Half a Century in the Wake of Waugh

waughOn Easter Sunday, 1966, Evelyn Waugh (left) was at his most benign. He had not seemed this content for years. With his family, he had just heard Mass, celebrated by his favourite Jesuit, Fr Philip Caraman SJ, in the ancient, beleaguered Tridentine rite at a church near his country house, Combe Florey, in Somerset. After the family party returned home he retreated to the downstairs lavatory, where he suffered a fatal coronary.

He could not have chosen a better day, the Feast of the Resurrection, to meet his Maker. And while he may have preferred to exit from his much-loved library, his God had chosen to take him from Waugh’s other sanctuary. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as the exploding thunder-box he fixed for the squatting Apthorpe in Men at Arms but it was still a very Wavian passing—a mixture of the sacred and the profane.

Some years ago, a knockabout neighbour glanced at a book I was carrying, a recent biography, which had, splashed in bold characters across its spine, “evelyn waugh”. “Ah,” he suggested, “Steve and Mark’s mum?” It is now half a century since the writer’s death, and thirty-five years since, to general acclaim, the cameras lovingly panned the glories of Castle Howard and the spires of Oxford, catching the languid tones of their inhabitants in Brideshead Revisited. So perhaps Waugh had faded from popular consciousness?
The author himself would have seen this slight as simply another triumph for the Common Man, his abiding enemy. He might also have recalled one of his first reviews, which referred to him throughout as “Miss Waugh”. Only weeks ago, Time magazine named Waugh the ninety-seventh most read female author in college classes.

It is said that an unhappy home can be the making of a great writer. Born in North London in October 1903, Waugh claimed to have had an unclouded childhood; yet “Underhill”, the unpretentious villa in semi-rural Hampstead, to which the family moved in 1907, fostered an odd dynamic.

Evelyn’s father, Arthur, had joined Dickens’s publisher, Chapman and Hall, the year before his son’s birth and would remain there for the rest of his life. The actress Ellen Terry called Arthur “dear little Mr Pickwick”. Despite Arthur’s geniality and fondness for anecdote, the only time Evelyn could recall his saying anything funny was when Arthur suggested that a friend who had just written Turkey: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow should have called it Boxing Day.

Arthur was infatuated with his first-born son, Alec. The birth of a second son did nothing to change this stifling obsession. In fact both parents were so disappointed they had not been blest with a daughter they called their son Evelyn. That Evelyn was quick to take—and give—offence only bound them closer to Alec.

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Arthur relived his unsatisfactory schooldays at Sherborne through clever, athletic Alec and was devastated, as an anticipated final glorious year approached, when Alec was expelled after being caught flogging the bare bottom of a boy called Renton with a wet towel. “This is the first time to my knowledge that such a thing has happened to a Waugh.” Alec followed this with a sensational novel based on Sherborne, The Loom of Youth (1917), which brought him fame but meant that Evelyn had to find another, in his opinion, inferior, school. In fact Lancing, on England’s south coast, near Brighton, had been carefully chosen to suit young Evelyn’s deeply religious temperament and his High Church leanings.

Despite Alec’s disgrace, Arthur’s devotion remained undimmed. Seventeen-year-old Evelyn dedicated his first (unpublished) book “To Myself, Evelyn Arthur St John Waugh, to whose sympathy and appreciation alone it owes its being” and throughout his life as a novelist, he would avenge this neglect by arming his characters with unattractive aspects of Arthur—from Mr Prendergast in Decline and Fall, Mr Rampole in Vile Bodies and Put Out More Flags, Mr McMaster in The Man Who Liked Dickens and Mr Todd in A Handful of Dust, to Edward Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. While Alec always generously acknowledged his brother’s superiority as a writer, Arthur, perhaps understandably, never did.

Evelyn went up to Oxford, to “the respectable but rather dreary” Hertford College. At school he had suppressed much of himself, but by the end of his first term, he was writing, “Oxford is all that one dreams”. His affinity for the aristocracy and alcohol had begun. The circles of friends he made then and soon after—Hons and heirs, aesthetes and artists—became part of his life and part of his art.

Armed with a “Gentleman’s third” and few prospects, Waugh had to resort to school teaching. His first posting was to Arnold House in North Wales. One cannot help but feel for the pupils. He recorded an encounter in his memoirs: “One of my major defeats was when I cried wrathfully to a moonfaced, vacuous creature: ‘Are you deaf, boy?’ to which all his fellows replied: ‘Yes, sir, he is.’ And he was.”

In July 1925, after his Oxford friend Harold Acton told him his first chapters of Temple at Thatch, his first attempt at full-length fiction, were no good, and a hoped-for role in Pisa as secretary to Proust’s translator C.K. Scott-Moncrieff fell through, Waugh attempted suicide by drowning. Having left a farewell note quoting Euripides, he walked out to sea, only to return to shore when he was stung by jellyfish.

But, as with so much of his life, calamity inspired his fiction and the publication of his first novel, Decline and Fall, in 1928 made him a celebrity. A few months before, he had wed an Hon, Evelyn Gardner, who promptly became “She-Evelyn” and almost as promptly fell in love with another man. Divorce followed.

