Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903–1939
by martin stannard
norton (1987), 537 pages, $10.95 paper
Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939–1966
by martin stannard
norton (1992), 512 pages, $25.95 cloth
Many great novelists have had intricate, even prickly, personalities. But in Evelyn Waugh, nature and grace worked overtime to produce an extraordinary character, a full understanding of whose complexities would require the combined skills of an archaeologist, a psychiatrist, and a Jesuit confessor of the old school. Martin Stannard, a lecturer in English at the University of Leicester, doesn’t quite fit that bill. Still, and with far more acuity than was evident in Christopher Sykes’ earlier study, the multiple levels of Waugh’s persona are laid bare and, in some instances, gracefully, even insightfully, explored in Stannard’s recently completed two-volume biography. (The latter volume, which avoids the excessive Freudianism of the former, is in most respects the superior effort.)
Who, or what, was Evelyn Waugh? He was, touching but the surface of the man and his art, a brilliant satirist—one of the funniest writers of the century. But the humor was combined with a literary craftsmanship unsurpassed among his contemporaries (although Waugh himself would protest here in favor of Wodehouse). To take but one local comparison: Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is a splendid dissection of contemporary American manias—race, sex, money, status; but for all its wit and insight, the scalpel of Wolfe’s wit in his massive Bonfire cuts nowhere near the heart of American materialism’s peculiar darkness so cleanly as did Waugh in his little novella, The Loved One. Nor does it involve any diminution of Wolfe’s accomplishments to suggest that the difference between these two wildly funny authors is rather easily stated: Wolfe is a brilliant writer, but Waugh was a genius, and (at least at his work) a disciplined genius to boot. Indeed, Waugh was a master craftsman of English prose, arguably the finest since Henry James.
Waugh was also a world-class eccentric, and it is to this dimension of his personality that many commentators have been drawn in the course of reviewing Martin Stannard’s work. The fascination is understandable—Waugh’s personality encompassed an astonishing array of idiosyncrasies that make the “personality” pap on tap in every issue of People magazine seem the very thinnest gruel by comparison. But the temptation to understand Evelyn Waugh primarily as a crank—a gifted crank, to be sure, but a crank nonetheless—should be firmly resisted. Yes, Waugh positively revelled in being outrageously politically incorrect. Yes, Waugh was terribly self-centered, and at times cruelly selfish. Yes, Waugh was a Great Pretender, much of whose later life was lived in auto-constructed physical and psychological enclaves meant to keep the world—and his fellow man, often including his children—at bay. Yes, he was, as Stannard writes, a “displaced person” by nature.
But to file Waugh away under the label “gifted eccentric” makes about as much sense as doing the same to Herman Melville. Or, to take another American analogy: no serious student of the work of Flannery O’Connor would suggest that one could grasp the essence of her inner life—and the wellsprings of her moral vision and her artistry—by meditating on her fondness for guinea fowl. The same cautions should apply to those who think they can get to the inner Waugh via his affecting to use a Victorian ear-trumpet in his later years.
Indeed, the most impressive achievement of Martin Stannard’s second volume is that, almost despite himself, Professor Stannard has uncovered another, and arguably the deepest, level of Evelyn Waugh, beneath the satirist and the literary craftsman. Here, we meet Waugh as a Christian pilgrim: as a man with both an intensely sacramental apprehension of reality and a deep sense of vocation.
I say “despite himself,” because part of Stannard’s hermeneutic difficulty lies in the fact (which Waugh would freely admit) that in many respects the novelist was a very bad Christian, a man to whom neither prayer nor charity came easily. Still, Stannard is honest enough to have glimpsed this Christian and vocational core at the center of his subject, even if he exhibits a certain religious tone-deafness that renders his explication of his discovery more than a bit off-key at times. But a fuller exploration of the impact of Waugh’s religious imagination on his art may be left to others: for we may be sure that Waugh will continue to fascinate. Now, we can be grateful that Martin Stannard has, happily if somewhat clumsily, given us a new key for unlocking one of the mysteries of that enduring fascination.
