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Nobs and Snobs

Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903–1939

by Martin Stannard
Norton, 537 pp., $24.95

A shilling life will tell you all the facts, according to Auden. Martin Stannard’s rather more expensive biography will tell you more facts than you probably want to know about Evelyn Waugh. Five hundred pages, for the early years alone, seems a lot. And much of the relevant material is already available in print. We have, for the first twenty-one years, Waugh’s autobiographical volume, A Little Learning (1964). There are Michael Davie’s edition of the Diaries (1976) and Mark Amory’s of the Letters (1980). And all that has the advantage of being written in Waugh’s own astringent and startling prose, so that we can read with pleasure, even if we feel no strong interest in the writer’s not-especially-eventful life. There is also Christopher Sykes’s Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1975). Sykes knew Waugh well, and was a good writer himself. Why not leave it at that?

Martin Stannard faces that question bravely and answers it firmly, in his preface:

The most avid Waugh fanatics might throw up their hands in despair at this news. Is there not quite enough on the market already without another book on the man? Do we need another biography? I believe we do.

I found myself murmuring, well he would, wouldn’t he? Yet that does not dispose of the matter. This biography is a different kind of thing from the Sykes one. Sykes was elegant and discreet. Stannard is neither. Also, Stannard is able to draw on a range of material—published, unpublished, and interviews—which Sykes either did not have or did not want to use. Stannard is a biographer of the dogged type; I was reminded of Herbert Lottman’s Albert Camus (1979). The reader gets more facts than he feels he wants, and sometimes more facts than he feels he can bear; but among the facts are some interesting ones that the reader would not have got had the biographer been less dogged. And in the end the subject looks significantly different from what it did before it got explored with doggedness.

The trouble is that if you, the reader, are to benefit from dogged biography, you have to get a bit dogged yourself. I must confess that, if I had not been commissioned by The New York Review to review this book, I would probably not have got beyond the first two chapters—about ancestors, background, and so on—which are pretty boring.

Still, it is worthwhile to persevere. The book gets a lot more interesting later on, when Waugh himself comes in. Indeed from that point on, the biography becomes infused, in a special way, with Waugh’s own comedy of manners. There are rich contrasts between Waugh’s own manner and the manner of the biographer commenting on Waugh. Quite often the ghost of Waugh seems to be teasing and tormenting his biographer, and forcing him to sound like a character in a Waugh novel.

The comedy is quite rich and complex. Martin Stannard is not really like a Waugh character. He is an honest and pertinacious scholar, and can also be sensible and shrewd, when he lets himself be; or when Waugh lets him be. Nor does Waugh have all the best of it. Stannard digs into things Waugh did not want to have dug up and shows that Waugh’s own accounts were often inconsistent with facts, or evasive of them. Yet somehow Waugh manages to get his revenge, and turn the tables on his intrusive and indiscreet biographer.

The revenge comes through a weakness which Stannard shares with many other academics specializing in this or that modern master. The weakness is a sort of protective itch: a need to make the subject more lovable, or more respectable, or whatever, than his writings might seem to suggest. Crane Brinton coined the expression “gentle Nietzscheans” to refer to the category of academic specialists most conspicuously incapacitated by the weakness in question. But there are also “gentle Rousseauists,” “gentle Yeatsians,” and so on. In this sense, Martin Stannard is a gentle Woffian.

Let us now look at how a gentle Woffian fares, among the writings of Evelyn Waugh, under three main heads: class, race, and “philosophy-religion-politics” (related categories).

Class. Was Evelyn Waugh a snob? Not really, says the gentle Woffian. But there are a few little difficulties there, right from the beginning, in the earliest diaries. Stannard copes courageously:

In his scratchy little record [Waugh’s early diaries] we find phrases like “street cads” and “vile Southend trippers”; he corrects the use of “ladies,” when describing the womenfolk, to “females.” His extreme sensitivity to anything gross or ugly could cause him to over-react and to retreat into a precious, elemental snobbery. Waugh’s enemies believe that these concepts remained with him throughout adult life. This is nonsense.

But is it nonsense? Somehow the topic refuses to be exorcised. Writing about Waugh’s journalism of around 1930, Stannard distinguishes between the style of “the serious artist,” on the one hand, and on the other “the assiduous opportunist driven by a fear of failure to excesses of vindictive snobbery.” Then Stannard, as if disconcerted by what he has just said, goes on: “It would be wholly inaccurate to characterize Waugh as a brilliant and scheming snob.” The adjectives there not merely qualify, but are there to fend off, the noun.

