Posts Tagged 'evelyn waugh'

People who write in the margins of books.

Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia carries the subtitle Notes In The Margin Of My Time. Scribbling in the margins is a metaphor that recurs throughout the book, and I’m not sure metaphor is the right word because it seems to be literally true that James has built these essays around passages he has marked, and comments he has pencilled into the margins, of his prodigious library over a half century of reading. [1]

clives james cultural amnesia

For instance, in his essay on Egon Friedell he writes:

I own three copies of the handsome, single-volume post-war edition put out by Beck. My intention was to use one of them as a workbench, and put into its endpapers the notes that have gone into this book. But I ended up defacing my beautiful Phaidon edition, perhaps guessing in advance that my graffiti would be labours of love.

I have just received a vivid lesson in the benefits of writing in the margins, as I spent most of an evening hunting through the 851 pages of Cultural Amnesia for a half-remembered line about (to paraphrase) a lengthy book made still longer by all the notes the reader inevitably finds himself making in the endpapers. I couldn’t find it.

I never write in books, and I detest those who do. In another essay – I won’t try and search for it – James attempts to extrapolate, from notes in the margins, the politics of the previous owner of a certain German-language book he has acquired secondhand. The only thing I’ve ever gleaned from a marginal note is that the previous owner was too lazy to reach for a bookmark. But perhaps James frequents used bookshops with a more erudite clientele.

If you must write in the margins, you might as well do all your note-taking there; once the text has been violated, no amount of gentlemanly self-restraint can restore it to innocence. The lowest form of book-defacer is the one who marks a single passage in a book, then stops; this mark can easily be missed by the future browser as he riffles the pages prior to purchasing.

evelyn waugh a handful of dust

I own two books like this. One is Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful Of Dust. In an otherwise virgin copy, some fool has used a pen to bracket this paragraph, in which a character passes the time with a game of solitaire – “patience”, as the Brits call it:

Mrs. Rattery sat intent over her game, moving little groups of cards adroitly backwards and forwards about the table like shuttles across a loom; under her fingers order grew out of chaos; she established sequence and precedence; the symbols before her became coherent, interrelated.

I assume the defacer was an English student; this passage is pregnant with symbolic possibilities, containing as it does the actual word “symbols”. But its significance to the larger story is obscure. Mrs. Rattery is a minor character, a bluff American aviatrix who wanders in at a vital juncture in the plot, then soon wanders out again. Her elaborate game of patience has no bearing on her relationship to the other characters; she’s not a schemer or an organizer. Nor is “order [growing] out of chaos” a theme of A Handful Of Dust – quite the opposite; like most of Waugh’s novels, it’s about the breakdown of the old social hierarchies. Perhaps my hypothetical English student intended to use Mrs. Rattery and her game of patience as a metaphor for Waugh-as-writer, although that would make for a rather generic essay; all writers, except the bad ones, establish “sequence and precedence”. [2]

graham greene the ministry of fear

I also have a copy of Graham Greene’s The Ministry Of Fear in which someone has singled out this observation:

A police photograph is like a passport photograph: the intelligence which casts a veil over the crude common shape is never recorded by the cheap lens. No one can deny the contours of the flesh, the shape of the nose and mouth, and yet we protest: This isn’t me…

The mark was made in pencil, so I might attempt to erase it, though I’m sure a shadow will remain. Oddly enough, half-erased marginal jottings play a part in the story of The Ministry Of Fear. The hero, who stumbles into a Nazi espionage plot, spends some time in an asylum run by a pacifist doctor. On a bookshelf the hero finds a book of Tolstoy’s, and notices some rubbed-out pencil marks beside the following sentiment:

Remembering all I have done, suffered, and seen, resulting from the enmity of nations, it is clear to me that the cause of it all lay in the gross fraud called patriotism and love of one’s country…

The “ignoble” attempt to erase his approving checkmarks is enough to make the doctor a suspect: “This was an opinion to be held openly if at all,” thinks the hero. I wonder if some future owner of my copy of The Ministry Of Fear will think I’ve ignobly repudiated my opinion on the inaccuracy of police photographs?


1. This is an awkwardly constructed sentence which I’ve chosen not to rewrite. Let it serve as an inside joke for those who’ve enjoyed James’ riff on Edward Gibbon, where he excoriates that learned figure for sentences even more awkward than this one.

