These letters were written during the six months Waugh spent teaching at a Welsh prep school, a purgatorial experience that culminated in a half-hearted attempt at suicide by swimming out to sea until jellyfish stung him back to land, but which formed wonderful raw material for Decline and Fall. It is not a well-documented period in Waugh's life, and the recipient of these revealing and often hilarious letters was, at the time, one of the author's closest friends. Richard Plunket Greene (1901-78) was an Oxford contemporary "piratical in appearance, sometimes wearing ear-rings [...] tinged [...] with melancholy, but also infused with a succession of wild, obsessive enthusiasms" (A Little Learning, p.217). After coming down from Oxford Waugh got to know his parents and siblings and by the end of 1924 he had, in his own words, "fallen in love with an entire family", and in particular with Richard's sister Olivia. Waugh's complex relationships with the Plunket Greenes is a major thread running through these letters.
In an early letter, written a week after his arrival at Arnold House, Waugh writes to congratulate Richard on his engagement to Elizabeth Russell and gives a melancholic survey of his new life teaching dull boys ("the older they are the more stupid I find them") with pitifully meagre evening entertainment: "The Cockney master also has a pipe with a tiny peep-show in it with six view of Dublin but one of these is sadly discoloured and one begins to weary of them after a time." Matters improve somewhat with the lengthening days of spring: his aversion to cricket brings him more free time, he takes up shooting as well as more unexpected outdoor pleasures ("...yesterday there were sports and I won the masters egg-&-spoon race..."), and summer also brings a brief reference to the fellow teacher who served as the source for Decline and Fall's Captain Grimes ("...Bathing has started to the intense excitement of the Sodomite master..."). He enjoys a trip to Rhyl, where the barber is an unexpected enthusiast of the Cabala, but the only letter in which Waugh expresses real pleasure in his life is the drunken weekend visit of another Oxford contemporary, Alastair Graham, and his indomitable mother - the original Lady Circumference. A brief unheaded note (possibly a fragment) from the end of May, announces a decision: "Five minutes ago I decided to accept the job at Pisa as secretary to Scott-Moncrieff [...] The only real regret I shall have will be leaving friends [...] for the most part England means only debt & drunkenness & disapproval".
Waugh also makes numerous references to his writing in these letters. In February he writes to Richard that "feeling a little despondent" he burnt his manuscript ("it made so much smoke that the Headmaster when out of Chapel to see if his school was on fire"). He then goes on to outline his plan for "a prose epic of Silenus ... with all manner of roistering in public houses and brothels". The Silenus book is mentioned in several of the later letters, for example explaining that "I am putting the first chapter into the form of a film. It has solved many insuperable difficulties. The second chapter is going to be a Platonic dialogue", asking Elizabeth to read the manuscript, and admitting that one minor character is "an unpleasing but accurate portrait of myself" but promising that no-one else is taken from life. This important series of letters therefore provides 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.
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