“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Why Evelyn Waugh Never Went to China

Posted: February 13th, 2019 | No Comments »

I am always slightly fascinated by why many famous English writers of the inter-war period never made it to China – Orwell went East of course, but never to China; Graham Greene likewise. Evelyn Waugh, like so many people at the time, had a fascination with China. I have written about one aspect of this in my recent piece for the South China Morning Post Magazine on Mrs. “Tinko” Pawley, her friend Charlie Corkran, & her dog Squishy – how they were captured by Bandits in 1932 Yingkou and how Waugh used his close interest in their case to write a short story…set in Africa! https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/2180648/how-chinese-bandits-kidnapping-blond-british

But why did Waugh never go? Well, he nearly did…in 1930. A busy year for Waugh – his second novel Vile Bodies was published and was a well reviewed bestseller; he separated from his wife (also called Evelyn) and converted to Catholicism. He spent the summer in Ireland at Tullynally Castle (the home of the Pakenham family in County Westmeath) with friends including Alastair Graham (one of his “loves” and the model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited) and the author Elizabeth Harman (who was to marry Frank Pakenham, seventh earl of Longford). Here Waugh spent his days consulting atlases and the library researching a trip to China and Japan.

Graham, Waugh and Harman in Ireland, summer 1930

However Alastair Graham had been working for the Foreign Office in Cairo where he had met some Abyssinian (Ethiopian) princes. The tales of them, their attire and country fascinated Waugh. When he heard that a new emperor was to be crowned in Addis Ababa that November (Ras Tafari, thence Emperor Haile Sellasie) he immediately dropped all thought of China, got an accreditation from the Times and headed for Africa. His dispatches from Abyssinia are collected in the Penguin Modern Classic, Remote People…

And so China never got the Waugh treatment…

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