2. Update, February 8 2018: Gene D. Philips, in his 1975 critical study Evelyn Waugh’s Officers, Gentlemen, and Rogues: The Facts Behind His Fiction, highlights the Mrs. Rattery passage in his discussion of A Handful of Dust:

[The hero’s] yearning for order is reflected in his accepting Mrs. Rattery’s invitation to play cards, for “under her fingers order grew out of chaos…” etc.

As you can see, I would’ve made a poor student of literature.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Humphrey Carpenter doesn’t get Evelyn Waugh.

I quoted from The Brideshead Generation, Humphrey Carpenter’s 1989 biography of Evelyn Waugh and his friends, already while discussing Nancy Mitford. I finished the book a month ago and since then it’s been sitting on my coffee table, multiple bookmarks poking out of it, waiting to be blogged about.

humphrey carpenter the brideshead generation

As a biography I think it’s quite good. Waugh is the focus of attention, although the early chapters are shared equally among his Oxford contemporaries – Harold Acton, Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman, and Anthony Powell, among others. Graham Greene and Nancy Mitford turn up later in the book, and George Orwell puts in a cameo.

As literary criticism, however, The Brideshead Generation is a little exasperating. Carpenter examines the works of his subjects with reference to what was happening in their lives at the time of writing; this is excellently done. But sometimes he turns it around and attempts to explore his subjects’ characters by referencing their fictional works, and this is where he loses me. Am I being too easy on Evelyn Waugh (the man, not the author), or is Carpenter just being a literal-minded prig when he offers analysis like this?

The Loved One concludes with Dennis cremating [his love interest] Aimée without a shred of regret: “The fire roared in the brick oven. Dennis must wait until all was consumed. He must rake out the glowing ashes, pound up the skull and pelvis….” … Dennis is a writer, and at the end we are told that he will return to Europe carrying “the artist’s load, a great shapeless chunk of experience”. All through the story, Waugh has emphasized that Dennis is in a superior position by being an artist, and has suggested that this licenses his ruthlessness and dishonesty, and even permits him to destroy Aimée. The image of his smashing her burnt bones brings home violently what the novella has been telling us all along, that the writer has the right to manipulate, deceive, and finally destroy those around him if they can provide fuel for his art.

evelyn waugh the loved one

At the risk of belaboring what, to me, is incredibly obvious, Dennis Barlow is a sonofabitch. Carpenter writes as though he thinks the protagonist of The Loved One is intended by Waugh to be a heroic figure whom the reader should admire. He’s not: he’s a lazy fraud and (it is implied) a hack writer. When Dennis gives up his heart – “something that had long irked him” – in exchange for that “shapeless chunk of experience” which he will sculpt into a great work of art, there is no reason to believe that Waugh applauds the barter. There is a note of tragedy to the passage that Carpenter completely misses.

Of course, just because we’re not meant to admire Dennis, that doesn’t mean we aren’t meant to identify with him. He’s at the centre of the story and we see much of the action through his eyes, and it’s natural that we’ll sympathise with him. Up until the end, where he shrugs off Aimée’s suicide and conspires to dispose of her body, he’s a likeable figure, a cynic in a world of guileless simpletons. So let’s assume that the author, too, identifies with his anti-hero. If it is therefore fair to psychoanalyse Waugh in the guise of his fictional creation – I’m not sure it is fair – it might be reasonable to conclude that the creator doesn’t like himself very much: Dennis is the self-absorbed monster Waugh fears himself to be, annihilating, for the sake of his writing, the innocent people who love him.

But I think this conclusion is as oversimplified as Carpenter’s. The implication of the psychoanalytic approach to literary criticism is that the author’s writings flow directly from his subconscious onto the page, and that they can and should be interpreted like dreams. But the author (especially a master like Waugh) knows what he’s doing. His imagination is mediated by his self-awareness, humour, and sense of irony. To the extent that Dennis is Waugh, which I’m sure is more than a little, Waugh was not unaware of that fact. It occurs to me now that Dennis may even have been intended as a little fuck-you to those critics (like Carpenter) seeking evidence of Waugh’s own undeniable misanthropy in his writing.

At any rate, Dennis is a provocative comic character. He’s not funny in the way that Carpenter apparently believes he was meant to be funny, in the manner of Bugs Bunny or Cyrano or Groucho Marx: we’re not supposed to cheer for him as he puts jerks and poseurs in their place. In some ways Dennis is more like Daffy Duck or George Costanza or Mr. Toad: a selfish creature of limited self-knowledge, at war with a hostile world. But with those characters, the humour comes from their inevitable comeuppance, whereas Dennis gets away scot-free.

