Saturday, November 27, 2010
Evelyn Waugh's Labels
In 1929 Evelyn Waugh was a struggling young writer. He was also a newlywed. Waugh’s marriage to Evelyn Gardner, whom Waugh’s friends called “she Evelyn,” was strongly disapproved of by Gardner’s mother, Lady Burghclere. Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, had met with some success and Waugh’s agent had gotten Evelyn and Evelyn free passage on a cruise ship in exchange for a promise to write a travel book. The result was Labels: A Mediterranean Journey.
“I have called this book Labels for the reason that all the places I visited on this trip are already fully labeled. I was no adventurer of the sort who can write books with such names as Off the Beaten Track in Surrey or Plunges into Unknown Herts. I suppose there is no track quite so soundly beaten as the Mediterranean seaboard; no towns so constantly and completely overrun with tourists as those I intend to describe.”
The first thing to note about Labels is that it is partly fiction. Throughout the book, Waugh maintains the pretense that he traveled alone, when, in fact, he was on his honeymoon. The book was even published in the United States as A Bachelor Abroad. Waugh invents a newlywed English couple, Geoffrey and Juliet, whom he is supposed to have befriended during his trip. In fact, Geoffrey and Juliet are Mr. and Mrs. Evelyn Waugh.
During the early stages of the trip, before even boarding the cruise ship, she-Evelyn began running a high fever and eventually developed double pneumonia. She-Evelyn was so critically ill that Waugh did not expect her to survive. Upon arriving in Egypt, she-Evelyn was immediately taken to a hospital. In Labels, Waugh maintains the pretense of helping “Geoffrey” with the care of “Juliet”:
“The only disturbing element in this happy week was Juliet, who was by this time very seriously ill. The doctor pronounced her unfit for travel, and she was accordingly lowered in a stretcher and taken ashore to the British hospital. I accompanied the procession, which consisted of the ship’s doctor, carrying warm brandy and a teaspoon, an officer, Geoffrey, half distracted with anxiety, a dense mob of interested Egyptians, Copts, Arabs, Lascars, and Sudanese, and a squad of ambulance men, two of whom fought the onlookers while the others bundled Juliet - looking distressingly like a corpse - into a motor van.”
Since Decline and Fall had been a comic novel, Waugh was expected to be funny. One of the things that I love about Waugh is that he was an old curmudgeon even when he was only 27 years old. Waugh is wonderfully eccentric. Of course, there is no political correctness in anything written by Evelyn Waugh:
“Living as we are under the impact of the collective inferiority complex of the whole West, and humbled as we are by the many excellencies of Chinese, Indians, and even savages, we can still hold up our heads in the Mohammedan world with the certainty of superiority. It seems to me that there is no single aspect of Mohammedan art, history, scholarship, or social, religious, or political organisation, to which we, as Christians, cannot look with unshaken pride of race.”
In what I would have imagined was pretty racy stuff for 1929 (but maybe not, after all this was the “Roaring Twenties”), Waugh describes how he checked out the red light district in Port Said and Cairo, Egypt. Of course, Waugh states that he and his companion, an English solicitor who knew where to find all the brothels, merely checked out the girls and drank beer with the madam.
In Waugh’s view, Americans rank somewhere just above unwashed savages. He laughs at a group of American tourists in Egypt who pay to see some cave where sacred bulls were buried:
“Oh, ladies and gentlemen, I longed to declaim, dear ladies and gentlemen, fancy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, fancy coming all this way in the heat, fancy enduring all these extremities of discomfort and exertion; fancy spending all this money, to see a hole in the sand where, three thousand years ago, a foreign race whose motives must forever remain inexplicable interred the carcasses of twenty-four bulls. Surely the laugh, dear ladies and gentlemen, is on us. But I remembered I was a gate-crasher in this party and remained silent.”
Waugh says this of a wealthy American touring the former sultan’s palace in Istanbul, Turkey:
“Immediately in front of me in our tour of inspection there travelled a very stout, rich lady from America, some of whose conversation I was privileged to overhear. Whatever the guide showed her, china, gold, ivory, diamond or amber, silk or carpet, this fortunate lady was able casually to remark that she had one like that at home. “Why,” she would say, “whoever would have thought that was of any value. I’ve got three just like that, that Cousin Sophy left me, bigger, of course, but just the same pattern, put away in one of the store-rooms. I must have them out when I get back. I never looked on them as being anything much.” But she had to admit herself beaten by the right hand and skull of St. John the Baptist.”
Labels is a description of people during the twilight of the old British Empire traveling through a world which was the Englishman’s oyster. It is easy to become nostalgic about a world “where the sun never set on the Union Jack.” Waugh would live to see this world come crashing down in the flames of the Second World War and its aftermath. Labels remains an entertaining and enlightening account of travel through the world of a bygone age.