This bitter experience formed the core of A Handful of Dust (1934) and in his misery Waugh found Catholicism. He was instructed by the leading Jesuit of his generation, Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ, who saw his conversion as an act of reason. Waugh saw chaos and corruption all around him and sought solace in the order and certainty of the Church. And yet his newfound Faith did not make him kind. As he confessed to his goddaughter, Edith Sitwell, on her conversion, “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.”

Some restless years of travelogues, a handful of requited—and unrequited—lovers, and no fixed abode followed. The fruits of a trip in 1935 to Abyssinia were a pro-Italian work of reportage, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936), and his splendid comic novel Scoop (1938), subtitled “A Novel about Journalists”. As with most of his pre-war novels Scoop deals with the protagonist as victim—virtue surrounded by vice—like Decline and Fall’s Paul Pennyfeather and A Handful of Dust’s Tony Last. Young, virtuous William Boot, the gardening writer for the Daily Beast, is mistakenly plucked from his decaying country seat, Boot Magna Hall, and sent to the front.

By 1935, Waugh had fallen in love with a fellow convert, Laura Herbert. She was a cousin, incredibly, of She-Evelyn, who obligingly assisted in giving evidence that allowed the Church to annul their marriage, freeing him to wed Laura. While aristocratic Laura could hold her own in any company, she was a self-contained countrywoman and on their marriage in April 1937 (and eventually seven children), Waugh took to the life of a Victorian paterfamilias and country gentleman at Piers Court, in Gloucestershire and, from 1955, at Combe Florey. He has been accused of affecting the role of squire but he was far too irascible and reclusive to submerge himself in local life.

The Second World War, despite his bravery, proved to be a time of disillusionment and frustration and towards its end he could find no regiment that wanted him. He was granted leave to write; and the result was Brideshead Revisited.

It was, in Waugh’s own words, his magnum opus, and the one still most associated with him. Kingsley Amis reviewed Brideshead under the title “How I Visited a Very Big House and Found God”. Waugh’s working title had been Household of the Faith, which underscored his theme of redemption through renunciation, but the other motif is the extinction of tradition. He had gone for baroque in the lushest, ripest prose he had ever employed.

Almost embarrassed, he later explained that his tone reflected the fact that, when it was written:

It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster, and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.

Also, with the unlikely survival of many country houses and their lucrative link to heritage tourism, that tradition seemed safer and Waugh confessed that he had “preached a panegyric over an empty coffin”.

After a return to the breezy heartlessness of his pre-war novels with The Loved One (1948) and his personal favourite, Helena (1950), an historical religious novel about the “True Cross” and the mother of the Emperor Constantine, he produced, from 1952 to 1961, what became the Sword of Honour trilogy—Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. It was less celebrated than Brideshead, but, rather like Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End in the Great War, it was arguably the finest fiction to emerge from Britain about the Second World War.

As with Brideshead and Helena, at the heart of the trilogy is the complex personal issue of honour and salvation and his noble hero, Guy Crouchback, the scion of a recusant English family. As his friend Nancy Mitford observed: “I do think Catholic writers have an advantage; the story is always there to hand, will he, won’t he, will he, won’t he, will he save his soul?”

His self-perception was as acute as his prose and never so acute as his account of the paranoid hallucinogenic cruise in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). This was the most autobiographical of all his fiction—more revealing than his memoir, A Little Learning (1964). The portrait he paints of Pinfold is Waugh to the life:

The part for which he cast himself was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel and he acted it strenuously, before his children [at home] and his cronies in London, until it came to dominate his whole outward personality.

The personal trait that rattles Waugh’s critics most is his snobbery—even more than his belligerence or misanthropy. His admiration for the aristocracy was real, but a title was not enough; his blue-bloods had to be interesting; they had to be exceptional, and even then, he could not prevent his spleen from venting. His friend Frances Donaldson recalled his wish, in the late 1950s, to meet the Queen Mother. A lady-in-waiting arranged a meeting in her flat in Marylebone: two chairs were drawn up in front of the fire; champagne was poured. The Queen Mother raised her glass. “Oh, Mr Waugh, champagne! Isn’t this a luxury!” “A luxury?” Evelyn inquired, unsmiling. “Really, ma’am?”

The mix of a monstrous personality writing with such grace has proved irresistible and the industry surrounding Waugh rivals Bloomsbury. He has been fortunate with his biographers, who chart his life from suburban birth to the prancing faun at Oxford, the Bright Young Thing, the spurned lover, the amusing house guest, the intrepid traveller, the evangelising Catholic, the celebrated author, the country squire turned Mr Toad.

