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Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited
by philip eade
henry holt, 432 pages, $32

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was born in 1903 to upper-middle-class Anglicans who lived in a suburb of London. He attended a boarding secondary school (Lancing College), read history at Oxford, published his first book (a biography of the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti) at age twenty-four, then his first novel a year later. Waugh married that same year (1928), divorced after two years, and converted to Catholicism. After the first marriage was declared null, he married a Catholic by whom he had seven children. He served honorably but ineffectively as an infantry officer in World War II, and was to publish thirteen novels, as well as seven travel books, three biographies, a volume of autobiography, and numerous essays and book reviews. Lionized in the 1920s as a trendy man of fashion, he became increasingly conservative in politics and churchmanship and notorious for his truculent contempt for the sham enthusiasms of modernity. He died on Easter Sunday, 1966, at his house in Somerset.

In addition to works published in his lifetime, Waugh left behind several hundred pages of diaries and thousands of letters. And in reading these we become aware that sometime between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, he acquired an almost freakishly mature mastery of English prose. For the remainder of his life, he was all but incapable of writing a boring sentence. Even in his commonplace and perfunctory communications—business correspondence, military reports, letters to agents and headmasters—Waugh wrote a clean, elegant, beautifully precise English that is appetizing in the most unpromising circumstances. Just as it’s unsettling to be reminded that Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was a set of keyboard exercises composed “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning,” it’s remarkable how much eerily flawless craftsmanship Waugh displays even when the occasion of his writing is casual or mundane.

The most outstanding characteristic of Waugh’s prose is its lucidity. Every sentence is clear. Even where his subject matter is thorny, I don’t believe I’ve ever had to read a sentence twice over to get its meaning. His friend and fellow novelist Graham Greene remarked that what struck him about Waugh’s writing was its transparency, that you could see all the way to the bottom, as with the Mediterranean in days gone by. This transparency is partly attributable to perfect syntax—grammatical solecisms are almost nonexistent—and partly to Waugh’s care in choosing the right word, the word that not only conveys but illuminates. Sometimes Waugh employs a recondite word from his compendious vocabulary, but never an obscure word for the sake of its obscurity. As a boy I learned the meaning of many words I had never before encountered from the perfect fit they were given by Waugh in a single memorable phrase. Reading Waugh, you don’t need a dictionary at your elbow; the sentence provides sufficient light on its own.

Waugh also had a genius for conveying spoken English matched only, perhaps, by James Joyce. Like Joyce, he lets us hear the speakers through their dialogue—their accents; their treble or contralto, their coughs, stammers, and lisps; their whining or their barking—and he does this with almost no departure from standard spelling. We recognize cockneys without resort to dropped aitches and Scotsmen without resort to tripled r’s; we recognize them because the speeches Waugh gives them convince us that only this cockney or only this Scotsman could utter them. Their language informs us about his characters’ class, age, education, and provenance with a certainty that makes further description superfluous. So too their brief speeches give us a glimpse into his characters’ souls that clumsier authors would require many pages of narrative to communicate.

Almost miraculous in this respect is Waugh’s first novel, titled Decline and Fall, whose minor characters, though mere props in a farce, have a kind of inevitability and immortality: Once having read the lines Waugh gives them, you can’t imagine their ever saying anything else. Something imperishable has been created out of nothing. You feel you’d know Dr. Fagan and Lady Beste-Chetwynde were you to overhear them in a bus. The quality persists in Waugh’s later works, but only sporadically and only in the minor characters.

A third characteristic of Waugh the prose stylist is the concord between the rhythm of the paragraph and its meaning—a concord that is easier to perceive than it is to analyze. By the operation of some deep poetic instinct, the rise and fall of the narrative augment and reinforce the sense of the words that underlie it. Here is one example, from the travel book When the Going Was Good, describing an encounter with a young American on a lake steamer on the way to the Congo:

I offered him a drink and he said “Oh no, thank you,” in a tone which in four monosyllables contrived to express first surprise, then pain, then reproof, and finally forgiveness. Later I found that he was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Mission, on his way to audit accounts at Bulawayo.