Outside of Waugh’s own fiction, the closest analogue to Dennis Barlow that I can think of is Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. But even she suffers a downfall, and she redeems herself a little at the end by helping to bring Amelia and Dobbin together. There’s a fairly minuscule literature of anti-heroes who triumph in the end without betraying their essential sonofabitchness, while retaining our sympathy. They mostly exist in Waugh’s writing. One can see why Humphrey Carpenter would be confused.


Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Voltaire in Love, by Nancy Mitford.

Every Penguin book contains a brief biography of the author. Nancy Mitford’s explains that she was brought up in “a large remote country house with five sisters and one brother” – the inspiration for the Radlett family in her sequence of novels that begins with The Pursuit of Love – and that like the girls in that book she was “uneducated except for being taught to ride and to speak French.”

Much as I love Nancy Mitford, I sometimes find myself wishing that she’d been denied the French lessons. With her most famous novels taking place largely or partially in France, there are endless opportunities for Mitford to drop chunks of that language undigested into her narrative. This is a common tic among British authors of her era. Evelyn Waugh does it too, though less frequently. And I’ve read writers from still earlier in the 20th century (Lytton Strachey comes to mind) who don’t hesitate to show off their erudition in Latin or even Greek, again without bothering to translate for the benefit of their more ignorant readers.

Where Mitford is concerned, usually I can piece together the gist of these lines using common sense and my 11th-grade French skills. But then I came to her little biography Voltaire in Love, about the affair between Voltaire and the Marquise du Châtelet. Here she takes the trouble to translate letters, but epigrams and verses are usually reproduced verbatim.

nancy mitford voltaire in love

For instance, she offers this poem written by Frederick the Great of Prussia to his friend and correspondent Voltaire. The situation is that Frederick (or Fédéric, as the Francophile prince liked to sign himself), a young intellectual with pacifist leanings, has just come to the throne, and now must contend with the death of Charles VI of Austria. Charles had no male heir, and although he has arranged for his daughter Maria-Theresa to succeed him, the other royal families of Europe immediately begin plotting to lay claim to various pieces of the Austrian empire. Frederick is under pressure to extend Prussia’s borders at Austria’s expense. He writes:

Déjà j’entends l’orage du tambour,
De cent heros je vois briller le rage,
Déjà je vois envahir cent états
Et tant d’humains moissonnés avant l’âge.

“This may not have been very elegant,” Mitford adds, “but was perfectly clear.” Sigh. Here’s what I was able to make of it on my own:

Already I hear the something of the tambourine,
Of a hundred heroes I see something the rage,
Already I see something a hundred states
And many people something before the age.

With the help of a web translator I’m able to put together:

Already I hear the the storm of the drum,
I see the rage of a hundred heroes shine,
Already I see a hundred states invaded
And so many humans harvested before their time.

Not very elegant…but clear enough. Unfortunately I do most of my reading in bed, and I refuse to hump over to the computer each time some French verse appears. So I’m missing a lot.


In an article quoted by Humphrey Carpenter in The Brideshead Generation, Evelyn Waugh claims that

because most women have not received a classical education, they write “as though they were babbling down the telephone – often very prettily, like Miss Nancy Mitford.”

…A condescending way to speak of his good friend Miss Mitford. (And doesn’t the slangy, jazzy style of Waugh’s earlier and best novels owe a lot more to telephone talk than it does to Sixth Form Latin?) I wonder what Waugh would say about today’s authors, few of whom have confronted Xenophon or Virgil in the original. Is all modern literature just babbling down the telephone?


A few months back I described how I often failed to pick up allusions in literature written before my time:

[I]t makes me wonder how many of these finer points I’m missing, when I read British novels a half-century old or older … I suspect if I slowed down and went through these novels with an eye to investigating such perplexments, rather than skipping ahead to get on with the story, I would find a mystery in almost every paragraph.

Mitford is usually pretty forthright, but she chooses to be vague in describing a “coarse and cruel” satire performed by opponents of Voltaire’s controversial Le Temple du Goût:

Polichinelle is ill – comes the doctor – orders a good beating and a purge – after which the Temple du Goût is carried onto the stage, in the shape of an object that can be imagined.

Alas, what could be imagined by the readers of 1957 cannot be imagined by me. Presumably by “purge” the doctor meant the application of an enema. So the object that is carried onto the stage is Voltaire’s book in the shape of – what, an enema bag? Can that be right?

How would you make a book that looks like an enema bag? I’m glad I’m not the prop guy for that play.