Near the end of his book, dealing with the period 1937–1939, Stannard writes of Waugh:

He craved the glamour and public influence of people like Diana Cooper and F.W. Rickett. He wished to belong to their club and, although many such invited him to their houses, a certain distance was always preserved. The sad truth was that in cultivating those who were unrepentant élitists, Waugh himself fell foul of their snobbery. He was entertaining, tough and extremely clever but he was not, and would never be, one of them. Duff Cooper thought him a bumptious parvenu. In a rage he once described Waugh to his face as “a common little man…who happens to have written one or two moderately amusing novels.”

But by the social values accepted by both Waugh and Duff Cooper, it was Waugh, not Duff Cooper, who was the snob. The central definition of the term, as given in the Oxford English Dictionary, is: “3(c): One who meanly or vulgarly admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of superior rank or wealth.”

A “bumptious parvenu” in fact. As for Duff Cooper, he was a nob—a person of wealth and rank—not a snob. The nobs were forever snubbing the snobs, and the snobs forever putting up with the snubs, in order to stay in with the nobs. This interaction makes up a large part of English social history. And all parties were acutely aware of it. No snob, born before 1914, could take a snub from a nob as an act of snobbery. In the paragraph quoted above, Stannard—without seeming quite to realize what he is doing—gives a classical description of the behavior and “cravings” of a snob, in the person of Evelyn Waugh.

It is true that the meaning of the word has shifted a bit, and was already shifting in Waugh’s day. In all the examples given in the OED, the snob is seen as someone looking up. But the Supplement (1986) to the OED gives an additional meaning, looking down: “3(d): One who despises those who are considered inferior in rank, attainment or taste.” Which is mainly the sense in which we use the word today. (Webster, Third Edition, gives both senses; but neither Duff Cooper nor Waugh would have accepted an American definition as normative.)

Most people who are 3(c) snobs are 3(d) snobs as well, and this was rather clearly the case with Waugh. As a comic writer, this is part of his strength. An obsession with social gradations is a driving force in the English comedy of manners, of which Waugh was one of the most distinguished modern exponents. But to remain as encrusted in snobbery as Evelyn Waugh did—pace Stannard—becomes a serious limitation for a novelist. Proust started out as an even more thoroughpaced 3(c) snob than Waugh was. But for Proust, with his Jewish affiliations, the hammer blow of the Dreyfus case broke the crust of snobbery and of French society itself. Without that shock, Proust could never have written Remembrance of Things Past. Evelyn Waugh, as a writer, did not get so lucky.

Race: Writing about Waugh’s African travels, Stannard does his gentle-Woffian best with his subject’s racist attitudes. In Abyssinia Waugh had nice things to say about the climate and the landscape and the singing. In arguing that Waugh “in no way patronizes the Abyssinians” Stannard quotes him as referring to “their song of unfathomable antiquity.” Actually, Waugh referred to their “primitive song of unfathomable antiquity,” which somehow makes it a less conclusive example of the nonpatronizing approach.

Stannard: “Any notion of Waugh as a sneering, public-school imperialist would be entirely inaccurate. It was precisely that Northern European race snobbery that he despised.”

Readers of Black Mischief can make up their own minds on that point. Stannard can get his “anti-racist” Waugh to hobble along through Abyssinia with some faint degree of credibility. But when Waugh gets to Kenya and then to the West Indies that gentle-Woffian anti-racist version of pastoral simply keels over and dies and has to be buried by its sorrowing begetter.

Waugh liked Kenya. As Stannard puts it: “The climate, landscape and people [my italics] of Kenya delighted him.” I suppose a reader who had been taking the gentle-Woffian version seriously might be looking forward at this point to some idyllic description of the life styles of the Luo, the Masai, the Kikuyu, and some of the other indigenous peoples who together make up the great majority of the people of Kenya. But of course that’s not it at all: “the people” are simply the whites. Waugh was delighted with the whites of Kenya, not indeed solely because of their pigmentation but because they were upper-class whites, lords of broad acres: nobs in fact, the sort of people he cultivated so assiduously at home. So he takes over their attitudes, and pleads their case, with careful understatement. As Stannard puts it, rather stiffly:

Adopting the tone of a mild-mannered, quizzical outsider, he devotes nearly twelve pages to the defence of white settlement. While strenuously condemning all proven injustice he nevertheless concludes: “It is just worth considering the possibility that there may be something valuable behind the indefensible and inexplicable assumption of superiority by the Anglo-Saxon race.” There is little doubt that Waugh shared this assumption.

Not bad going for Stannard’s Waugh, who so despised “Northern European race snobbery.” But a few pages later, being obliged to contemplate the Master in the West Indies poor Stannard gives up on Waugh the anti-racist:

He had no anthropological interest in the indigenous population and an irrational belief in the inferiority of negroid genes.

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