Naughty Boy

Essay: Remembering Evelyn Waugh a half century after his death

Evelyn Waugh, on board the liner S.S. America / AP
May 7, 2016

Fifty years ago Evelyn Waugh died on Easter Sunday at his home in Somerset. He had just returned from Mass with his family. According to Fr. Philip Caraman, Waugh left the little village chapel at Wiveliscombe looking "benign and at peace, with a kind of tranquility and serenity that as a priest one often meets in people who are dying." Margaret Waugh wrote not long afterward that she believed her father had prayed for death that morning.

After his death, he was the subject of tributes. Fellow Catholics were especially generous. Anthony Burgess praised Waugh’s oeuvre as "one of the richest in all modern literature" and expressed his regret that "the crass patterns of modern life, on both sides of the Atlantic, will never again find so detached and elegant and devastating a castigator." Graham Greene, who knew him better, recalled his personal qualities—singling out only his "unshakeable loyalty"—and called him "the greatest novelist of my generation."

How do things look half a century on? What is there to assess? Let us take the measure. There is the work, of course: the undergraduate journalism and belles lettres, including, rather astonishingly, a persuasive defense of artistic modernism; the early, somewhat spotty short stories; the squib on Rossetti (the anonymous reviewer in the TLS praised the efforts of "Miss Waugh"); then, suddenly, like some great primeval conjuring, Decline and Fall, one of the most astonishing debut novels in our language, its sudden appearance comparable to the publication of The Pickwick Papers; followed by Vile Bodies, that collage of decay, and the brilliant farce and elegant satire of the long middle period that begins with Black Mischief and ends with Love Among the Ruins. With Brideshead Revisited, he produced the greatest purely didactic novel of modern times, a tale of virtue rewarded—however obliquely—worthy of Richardson and the other 18th-century masters whom he revered; with The Sword of Honour, he bade farewell to Toryism and England. Finally, among the novels, there is Helena, his favorite among his works and the only one he permitted to be read aloud in his presence, his tribute to a great saint, and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, his miserable self-portrait, far more revealing than the autobiography. There are also the beautifully written biographies of St. Edmund Campion and Msgr. Ronald Knox and the more or less unbroken stream of reviews and travel pieces, some of them brilliant, some utterly slapdash, nearly all of them well remunerated. Then we have the correspondence in three volumes and the diaries.

At least as engaging as the work is the life. (At present, there seems to be little chance of the latter eclipsing the former: his Works are being collected by Oxford University Press for an edition projected to run to some 42 volumes under the general editorship of his grandson Alexander.) There are to date four full-length biographies, each valuable in its own right: the affectionate memoir by Christopher Sykes; the useful but at times rather workmanlike two volumes of Martin Stannard; the well-rounded but mostly forgiving portrait for the general reader by Selina Hastings; the invaluable critical study by Douglas Patey. Another is due in October. Taken together with the letters and diaries, these works provide us as full a picture as we have of any writer of the last century.

The broad outline, at least, is now familiar: the stifling suburban childhood, with amateur theatrics and evenings with Dickens read aloud; the paternal preference for Alec, his elder brother; the Oxford debauchery, with the onset of snobisme and homosexuality; the colossal drunkenness and astonishing debt before the stint as a schoolmaster; the Bright Young Things period and the "form of marriage" to Evelyn Gardner; the miserable years before and after his conversion to Catholicism; the marriage to Laura Herbert; the war, with its deprivations and disillusionments; the "Attlee-Cripps terror"; the boredom and mania; the protracted descent into alcoholism; the despair over the Second Vatican Council. Like Dr. Johnson, Waugh—wearing pajamas, hoisting his ear trumpet and blowing cigar smoke in the face of interviewers ("I think cigarettes are rather squalid in the bedroom")—has become a character, one who can be appreciated even by those familiar only with his quips.

It is not the generous qualities recalled by Greene and other friends that are foremost in our minds. Waugh elevated misanthropy to the level of art. His crotchets are the stuff of legend. He delighted in absurdity, in malice, and in outrageous acts of cruelty. He once called Erle Stanley Gardner "the best American writer" and claimed never to have heard of Edmund Wilson. He dismissed James Joyce as a "dotty Irishman ... hired" as part of a conspiracy by "the Americans" to write "gibberish" and "absolute rot." He proclaimed that characters in novels were of no interest and that fiction was a mere "exercise in the use of language." He demanded a dollar per word from Life magazine in the ’40s and wrote gleefully to his agent about receiving large fees for work he knew to be subpar. He spoke with relish of seeing his children for "ten, I hope, awe-inspiring minutes each day" and gave parties at which they were allowed to drink champagne to celebrate their return to school. He complained to a friend that one of his daughters smoked when not in his presence and drank "with impecunious boys." He maintained that while sodomy was "socially O.K.," birth control was "flagrantly middle class." He once told an interviewer that he supported capital punishment "for an enormous number of offenses" and said that in the absence of a suitable executioner he would be willing to carry out death sentences himself. While dining in a second-class cabin on an ocean liner, he shouted, "You can almost smell the poverty." He said that "all mention of the middle and lower classes might be expunged" from English history and "leave only trifling gaps." He insisted that Marshal Tito was a woman. He referred in his diary to a tumor removed from his friend Randolph Churchill as "the only part of [him] that was not malignant." He wrote to Nancy Mitford that he enjoyed Lolita, but "only as smut."

