Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited, may now be regarded as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, but previously unpublished letters show, like many authors, Waugh struggled to find a publisher for his first book, and even went as far as to burn it, such was his pessimism. This collection of letters are set to be auctioned and are expected to fetch between £15,000 to £20,000.
As The Guardian reports, the 10 unpublished letters are mostly written to Waugh’s friend Richard Plunket Greene, and tell of how despondent the author feels and how he is struggling to find an audience for his first book. A difficult period in Waugh’s life, he was teaching at Welsh prep school Arnold House in 1925, and expressed his dissatisfaction. “The older they are the more stupid I find them,” he wrote.
Waugh sent a draft of his first novel, called The Temple at Thatch, to the writer Arnold Acton, during this period. Acton read Waugh’s story, but described it as “too English for my exotic taste. Too much nid-nodding over port,” though he advised Waugh print it “in a few elegant copies for the friends who love you such as myself”.
One of the letters reveals Waugh felt “a little despondent” and he reveals that he burned the manuscript, writing: “It made so much smoke that the Headmaster [went] out of Chapel to see if his school was on fire.” The letters also reveal Waugh’s plan to accept the job at Pisa as secretary, with Waugh stating: “The only real regret I shall have will be leaving friends … for the most part England means only debt and drunkenness and disapproval.”
This job failed to come to fruition and this, along with his rejected novel, left Waugh in despair. In his memoir A Little Learning, Waugh recalls that during this time he attempted to take his own life by swimming out to sea. He was stung by a jellyfish during the attempt and ended up swimming back to the beach. Of this, Waugh wrote: “As earnest of my intent I had brought no towel,” adding: “I cannot tell how much real despair and act of will, how much play-acting, prompted the excursion.”
The letters will be auctioned by Sotheby’s, who said they provide “important clues about Waugh’s development as a writer, as well as revealing much detail about a key set of friendships, and his life in the school that was to provide the source of one of his most enduring fictions, Decline and Fall”.