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Waugh Revisited

A Little Learning

by Evelyn Waugh
Little, Brown, 234 pp., $5.00

English novelists seldom produce first-rate autobiographies, and even when they do the results tend to be pretty unrevealing. Perhaps they feel that they have already given away more than enough in their fiction. At any rate, the first volume of Evelyn Waugh’s memoirs keeps well within the reticent tradition of Trollope in his Autobiography or Kipling in Something of Myself. Waugh’s manner has always been that of a man ready to set the dogs on trespassers; and if the mood of A Little Learning is surprisingly mellow, at no point can it be said to take us very far into the author’s confidence. It is a book which lives down to its title: for the most part it deals with Waugh’s schooldays and his undergraduate years at Oxford, but it contains little about education, either literary or sentimental, while the “brief history of my religious opinions” is brief indeed (three pages). The tone throughout is relaxed and bantering. Some memorable characters wander across the stage, but they are invariably seen through the wrong end of the telescope; while it is all of a piece that the darkest moment in the book should quickly be turned into farce. While teaching at a prep school in North Wales, the young Waugh fell prey to suicidal gloom. One night he could bear it no more; he went down to the beach and started swimming out to sea, leaving behind his clothes and a scrap of paper on which he had copied a line from Euripides (in Greek) about the ocean washing away all human sorrows. After a few yards, however, he was forced to turn back. He had been stung by a jelly-fish.

Waugh punctuates A Little Learning with some splendid tomfoolery, along the lines of Vice Versa and The Diary of a Nobody, two of his father’s favorite books which were read aloud to him as a child. He displays a positively Pooterish readiness to record his own discomfitures, particularly while school-mastering:

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.

But far more than the clowning it is the style which smacks of the past: resolutely old-fashioned, full of elaborate mock-courtesy and resounding clichés. Commenting on a similar vein of long-winded levity in Saki (another of Waugh’s masters), V. S. Pritchett once said that “the cinema, if nothing else, has burned this educated shrubbery out of our comic prose.” But it is still possible for Waugh, with tongue only just In cheek, to reveal that “I was promiscuous in my choice of familiars,” or to record that “it was a beautiful night of a gibbous moon.” He is dangerously fond of words like “plethora” and “corpulent”; and he must be the last surviving English author able to talk about a “Hindoo,” as though he were being employed (like his forebears) by the East India Company.

Such verbal bowings and scrapings soon grow tiresome, and by comparison with Waugh’s novels the writing in A Little Learning is often disconcertingly slack. But even so, his mastery of the language is apparent on every page: just when he threatens to turn verbose, he saves himself with a flash of fantasy, an unexpected image, a curt but beautifully apt definition. Apart from the padding, his style is vivid, elegant, and concise: but it is no more a genuinely classical style than Brides-head was a genuine country-house. The pose of the man of quality, born a couple of hundred years too late and turning his back on a shoddy twentieth century, has been cultivated as assiduously as the aristocratic dream; but behind it Waugh remains unmistakably a modern, as well-informed as a gossip columnist about the world which he affects to despise. Gilbert Pinfold, in the ordeal of that name, “abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.” But in the course of the same paragraph we are told that whenever he came across something which displeased him—a bad bottle of wine, a fault in syntax—his mind “like a cinema camera trucked furiously forward to confront the offending object close-up with glaring lens.” By their imagery shall ye know them. A trivial example, perhaps; but anyone who doubts the paradox of Waugh the contemporary-in-spite-of-himself should look up the Guy Crouch-back Men at Arms series (still generally underrated, In my view). This trilogy contrives to be at one and the same time a bizarre private myth, almost Yeatsian in its arrogance, and an outstanding piece of fiction (probably the best from an English writer so far) about World War II, often deadly accurate in detail.

Now, in his autobiography, Waugh keeps up the illusion of traveling backwards, though none too solemnly. The Modern World makes a brief official appearance, in the person of Barbara, his elder brother’s fiancée: a mildly bohemian, mildly left-wing, mildly agnostic student (1917 vintage) who took young Evelyn round the galleries during the school holidays, converting him to Picasso and all that he was later to abhor. At the age of fourteen he published an article entitled “The Defense of Cubism”; but before long he was following his natural inclinations again, trying to counterfeit thirteenth-century manuscripts and to draw like Aubrey Beardsley. The Middle Ages resumed their sway (the fancy-dress Victorian version of the Middle Ages, that is); and Waugh’s first book was to be a Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

It is characteristic that among the illustrations to A Little Learning there should be portraits of four of Waugh’s great-great-grandfathers, but no picture of his parents, and that he should spend an entire chapter establishing his pedigree. The Waughs themselves were by origin one of those tough Lowland-Scottish families who started moving south in the late eighteenth century, and whose contribution to the English professional classes has been out of all proportion to their numbers. Alexander Waugh D.D., the first of them to settle in London, was a dissenting minister (with nearly 8,000 sermons to his credit) whose home became a well-known port of call for fellow-expatriates, among them the young Carlyle. His son joined the Church of England, and spent most of his life as a parson in Dorset; his grandson was a physician practising just outside Bath. Long before Evelyn Waugh himself was born the family had become thoroughly anglicized.