Read as a whole, the two volumes of Stannard’s biography clear the ground for a deeper exploration of the sources of Waugh’s artistry by making it plain that an earlier concept of the “essential Waugh” was mistaken: his soul was not formed (or, more accurately, deformed) in the Oxford of the bright young things that Waugh memorialized as “Arcadia” in Part One of Brideshead Revisited. To be sure, this early Waugh, the aesthete turned chronicler/satirist of the flapper era, leaped out of literary and social obscurity precisely by limning his generation’s follies in Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. But these early works were in fact but the literary—and, more important, moral—prologue to Waugh’s identity as a mature novelist: to Waugh as our most acute literary pathologist of the crisis of modernity.
To recognize that Waugh’s literary genius was driven by a profound moral (and religious) insight into modernity and its discontents does not require, and in fact probably precludes, treating him with the well-intended pietas characteristic of the Sykes biography. For Waugh was many other things, too, including a shameless social climber, particularly in his early years. But the traumatic experience of being cuckolded and then divorced by his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, right on the cusp of his early fame, led Waugh, not into terminal cynicism, but to the conviction that (as Stannard puts it), “decline and fall were no longer the subject for jokes.”
At first, Waugh experienced the disaster of his divorce in deeply personal terms: as he wrote Harold Acton, “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable [and] live. . . .” But his betrayal by “She-Evelyn” eventually crystallized in Waugh a broader and more literarily fruitful, if no less dramatic, vision: about his times, and about himself.
As for the times, by 1930 Waugh had come to believe that
Civilization—and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organization of Europe—has not in itself the power of survival. It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance. . . . It is no longer possible, as it was in the time of Gibbon, to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis on which it rests. . . . Christianity . . . is in greater need of combative strength than it has been for centuries.
And as for himself, Waugh chose a place in what he regarded as the front trench of the cultural battle-line: rejecting both the comfortable agnosticism of his literary and social friends and the vestigial Anglicanism of his parents, he entered the Roman Catholic Church on September 29, 1930, under the spiritual direction of the legendary English Jesuit, Martin D’Arcy. As Father D’Arcy himself would note, Waugh’s was a singular conversion:
Few [converts] can have been so matter of fact as Evelyn Waugh. As he said himself, “On firm intellectual conviction but with little emotion I was admitted to the Church.” All converts have to listen while the teaching of the Church is explained to them—first to make sure that they do in fact know the essentials of the faith and secondly to save future misunderstandings. . . . Another writer came to me at the same time . . . and tested what was being told him by how far it corresponded with his experience. With such a criterion, it was no wonder that he did not persevere. Evelyn, on the other hand, never spoke of experience or feelings. He had come to learn and understand what he believed to be God’s revelation, and this made talking with him an interesting discussion based primarily on reason.
Waugh was thus under no romantic illusions when he became a Catholic. Given his divorce, he believed he was abandoning any hope of a future marriage (a belief that proved mistaken). He knew he would suffer the prejudices the English establishment subtly (and not so subtly) visits on papists. He was leaving the aesthetic pleasures of High Church Anglicanism, not for Chartres and the chant of Solesmes, but for the déclassé rituals of (typically Irish) British Catholicism. But Waugh believed that he had found, not a piece of the truth, but the truth itself: “I reverence the Catholic Church because it is true, not because it is established or an institution.” And that truth would become the centerpiece of his vision of the world—and thus of his artistry—throughout the balance of his career. Dependence on a God who not only brought creation into being but sustained it with His loving care was not, Waugh once explained to the BBC, “a sort of added amenity to the Welfare State that you say, well, to all this, having made a good income, now I’ll have a little icing on top, of religion.” No, the faith was “the essence of the whole thing.”
