In the late 1990s, I discovered Evelyn Waugh, who during his life and after his death was often acclaimed the greatest Catholic novelist of the 20th century. Now, a half-century since his death on Easter Sunday—April 10th—1966, what are we to make of him? What gifts does he still have to offer Catholic and other readers today?
In the first and most obvious instance, there are his works. Waugh’s writings—only a few of which I can treat here—are marked not just by their number but their elegant style and impressive diversity (novels, short stories, biographies, autobiography, travelogues, and a myriad of essays, long and short, on everything from American Catholicism to literature, wine, Victorian artists and architects, and much else). These are monuments to English prose.
He made it very clear many times that he regarded writing first and foremost as an exercise in the skillful and felicitous use of language. A writer is not primarily a developer of characters, and he is certainly not a psychoanalyst (Waugh thought all psychology, especially its Freudian variant, the equivalent of “voodoo, bog magic, the wise woman’s cabin”). A writer is a craftsman, and in those terms Waugh was widely acclaimed the finest in the scrivener’s guild from the late 1920s through the 1950s.
He was also regarded as the funniest. For those accustomed to thinking of Waugh only in negative terms—a dour and unbearably pious or snobbish critic of “this ghastly age”—his relentless rapier wit comes as a great surprise. And yet, as his son Auberon said after his father’s death, home life was one of constant jokes as Evelyn “scarcely opened his mouth but to say something extremely funny” and thus was widely acclaimed “the funniest man of his generation”—a fact attested to by various other writers, including England’s poet laureate John Betjeman, Frances Donaldson (Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbor), Paula Byrne (Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead), and Christopher Sykes, who was both a friend and author of the first biography to be written, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography.
One of my favorite examples of Waugh’s madcap and outrageous humor comes courtesy of Sykes. Lunching with Waugh and his long-suffering wife Laura, Sykes records an argument over watches, of which Evelyn was a passionate collector. Laura had picked up a watch from the shop and
asked Evelyn to put it in one of his waistcoat pockets. He refused. She protested. ‘It’s such a bore in my bag… All your pockets are empty.’ …
By no means all,’ replied Evelyn with a glare.
Laura appealed to me… .
Why don’t you put the watch in your pocket?’ I pleaded …
Because,’ he said in a voice of thunder, ‘if I were to put the watch in my pocket, and if later someone were to pick me up by the heels and shake me, then two watches would fall out of my pockets and I would thus be made to look ridiculous.’
Waugh first made his mark as a comic writer of blackly hilarious and satirical novels such as Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), and A Handful of Dust (1934). Perhaps the funniest novel from this period is Scoop, published in 1938. It is loosely based on Waugh’s real-life adventures as a journalist initially paid but then dropped by a London paper to report from Abyssinia on the imperial coronation there.
A year after was published, the Second World War broke out. Waugh, though pushing forty and unfit after years of alcoholic and culinary indulgence, was desperate to volunteer for any serious military position he could obtain, feeling that it would offer him ample fresh material as a writer, as indeed it did, not least in his Sword of Honour trilogy. That trilogy, made up of Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961), has been acclaimed by some critics as the finest fictional work in English treating World War II.
Also during the war, Waugh completed published (in May 1945), his best-known and perhaps most overtly Catholic work, Brideshead Revisited. Though it was misunderstood by some 70 years ago, and again by others as recently as March 2016 when it was compared to the just-ended Downton Abbey, the novel is not a paean to wealth and privilege. It is, rather, an illustration of the tenacity of divine grace working to the last moment to effect a death-bed conversion of a refractory Catholic living in adultery.
Divine grace often surprises. Waugh showed this—much as Flannery O’Connor would later—by creating characters who were superficially pious but in reality were devastating and destructive forces for those around them. Upending expectations, he also created superficially scandalous characters beneath whose depths one discovers great holiness and closeness to God. The influence of God on the alcoholic homosexual Sebastian in particular (“God prefers drunkards to a lot of respectable people,” says his brother), but also on his recalcitrant sister Julia and her agnostic lover Charles Ryder are all subtle, complex illustrations of the rule that divine grace does not abolish human nature or necessarily preserve it from stupidity and wickedness but “heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking” (to borrow a line from the Byzantine ordinal).
After Brideshead, which was wildly successful and made Waugh wealthy on American sales alone, he wrote other works of especial interest to Catholics, including his 1950 work of historical fiction, Helena. This short novel, was, according to Douglas Lane Patey (author of what is indisputably the finest biography of Waugh, published in 1998 as The Life of Evelyn Waugh), regarded by Waugh as his real magnum opus. It is a splendid illustration of Waugh’s superlative ability to hold things in tension: a novel at once hilarious and serious. He filled the book with buried jokes and puns, anachronistic speech, political jabs at post-war socialism in Britain, and other quirks that make Helena—the dowager empress of the Roman Empire—appear as anything other than arrogant, aloof, or avaricious. Indeed, she scandalizes the bien pensants of her day (and Waugh’s own) by how matter-of-fact she is with her simple but zealous mission to find the True Cross. As Waugh put it in his letters, her
sanctity…is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.