As with Edward Gibbon, every sentence in Waugh has a kind of architectural perfection; as did Gibbon, Waugh knew how to maximize the blunt impact of the monosyllabic word by its well-timed departure from a stream of elegant polysyllables. Waugh strove for economy of expression, such that the structural elements of this prose would each carry as much weight as possible. He frequently compared the writer’s craft to that of a cabinetmaker or carpenter, and saw the joinery of words as an indispensable task of artisanship. In a 1949 letter to Thomas Merton—who had sent him a draft of his book The Waters of SiloeWaugh criticizes the monk for shirking this chore:

In the non-narrative passages, do you not think you tend to be diffuse, saying the same thing more than once. I noticed this in The Seven Storey Mountain and the fault persists. It is pattern-bombing instead of precision bombing. You scatter a lot of missiles all round the target instead of concentrating on a single direct hit. It is not art. Your monastery tailor and boot-maker would not waste material. Words are our materials.

Waugh loathed the pretense of artists as members of a secular priesthood, and insisted that exalted art did not exist apart from the humble craftsmanship that was a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of its existence. 

Yet the differences between Waugh and Thomas Merton were not limited to prose style, and this brings me to my second subject: Evelyn Waugh the Catholic. Both Merton and Waugh were converts to Catholicism, yet it would be difficult to find coeval coreligionists with more sharply contrasting approaches to their faith. Merton, the monk with the irrepressible ego, put the self on center stage to an extent that stood classical monasticism on its head; Waugh prized his religion precisely because it was objective, was doctrinally immutable, and by its inflexible demands aimed at mortifying the querulous self and its appetites. The English Jesuit Martin D’Arcy, who instructed Waugh prior to his conversion, remarked that he’d never known a convert for whom the truth of Catholic teaching was more closely scrutinized and, once accepted, more central to his faith.

It’s important to stress that Waugh, himself an artist, was not attracted to the Catholic Church by any aesthetic appeal. As he remarked, the hymns, the great cathedrals, the ancient titles, the liturgy written in the heyday of English prose—all were the property of the Church of England. Had he been guided by his own taste, he would have remained an Anglican. The appeal of the Catholic Church was simply her universal claim to authority, which, once found valid, required submission of mind and will, without regard to whether and to what extent it was gratifying or irksome. The faith Waugh embraced could be called “impersonal,” if by that term we mean not hostile to the person but sternly indifferent to the cravings and pleas of the ego. C. S. Lewis wrote that the Real is that which says to us, “Your preferences have not been considered.” So too for Waugh, it was the fact that the Church had not consulted him, or any other creature, in the formulation of her doctrines that made her claim plausible. It’s telling that, when changes were proposed in the celebration of the Mass during the 1960s, Waugh rejected the accusation that defenders of the Latin Mass were either conservatives or aesthetic thrill-seekers, citing his own conversion as evidence:

I was not at all attracted by the splendour of great ceremonies—which the Protestants could well counterfeit. Of the extraneous attractions of the Church which most drew me was the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stumping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do. That is the Mass I have grown to know and love.

Waugh does not deny that the Catholic Church has aesthetic splendors to offer; what he denies is that such splendors provide a reliable basis for accepting the Church’s claims as true. The feelings such splendors produce are sporadic and transitory, and those who wallow most deeply in them will feel cheated and distraught on the day their magic fails. Rather it is the ordinary daily Mass, the opus operatum, performed and assisted at out of duty rather than desire, that points to the objective reality of a universal immutable faith: Your preferences have not been considered.

One of Waugh’s lesser-known short stories is instructive in this respect. Its title, “Out of Depth,” makes reference to the hero’s being out of his depth in his collision with black magic, and simultaneously to the De profundis clamavi—the incipit of Psalm 130: “out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord.” In the tale, the hero Rip, a languidly sybaritic bachelor, is thrust forward five hundred years into the future, to find London nothing but a marshland marked by hummocks and wattle huts inhabited by grunting white savages—a mirror image, in fact, of the Thames valley as it was 2,500 years prior to his adventure. Dazed and disoriented by the vanishing of everything familiar to his senses, he sees imperial conquerors from Africa making their way up the Thames in a launch (“a large mechanically propelled boat, with an awning and a flag; a crew of smart Negroes, all wearing uniforms of leather and fur though it was high summer; a commander among the Negroes issuing orders in a quiet supercilious voice”). Rip is taken downstream with some other natives to a mission compound. The story concludes as Rip regains awareness of his surroundings. Waugh writes:

And then later—how much later he could not tell—something that was new and yet ageless. The word “Mission” painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar . . . and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. Something was being done. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which survived the age of the world. In a log-built church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation; some of them in cast-off uniforms; the women had shapeless, convent-sewn frocks; all round him dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned. The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.