For all her modesty about enema bags, or whatever, Mitford is surprisingly free with the word “whore”. She uses it to describe her heroine, Mme du Châtelet:

In spite of her careful upbringing and the outlet provided by a diversity of interests, she always had something of the whore.

She goes on to relate the anecdote of a footman who was asked to pour hot water into her bath:

As she did not use bath salts the water was clear and she was naked in it. Without any embarrassment she separated her legs so he could pour the water between them. Eighteenth-century manners may have been free and easy, but this was not the ordinary behaviour of an honest woman.

Reading this passage out of context the modern reader might assume the author is prudishly condemning Mme du Châtelet. Actually Mitford is quite sympathetic to her, even when the Marquise is behaving (as she frequently does) like a jealous nutbar.

The word comes up again in describing two women that the Marquise’s erstwhile tutor and lover, Maupertuis, brought back from an expedition to Lapland:

Les tendres Hyperboréennes seemed very much less attractive in Paris than in their native land; soon he longed to be rid of them. He opened a subscription … with the proceeds he placed one sister in a convent. The Duchesse d’Aiguillon’s excellent butler found a husband for the other, but she turned out to be a disappointing wife, in fact a whore.

I was brought up short each time I came across the word “whore”. (It seems particularly unfair when applied to that unfortunate Lapp, hauled all the way to France then unceremoniously dumped on a stranger.) Nowadays “whore” is usually reserved for the extremest insult; one doesn’t throw it around as lightly as Mitford does; feminism has taught us all to be wary about passing judgement on women’s sexuality. But I don’t think Mitford is being judgemental; I think she’s just using “whore” as a synonym for “promiscuous”. It seems the flavour of the word has changed over the past half-century. Somehow feminism has actually added to the sting of the epithet, rather than diminished it.


Update, May 13 2009: Turns out I had more to say about Voltaire in Love.

Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

In December I blogged about Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, and Noblesse Oblige.

Nancy Mitford (and Milk In First).

I’ve now read Nancy Mitford’s three most famous novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949), and most recently The Blessing (1951). She’s a very funny writer. Her themes are love and marriage, but she is rigorously unromantic about romance – and especially so about children.

nancy mitford the pursuit of love

Here is the narrator of The Pursuit of Love paying a visit to the book’s heroine, Linda, soon after the birth of her child:

[The nurse] went away and presently returned carrying a Moses basket full of wails.

“Poor thing,” said Linda indifferently. “It’s really kinder not to look.”

“Don’t pay any attention to her,” said the Sister. “She pretends to be a wicked woman, but it’s all put on.”

I did look, and deep down among the frills and lace, there was the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig.

“Isn’t she sweet,” said the Sister. “Look at her liitle hands.”

I shuddered slightly, and said:

“Well, I know it’s dreadful of me, but I don’t much like them as small as that; I’m sure she’ll be divine in a year or two.”

The wails now entered on a crescendo, and the whole room was filled with hideous noise.

“Poor soul,” said Linda. “I think it must have caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister.”

The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are centred on an unruly brood of rural aristocrats, the Radletts, young girls (the boys don’t figure much) who gossip in closets, heave dramatic sighs, and speak in a spirited pidgin of romance-novel dialogue and tabloid newspaper headlines. In Love in a Cold Climate, the Radletts’ neighbour, rich and beautiful Polly Hampton, exasperates her parents with her disinclination to marry. Expected to snag minor royalty at least, Polly remains mysteriously untroubled as the London seasons come and go, her less eligible competitors are all wedded, and her mother Lady Montdore becomes ever more furious with mortification.

nancy mitford love in a cold climate

It comes out later that Polly has been pining since adolescence for her uncle-by-marriage, the creepy Boy Dougdale, known to the Radlett girls as the “Lecherous Lecturer” after they attend one of his talks at the local Women’s Institute:

“But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill. He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least, she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.”

The Lecherous Lecturer is tolerated despite his lech for little girls. Time passes, Boy’s wife dies, and Polly pounces, to her mother’s horror and the scandal of all. Boy’s past indiscretions with kitchen maids and neighbourhood girls are nothing beside his poaching of the most beautiful heiress of her generation. The level-headed Uncle Davey urges a less popular view – one that would be still less popular in our day, obsessed as we are with the sexual purity of the young:

“Personally, and speaking as an uncle, the one I feel for over all this is the unhappy Boy. … He can’t be expected to guess that because he strokes the hair of a little girl when she’s fourteen she’s going to insist on marrying him when she grows up. Bad luck on a chap I call it.”