Only some of this is amusing. It is worth recalling that Belloc, after their first meeting, insisted that Waugh was demonically possessed. His mean-spiritedness was well defined even in childhood. He was a bully at school who later regarded his pupils at Arnold House as "mad and diseased." On his first visit to Paris he went to a male brothel, where he "arranged a tableau by which my boy should be enjoyed by a large negro who was there." (This scene failed to reach its sordid fulfillment only when his companion, Bill Silk, had an argument with the proprietor about the fee: "I took a taxi home and went to bed in chastity," Waugh wrote later. "I think I do not regret it.") Three years after his conversion, he was still capable of writing blissfully of a visit to Tangier: "It was very gay and there were little Arab girls of fifteen & sixteen for ten francs each & a cup of mint tea. So I bought one but I didn’t enjoy her very much because she had a skin like sandpaper and a huge stomach which didn’t show until she took off her clothes & then it was too late." As a young man he treated his female friends abominably; in the middle of theological discussions he would make passes at Olivia Plunkett Greene, putting out a cigarette on her bare arm on one occasion when she refused to sleep with him.

Even during his engagement to Laura, he continued to write salaciously to a former lover, suggesting they meet for one final tryst. In 1941 he wrote to his wife that he planned "not [to] visit my children during Christmas leave; they should be able to retain the impression formed of me for another three months. I can’t afford to waste any time on them which could be spent on my own pleasures." Throughout the war, he would write from Yugoslavia and elsewhere to berate Laura, who was usually pregnant, for the low quality of her prose in her own letters to him. He spent his longest stretch of leave, earned because most of his fellow officers despised him, working on Brideshead, alone.

For all this, I insist on finding both the life and the work instructive. Throughout Waugh’s writings there is a visceral disgust with sin, from the pedophilia of Captain Grimes to the adultery of Brenda Last and John Beaver to the casual eugenics of the moronic Hooper. He hated sin with a perfect hatred, including self-hatred. The sense one gets, above all, is that of a horror of confusion and error. One hears in the early novels a cry for order that could not be satisfied by the gin-soaked certainties of reaction or sublimated in well-made paragraphs. From this darkness he turned to "the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."

This is not to suggest that faith was merely instrumental for Waugh, a kind of therapy, though, as it happens, I do believe it very likely that he would have committed suicide, as he very nearly did in his twenties, had he not converted. It is also important to emphasize that for him Catholicism was not an intellectual, much less an aesthetic or a social affair. He had nothing in common with the working-class Irish immigrants who made up the bulk of his fellow Catholics, and the Church of England had a near-monopoly on beauty. "The mediaeval cathedrals and churches," he wrote, "the rich ceremonies that surround the monarchy, the historic titles of Canterbury and York, the social organization of the country parishes, the traditional culture of Oxford and Cambridge, the liturgy composed in the heyday of English prose style—all these are the property of the Church of England, while Catholics meet in modern buildings, often of deplorable design." His letters to John Betjeman and other Protestant friends make it clear that he was capable of defending the faith. But he was rarely interested in doing so. Asked on more than one occasion why he was a Catholic, he simply replied, "Because it’s true."

Two years before his death, Waugh wrote to his future biographer Sykes and said that his life was "roughly speaking over":

I sleep badly except occasionally in the morning. I get up late. I try to read my letters. I try to read the paper. I have some gin. I try to read the paper again. I have some more gin. I try to think about my autobiography, then I have some more gin and it’s lunchtime. That’s my life. It’s ghastly.

Despair is a grave sin. I do not think it is one in which the melancholy author of Unconditional Surrender ultimately persisted. Far better the vision he gave to Guy Crouchback: "The hazy November sun enveloped him in golden light. His solitude was absolute. He experienced rapture, something as near as his earthbound soul could reach to a foretaste of paradise, locum refrigerii, lucis et pacis."

Published under: Book reviews