Waugh is frequently accused of having practiced a kind of snobbish Catholicism, and while it is true that he had no truck with what he regarded as the uncouthness of “liturgical reform,” it would be unfair to suggest, as do some of his critics, that Waugh entered the Church because it was a more exclusive club than others that were available to him. Indeed, in his correspondence, Waugh reveals himself to be a man keenly aware of the Church as ecclesia semper reformanda; take, for example, the letter he wrote to Edith Sitwell on the occasion of her conversion:
Should I as Godfather warn you of probable shocks in the human aspect of Catholicism? Not all priests are as clever and kind as Father D’Arcy and Fr. Caraman. (The incident in my book of going to confession to a spy is a genuine experience.) But I am sure you know the world well enough to expect Catholic bores and prigs and crooks and cads. I always think to myself: “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.” One of the joys of Catholic life is to recognize the little sparks of good everywhere, as well as the fire of the saints.
The charge of “snob” is also leveled in light of Waugh’s polemics against the “Age of the Common Man” (a notion he pillories throughout his World War II epic, the Sword of Honour trilogy). But while Waugh clearly preferred the company of some social classes to that of others, his mature concern was less social than moral: he feared (and not without good reason) that the “Age of the Common Man” meant an age of moral vulgarity, exemplified in the later novels by characters like Apthorpe, Trimmer, and Hooper: “blasé, half-educated, insensitive bores who converse only in slang,” as Stannard describes them.
But these mass-produced moral cretins were not only offensive in personal intercourse (which could, after all, be avoided); they had created a public moral climate in which it was increasingly difficult for the West to recognize, much less resist, the tyranny-masquerading-as-humanism that lay just over the horizon of Western decadence: the tyranny that eventually murdered the Kanyis, a Jewish refugee couple, in Titoist Yugoslavia at the end of the war trilogy. Or, as Waugh put it in 1946 in a preface to the American edition of his prize-winning biography of an Elizabethan Jesuit martyr, “We have come much closer to [Edmund] Campion” in the twentieth century. “In fragments and whispers we get news of other saints in the prison-camps of Eastern and Southern Europe, of cruelty and degradation more frightful than anything in Tudor England, of the same, pure light shining in the darkness, uncomprehended. The hunted, trapped, murdered priest is amongst us again, and the voice of Campion comes to us across the centuries as though he were walking at our side.” It was a voice to whose call Waugh believed the celebrated Common Man would prove largely insensate.
Although it would be wrong to regard him as a “Catholic novelist” (in the sense that Bernanos, for example, was a “Catholic novelist”), Waugh’s Catholic imagination—a sacramental imagination, really, in which visible realities are the outward expressions of an interior and invisible grace—suffused much of his later work: and in far more subtle ways than Lord Marchmain’s deathbed sign-of-the-cross at the end of Brideshead.
One aspect of that imagination—its metaphysics, so to speak—was given voice by the protagonist of the war trilogy, Guy Crouchback, who, in the midst of a somewhat drunken revel, asks the Anglican regimental chaplain, “Do you agree that the supernatural Order is not something added to the natural Order, like music or painting, to make everyday life more tolerable? It is everyday life. The supernatural is real; what we call ‘real’ is a mere shadow, a passing fancy. Don’t you agree, Padre?” (Padre: “Up to a point.”)
That conviction about the reality (and Presence) of the transcendent bore fruit, in turn, in the serenity and humility which Waugh never achieved in his own life, but which he sketched in his touching portrait of Guy Crouchback’s father, Gervase, a kind of human guardian angel to his son throughout the trilogy. Knowing that he is close to death, and troubled by his son’s preoccupations with politics, military affairs, and the future, Gervase defines the transcendent humanism of the Christian worldview in one brief sentence: “Quantitative judgments don’t apply.” And in pondering that homely phrase, Guy begins to discern the sources of his own spiritual aridity:
Guy’s prayers were directed to, rather than for, his father [at the latter’s funeral Mass]. For many years now the direction in the Garden of the Soul, “Put yourself in the presence of God,” had for Guy come to mean a mere act of respect, like the signing of the Visitors’ Book at an Embassy or Government House. He reported for duty, saying to God, “I don’t ask anything from you. I am here if you want me. I don’t suppose I can be of any use, but if there is anything I can do, let me know,” and left it at that. “I don’t ask anything from you”: that was the deadly core of his apathy, his father had tried to tell him, was now telling him. . . . Enthusiasm and activity were not enough. God required more than that. He had commanded all men to ask. In the recesses of Guy’s conscience there lay the belief that somewhere, somehow, something would be required of him; that he must be attentive to the summons when it came. . . . Even he must have his function in the divine plan. He did not expect a heroic destiny. Quantitative judgments did not apply. All that mattered was to recognize the chance when it offered. . . .