Polly’s and Boy’s marriage is not a success, but neither is it a tragedy. In Mitford’s world all passions cool (except the passion of English girls for dashing Frenchmen, see below), and as the novel ends Polly is reconciling with her mother and infatuated with another age-inappropriate suitor.

nancy mitford the blessing

The Blessing concerns the marriage of a naïve English girl to a debonair French aristocrat. Halfway through the book, the heroine, exasperated with her husband’s infidelity, takes their young son, the “blessing” of the title, and runs home to England. Little Sigismond, heretofore under the smothering care of his English nanny, has been a fleeting presence, instructed to “run along now” when noticed by his father. Now shuttled back and forth between England and France, Sigi revels in being the centre of his newly estranged parents’ attention, his tantrums indulged, his wishes granted, his pockets stuffed with bribes from their suitors. The child makes it his mission to prolong the estrangement, by deceit if necessary.

At the climax of the book, as his parents appear ready to reconcile, Sigi just fails in his attempt to get his father arrested for smuggling. The novel’s final words – a belated victory for grown-up civilisation over the tyranny of the Kinderarchy – are his father’s, “And now, please run along and find Nanny.”


Uncle Matthew, the loveably tyrannical Radlett paterfamilias in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, hews to the old aristocratic customs under which his female offspring are kept home and taught by a governess. He has a low opinion of the narrator, Fanny, educated at a day school in the modern manner:

“Education! I was always led to suppose that no educated person ever spoke of notepaper, and yet I hear poor Fanny asking Sadie for notepaper. What is this education? Fanny talks about mirrors and mantelpieces, handbags and perfume, she takes sugar in her coffee, has a tassel on her umbrella. … It’s a lucky thing that Fanny will have £15,000 a year of her own. … She’ll get a husband all right, even if she does talk about lunch, and envelope, and put the milk in first.” [1]

Here we get into the author’s other great theme, the idiosyncrasies of the upper class. Though we share a common language, and only a half-century separates us from Mitford’s world, these customs are as mystifying to modern North American readers (and, I suspect, to most British ones) as those of the Aztecs or Zulus. While I can easily recognise the humourous tone, what am I to make of this passage in The Blessing where a snobbish Frenchman shares with our heroine his impressions of the British class system?

“In England, as we know, everybody has a number, so when you give a dinner it is perfectly easy to place your guests – you look up the numbers, seat them accordingly, and they just dump down without any argument, Placement, such a terrible worry to us in France, never bothers you at all.”

“Are you sure,” said Grace, “about these numbers? I’ve never heard of them. Placement doesn’t bother us because nobody minds where they sit, at home.”

“People always mind. I mean the numbers in the beginning of the peerage. I subscribe to your peerage, such a beautiful book, and then I know where I am with English visitors.”

Does Grace’s confusion signify common sense, or naïveté? So ignorant that she doesn’t even know how many dukes there are in her country, Grace quickly gets a reputation around Paris society as a dimwit; to what extent is that reputation deserved? We sympathise with her, of course, because the Parisians’ obsession with heredity and Placement is absurd. Yet Mitford’s famous essay “The English Aristocracy” begins with a discussion of “precedence” – knights and baronets take precedence after lords, “except Knights of the Garter who come after the eldest sons and the daughters of barons, but before the younger sons.” This precedence might not determine who sits where at a dinner party, but one can hardly blame the Frenchman for his mistake.

nancy mitford noblesse oblige

In the same essay, Mitford helpfully expands on Uncle Matthew’s list of linguistic vulgarities. In the formulation she borrows from Professor Alan Ross, certain words are U and non-U (upper- and non-upper-class):

Non-U U
Home House
Ill Sick
Mental Mad
Mirror Looking-glass
Preserve Jam
Serviette Table-napkin
Wealthy Rich
Dentures False teeth
Glasses Spectacles

(Concluding her list, Mitford delivers us fully into despair with the information that “the issue is sometimes confused by U-speakers using non-U indicators as a joke. Thus Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love speaks of his dentures.”)

