Each of Waugh's "Oxford stories" was published in 1923 in an undergraduate paper: the Isis, the Cherwell, or the short-lived Oxford Broom, founded by Harold Acton shortly before Waugh entered Hertford College.

As with the juvenilia, these stories don't seem proper candidates for rating. They are very brief: most are under five pages. The longest is nine, and the shortest is not even two.

Portrait of Young Man with Career: Waugh narrates in his own person, as an undergraduate, and names real names. Don't let the allusion to Joyce fool you: he isn't the career-man. Waugh's scout is "Hunt"; cf. Charles Ryder's "Lunt." There is a pleasant shock before the end.

Antony, Who Sought Things That Were Lost: With disappointment I must relate that this is not Anthony Blanche. In fact this story has nothing to do with Oxford. Anthony Lane, who regrets that he can't enjoy a story bearing his name, calls it a "cod-historical romance." That's right. This story and Helena are Waugh's only fictional ventures into the past.

Edward of Unique Achievement: Another Oxford setting; the narrator is anonymous. Three stories in, and we've got three murders. And now squalid adultery (cf. "Antony"), though for once Waugh inhabits the mind of the cuckolder, not the cuckold.

Fragments: They Dine with the Past: Hardly a story at all. An anonymous narrator riffs on memory, an Augustinian theme. Or is it Proustian? I don't know Proust well enough to say -- neither did Waugh at the time, but he sometimes pretended that he did.* Imogen is the name of several unattainable beauties in Waugh's early fiction.

Conspiracy to Murder: No murder this time, actually. Just madness. Another Oxford undergraduate narrator, Dick.

Unacademic Exercise: A Nature Story: The best of the lot, and Waugh's only horror story. I shivered. Although it is spiritual horror, after consideration I don't see this story as evidence for interest in religion (cf. subtitle). Another Oxford narrator (anon.).

The National Game: I'd like to posit a connection between this story and one of the better passages in Brideshead Revisited, where Mr Ryder mocks Charles and a friend at dinner, but I can't. I think instead we should see this as Waugh's first and last word on sport.

* Early in 1948, Waugh wrote to John Betjeman:

I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective. I remember how small I used to feel when people talked about him & didn't dare admit I couldnt get through him. Well I can get through him now -- in English of course -- because I can read anything that isn't about politics. Well the chap was plain barmy. He never tells you the age of the hero and on one page he is being taken to the WC in the Champs Elysées by his nurse & the next page he is going to a brothel. Such a lot of nonsense. (Letters 270)

Bonus: Humphrey Carpenter's The Brideshead Generation contains a fascinating account of these Oxford undergraduates.

AuthorSeth Holler