It cannot be said that, in his first volume, Martin Stannard handles the Christian and Catholic dimensions of his subject’s intellectual and aesthetic vision with much grace. “The supernatural became his new reality,” Stannard writes of the period after Waugh’s conversion, “and he delighted in the scope this provided for anti-rationalist argument.” But this is to reduce Waugh’s Catholicism to a mere pragmatism: Civilization (which Waugh cherished) was collapsing; Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, were the most effective tools for shoring up the battlements; therefore, one became a Catholic. Q.E.D.
Happily, by the second volume, Stannard has achieved a less instrumental appreciation of Waugh’s faith and its relationship to both his personality and his work. And he has come to that judgment through a distinctive analysis of one of Waugh’s less-regarded works, which in turn opens up for the biographer, and for us, a new level of understanding of this naturally “displaced person.”
Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years is far more aptly titled in the British edition, Evelyn Waugh: No Abiding City, 1939–1966. (Did the American publisher, W. W. Norton, think that Yanks were less likely to catch the biblical allusion than the pagan Brits?) The details are fascinating, as Stannard traces Waugh’s war service (recklessly brave and recklessly undisciplined, in fairly equal proportions), his family life, his friendships, his nervous collapse under the influence of excessive ingestion of sleeping droughts (which eventually yielded up the novelistic self-portrait, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold ), and Waugh’s love-hate relationship with the United States. Here, too, we learn that Waugh was not only a literary lion, but one of the most financially successful writers of the century; moreover, he turns out to have been one of the most generous, handing over copyrights and stacks of royalty money to various charities, primarily religious ones. (Waugh’s generosity was, to be sure, colored by his violent detestation of the income tax, and his determination to keep every penny possible out of the clutches of Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue.)
Stannard also makes clear that Waugh’s war experience further hardened his contempt for modernity.* Personal service in two of Britain’s more ignominious World War II enterprises—the failed attack on the Vichy French garrison at Dakar and, far worse, the scuttle from Crete—led Waugh to conclude that “The English are a very base people. I did not know this, living as I do. Now I know them through and through, and they disgust me.” That disgust was intensified by Waugh’s service at the end of the war with Randolph Churchill’s mission to the Tito partisans in Yugoslavia. Here, Waugh witnessed what he regarded as nothing less than the betrayal of yet another ally to the tender mercies of yet another totalitarianism. (Here, too, as critic Colin Walters aptly put it, Waugh abandoned his romantic desire to be a tough guy, a “hard man”: “When he got to Yugoslavia and met the genuine article in Josip Broz Tito and Fitzroy Maclean, the brigadier representing Churchill, ‘they shocked him with their toughness’”—that is, with their utterly amoral ruthlessness. On the other hand, Waugh had a far more accurate view of Tito than does Stannard, who gushes over the Yugoslavian Communist as “courageous, adaptable, [and] dignified . . . gifted with wit and inspired by a humanistic idealism.” Really.)
Stannard’s second volume also reminds us that, for all his incessant deprecation and mockery of America and Americans, Waugh was in fact of two minds about the trans-Atlantic cousins. At one level, of course, he was appalled by parts of the America he discovered in the course of a grand tour arranged by Life magazine. This was the America of materialistic, optimistic, Panglossian humanism that Waugh skewered in The Loved One: an America that was, on the one hand, afraid of life, and on the other, repelled by and in love with death. One suspects that Waugh could scarcely believe his own eyes when he read, in a tract entitled Art Guide of Forest Lawn with Interpretation, that “the cemeteries of the world cry out man’s utter hopelessness in the face of death. Their symbols are pagan and pessimistic. . . . Here sorrow sees no ghostly monuments, but only life and hope.” In truth, of course, here one saw that fact was more bizarre than the most lurid fiction. (As Waugh would note wryly in Life: “The Christian visitor [to Forest Lawn] might . . . remark that by far the commonest feature of other graveyards is still the cross, a symbol in which previous generations have found more Life and Hope than in the most elaborately watered evergreen shrub.”) This was the America that was the apotheosis (so to speak) of modernity: modernity raised up, and thus reduced, ad absurdum.