“Ite, missa est.”

In part, “Out of Depth” is a dig at Hilaire Belloc’s view that “The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.” In part, it is a sly reference to Macaulay’s famous tribute to the perpetuity of the Catholic Church given in his 1840 review of Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes:

She may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

Yet there’s more to Waugh’s story than a poke at Belloc or a nod to Macaulay. In Rip’s projection into the future, all the political, cultural, and social solidities of twentieth-century Europe have disappeared; every complacency has been demolished. The contingencies of history have made conquering races out of the conquered, and new empires carry their civilizing schemes to the barbarian wilds that were once Piccadilly and Grosvenor Square. Only the spiritual realities remain unchanged, realities that are symbolized by the Mass, but that include the moral and evangelical efforts of the missionaries, which are as deathless as the Church herself. We’re not to imagine Rip as a pious, churchgoing Catholic—quite the contrary—yet the unsensational gestures and rhythms of the low Mass provide, across the centuries, a touchstone of intelligibility: as Waugh puts it, “a shape in chaos.”

A shape in chaos. This is the key phrase in “Out of Depth.” The story is not a lament that Western civilization will decay into savagery. The point, rather, is that the sophisticated man-about-town and the grunting, scurrying savage are equally engaged in endeavors that are vain, transient, and, from the viewpoint of eternity, meaningless. External circumstances may flatter the one and humiliate the other, but in Waugh’s perspective, the bushman and theatergoer are both immersed in a maelstrom of futility against which the Catholic faith is an unchanging, if dimly understood, still point and touchstone of the good, the true, and the beautiful. It’s not that London’s glitterati might become the great-great-grandsires of savages; to the extent they are disconnected from the true Church, the worldlings are already savages themselves.

Throughout his professional life, Waugh was both admired and feared for the lethality of his tongue and pen. Some have suggested that his practice of satire was incompatible with the Christian vocation. When Waugh was asked, “Are your books meant to be satirical?” he answered:

No. Satire is a matter of period. It flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous moral standards—the early Roman Empire and eighteenth-century Europe. It is aimed at inconsistency and hypocrisy. It exposes polite cruelty and folly by exaggerating them. It seeks to produce shame. All this has no place in the Century of the Common Man where vice no longer pays lip service to virtue. The artist’s only service to the disintegrated society of today is to create independent little systems of order of his own. I foresee in the dark age to come that the scribes may play the part of monks after the first barbarian victories. They were not satirists.

Like any author, Waugh bridled at having his works pigeonholed so as to be approved or rejected with reference to a single category; on these grounds, he is justified in rejecting the label of satirist. From our vantage point, however, we can smile at Waugh’s claim that in his time (he wrote those words in 1946) vice no longer paid lip service to virtue. More to the point, Waugh the writer indisputably engages in the exaggeration of polite cruelty and folly, which on his own terms must be reckoned satire, however subsidiary he would rank satire among his artistic intentions. The attempt to illustrate Waugh’s satiric art is beset by a disadvantage. His satire was not, like Dorothy Parker’s, expressed in epigrams or pithy one-liners. It cannot be separated from the context from which it emerged so as to be repeated at a dinner party. His literary wit finds its poise in the balance of character, circumstance, and sudden felicity of language.

I want to argue that Waugh could not have been a great satirist were he not a Catholic, and, more controversially, that his satire had its source in appropriation of the truths of Catholicism rather than in extenuation of its precepts. Most fundamentally, it was Catholicism that made “Waugh the insular and class-conscious bully” into an internationalist taking the side of the underdog. His satire was subversive, and deliberately so. It is essential to grasp that his satire subverts the social and political tyrannies of our time.

