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Christopher Sykes Papers

Identifier: GTM-GAMMS207

Collection-level Scope and Content Note

The archives of the English novelist Christopher Sykes, friend and official biographer of Evelyn Waugh, include a large group of Waugh letters and comprehensive research files about him. In addition to the extensive family correspondence, with a charming series of rebus letters from his sister Angela Antrim, there are letters from a multitude of literary friends and acquaintances, including John Betjeman, Max Beerbohm, Ivy Compton-Burnett, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Harman Grisewood, Nancy Mitford, Harold Nicolson, Anthony Powell, Osbert Sitwell, and Stephen Spender. The collection also includes considerable research material about Nancy Astor, Robert Byron, and Adam von Trott, subjects of other books by Sykes.


  • 1945 - 1981

Collection-level Access Restrictions

Most manuscripts collections at the Georgetown University Booth Family Center for Special Collections are open to researchers; however, restrictions may apply to some collections. Collections stored off site require a minimum of three days for retrieval. For use of all manuscripts collections, researchers are advised to contact the Booth Family Center for Special Collections in advance of any visit.

Biographical note

Sykes, Christopher Hugh (1907–1986), writer and traveller, was born on 17 November 1907 in Sledmere, near Driffield, Yorkshire, the elder of twins and the second son and third child in the family of three sons and three daughters of Sir Mark Sykes, sixth baronet (1879–1919), and his wife, Edith Violet (c.1885–1931), third daughter of Sir John Eldon Gorst, solicitor-general. His father was first employed as honorary attaché to the British embassy in Constantinople, before helping to found the Arab Bureau with T. E. Lawrence and signing the Sykes–Picot agreement of 1916. Christopher followed an undistinguished academic career at Downside School and Christ Church, Oxford (which he left without a degree), by becoming honorary attaché at both the Berlin embassy (1928–9) and the British legation in Tehran (1930–31).

At Oxford, Sykes was thought of as a boisterous, if congenial, companion given to acts of bravado, rather like his early hero, and close friend of his father, Aubrey Herbert, the model for John Buchan's Greenmantle. Unlike Herbert or his father he was inhibited from embarking on a political career by a stutter, which grew more pronounced whenever the subject matter was such as might inspire disbelief. Since Sykes was chiefly interested in those areas of discussion which lie on the borders between personal experience, artistic embellishment, and fantasy, it was thought that a political career was closed to him. He took a course in Persian studies at the School of Oriental Studies, London, and in 1933 left for two years' travel in Persia and Afghanistan with Robert Byron. He wrote for The Times, The Spectator, and The Observer. In 1936 he married Camilla Georgiana (1912–1983), daughter of Sir Thomas Wentworth Russell, pasha, chief of police in Cairo from 1917 to 1946, but this did little to improve the parlous financial situation of a younger son.

Of Sykes's writing before the war little survived after it: Wassmus (1936), a biography of the German Arabist, was followed by two light novels, one of them written under the puzzling pseudonym of Waughburton in collaboration with Robert Byron. The war itself saw him commissioned in the 7th battalion of the Green Howards. Later, as part of Special Operations Executive, he adorned general headquarters in Cairo when the presence of the Duff Coopers and other cronies made it the most elegant place to be, before being posted to Tehran as a spy attached to the British legation. Transferring to the 2nd battalion of the Special Air Service, he worked with the French resistance and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Many of these experiences came together in what will probably be seen as Sykes's masterpiece, Four Studies in Loyalty (1946), incorporating elements of biography and autobiography. It is memorable in particular for its study of a previous Christopher Sykes, his great-uncle. His Two Studies in Virtue (1953), the first part of which was based on the life of Richard Waldo Sibthorp, an Anglican clergyman who twice converted to Roman Catholicism, was less successful. Although Sykes was a cradle Catholic, intermittently devout and, like many Catholics of his class, enraged by the despoliation of the Roman liturgy after the second Vatican Council, his interest in the finer points of high Anglican conscience was limited.

After some foreign reporting, notably for the Daily Mail during the Azerbaijan campaign in Iran, Sykes joined the BBC in 1948. Following a short spell as deputy controller of the Third Programme he joined the features department (1949–68), where he was suspected of having formed a Catholic mafia.

Sykes's biography Orde Wingate (1959) may have described the sort of life he would have liked to live, but the life of Adam von Trott (Troubled Loyalty, 1968), the patriotic anti-Nazi, was closer to the world he eventually inhabited. After a life of Nancy Astor (Nancy, 1971), generally seen as a bit of a pot-boiler, he came, after some delay, to write the authorized biography of his old friend and boon companion, the novelist Evelyn Waugh (1975). This might have been his best book. He was chosen because he was the only one of Waugh's obituarists who caught something of the gaiety as well as the recklessness of the man. Unfortunately, when he came to set pen to paper six years after his subject's death, the light had dimmed a little. Inhibited, as he said, by respect for Waugh's widow—she, in fact, had died two years before the book appeared—he had also suffered a decline in energy, a certain loss of optimism or hope. The book is marred not only by carelessness but also perhaps by a certain resentment at the dying of the light. Sykes's life had been a reasonably successful one, but not so successful as that of his arriviste friend.

Sykes was a most congenial man to meet, an excellent mimic, well mannered, and witty even in his cups, much loved by the young, to whom he was always pleasant and friendly. In appearance he was tall, with a dark, slightly saturnine countenance. He carried himself well, with a debonair and jaunty manner, which remained with him when age brought a certain heaviness, not to say majesty, to his gait. He spent his last years in a Kent nursing home. He died in the course of an agreeable house party at Sledmere, his childhood home, on 8 December 1986. He was survived by an only son, Mark, publisher and secondhand bookseller.

[Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; written by Anthony Waugh; accessed 2/24/2015]


18.4 Linear Feet (39 boxes)

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Christopher Sykes Papers
Georgetown University Library Booth Family Center for Special Collections
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Repository Details

Part of the Georgetown University Manuscripts Repository

Lauinger Library, 5th Floor
37th and O Streets, N.W.
Washington DC 20057