But, oddly enough, it was from America that Waugh foresaw the launching of a spiritual revival that might, just might, reverse the decline and fall of civilization. Waugh was, for example, the editor of the British edition of Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, and during his visits to the U.S. in the late 1940s he was deeply moved by the monastic renaissance then flourishing. “There is an ascetic tradition deep in the American heart which has sometimes taken odd and unlovable forms,” Waugh wrote in his foreword to Merton.+ “[But] here in the historic Rules of the Church lies its proper fulfillment. . . .” Waugh was also touched and impressed by Dorothy Day. After first twitting her by inviting her to lunch at what was then the best restaurant in New York, Waugh agreed to Dorothy’s proposed compromise that they meet in a Greenwich Village trattoria, where a four-hour conversation ensued. Martin Stannard captures the symbiosis nicely: “Waugh encountered in Mrs. Day a personality as tough and autocratic as his own, yet infinitely less selfish—a disarming combination.”
The result of his American tours was that Waugh became an early proponent of the notion that there might be a “Catholic moment” in American history and an “American moment” in the history of the Catholic Church. To be sure, Waugh’s “Catholic moment” was not John Courtney Murray’s (much less Richard John Neuhaus’). Waugh was essentially a monist in his vision of Church, culture, and state, and he would have regarded Murray’s call for Catholic participation in the definition of a “public philosophy” capable of sustaining genuine pluralism as something of a low aim, at best. On the other hand, Waugh was convinced that “Catholicism was not something alien and opposed to the American spirit but an essential part of it.”
He knew that the Church had enemies in the United States, and that they were on the march (in however peculiar a form):
The shops all over the country seek to substitute Santa Claus and his reindeer for the Christ-child. I witnessed, early in Lent, the arrival at a railway station of an “Easter Bunny,” attended by brass band and a posse of police. Just as the early Christians adopted the pagan festivals and consecrated them, so everywhere, but particularly in the United States, pagan commerce is seeking to adopt and desecrate the feasts of the Church. And wherever the matter is one for public authority, the State is “neutral”—a euphemism for “unchristian.”
Yet, rather like Jacques Maritain, Waugh seemed to think that American “materialism” was not quite so ubiquitous, or so deeply ingrained, as the country’s domestic cultured despisers or foreign critics believed. Forest Lawn was not the whole story—or even the heart of the matter. To those who looked on America, “half in hope and half in alarm”; to those whose understanding of American life was derived from “what they see in the Cinema, what they read in the popular magazines, what they hear from the loudest advertiser”; to those whose gratitude for the “enormous material benefits” they received from America was “tempered with distaste for what they believe is the spiritual poverty of the benefactor”; to all of these, Waugh had a simple, yet powerful, suggestion: come and have another look. For “it is only when one travels in America that one realizes that most Americans either share this distaste or are genuinely unaware of the kind of false impression which interested parties have conspired to spread.”
Indeed, and in a manner that seems, in retrospect, touchingly innocent, Waugh concluded his essay on “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church” with a remarkable confession of confidence: “There is a purely American ‘way of life’ dreaded in Europe and Asia. And that, by the grace of God, is the ‘way of life’ that will prevail.” And in the prevailing, American Catholicism would, by Providential design, assume “the historic destiny long borne by Europe” in the defense of the faith.
Sic transit gloria?
Waugh fans have long argued, amiably, about which of the master’s novels is the greatest. Brideshead Revisited has been calumniated by two generations of critics who object to both its piety and its lush, magenta prose. But even those who—rightly—esteem Brideshead may be frequently found arguing for the artistic superiority of A Handful of Dust as a work cleaner, more sharply drawn, more nuanced in its psychology. I would argue that a case can be made for the Sword of Honour trilogy as the apex of Waugh’s literary craftsmanship: these are surely the finest novels to come out of World War II, and their morally driven vision of world politics, for all that it was hooted down by critics in the 1960s, has been proven remarkably prescient by the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe.