There is, I admit, a good deal of subjectivity here. Both parties to a dispute may view themselves as David up against Goliath, and one man’s needle may be another man’s cudgel. We find in literary satire the same spectrum of moral and artistic value displayed in political cartoons. The best caricaturists help us see a new truth in an arresting and witty way. The worst—think of Julius Streicher of Der Stürmer and Boris Efimov of Pravda—strive to make their target not so much an object of ridicule as an object of hatred. Their exaggerations are indifferent to truth or falsehood and make a clandestine appeal to complacency—that is, they help us take pride in our bigotries and thus reinforce our vices. By the same token, satire may be used to fortify our contempt for some disfavored class, but it may have—and with the best authors does have—an emancipating element.

Consider the following passage in Waugh’s 1942 novel Put Out More Flags. It takes place in a Bloomsbury garret in which communist artists and atheist graduate students are gathered at the outbreak of World War II. They are unsure whether, as good Marxists, they should join the fight against Nazi Germany (and thus become unwilling defenders of bourgeois Britain), or else ignore the conflict entirely (and to that extent assist Hitler by weakening the war effort and spreading despondency). Waugh writes:

There was a young man of military age in the studio; he was due to be called up in the near future. “I don’t know what to do about it,” he said, “Of course, I could plead conscientious objections, but I haven’t got a conscience. It would be a denial of everything we’ve stood for if I said I had a conscience.”

“No, Tom,” they said to comfort him. “We know you haven’t got a conscience.”

“But then,” said the perplexed young man, “if I haven’t got a conscience, why in God’s name should I mind so much saying that I have?”

Note that Waugh does more than get off a jest at the expense of Marxist intellectuals. He exposes and illuminates a radical flaw in Marxist orthodoxy, and that so concisely that it would take many pages of philosophical exposition to make the same point. We aren’t moved to hate or despise leftists by this spoofing, yet we are inoculated against a great deal of nonsense by the wit displayed in the deftly revealed incongruity. Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that in the 1940s, Marxism enjoyed a great deal of prestige—certainly more than did Catholicism—among educated elites. Yet it’s the Catholic David, whose faith has taught him what the word “conscience” means, who pulls the whiskers of the Stalinist Goliath.

As Dr. Johnson said, “A man had rather have a hundred lies told of him than one truth which he does not wish should be told.” Anarchists hate to be exposed as autocrats. I think in this connection of Waugh’s “Open Letter” to Nancy Mitford, in which he affected to find fault with her proposed model of an upper-class English family. Waugh objected that her portrait was inaccurate in that it included too few children. “Impotence and sodomy are socially OK,” he wrote, “but birth control is flagrantly middle class.”

Of course Waugh was only feigning sympathy with Mitford’s project and feigning a social rather than a moral objection to contraception. His inflexible Catholic convictions, as everyone understood, were provocatively masqueraded as class consciousness. The outrage that greeted this remark—or better, the humorlessness of the outrage—proved that Waugh’s shaft had found its mark. He had hit on a truth—namely, the ill-hidden bad conscience of heathen England—it did not wish should be spoken.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Christian satirist—so I would argue—is that he places himself under the same moral judgment as his targets. That is, he acknowledges a single system of morality governing the satirist and the satirized and holds himself responsible to the same precepts. I believe few critics of Waugh have adequately emphasized the extent to which his satire cuts most deeply at his own pretensions and illusions. This is most evident in the semi-autobiographical novels, such as The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and the Sword of Honour trilogy, but detectable in nearly all his fiction. Consider the following excerpt from Helena, Waugh’s historical novel about the mother of the emperor Constantine. She was the wife of the Roman general Constantius Chlorus, and Waugh fancifully makes her the daughter of King Coel of Colchester. On a military mission to Britain, Constantius takes notice of Helena and asks her father for her hand. Coel is transformed from a mossy minor prince to become the upper-class Edwardian father, alarmed at the prospect of a southern European for a son-in-law. As did all fathers in similar situations, he tries to dissuade the suitor by pleading ignorance of his antecedents. “I daresay we seem old-fashioned in Britain, but we still care a great deal for such things.”

