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Waugh’s Last Stand

The Letters of Evelyn Waugh

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

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 is specifically identified as a scourge. The whole closing scene of the third book can confidently be recommended for perusal by anyone who doubts Waugh’s emotional range. Anti-Semitism is also one of the things that Gilbert Pinfold finds poisonous about his own mind. Waugh was perfectly capable of seeing that to go on indulging himself in anti-Semitism even after World War II was tantamount to endorsing a ruinously irrational historical force. But Waugh, with a sort of cantankerous heroism, refused to let the modern era define him. He retained his creative right to interpret events in terms of past principles nobody else considered relevant. When the facts refused to sit, they were simply ignored. (It is remarkable, however, how many of them did sit. Rereading his work, one is continually struck by how much he got right. He guessed well in advance, for example, that the Jews would not necessarily be much better liked by the communists than they had been by the Nazis.)

Behaving as if recent history wasn’t actually happening was one of Waugh’s abiding characteristics. It is the main reason why his books always seem so fresh. Since he never fell for any transient political belief, he never dates. In the Thirties, far from not having been a communist, he wasn’t even a democrat. He believed in a stratified social order and a universal Church, the one nourishing the other. The stratified social order was already crumbling before he was born and the universal Church had disappeared during the reign of Henry VIII. His ideal was largely a fantasy. But it was a rich fantasy, traditionally based. Sustained by it, he could see modern life not just sharply but in perspective. When people say that Waugh was more than just a satirist, they really mean that his satire was coherent. It takes detachment to be so comprehensive.

Waugh seems to have been born with his world view already intact. Even for an English public school boy he sounds unusually mature. The social side of his personality was all set to go. What he had to do was make the facts fit it, since he was neither well off nor particularly well born. In view of these circumstances it is remarkable that he rarely sounds like a parvenu—just like someone waiting to come into his inheritance. If he had not been a writer he might never have made it, but there was no doubt about that side of his personality either. While still at school he was interested in the technicalities of writing and already capable of the first-class practical criticism which he lavished free of charge on his friends’ manuscripts throughout his life. At Oxford he was awarded a gentleman’s Third but this should not be taken to mean that he was a bad student. He was merely an original one, who absorbed a wide knowledge of history, literature, and the fine arts without appearing to try. As he told Nancy Mitford a long time later, it takes a knowledge of anatomy to draw a clothed figure. Waugh’s mind was well stocked.

I liked the rich people parts less than the poor,” he wrote to Henry Yorke (“Henry Green”) about Yorke’s early novel Living. This was probably a comment about accuracy, or the lack of it. Waugh’s preference for the upper classes did not preclude his nothing how the lower orders behaved and spoke. Falling for the Plunket Greenes and the Lygon sisters, Waugh was soon able to satisfy his craving for smart company. It would be easy to paint him as an arriviste, but really the success he enjoyed at one level of society seems to have sharpened his response to all the other levels. He didn’t shut himself off. One of the enduringly daunting things about Waugh’s early satirical novels is the completeness with which they reproduce the social setting. Those rural types at the end of Scoop, for example, are not caricatures. Waugh took a lot in. His pop eyes missed nothing. He narrowed his mind in order to widen his gaze.

The misery he was plunged into when his first wife left him still comes through. In the pit of despair he finished writing Vile Bodies, which remains one of the funniest books in the world. The connection between work and life is not to be glibly analyzed in the case of any artist and least of all in Waugh’s. “It has been infinitely difficult,” he told Henry Yorke, “and is certainly the last time I shall try to make a book about sophisticated people.” This is a salutary reminder that he didn’t necessarily like the Bright Young Things—he just found them interesting.

Asking whether Evelyn Waugh was a snob is like asking whether Genghis Khan was an authoritarian. The question turns on what kind of snob, and the first answer is—open and dedicated. During the war he was horrified to find himself sharing the mess with officers of plebeian background, “like young corporals.” (In the Sword of Honour trilogy Guy Crouchback puts up stoically with such affronts. In real life Waugh was probably less patient.) He was under the impression that no Australian, however well educated, would be able to tell a real Tudor building from a false one. (Lack of background.) He doubted whether Proust (“Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective”) ever really penetrated to the inner circles of French society: as a Jew, or jew, all Proust could have met was “the looser aristocracy.”

In a 1952 letter to Nancy Mitford, Waugh is to be heard complaining about the unsmart company he had been forced to keep at dinner the previous evening. The guests had included Sir Laurence Olivier (as he then was) and Sir Frederick Ashton (as he later became). Apparently Waugh had complained to his hostess that “the upper classes had all left London.” Ashton was referred to as “a most unarmigerous dancer called Ashton.” Waugh had started off being pretty unarmigerous himself, but by dint of genealogical research had managed to come up with a few quarterings—a feat which he was untypically bashful enough to dismiss as having been performed “for the children.” Unlike Ashton’s, Waugh’s own knighthood was destined never to come through, probably because he turned down the CBE. In Britain, if you want high honors, it is wise to accept the low ones when they are offered.