Martin Stannard reminds us, however, that Waugh’s personal favorite was none of these, but rather the 1950 novel Helena: perhaps the least well-known, and the least well-regarded critically, of Waugh’s fiction. Was this a personal crotchet of the author’s? Stannard thinks not. In fact he suggests that the character of Helena, the mother of Constantine to whom tradition ascribes the discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem, is the key to grasping both Waugh’s sense of himself and his mature vision of the Christian life in the world.
Waugh was not modest about Helena in terms of his craft: on the dust jacket of the first edition he wrote, unblushingly, “Technically this is the most ambitious work of a writer who is devoted to the niceties of his trade.” Stannard finds the claim audacious, but admits that there may be something to it: in its spare narration and crisp dialogue, in its deceptive simplicity, in the ongoing collision between myth and history that gives rhythm to the narrative line—in sum, in its subtle deprecation of literary realism as a mode of discerning the truth of things—Helena was, Stannard concedes, “a vital technical experiment, neither modernist nor realist, but postmodernist, metafictional.”
But Helena was also Waugh’s most intentional statement about the truth of Christianity and about vocation as the heart of Christian discipleship. As Stannard puts it, the satire of the early Waugh had been characterized by a “jubilant malice” that reappeared, to the applause of the critics and the crowd, in The Loved One. But even before the war the author himself was being driven by other concerns. “Purgatory obsessed him,” Stannard writes, “the painful road toward his destiny as St. Evelyn Waugh.”
For that is what Waugh had discerned he must become: a saint. Indeed, that was the destiny of all Christians, great or small. “Quantitative judgments don’t apply.” What counted was sanctity. Moreover, what counted was to discover the vocation by which God had determined how the individual was to be sanctified. That sense of vocation, and the Christian scandal of particularity to which Helena’s vocation bore existential witness, was what attracted the novelist to the Empress: a choice Waugh later explained in a letter to John Betjeman, who had professed himself puzzled by the fact that, in the novel, Helena “doesn’t seem to be like a saint.”
Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own peculiar form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good my saying: “I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.” I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh—after God knows what experiences in purgatory. I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial fog, by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.
Waugh was never a proselytizer, but he was a committed Christian apologist. Thus Helena was not only addressed to those in the Household of Faith who were trying to discern the meaning of their own discipleship; Waugh was never a “religious novelist” in that sense of the term. Rather, Helena was also intended to be a full-bore confrontation with the false humanism that, for Waugh, was embodied by such well-meaning but profoundly wrong-headed naturalistic-humanist critics of modernity as Huxley and George Orwell.**
More specifically, Waugh wanted to suggest that the hollowness of modern humanisms had been born from the recrudescence of an ancient and toxic spiritual pathogen. Thus Helena, “metafictionally,” is an argument on behalf of Waugh’s contention that the modern humanistic fallacy is but a contemporary variant on the old gnostic temptation—exemplified, in the novel, by the emperor Constantine and his world-historical hubris. And the gnostic temptation comes down, at bottom, to the denial of original sin: which is a denial of the essential facts of life, especially the facts of suffering and death. The arrogantly ignorant Constantine puts it in precisely these terms to Pope Sylvester, as the headstrong conqueror heads off to his new capital on the Bosporus: “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations; in innocence, with Divine Wisdom and Peace.”
And the only answer to this fallacy of mundane humanist utopianism, for Helena and for Evelyn Waugh, was the “remorseless fact of the lump of wood to which Christ was nailed in agony,” as Stannard puts it. This was the emblem of our createdness and our redeemedness. Without it, Christianity was just a variant on the Mithras cult or some other gnostic effusion. With it—with this tangible expression of the incarnation and the hypostatic union—the window to the supernatural was open, and the “real world” and its sufferings were put into proper perspective: and thus made endurable, for the sake of the Kingdom.