In some ways the model for Helena was found in an earlier but much more sober work, still in print in a handsome edition from Ignatius Press: Edmund Campion: A Life. Published in 1935, the book, also a fictionalized account of a canonized historical figure, won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize. Waugh wrote the novel partly to repay debts to the Jesuits (one of whom, Fr. Martin D’Arcy, had received him into the Church in 1930) and partly to remind the world that Campion’s martyrdom in the 16th century had parallels in the martyrdom of Mexican clergy in the 20th, a subject Waugh treated in part in his book, Robbery Under Law.
One final Catholic biography, this time true to life without being fictionalized, was penned by Waugh in 1958: The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox: Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford and Protonotary Apostolic to His Holiness Pope Pius XII. This—as the title strongly suggests—is a formal, highly stylized, and authorized biography of his fellow English convert Knox, translator of a semi-famous version of the Bible in English and writer of several important theological works. The biography was an homage from Waugh, who was a close friend to Knox especially in the last years of his life as the priest was dying of cancer.
Politics and Liturgics
Waugh also has things to offer us beyond Catholic novels and biographies, especially in this election year. In his 1939 political “travelogue” Robbery Under Law (perhaps the least-known of all his works, and the one he himself seemed happy to forget) Waugh, whose loathing of politics was a constant of his life, delivered himself of such few political remarks as he felt he must, including this memorable declaration which seems more important in 2016 than ever:
Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all. There are criminal ideas and a criminal class in every nation and the first action of every revolution, figuratively and literally, is to open the prisons. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy.
It was precisely anarchy that Waugh felt was unleashed a quarter-century later in the Church at Vatican II by those whom he called “cranks in authority” and “traitors from within.” Though it may surprise us to learn today, he was initially cautiously hopeful over the prospects of Vatican II, and especially the pope who convoked it. In a letter to a Catholic friend in late 1958 he wrote—in what must surely be a prize-winning example of a wildly incorrect prognostication—“I have a crush on the new pope. A most trustworthy looking man and good for 25 years of placid inactivity.”
But that soon gave way to melancholy. As the council progressed, his letters and diaries are increasingly filled with such statements as “the Vatican Council has knocked the guts out of me” and “the Vatican Council weighs heavy on my spirits.” By the end of his life he was reduced to inquiring as to the bare minimum he must do as a Catholic, saying “church going is pure duty parade.”
His being spared further “duty parades” thanks to his early death, at the relatively young age of 62, shortly after returning home from Easter Sunday Mass, struck many people as a supremely merciful gift from the Lord. Waugh would have been happy at how and when it happened—on the queen of Christian festivals, right after a traditional Latin Mass untouched by any further reforms emanating from Vatican II.
Waugh detested additional liturgical changes beyond those dubiously attributed to Vatican II. The architect of those changes had already struck earlier with the changes to the Holy Week liturgies. Those changes, authored by Anibale Bugnini and authorized by Pope Pius XII in 1955, were bitterly resented by Waugh alongside that decade’s other liturgical innovation: the “dialogue Mass,” which he also scorned as an “un-English” and Germanic invention (“by all means let the rowdy have their ‘dialogues’ but let us who value silence not be completely forgotten”).
Waugh was spared living through further changes after Vatican II thanks to his death in April 1966, but not before venting his frustration in a series of letters collected and also kept in print by Ignatius Press: A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes. Waugh’s feelings of betrayal by the bishops and popes brought back his black humour from his earliest novels. To a friend in 1964 after Pope Paul VI’s trip to the Holy Land, Waugh wrote sardonically, “It has been a sad disappointment to me that the pope escaped from Palestine with a buffeting. I hoped for assassination.”
Waugh was not merely reacting to “aesthetic” changes. He sensed that what the council was doing, however unwittingly, was tampering with those forces that have kept anarchy—that is, doctrinal anarchy, otherwise known as heresy—at bay in the Church. As he would argue in a letter to the editor of the Catholic Herald in 1964, “the function of the Church in every age has been conservative—to transmit undiminished and uncontaminated the creed inherited from its predecessors. Not ‘is this fashionable notion one that we should accept?’ but ‘is this dogma…the faith as we received it?’”
In this Franciscan era, when we seem buffeted indeed by fashionable notions and airborne nostrums every other week, Waugh provides us with a handy, steadying heuristic amidst the chaos unleashed by churchmen over the last fifty years. When that chaos tempts Catholics to despair, Waugh’s writings remain, an abiding source of diverting delight, the splendid and often hilarious prose elevating our spirits and edifying our minds.
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