In trying to understand the extraordinary changes the Catholic Church underwent in the middle of the twentieth century, I recently came across two illuminating novels. The first was the last novel in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, Unconditional Surrender. The three novels loosely trace Waugh’s own military experience, darkly satirizing the military and more broadly modern society. Specifically, Waugh uses the war as a backdrop against which to lay out a different battle, this one between Catholicism and the modern world. The trilogy is widely regarded as Waugh’s masterwork.
Piers Paul Read’s Monk Dawson was the other novel, drawn from his own experience at Ampleforth, a British Catholic boarding school. It was Read’s, third novel, and it follows the life of young Edward Dawson from Catholic boarding school through seminary, chronicling his loss of faith and disillusionment, laicization, and a kind of return and reconciliation. The novel was an immediate hit, winning several prizes and appearing a year later in the United States.
As it happens, the books were published only eight years apart. Unconditional Surrender came out in 1961, Monk Dawson in 1969. A Catholic born in Britain in 1941, like Read himself, would have encountered Waugh’s book at age twenty and Read’s at twenty-eight. Between those two dates was a revolution so complete it is hard to imagine now that both these books are of the same decade. Waugh and Read portray starkly different social and religious worlds, even though, according to the timelines of the novels, both main characters live at the same time.
Waugh recounts the life and war career of Guy Crouchback, scion of an ancient Recusant family. Guy’s wife Virginia has left him, and he has returned from self-imposed exile in Italy to find some worthy purpose to his life. He is therefore triply removed from traditional British society, as a divorcee, Catholic, and exile. Britain is on the verge of war, and he finds some direction in the military and in joining the great cause of freedom. After several episodes, including the disastrous evacuation from Crete and the abandonment of Jews in the Balkans, Guy becomes disillusioned when the war for Christendom he hoped to be fighting turns out to be rather sordid and, with the betrayal of Catholics in Yugoslavia for Britain’s short-term interests, ultimately disappointing. Yet his faith remains a ground for Crouchback’s existence. Even when stranded in bombed-out Italy, Crouchback finds a church to attend. During the war, Guy’s father dies and in one of the novel’s great set-pieces, he is laid to rest witnessed by the family’s servants and townspeople in the family crypt. With him, Waugh implies, British Catholicism disappears.
Although Waugh has been rightly criticized for his snobbishness and focus on the upper classes he so admired, Unconditional Surrender points out a Catholic outlook that truly was different and that people believed to be different. Much of the book’s central subplot revolves around the fact that Guy is still, according to the Church, married to his (non-Catholic) wife, despite their civil divorce and her infidelity. Waugh portrays the real pain of Guy’s situation, but in his portrayal of the faith, the Church’s views on marriage and the importance of individual charity are woven into Guy’s life and make emotional and rational sense. Confession is something Catholics “have to do now and then,” and marriage is a theological fact, regardless of civil niceties.
Before his death, the senior Crouchback tells his son to act as he can for others; reflecting on this at his father’s funeral, Guy thinks, “One day he would get the chance to do some small service which only he could perform, for which he was created. 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 was offered.” And the chance does come. After his father’s burial, Virginia, now pregnant by another, returns to him. Her motives are mixed, at first. Yet Guy feels the call of charity. He takes back his wife, even after (or, as he says, because of) the news that she is pregnant. How could he do this? “It was no business of yours,” says a concerned friend. “It was made my business for being offered,” he responds. Amidst the misery of a world at war, he adds, “This is just one case where I can help. And only I, really. I was Virginia’s last resort.” He reflects, “If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of ‘loss of face.’” Thus the last heir of an ancient line, full of social and ecclesiastical privilege, humbles himself for another, and in doing so fulfills his vocation.
Monk Dawson, in contrast, was written with the heady ideas of liberation theology and social justice in the air after Vatican II. Its title character wants to do good, but confuses a desire for social justice with a religious vocation. Once ordained, Dawson is led astray by quasi-Marxist politics and sexual temptation. First, he believes the parish would be better for his social conscience than the monastery because parish life is more attuned to “real” problems of injustice, but he is overwhelmed by the problems of his individual parishioners, and thinks the Church should be doing good works on a broader scale. He leaves his vocation entirely, enters into a couple of affairs and begins a new life as a writer, taking the nom de plume “Monk” Dawson to add authority to his attacks on the Church and traditional morality that he now disdains. Another brief fling with Communism ensues, as he wonders whether he could “change again? Could he say . . . that he had found the answer for a third time?” But the answers do not come. The book’s narrator, a friend named Robert Winterman who lost his faith much earlier, thinks their common Catholic schooling and the Church herself “mucked” Dawson, and its outdated notions serve merely to provide false hopes for the ignorant.
Read shows how the Catholic understanding of life that undergirds Crouchback’s internal drama was shattered during the postwar years, especially in the late-1950s into the 1960s. In the enthusiasm for social justice, quantitative judgments were all; large-scale programs or revolution preoccupy Dawson, for whom the seemingly meaningless monastic rounds of prayer and the retail salvation of a parish church are not enough. Recusant Catholics are portrayed, offhandedly, as faintly ridiculous and tawdry. Thus Jenny, a woman with whom Dawson takes up after he leaves the priesthood, has an affair with Jack, whose “family had been Catholic since before the Reformation.” Indeed, Read calls him simply the Recusant. Dawson himself seems to have lost all faith or residual fear of God; he presides over a mock Black Mass and it is Jenny rather than he who considers their affair adulterous.
Although it is unclear whether Read endorses Dawson’s path, the book is filled with complaints against the Church that one still hears: Prayer is useless in an unjust world; the Church is too rigid, or too rich, or does not understand human sexuality. Arguments from the Church ring hollow in the face of Dawson’s anger at injustice. As Theresa, the daughter of a parishioner with whom Dawson has an affair, states, “I just don’t seem to need Faith. . . . There are so many straight-forward, intelligent people who don’t believe a word of it, honestly, who think that believing a bit of bread is the body of Jesus Christ is like thinking that babies are brought by storks” Dawson, and the novel, has no response for her. Unlike the Crouchbacks, who move within a world touched by divine grace and separate from the secular society, Dawson’s England is a search for status and a rejection of the moral language and framework that Guy would have understood. At the novel’s end, Dawson has retreated into a monastery, though from real faith or simple exhaustion at the world is unclear. One atheist commentator wrote to Read that his conclusion successfully portrayed the “insanity” of a religious vocation. Winterman, however, who still repeats the arguments against the Church, seems to have suffered no ill effects himself in casting off traditional doctrine, though he is almost the only one. The other characters in the novel, including Dawson’s two lovers, are broken people; Jenny loses herself in violent revolution and Theresa is a suicide.
Roger Scruton has written in these pages of the social and moral changes wrought by what is called “the 1960s,” which in fact extended past the annus terribilis of 1968 through the mid-1970s. These two books portray the impact of those changes for Catholics not just in the United Kingdom, but throughout the West. Waugh’s protagonist knows himself, and learns to look for the purpose for which he was made. Read’s Dawson thinks he knows the causes of all our social ills, but does notexcept, perhaps, at the endknow himself. Some believe that the revolutions of the 1960s were not revolutions at all, that they merely stripped off a false veneer and showed us what people “really” were like. These books, taken together, offer a sharp critique of that view.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?