Waugh returned to these same themes of incarnation and vocation at the end of the Sword of Honour trilogy. In this case, the man who must discover his divinely ordered task in the world is the protagonist, Crouchback, whose dreams of military glory have been overrun by events (and by the colossal incompetence of modern military bureaucracies, which Waugh lampoons as only he could do). But in the aptly named third volume, Unconditional Surrender, Guy discovers what his father’s maxim—“Quantitative judgments don’t apply”—means in his own life: as he accepts paternal responsibility for the illegitimate child conceived by his philandering ex-wife, Virginia, and the embodiment of the Age of the Common Man, the society-hairdresser-turned-media-manufactured-war-hero, Trimmer. The decision is another form of the Christian scandal of particularity and historicity: “My dear Guy,” one of Virginia’s friends protests, “the world is full of unwanted children. Half the population of Europe are homeless-refugees and prisoners. What is one child more or less in all that misery?” “I can’t do anything about all those others,” Guy replies. “This is just one case where I can help. And only I, really. I was Virginia’s last resort. So I couldn’t do anything else. Don’t you see ?” “Of course, I don’t,” came the angry retort. “You’re insane.”
About which Crouchback/Waugh can only reflect, “It was no good trying to explain. . . . Had someone said: ‘All differences are theological differences’? He turned once more to his father’s letter: ‘Quantitative judgments don’t apply.’ . . .”
Martin Stannard argues that “the story of Waugh’s later life is the story of his agonized spiritual quest toward compassion and contrition.” We may expect that the contrition came easier than the compassion, just as it does for many of us. But it is difficult to read Helena and Sword of Honour without discerning in its author the capacity for a great compassion indeed. Stannard also suggests that the “mainspring” of Waugh’s comic energy was his “power to hurt.” Perhaps that was true of the Waugh of Vile Bodies. But in the mature Waugh, the farce has been transformed into comedy, and the comedy has become indeed, for all the chiaroscuro shadings, a divina commedia.
*Despite his undisputed personal bravery, Waugh’s anarchic personality made him an impossible military officer. At one intelligence briefing during his early days in the Royal Marines, Waugh inquired whether it was true that “in the Romanian army no one beneath the rank of Major is permitted to use lipstick.” In 1940, Waugh was charged with neglecting his duties during a training exercise; part of the charge filed against him was that he had been seen smoking a cigar and drinking claret. When pressed on this during a Court of Inquiry in 1945, he admitted to having been smoking a cheroot and drinking Burgundy, but demanded of the Court why he should be “run-in by an officer so ill-bred that he could not distinguish between these totally different things.”
+ The allusion to Prohibition, which the notoriously bibulous Waugh would have regarded as akin to heresy (indeed, as the result of heresy), was both subtle and unmistakable.
**Waugh’s letter to Orwell acknowledging a gift of 1984 is one of the most impressive in his voluminous correspondence; it also sheds further light on Waugh’s Christian vision:
“I have seen a number of reviews, English and American, all respectful and appreciative. . . . Please believe that I echo their admiration for your ingenuity. . . .
“But the book failed to make my flesh creep as presumably you intended. For one thing I think your metaphysics are wrong. You deny the soul’s existence (at least Winston does) and can only contrast matter with reason and will in certain conditions. So you are left with nothing but matter. . . .
“Winston’s rebellion was false. His ‘Brotherhood’ . . . was simply another gang like the Party. And it was false, to me, that the form of his revolt should simply be f—— in the style of Lady Chatterley—finding reality through a sort of mystical union with the Proles in the sexual act. I think it possible that in 1984 we shall be living in conditions rather like those you show. But what makes your vision spurious to me is the disappearance of the Church . . . . Disregard all the supernatural implications if you like, but you must admit its unique character as a social and historical institution. I believe it is inextinguishable, though of course it can be extinguished in a certain place for a certain time. . . .
“The Brotherhood which can confound the Party is one of love, not adultery, still less throwing vitriol in children’s faces. And men who have loved a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.”
George Weigel is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and author, most recently, of The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism.
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