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Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
by Paula Byrne
Harper, 368 pp. $25.99

Evelyn Waugh opened his most famous novel Brideshead Revisited with this monitory epigram: “I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they.” Well, maybe. Paula Byrne, anyway, begs to differ. In all Waugh’s novels, she says, the art imitates the life. She proves her case by casting her biography of England’s most famous Catholic novelist as a stately promenade through his abundant fiction. While her book at times threatens to become a kind of Answer Key to Waugh’s novels, which themselves, in her hands, almost resemble mere romans clef , she does convincingly show that Waugh always drew from his own life in his fiction. As he himself conceded in his 1934 travel book Ninety-Two Days , “The truth is that self-respecting writers do not ‘collect material’ for their books, or, rather they do it all the time in living their lives.”

Given how sharply satirical were his novels, the wonder is how he escaped lawsuits under Britain’s strict libel laws. He managed this because, first, his characters were almost always composites of two or more real people. For example, in his days as an undergraduate at Oxford Waugh’s fellow student Harold Acton used a megaphone to shout out lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land from an open window of his upper-storey college suite and was later thrown into a fountain by some drunken students in the middle of the night; while another student, Brian Howard, spoke with a stutter and gossiped his head off: all of which got fused in the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited . Second, he always tried to make his most satirical portraits physically attractive. As Byrne dryly notes, “When one of Evelyn’s friends asked him how he got away with using real life models for fictional characters, his reply was that you can draw any character as near to life as you want and no offense will be taken provided you say that he is attractive to women” (or she to men: women never sued either).

But of course, Waugh’s novels’ popularity with the public comes not from their connection with “real life” (whatever that is) but from their astonishing evocative power, itself deeply rooted in the author’s essential rootlessness. As he said in his 1939 Robbery Under Law , another of his seven travel books: “I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth.”

And, of course, Brideshead ’s own unique popularity comes above all from the author’s brilliant ability to portray the invisible workings of grace. In 1947 he wrote a memo to MGM Studios, which was thinking of making a film of the novel. Naturally suspicious of Hollywood’s motives, he wrote to insist that God’s action on the soul is the key to the novel, which, he said, “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of grace,’ that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to himself.”

Whether Byrne really understands Waugh’s reasons for becoming a Catholic can be questioned, not because she lacks sympathy for her subject (or for Catholicism, as far as I can detect), but because she has chosen to interpret the life solely through the novels. But at least she gets this right: “ Brideshead mattered so much to Evelyn because he put so much of himself into it: his distance from his father, his sentimental education of Oxford, his early love affairs, his initiation into the aristocratic world of the Lygons [model for the novel’s Marchmain family], his conversion to Roman Catholicism, his abortive love affair with the Army . . . . All the things that mattered most to Evelyn in the years up until the end of the Second World War went into the novel, even though many years later (now bitter and disillusioned) he grew rather ashamed of its excesses, its sentimentalism and richly ornate language. At the time he believed that it was his great work and that it would go on being read for many years to come.” The reading public has always agreed with the original assessment and I suspect will continue to do so. For what other novel has so successfully portrayed the operation of invisible grace through such lyrical descriptions of the visible actions of sinful men and women?

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Chicago.