PERIOD ATTIRE OPTIONAL: THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF THE LITERARY SOIREE
By Holliston Black
Not having a television? Why cast the matter in terms of not doing something? The tone is defensive, sulky. Does one characterize a person going about the business of life in a sensible way as “not a blithering idiot”? There are those few among us who refuse to have the electromagnetic tyrant in their home. The benefits of membership in this group are numerous. But high on the list is reading books of quality. Unless one’s life is free of television, or virtually so, the quiet hours necessary to read Bleak House or Middlemarch will not be available. Freedom from television also spurs more imaginative social activities. It’s only natural to gather with other book lovers at a literary soiree.
One might celebrate, as my friends do, on the chilly final Saturday of October, the birthday of British author Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh, born October 28, 1902, and best known for his Brideshead Revisited. At the soiree, many wear the attire of Waugh’s era. Being close to Hallowe’en, “Waugh Night” weather nips guests arriving in plus-fours, flapper skirts, and tweed jackets. Smoking, needless to say, is encouraged.
Atmosphere is everything. One year, discussions touched on the possibility of hiring a tethered dirigible, like the one appearing in Vile Bodies. Given the manifest impracticality of this notion, guests were asked to pretend they were in a tethered dirigible. Another evening, muffled air-raid recordings during dinner helped simulate wartime London. Wine accompanies the meal. Or rather a meal accompanies the wine. The patron saint of drink at the party is, of course, Brideshead character Sebastian Flyte. Guests focus on his rosy undergraduate days rather than the dissipated life-wreckage alcohol wrought on Flyte in the book’s final chapters.
In younger days, Waugh Nights began at midnight to ensure attendance by several thespians on the guest list. This let revelers avoid driving home drunk on Saturday night and instead make the trip with a splitting hangover early Sunday morning. But as guests aged and theater people whisked off, one by one, to Broadway and the Strand, Waugh Night scaled back to traditional dinner-party time. Unchanged, however, are the Readings. Guests champion the different eras of Waugh’s work with selections from his novels, essays, and other material. The evening’s “wits” demand a pure diet of A Handful of Dust, Scoop, or The Loved One. Those with religious leanings might request a selection of Edmund Campion while more shameless Anglophiles might favor the Sword of Honor trilogy. Others, who have little knowledge of Waugh save for a fondness for the, ahem, Masterpiece Theater version of Brideshead Revisited, rush home and read as much Waugh as they can for next year.
Of course, Waugh Night is merely a single example of the literary soiree. Others might select different authors to honor. A Charles Dickens party, for example, might involve a heavy British meal, with half the guests impressed into serving it while the other half dine. Or an Alexandre Dumas party could end in a drunken brawl and swordplay. However, we do not recommend the course taken by one devotee of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at whose January Gulag Archipelago party guests were forced to haul timber in subzero weather through his suburban backyard.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The White Dot zine cover.