If there is any common thread running through this list, it is a tendency of the middle-class speaker to prefer the fancy way of saying something, while the upper-class speaker prefers the plain: serviette vs. napkin, dentures vs. false teeth. In other words, the opposite of what you’d expect. Perhaps this vocabulary – out of date already at the end of World War II, if Evelyn Waugh’s answering essay “An Open Letter to the Honourable Mrs. Peter Rodd (Nancy Mitford) on a Very Serious Subject” is to be believed – marked a reaction by the upper classes to the usurpation of high-flown language by social climbing bourgeois: “If they think they can fool us with their fancy talk, we’ll turn the tables on them!” But really, it’s impossible for me to guess how these rules originated, or how seriously they were taken. Mitford’s essay, like Waugh’s reply (and all the other essays assembled in the Mitford-edited collection Noblesse Oblige), is pervaded with an irony impenetrable to this distant, middle-class colonial. When Mitford writes,

Silence is the only possible U-response to many embarrassing modern situations: the ejaculation of “cheers” before drinking, for example, or “it was so nice seeing you”, after saying goodbye. In silence, too, one must endure the use of the Christian name by comparative strangers and the horror of being introduced by Christian and surname without any prefix. This unspeakable usage sometimes occurs in letters – Dear XX – which, in silence, are quickly torn up, by me.

…is she mocking herself, mocking her stuffy fellow aristos, or lamenting what she really sees as an “unspeakable” vulgarity? I suspect there are elements of all three, but I’ll be damned if I can tell where the mockery ends and the lamentation begins. To me it’s all Uncle Matthew and his dentures.


1. Funny how relics of these arbitrary rules survive even to our own time. I have heard Canadians insist that the “proper” way to serve tea was to add the milk first – a symptom of our ineradicable conviction, as universal in the United States as it is here, that the British way of doing things signifies class, as opposed to the slouching American way. In this instance, it is amusing to observe, the class to which modern tea-servers aspire is that of their middle-class British forebears, whom Uncle Matthew would be loth to allow through the front door.

Evelyn Waugh in his “Open Letter” speculates on the origins of the tea-first prejudice:

All nannies and many governesses, when pouring out tea, put the milk in first. (It is said by tea-fanciers to produce a richer mixture.) Sharp children notice that this is not normally done in the drawing-room. To some this revelation becomes symbolic.

While George Orwell – uncharacteristically silent on the sociological implications – in his essay “A Nice Cup of Tea”, makes the case for tea-before-milk:

[O]ne should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Me, I put the milk in next-to-last – followed, pace Orwell, by the sugar.

Update, Sept 21 2011: Another and more recent reference to the class implications of milk-first versus tea-first appears in Martin Amis’ Experience.

martin amis experience

In a footnote he recalls a conversation with his “well-born” childhood friend Rob:

It was a bad thing to be miffy. Being miffy meant you were the kind of person who, when pouring a cup of tea, habitually put the Milk In First.

M: And that’s common [working class], is it?
R: Yeah.
M: Why?
R: I’m not sure. It just is.
M: …What happens when you put the milk in second and the tea’s too strong and there’s not enough room in the cup to make it milky?
R: Then you get up and pour some of it down the sink and go back and try again.

This must have been the late ’60s, early ’70s. In a separate footnote, Amis frets, “But, lor, how much stuff there was about class in those days. Whatever else she did, Margaret Thatcher helped weaken all that. Mrs. Thatcher, with her Cecils, with her Normans, with her Keiths.”

Update, Aug 8 2014: Rod Dreher points me to Carl Zimmer writing in the Nautilus about Why We Can’t Rule Out Bigfoot. It’s actually a discussion of a method of scientific experimentation known as the “null hypothesis”, a term introduced by the pioneering English geneticist Ronald Fisher.

The null hypothesis turns out to have its roots in a dispute over whether a fellow scientist could really taste the difference, as she claimed, between a cup of tea poured milk-in-first and one poured milk-in-last. Fisher tested the scientist’s miffiness by pouring four cups of tea milk-in-first and four cups milk-in-last, scrambling the cups three-card monte style, and asking her to say which was which. She correctly categorized all eight cups.

Read Zimmer’s article to see what this has to do with the existence of Bigfoot.

Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

In August 2008 I wrote about missing the finer points when reading older books, including those of Evelyn Waugh.

Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene in the Archive.

This is a landing page for archived posts about:

Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene

“Arbuckle Avenue” concerns a row of seedy hotels that used to stand across from London’s Paddington Station, mentioned in Waugh’s When the Going Was Good and Greene’s The End of the Affair. A commenter helps explain the origin of the name.

Charkes Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, and Evelyn Waugh

“Dickens – Chesterton – Waugh” discusses a passage in Brideshead Revisited that seems to have been inspired by / lifted from the Chesterton essay “Simmons and the Social Tie”. Chesterton’s critique of David Copperfield is also mentioned.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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