Such a blunder helps to demonstrate that Waugh, if he calculated, did not calculate very well. In this he differed from the true climber, whose whole ability is never to put a foot wrong. Waugh put a foot wrong every day of the week. Quite often he put the foot in his mouth. He was always offending his high-class acquaintances by being more royalist than the king. The best of them forgave him because they thought he was an important artist and because they liked him better than he liked himself. Most of them belonged to that looser aristocracy which Waugh mistakenly believed Proust had been confined to. In Britain, those aristocrats with genuine artistic interests form a very particular stratum. Waugh idealized the philistine landed gentry but his friends, many of whom came from just such a background, did not make the same mistake. In a 1945 letter quoted here in a footnote, Lady Pansy Lamb told Waugh that Brideshead Revisited was a fantasy. “You see English Society of the 20s as something baroque and magnificent on its last legs…. I fled from it because it seemed prosperous, bourgeois and practical and I believe it still is….”

But for Waugh it was a necessary fantasy. He thought that with no social order there could be no moral order. People had to know their place before they could see their duty. In both life and art he needed a coherent social system. His version of noblesse oblige was positively chivalric. Because Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff-Gordon escaped from the Titanic in an underloaded boat, Waugh was still jeering at them a quarter of a century later. In Sword of Honour the fact that Ivor has behaved badly on Crete is one of the longest and strongest moral threads in the story. Mrs. Stitch is brought back from the early novels for the specific purpose of taking pity on him in his shame.

Waugh himself had a disappointing time in the army. The head of the special force in which he hoped to distinguish himself in battle regarded him as unemployable and left him behind. In Sword of Honour Waugh presents himself, through Guy Crouchback, as a man misunderstood. Ford Madox Ford performed the same service for himself through Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End. In fact Waugh, like Ford, had probably been understood. He was simply too fantastic to have around. But the code of conduct which he so intractably expressed in real life lives on in his books as a permanently illuminating ethical vision. There is something to it, after all.

Snobbery was also Waugh’s way of being humble about his art. His paragons were Mrs. Stitch and Lady Circumference, both of whom could do the right thing through sheer breeding. Lady Circumference’s unswerving philistinism he explicitly regarded as a virtue rather than a vice. He thought more of aristocrats than of artists. This viewpoint had its limitations but at least it saved him from the folly of imagining that behavior could be much influenced by intellectual fashions and left him free to spot the inevitable gap between people’s characters and their political beliefs.

His Catholicism was another thing that kept him humble: saints, he pointed out, attach no importance to art. Not that he ever took a utilitarian view of his faith. Waugh believed that Sir John Betjeman’s Anglicanism was essentially self-serving and took frequent opportunities to tell him so, with the result that their friendship was almost ruined. For Waugh, Catholicism’s uncompromising theology was an enticement. Just as he was more royalist than the king, he was more Catholic than the pope. He was a convert who berated born Catholics for their moral lapses. When Clarissa Churchill married Sir Anthony Eden, Waugh abused her for her apostasy—Eden was a divorced man. The Church’s eternal strictness was Waugh’s comfort. On the Church’s behalf he welcomed new converts among his friends with the promise of a bed turned down and a place at the eternal table. Even more than the English social hierarchy, which in his heart of hearts he knew was a shifting structure, the Church was his bulwark against the modern world. Hence his unfeigned despair at the introduction of a vernacular liturgy. “The Vatican Council,” he wrote to Lady Mosley in 1966, a month before his death, “has knocked the guts out of me.”

In real life Waugh’s fight to hold back the present had the same chance as Canute’s to hold back the sea. In his books his lone last stand seems more inspired than absurd. The progressive voices are mainly forgotten. Waugh, the arch reactionary, still sounds contemporary. As an artist he was not molded by his times and hence neither failed to see them clearly nor vanished with them when they were over. As an ordinary man he was no doubt impossibly rude but there were a lot of intelligent people who forgave him for it, as this book proves.

Mark Amory has edited these letters with a fine touch, occasionally calling in an independent witness when Waugh’s delightful capacity for wild exaggeration threatens to distort the historical record. It is hard on the late S.J. Simon that the books he wrote in collaboration with Caryl Brahms, which Waugh enjoyed, should be ascribed only to Caryl Brahms, but apart from that I can’t see many important slips, although John Kenneth Galbraith, giving this book an appropriately laudatory review in the Washington Post, has pointed out that Father Feeny was an unfrocked priest, not “the Chaplain at Harvard.” What counts is Mr. Amory’s sensitivity to the nuances of the English class system. For finding his way around in that self-renewing maze he has the same kind of antennae as Waugh had, with the difference that they are attached to a cooler head. The result is an unobtrusively knowledgeable job of editing.

High-handedly rebuking his wife for writing dull letters, Waugh told her that a good correspondence should be like a conversation. He most easily met his own standard when writing to Nancy Mitford but really there was nobody he short-changed. Even the shortest note to the most obscure correspondent is vibrant with both his irascible temperament and his penetrating stare. Above all he was funny—the first thing to say about him. Writing to his wife in May 1942, he described what happened when a company of commandos set out to blow up a tree stump on the estate of Lord Glasgow. The account can be found on page 161 of this book. Anyone who has never read Evelyn Waugh could begin with that page and become immediately enthralled.

But by this time there is no argument about his stature. While academic studies have gone on being preoccupied with the relative and absolute merits of Joyce and Lawrence, Waugh’s characters have inexorably established themselves among the enduring fictions to which his countrymen traditionally refer as if they were living beings. In this respect Waugh is in a direct line with Shakespeare and Dickens. Since he was public property from the beginning, a critical consensus, when it arrives, can only endorse popular opinion. The 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 rancor 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.

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