Waugh’s Last Stand

The Letters of Evelyn Waugh

edited by Mark Amory
Ticknor and Fields, 664 pp., $25.00

Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh; drawing by David Levine

Unless the telephone is uninvented, this will probably be the last collection of letters by a great writer to be also a great collection of letters. It could be argued that the book should have been either much shorter, so as to be easily assimilable, or else much larger, so as to take in all of the vast number of letters Waugh wrote, but even at this awkward length it is a wonderfully entertaining volume—even more so, in fact, than the Diaries. Here is yet one more reason to thank Evelyn Waugh for his hatred of the modern world. If he had not loathed the telephone, he might have talked all this away.

“Would you say I was a very ill-tempered and self-infatuated man?” he asked Nancy Mitford in 1947, and added, answering his own question: “It hurts.” Waugh was unhappy about himself, and on this evidence he had every right to be. People who want to emphasize his repellent aspects will find plenty to help them here. For one thing, he reveled in his contempt for Jews, which in his correspondence he usually spelled with a small “j” unless he was being polite to one of them for some professional reason. In a 1946 letter to Robert Henriques he asks for information about the Wandering Jew to help him in writing Helena. “Please forgive me for pestering you in this way. You are the only religious Jew of my acquaintance.” In the letter to Nancy Mitford printed immediately afterward, the Jews are back in lower case. “I have just read an essay by a jew [Arthur Koestler] which explains the Mitford sobriety and other very peculiar manifestations of the family.” If there was ever anything playfully outrageous about this behaviour the charm has long since fled.

But when your stomach has finished turning over it is worth considering that Waugh was equally nasty about any other social, racial, or ethnic group except what he considered to be pure-bred, strait-laced, upper-class Catholic English. In addition to yids, the book is stiff with frogs, dagoes, Huns, coons, chinks,niggers, and buggers. Of necessity Waugh numbered not a few homosexuals among his acquaintances, but it should also be remembered that he knew some Jews too, and that they, like the homosexuals, seem to have been willing enough to put up with his jibes. In other words they drew a line between the essential Evelyn Waugh and the Evelyn Waugh who was a hotbed of prejudice. It wouldn’t hurt us to do the same. Waugh was far too conservative to be an anti-Semite of the Nazi stamp. When he carried on as if the Holocaust had never happened, he wasn’t ignoring its significance, he was ignoring it altogether. He wasn’t about to modify his opinions just because the Huns had wiped out a few yids.

At the end of the Sword of Honour trilogy anti-Semitism…

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