It would be hard, indeed, to imagine a more English figure than his father. Arthur Waugh was a bookman in the old carpet-slippers and belles lettres tradition. He lived in a golden haze of Eng. Lit., with the emphasis at least as much on Eng. as on Lit. (He once told a young man aspiring to a literary career that “with a thorough knowledge of the Bible, Shakespeare and Wisden you cannot go far wrong”—Wisden being the standard reference-book for everything connected with cricket.) His general outlook is perhaps best indicated by some of the authors who dedicated books to him (there were many others): E. V. Lucas, Austin Dobson, J. C. Squire. Like them, he has long since been relegated to the footnotes of literary history; for many readers his only claim to fame must be that he once described T. S. Eliot as a drunken helot, and Eliot bothered to put the fact on record. But in his day he was a figure of some repute, both as an influential literary journalist and the chairman of an old established publishing house. (His son who was christened Arthur Evelyn St. John, says that he has always disliked the name Evelyn, which was maternal caprice; but presumably he liked the idea of having to avoid confusion by appearing as Arthur Waugh Jr. even less.)

Waugh’s portrait of his father is the best thing in the book. (His mother, as is so often the case with autobiographies, remains in the shadows.) It is an affectionate portrait, and an admiring one: with good reason, since Waugh senior in many ways was an admirable man. “His whole bent was towards amiability”; he was genial and impulsive, full of boyish enthusiasm and with almost none of the literary man’s occupational malice.

The devotion with which Waugh sketches his character suggests that he is trying to make amends for past ingratitude. If this is the case, he succeeds; his praise carries complete conviction, and though we occasionally catch a glimpse of Arthur Waugh’s faults—obstinacy, cosiness, self-indulgence—we are not encouraged to dwell on them. Whether his son would always have shown such filial piety is certainly open to question. There is a brilliant description in Brideshead Revisited, for instance, of the war of nerves between the hero, down for the vacation from Oxford after having run through his allowance, and his unsympathetic aged parent, wonderfully evasive and determined not to let him have a penny. (But I take due note of the author’s warning at the beginning of that book: “I am not I; thou art not he or she: they are not they.”) At any rate, there is a real sense in which Evelyn Waugh the novelist is his father’s son, Arthur Waugh Jr. The nostalgia which runs through his work is not, all said and done, for the Middle Ages, but for the warm glow of an Edwardian childhood spent in a comfortable literary home, and dominated by a man who was himself incurably romantic about the past. (But then it is always especially easy to be nostalgic about those who feel nostalgia themselves.) The only work by Arthur Waugh which I have looked at is a guide to Tennyson dating from the 1890s, deferential to the point of obsequiousness in tone and never more so than when dealing with the Idylls of the King. It is Tennysonian chivalry which provides the moral touchstone in his son’s masterpiece, A Handful of Dust. (Curious to recall, incidentally, that according to his epigraph Waugh took the title from a line in that piece of drunken helotry, “The Waste Land”—“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”—when he might have found it in “Maud”: “Dead, long dead, long dead! And my heart is a handful of dust.”) Tony Last, the hero of A Handful of Dust, is a rather stuffy but completely honorable man—the last of the true Lasts—who is destroyed by his wife’s infidelity with a young parasite-about-town. He ends up held captive in the jungle and presumed dead, while his dreadful cousins—the pseudo-Lasts—take over the home which he had adored: a country house (rebuilt 1864) where each of the bedrooms, with its frieze of Gothic text, is named after a character in Malory. Innocence has been overwhelmed—the innocence of Waugh’s nursery, which he particularly remembers for its “pictorial wallpaper representing figures in medieval costume.”

The clown with a broken heart? This kind of diagnosis can come suspiciously pat to a critic’s purpose; but in Waugh’s case it surely applies. It is impossible not to make out behind the satirist a wounded romantic (or a bruised sentimentalist). If he wasn’t so incredibly funny, the chief impression his work would leave would be one of resentment and baffled rage. The sources of his comic fury are not to be found in A Little Learning, however. His story is of a happy childhood; beyond the family circle he was able to explore the pleasures of growing up in Hampstead, at that time little more than an overgrown village on the outskirts of London, subsequently much eroded by suburban development (though not entirely obliterated, as he implies). There is a Betjemanesque vein of feeling in most well-to-do Englishmen of Waugh’s age; they are the last generation old enough to remember the complete self-confidence which never quite returned to their class after 1914. Many of them have tried to evoke the golden age before now, some with greater success than Waugh; to take a recent example, there is the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster’s exquisitely detailed childhood memoir, All Done from Memory. By comparison Waugh’s recollections of Hampstead are nothing much out of the ordinary. But they are attractive enough, a pleasant set of water-colors.

