class seriousness and conscientiousness and he believes that he embodies a life devoted to beauty and imagination represented by Paris and Berlin as opposed to Sebastian, who lives in the more limited grounds of Bridcshcad and the Marchmain House. But Blanche is more than an aesthetic choice; he also represents a challenge to everything established. He confronts the morals and social rules of his times and embraces a world of freedom in respect to most aspects of life, including sexuality. The connection between Blanche and Sebastian should not come as a surprise then. In the luncheon scene where the three are present, Blanche will proclaim: “I think it’s perfectly brilliant of Sebastian to have discovered you.” And once all the other guests have left, Sebastian will insist on Charles staying and declares to him:
‘I must go to the Botanical Gardens.’
‘To see the ivy.’
It seemed a good enough reason and I wen! with him. He look my arm as we
walked under the walls of Merton.
‘I’ve never been to the Botanical Gardens,’ I said.
‘Oh, Charles, what a lot you have to leam! There’s a beautiful arch there and more different kinds of ivy than I knew existed.’ (33)
In this context Sebastian’s words take form: there are so many types of ivy, from Blanche’s flaunting sexuality to Sebastian’s tormented nature, from the boring sexuality of the other guests present to Charles’s hidden personality. When Charles returns to his rooms, he will discover that something has suddenly changed but he will be unable to identify it.
Outlooks: lesbian and gay sexualities and visual cultures
by Peter Horne, Reina Lewis
From the chapter: “Losing His Religion: St Sebastian”
AB: I think that’ s something that we do a lot now, our need to pay homage in our work to who our heroes are, like even with Elizabeth Peyton’ s work, or whoever, there’ s this referential point. We feel the need to say this is who I am based on these other people, this is who I like, this is what I’ m about.
TJW: Right. I have all these crazy tangents of interest that always inspire me, but don’ t seem to have on the surface any sort of connective tissue or whatever and this just gives me a way to kind of connect these things and lets me give form to all these crazy, not necessarily related tangents that completely preoccupy me. It gives me an excuse to wallow in this stuff.
AB: Let’ s talk about the Walker Art Center project.
TJW: It’ s called Stephen Tennant Homage.
By PETER LEWIS
Last updated at 14:10 23 October 2007
The Daily Mail, it seems, was the paper that first coined the label Bright Young People to describe a midnight treasure hunt involving 50 motor cars careering about London’s West End.
This ‘new society game’ was concluded with ‘a splendid breakfast and a string band to cheer them after their strenuous adventures’.
A more appropriate label would have been ‘Silly Young Geese’, which they resembled, flapping and shrieking as they rushed about Mayfair from party to party.
Were it not for a handful of novels ? Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies in particular ? they would be known only as a freak show, a quaint footnote to a social era. This attempt to resurrect them as a phenomenon worth studying is only patchily successful.
Impersonation Party, 1927: Among the revellers are Cecil Beaton (back left), Tallulah Bankhead (front right), Elizabeth Ponsonby (in black hat), and (front row left) Stephen Tennant as Queen Marie of Romania
D.J. Taylor’s most recent work was on George Orwell, the utter antithesis of such gadflies as Nancy Mitford or Beverly Nichols. What made him change to this is a mystery, since an undercurrent of moral disapproval permeates his hostile collective biography.
I don’t know why it should be depressing to read about a privileged group whose only object in life was to have fun, but so it proves. Life was one long party and the fancy dressing, the making up, the cocktails and the practical jokes should have been frightfully amusing, my dear, and, yet, to use more of their lingo, from here they look too, too tiresome.
There is a photograph of a group of bright young partygoers in white wigs, britches and hose (it was a Mozart party) posing with workmen who were digging up a gas main in Piccadilly in the small hours. There’s Cecil (Beaton, Queen of the Fairies) with the pneumatic drill and Cyril (‘Smartiboots’ Connolly) with the opera glasses. My dear, how we roared. YET the date was 1930.
Unemployment was soaring towards three million, but they wouldn’t have known that ? it simply didn’t impinge.
There was a Bath And Bottle Party in bathing costume, where they swam in a municipal baths floating with champagne corks. There was a Wild West Party, a Circus Party with dancing bear, and impersonation parties where they came as each other, seizing the opportunity for cross-dressing.
It led up to a Second Childhood Party, where the guests arrived in prams and were given dolls and rattles and cocktails in a playpen. Second Childhood? They tried even harder than Peter Pan not to grow up. They used nursery nicknames, like ‘baby’ and ‘babe’. They called each other ‘My Sweetie-bo’ or ‘Poodle-pie’. When they ran out of money or into debt, off home they went to sponge off mummy and daddy.
