A Little Learning
English novelists seldom produce first-rate autobiographies, and even when they do the results tend to be pretty unrevealing. Perhaps they feel that they have already given away more than enough in their fiction. At any rate, the first volume of Evelyn Waugh’s memoirs keeps well within the reticent tradition of Trollope in his Autobiography or Kipling in Something of Myself. Waugh’s manner has always been that of a man ready to set the dogs on trespassers; and if the mood of A Little Learning is surprisingly mellow, at no point can it be said to take us very far into the author’s confidence. It is a book which lives down to its title: for the most part it deals with Waugh’s schooldays and his undergraduate years at Oxford, but it contains little about education, either literary or sentimental, while the “brief history of my religious opinions” is brief indeed (three pages). The tone throughout is relaxed and bantering. Some memorable characters wander across the stage, but they are invariably seen through the wrong end of the telescope; while it is all of a piece that the darkest moment in the book should quickly be turned into farce. While teaching at a prep school in North Wales, the young Waugh fell prey to suicidal gloom. One night he could bear it no more; he went down to the beach and started swimming out to sea, leaving behind his clothes and a scrap of paper on which he had copied a line from Euripides (in Greek) about the ocean washing away all human sorrows. After a few yards, however, he was forced to turn back. He had been stung by a jelly-fish.
Waugh punctuates A Little Learning with some splendid tomfoolery, along the lines of Vice Versa and The Diary of a Nobody, two of his father’s favorite books which were read aloud to him as a child. He displays a positively Pooterish readiness to record his own discomfitures, particularly while school-mastering:
One of my major defeats was when I cried wrathfully to a moonfaced, vacuous creature: “Are you deaf, boy?” to which all his fellows replied: “Yes, sir, he is.” And he was.
But far more than the clowning it is the style which smacks of the past: resolutely old-fashioned, full of elaborate mock-courtesy and resounding clichés. Commenting on a similar vein of long-winded levity in Saki (another of Waugh’s masters), V. S. Pritchett once said that “the cinema, if nothing else, has burned this educated shrubbery out of our comic prose.” But it is still possible for Waugh, with tongue only just In cheek, to reveal that “I was promiscuous in my choice of familiars,” or to record that “it was a beautiful night of a gibbous moon.” He is dangerously fond of words like “plethora” and “corpulent”; and he must be the last surviving English author able to talk about a “Hindoo,” as though he were being employed (like his forebears) by the …