Evelyn Waugh’s Comic Muse in Scoop

Two years before he was to die in early April of 1966 on Easter Sunday after Mass, Evelyn Waugh wrote a new Preface to his pre-War 1938 novel, Scoop.1 In that brief 1964 Preface and retrospect, he recalls the atmosphere and forebodings of that time leading up to World War II:

This light-hearted tale was the fruit of a time of general anxiety and distress but, for its author, one of peculiar personal happiness.

Its early editions bore the subtitle: “A novel about journalists.” This now seems superfluous. Foreign correspondents, at the time this story was written, enjoyed an unprecedented and undeserved fame. Other minor themes, then topical [in 1937-1938], are out of date [now in 1964], in particular the “ideological war,” although some parallels to it might still be found in the Far East [e.g., in Vietnam and Laos].

At the time of writing public interest had just been diverted from Abyssinia [the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, 3 October 1935-5 May 1936] to Spain [then already in its 1936-1939 Civil War]. I tried to arrange a combination of these two wars. Of the later [sic—instead of “latter”] I knew nothing at first hand. In Abyssinia I had served as the foreign correspondent of an English daily newspaper [from late 1935 to early 1936]. I had no talent for this work but I joyfully studied the eccentricities and excesses of my colleagues. The geographical position of [the fictional] Ishmaelia, though not its political constitution, is identical with that of Abyssinia and the description of life among the journalists in Jacksonburg [the fictional capital city of Ishmaelia] is very close to Addis Ababa in 1935.

The most anachronistic part is the domestic scene of Boot Magna. There are [still] today [in 1964] pale ghosts of Lord Copper, Lady Metroland and Mrs. Stitch. Nothing survives of the Boots. Younger readers must accept my assurance that such people and their servants did exist quite lately [as of 1964] and are not pure fantasy. (The 1964 Chapman & Hall Edition of Scoop, page 9, Preface—my emphasis added)

Such candid words are a worthy introduction and framing for the especially comic presentation of one extended passage from Scoop, a passage which is to be found and savored near the end of the novel. This very passage will also provide the main focus of this appreciative essay, which proposes thereby even to enhance our own warm-hearted and generous comic sensibilities.

Click here to download the PDF file.