Most of the Bright Young People never did a real day’s work in their lives. Some were too ridiculously rich to bother. But those with bourgeois backgrounds, like beady-eyed Cecil Beaton, were in it for the contacts that would take them into High Society.
Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell looked on from the fringe, gathering material for their novels. Tom Driberg wrote about them in his gossip column on the ‘Daily Excess’ (they loved their press cuttings).
Among the revellers, Nancy and Diana Mitford (later Mosley) and Beverly Nichols, Harold Acton and fellow aesthete Cecil Beaton still amount to something, but the majority are quite forgotten.
Who cares about the ultra-rich narcissist Stephen Tennant, or Brian Howard, who was always going to write a book, or the preposterous poseur Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, the summit of whose achievement was urinating in a lady novelist’s handbag? Most of the bright young girls were The day Hons and not a few of the bright young men were gay. Taylor singles out Elizabeth Ponsonby as a representative case.
Granddaughter of Queen Victoria’s secretary, daughter of the Labour leader in the House of Lords, she was a determined drop-out. Much space is given to her meanderings and to her devoted father’s horrified diary notes upon them.
She appears never to have said or done anything memorable and was dead of alcoholic poisoning before she was 40. One feels pity for her broken-hearted job in Dublin father but for her ? nothing.
She led a pointless life.
Why did this select few of the post- Great War generation behave in this pointless way? Taylor makes much of ‘generational conflict’, but that does not take us far.
These were of the generation who missed having to fight in the war. This may have caused them a tinge of inferiority. Perhaps that was why, instead of approval,
Dublin where they went all out to court disapproval by being as provocatively irresponsible as possible.
They revelled in the disgust of their elders. In a paradoxical way, their pointlessness was the point they were making.
‘Cocktails and laughter ? but what comes after?’ asked Noel Coward.
Nothing much, seems to have been the answer. Most of the names Taylor exhumes faded into obscurity as the gossip columns they adorned crumbled to dust. It is a grim lesson in the illusion of celebrity.
Homosexuality was as characteristic of the Bright Young People as a cloche hat, or an outsize party invitation. No English youth movement, it is safe to say, has ever contained such a high proportion of homosexuals or – in an age when these activities were still illegal – been so indulgent of their behaviour. There were several reasons for the irretrievable air of campness with which the average Bright Young entertainment of the 1920s was riotously invested, symbolised, perhaps, by the unwritten law of the Oxford Hypocrites Club that ‘Gentlemen may prance but not dance’. On the one hand the movement’s constituency extended deep into the bohemian sub-world in which homosexuality had immemorially flourished. On the other, most male Bright Young People were recruited from English public schools, where homosexuality, if not tolerated by vigilant head-masters, was endemically present among the pupils. Looking back on her teenage years, Jessica Mitford noted that ‘nearly every English boy I knew had a terrific exposure to homosexuality… Some stuck to it, some didn’t, but nobody paid much attention either way, as I recall…’
To this already charged atmosphere could be added the tendency of many of the era’s young men to pass through a homosexual ‘stage’ before settling down into heterosexual marriage. Evelyn Waugh, for example, went through a violent gay phase at Oxford before setting his cap, unsuccessfully, with Olivia Plunket Greene.
Bright Young homosexuality, consequently, took in a variety of forms: predatory career homosexuals; nervously experimental young men; Wilde-era survivors; many more besides. At its core lay a group of orchidaceous Etonians – Eton was perhaps the most openly gay school of the era – with an insider’s knowledge of each other’s characteristics and peccadilloes. When Tom Mitford tried to warn his sister Nancy off Hamish Erskine, it was because he himself had had an affair with Erskine at Eton and knew his unreliability at first hand.
Source: Bright Young People: The Rise & Fall of a Generation 1918-1940, by D J Taylor
How is one to find the perfect young man, either they seem to be half-witted, or half-baked, or absolute sinks of vice or else actively dirty… All very difficult.
Nancy Mitford, letter to her brother Tom, June 1928
Evelyn Waugh in a letter
Richard Pares (1902-58). Professor of History at Edinburgh University. He married the daughter of Sir Maurice Powicke, also an historian.
Evelyn Waugh: a biography, by Selina Hastings.
Unfortunately, this is the only bit of the book available through Google Books, so I cannot quote further (until the book arrives in the mail at least).