One reason for his happy memories is that he was spared the rigors of going to a prep school as a boarder: anyone who has read Orwell’s “Such, Such were the Joys” will know what that might have entailed. Instead, he went to a local establishment run by a hearty old soul called Mr. Granville Grenfell (like all true novelists, from an early age he had the knack of surrounding himself with characters whose names might have come straight out of his own books). He cherished the privacy of life at home, and followed his own tastes in drawing and reading: by the time he was twelve he had rejected routine adventure stories in favor of Sinister Street and Morte d’Arthur. But shades of the public school around the growing boy. He had been destined for his father’s old school, Sherborne, but this became impossible after his elder brother Alec had published his semi-autobiographical novel The Loom of Youth, so instead he was sent to Lancing.

The “frankness” of The Loom of Youth provoked a scandal in 1917; one paper called it “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Public School system.” Today it is not only difficult to see what all the fuss was about, but almost impossible not to take the book in the opposite sense, as a deeply loyal and full-throated tribute to the dear old alma mater. It is measure of how times have changed that Evelyn’s casual reminiscences shouldn’t raise a murmur, although they are much more damning than Alec’s exposé. Not that he hated Lancing; on the contrary, he accepted the system, if not the men who were running it, and ended up a prefect. But the full traditional squalor is there, all the same: ragging, fagging, flogging, the communal bath after football in tepid mud, the food which “would have provoked a mutiny in a mid-Victorian poor-house.” Two character-sketches enliven the bleak record, the portraits of “two mentors”: Francis Crease, a fastidious, lonely bachelor who fostered Waugh’s interest in the art of the illuminated manuscript, and J. F. Roxburgh, an ambitious, dandified assistant master—“everything about J. F. was calculated to impress”—who taught literature at Lancing (and made a Fowler-like fetish of correct usage) until he left to take up a plum headmastership elsewhere. Of the two sketches, that of Crease, alternately peevish and extravagant, is the more striking; but taken together they illustrate very neatly the variety of homosexual temperaments which the English educational system manages to accommodate at its upper levels.

The unvoiced objection to Lancing is that it wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t Eton. And at Oxford Waugh never quite got over finding himself in an unfashionable college, Hertford: he is defensive about it even now, in a Vile Bodies tone of voice (“a respectable but rather dreary little college”). One can’t exactly say that he is disingenuous about his time at Oxford, since he is unsparing on the subject of his own initial callowness. Yet something seems to have been left out. At one moment he is a conventional freshman, buying his cigarette-box carved with the college arms, learning how to smoke a pipe, planning a career in undergraduate debating and journalism; at the next he is in with a fast and fashionable set, a regular swell. The transition is unconvincingly smooth; his social climb must have involved some exertion on his own part, although no doubt he was taken up mainly on account of his gifts (in those days he was still better known for his drawings and woodcuts than as a potential author). He was as intoxicated as Scott Fitzgerald by the gilded youth of his day; and if most of the gilt has worn off by now, it must be admitted that there were some debonair figures among his contemporaries: Harold Acton, Robert Byron, Cyril Connolly (the young Cyril Connolly); and a dozen others. The account of this group is spiced with some moderately juicy gossip, and one or two good anecdotes: I cherish the Hysteron-Proteron club, whose members used to live through the day in reverse, “getting up in evening dress, drinking whisky, smoking cigars and playing cards, then at ten o’clock dining backwards starting with savouries and ending with soup.” But Waugh doesn’t manage to cast the same spell as he did in the first half of Brideshead and the silly-clever snobbery soon palls—although we’re still in the cocktail-party Twenties, still all very young, and it isn’t so offensive as it is going to be later on.

After Oxford, a brief spell at art school, and then off to the rigors of teaching small boys in North Wales. Waugh longed to escape, and almost managed to get a post as private secretary to Scott-Moncrieff, the translator. But the job fell through; fate had a more important literary contact in store for him. He was joined on the staff of his prep-school by a dapper little ex-army man with highly specialized sexual tastes, who was to serve as the basis for one of his most memorable characters, Captain Grimes. Decline and Fall is already on the way.

The final impression left by A Little Learning is of a man who doesn’t understand himself particularly well. But it is sloppy middlebrow piety to assume that a novelist must always have exceptional insight into human nature, or specialize in diagnosing human relationships, as though he were a social worker-cum-marriage counselor. For many writers—and Waugh is one of them—it would be damaging to understand too much: the integrity and intensity of a novelist’s peculiar vision may well be diluted rather than strengthened by fair-mindedness and introspection. At the beginning of one of his most remarkable books, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Waugh comes close to portraying himself. The voices which subsequently afflict Pinfold turn out to be the result of taking the wrong medicine; they don’t lead to a reappraisal of his character as presented at the beginning. A wiser man might have insisted on the connection, enquired more deeply; but I doubt whether he could have written The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. “Be yourself” often makes a better motto for a writer than “Know thyself”; a little learning may not be such a dangerous thing after all.

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