At last Constantius spoke. “You have a right to the information you seek, but I must beg you to respect my confidence. When I tell you, you will understand my hesitation. I would have preferred you to accept my word, but since you insist—” he paused to give full weight to his declaration—“I am of the Imperial Family.”

It fell flat. “You are, are you?” said Coel. “It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of there being such a thing.”

“I am the great-nephew of the Divine Claudius. . . . Also,” he added, “of the Divine Quintilius, whose reign, though brief, was entirely constitutional.”

“Yes,” said Coel, “and apart from their divinity, who were they? Some of the emperors we’ve had lately, you know, have been”—very literally—“nothing to make a song about. It’s one thing burning incense to them and quite another having them in the family. You must see that.”

“Apart from their divinity, who were they?” An unsurpassably devastating verdict on the insularity, snobbery, and narcissistic delusions of the British upper class—and it comes from the pen of a Waugh. The capacity to make oneself the target of one’s own mockery is, though not exactly humility, a kind of second cousin to humility, and points to the universalizing moral scope of a satire that instructs and does not merely deride. In his writing, Waugh made use of both Christian and un-Christian satire; I would argue that a blanket condemnation and blanket exoneration are equally misguided, and that each specimen should be judged on its merits.

Judging on the basis of merit is a distinctive virtue of Philip Eade’s new biography, titled Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited. Building on the achievements of Waugh’s earlier biographers, Eade retells the story of Waugh’s life primarily from the standpoint of relationships: father, mother, brother, schoolmasters, schoolfellows, wives, lovers, military superiors, children, and the many, many individuals of all ranks whom Waugh outraged or enchanted vividly enough to leave behind a report of the collision. Eade worked with the advantage of several documentary sources that the passage of time and changes in notions of literary propriety have made newly available to investigators, most notably the account of their marriage by Waugh’s first wife, and the diaries of his commanding officer during the Battle of Crete. It is to our advantage that Eade presents his material with a scholar’s eye: respectful of conflicting testimony, balanced in judgment, alert to bias in his sources, with a measured sympathy for Waugh and for the claims of those he failed or wounded. His biography restores, to some extent, many damaged reputations, and damages, to a lesser degree, a few others.

With commendable moderation and, I think, insight, Eade permits the severest judgments on the character of Waugh—and they were severe—to be those attested by Waugh himself, whereas the evidence for virtues contrary to his self-constructed image of truculent misanthropy comes from the first-person testimony of recipients of his silent but exceptional and exceptionally frequent acts of generosity. One gets the sense throughout his work that Eade has set his hounds to sniff out the documents and interviews that give the truth, even if unsensational, rather than the racy or amusing anecdote; yet in the end his evenhandedness serves to sharpen rather than blur the likeness he has crafted. In sum, Eade succeeds in giving a convincing picture of a complex man—one more interesting, in human terms, than the portrait the artist gave us of himself.

I conclude with a passage that touches on Waugh’s early manhood and continues in various ways to resonate throughout his life. It occurs in the novel Decline and Fall, when Paul Pennyfeather, expelled from his Oxford college, seeks employment as a schoolmaster and is granted an interview by Dr. Augustus Fagan, headmaster of Llanabba School in Wales:

“ . . . I understand, too, that you left your university rather suddenly. Now—why was that?”

This was the question that Paul had been dreading, and, true to his training, he had resolved upon honesty.

“I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.”

“Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal.”

Dr. Fagan’s sublime cynicism is never more than half a degree below room temperature and is expressed by unhurried, syntactically flawless disgust; his squalid criminal enterprises seem impelled more by boredom than venality. In moral terms, he is the point-by-point antithesis of Gervase, the saintly aristocrat and father of Guy Crouchback in the Sword of Honour trilogy. As creations, these equally urbane and imperturbable English gentlemen stand at the beginning and toward the end of Waugh’s authorial life, yet the virtuous elder Crouchback is one of the very few minor characters in Waugh’s repertory who fail to amuse. Endowed from boyhood with the ability to give pain and give delight, Waugh found it a lifelong task to learn how to edify; neither by his pen nor in his personal life did he wholly succeed. It is a testament to his character, and his faith, that he tried at all. 

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., writes from Chicago.