Friday, June 17, 2011

Letters from Literary Greats – and Evelyn Waugh's Mysterious Illness

A jest from Denis Johnston [1955]
The Thomas Kilroy Archives contain some fifteen letters which Kilroy received in his position as auditor of the UCD English Literature Society, in the mid-1950s. The Society hosted Irish writers of caliber such as Patrick Kavanagh, Denis Johnston, Benedict Kiely, Gabriel Fallon, Bryan McMahon, and possibly Walter Macken. More daringly, they also made advances on internationally-known writers T.S.Eliot, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and J.B Priestley. The English writers all declined eventually.

Some other writers were invited who were of prominence in the 1950s but are either largely forgotten now or are little read: there are letters from Seumas O'Sullivan (1879-1958), a poet and editor of The Dublin Magazine; Leonard Strong (1896-1958), a Plymouth-born Anglo-Irish writer; and from Joyce Cary (1888-1957), a Derry-born novelist.

Those were days when speakers did not have to be invited months in advance: Professor of English, Fr Peter Connolly (St.Patrick's Maynooth) accepted an invitation to speak two days before the event. Connolly, so it seems, was ahead of his time with his critical eye on Irish society and its Church (see more here).

Graham Greene's letter of polite refusal, 1956
Graham Greene easily wins out for his rhetoric of polite refusal, explaining that "I should always be charmed to have a drink with you in an Irish bar but I am afraid I always have to refuse invitations to speak. Speaking is too unpleasant for me and in one's middle years one seeks comfort" (2 February 1956).

By contrast, J.B. Priestley might receive a curmudgeon's award: "I do not feel contempt for your invitation, as you suggest I might, but it does seem to me rather unreasonable... To attend your meeting would take two days." He had been invited to speak at the Society's inaugural meeting on 6 March and was to reply to Thomas Kilroy's paper about American fiction: "I happen to know a good deal more about American fiction than you do because it has always been a special study of mine and I have both written and lectured in America on their fiction." (13 February, 1956) The archives also contain Kilroy's lecture for that event, entitled "The Angry Cloth" (6 March 1956).

Letter from "Harriet" Waugh, 1956

There is one puzzle among the letters - or is there? Evelyn Waugh had been written to and invited to another meeting, the previous year. A reply came from Harriet Waugh, talking of her father's illness and grimly stating that "no hopes of his recovery can be entertained" (30 September 1955). Harriet was only 11 at the time, and although Waugh had overcome a serious case of bromide poisoning in 1954, there was no grave illness on the horizon in '55 (according to Selma Hastings's biography): the letter is a gentle hoax. If there is anybody out there better able to compare the writing, please tell us whether this is in Evelyn Waugh's own hand.
Vera Orschel

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