The first was his friend Christopher Sykes (1975) whose book, though certainly not uncritical, is a study of loyalty and restraint. The second came from Professor Martin Stannard, in two volumes (The Early Years in 1986 and No Abiding City in 1992), an exhaustive, elegant yet essentially disapproving assessment. One critic accused Stannard of “banging out judgments like an inner-city magistrate”; yet it remains a work of remarkable scholarship. The third was the accomplished biographer Lady Selina Hastings, whose absorbing and almost maternally sympathetic account appeared in 1994. Two Americans, Douglas Lane Patey (1997) and David Wykes (1999), produced intelligent assessments on the literary aspects of Waugh’s life. In July this year another life, promising new material, and subtitled “A Life Revisited”, will appear from Philip Eade, the biographer of another peppery figure, the Duke of Edinburgh.

There have also been a number of memoirs, memorably from his descendants—his eldest son Auberon’s hilarious Will This Do? in 1991 and Auberon’s son Alexander’s fascinating Fathers and Sons in 2004.

His Diaries (1976)—covering 789 pages from 1911 to 1965 and edited by Michael Davie, one-time editor of the Age, were a revelation. The critic Frederic Raphael saw them as “a portrait of an artist as a bad man” but Auberon declared, “[They] show that the world of Evelyn Waugh’s novels did in fact exist.” The diaries take readers deep into the world of Black Mischief, Scoop, A Handful of Dust, the travel diaries from Guiana and Brazil, the climactic scene in Brideshead, and Sword of Honour.

Waugh tended to write his diary at night in a maudlin fog of claret and port, while he wrote his letters in the morning when he was playful and bright. Growing deafness and contempt for the telephone made him a prodigious correspondent. His Letters, edited by Mark Amory, appeared in 1980, and uncovered a need, if not a gift, for friendship and confirmed just how funny he was. Behind the torrent of nursery nicknames—Boofy, Baby, Stinkers, Honks, Smartyboots, Momo, Bobo, Debo, Trim and Prod—lay a determination to amuse and to tease. He said he had to give up accepting invitations and going to London after the war because of the cost of the flowers he had to deliver the next day as amends for his behaviour. He increasingly depended on two witty, worldly yet déclassé aristocrats, Diana Cooper and Nancy Mitford, to entertain and inform him of the disasters and indignities, the follies and foibles of their set. Their sparkling correspondence, Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch (1991) and The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996) is proof of this. Another close friend and correspondent was Ann Fleming, wife of James Bond’s creator, Ian. None of these three women was afraid of him; fearlessness was a pre-condition for Wavian favour.

Finally, apart from three volumes of his essays, articles and reviews, edited by James Cook University’s Donat Gallagher, there have been scores of critical studies. And that is just in English. Even in France, where Waugh’s name is virtually unpronounceable, a chap called Tosser has written about the Waugh oeuvre.

All his work remains in print today and, in fact, such is the confidence in his canon that Leicester University and Oxford University Press have embarked upon “The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh”—forty-three volumes of all he wrote, including twelve volumes of his Personal Writings, to be published over five years from 2017. The project is led by the family, under the general editorship of Alexander Waugh, with a panel of eminent Wavians—among them, Martin Stannard, Robert Murray Davis and Donat Gallagher.

The last book to appear in Waugh’s lifetime was his war trilogy, Sword of Honour, as a single volume, in 1965. This, not Brideshead, was really his magnum opus, an elegiac study of the end of civilisation—but, while all around him is death and decline, Guy Crouchback seizes his opportunity for salvation. The writing was sublime. Even Gore Vidal, while not sold on the redemption idea, hailed “a prose so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American … his military trilogy has much to recommend it. The wit endures.” As usual, Waugh peopled the trilogy with a cast of eccentrics—opportunists, bores, cowards and madmen—and while the plot features battles, the real conflicts are inner ones. The theme is an august one and the author’s central message solemn. Yet the road to redemption has rarely been so funny, brilliantly merging the genius of Waugh and the madness of war.

After this he managed nothing more than eight pages of the projected second volume of his memoirs, A Little Hope. His last years were dogged by chronic melancholia, exacerbated by the changes wrought by Vatican II. His innate tendency to anarchy and chaos was matched by a longing for order and routine. He clung to his Faith but not its new form. Death was, for him—and his family—a release. As early as 1921, he had asked God to make his world-weariness and physical decay as short as possible when they eventually came … and God proved obliging. Waugh was only sixty-two.

His life will surely continue to be a source of fascination. And his work? With his genius for narrative and his mastery of prose, his gift for comedy and his grasp of character, Evelyn Waugh could expect to be read for as long as fiction is prized.

The great Clive James, in his review of the Letters, put it perfectly:

Waugh is in a direct line with Shakespeare and Dickens … consensus has been delayed because many critics were rightly proud of the Welfare State and regarded Waugh’s hatred of it as mean-minded. He was paid out for his rancour by his own unhappiness. For the happiness he can still give us it is difficult to know how to reward him, beyond saying that he has helped make tolerable the modern age he so abominated.

Mark McGinness wrote on the art of the obituary in the March issue.

2 thoughts on “Half a Century in the Wake of Waugh

  • says:

    I haven’t read Evelyn Waugh but this essay has put Evelyn on my reading bucket list. Thank you Mark McGinness.

  • murray.walters says:

    Thanks Mark. I always wondered if Sebastian in Brideshead was how he feared he might end up. Older age does not seem to have been kind to him

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