Holy Week of 1937 found Evelyn Waugh—thirty-three years old, solidly established in his literary career, and on the verge of a second marriage—at a Benedictine monastery in Ampleforth, in Yorkshire, where, as he noted in his diary, he whiled away the time “entertaining dumb little boys and monks.” It was not his first sojourn with these particular monks. He had come to Ampleforth before, and would come again, with his old friend Alfred Duggan, a stepson of Lord Curzon whom Waugh had first befriended at Oxford, and whose alcoholism the novelist was, with a touching doggedness, trying to cure—not least in the hopes of returning Duggan to the Catholic faith he had abandoned. (Some of these retreats were more successful than others; on one of them, Duggan appeared to be behaving until he suddenly disappeared, only to be discovered later, in the midst of a major binge, in Scarborough.)
During his prenuptial visit of March 1937, however, Waugh was alone, apart from the dumb boys and monks, and his diary records nothing more dramatic than a visit to Castle Howard, the fabulous country seat that Vanbrugh had designed for the Earls of Carlisle, members of the recusant Howard family, who eventually left it to a cadet branch.
Great country houses forsaken by their loftily titled owners were likely to have been much on Waugh’s mind just then. The preceding summer had seen a wrenching drama played out following the premature death of another of Waugh’s Oxford friends, Hugh Lygon. Along with his older brother, Lord Elmley, “Hughie” had been a glamorous figure at the center of the Hypocrites, the outré “aesthetic” set with whom Waugh fell in not long after he went up at the beginning of 1922. Outrageousness ran in the family: Hughie’s father was the disgraced Earl Beauchamp, who several years before had been forced to resign most of his titles and leave the country when it was revealed—by his vindictive brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster—that he was homosexual. In August 1936 Hughie, whose life after Oxford had failed to gel, died while traveling in Germany, precipitating an anguishing crisis for his father, who was by now living in Venice.
Only months before, when the earl’s estranged wife had also died suddenly, he was intimidated into staying away from the funeral by the threat of arrest on morals charges, a warrant for which had been issued by the Home Office at Westminster’s insistence. Now, devastated by the death of his son, the earl insisted on returning to Madresfield, the great house in Worcestershire he had not seen in six years, in order to attend Hughie’s funeral, at whatever the cost. As it turned out, the Home Office was moved to suspend the warrant, and Beauchamp was allowed to return. He was left in peace during the few extended visits to his ancestral home that he made in the two remaining years of his life.
The better part of a decade would pass before the filaments of associations triggered by Waugh’s visit to Yorkshire in the spring of 1937—threads that connected Castle Howard, with its great lantern and magnificent fountain, to Madresfield, with its tragically abandoned chatelaine and its disgraced patriarch exiled to Venice; that linked Alfred Duggan and his desperate struggles with alcoholism, the retreats at Ampleforth followed by binges at country inns, to poor Hughie Lygon, whose enchantingly debauched undergraduate days gave no sign of the rather failed adulthood to come—would weave themselves into the fabric of a novel. At least in certain ways, it was a book unlike anything he had written before.
By this time England had been at war for five years, as had Waugh: he’d enlisted as a marine in 1939 and had seen service in various theaters in Europe and North Africa since then. When, in January 1944, the novelist asked for a leave to work on a new book, he and his country had entered a drab period that his friend Christopher Sykes, in his biography of the writer, recalled as one of “shortening rations, increasing discomfort and more and more an all-pervading shabbiness.” The description was meant, as a similar one by Waugh himself was, to account for the peculiar characteristics of the novel he began working on that winter, which, in its feeling depiction of spiritual anguish and erotic torment in a great aristocratic family between the wars, seemed to abandon the blithely acerbic social and political satire of the breezy novels of the Thirties that had made him famous—Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), Scoop (1938)—for something lushly nostalgic, even sentimental:
It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster—the period of soya beans and Basic English—and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language….
In the same text—a preface to a later edition of the book—Waugh went on to say that he had written it “with a zest that was quite strange to me and also with impatience to get back to the war,” which no doubt accounts for its remarkably speedy composition.
Yet despite the fervor of his inspiration and the smoothness of the writing—and his belief, expressed in a letter he sent to a friend soon after finishing, that the novel he had produced, his largest to date, was “a masterpiece”—he was pessimistic about the new book’s prospects. Its subject, after all, was the unpopular one of religion: the Roman Catholic Church generally and, more specifically, what he called “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” “The general criticism,” he wrote to his mother, Catherine,
is that it is religious propaganda. That shows how opinion has changed in 80 years. No one now thinks a book which totally excludes religion is atheist propaganda. 80 years ago every novel included religion as part of the normal life of the people.
“It would have a small public at any time,” he wrote to his agent and friend A.D. Peters. “I should not think six Americans will understand it.”
Waugh hated being wrong in general and, you suspect, particularly with regard to Americans, for whom he had the same reflexively snobbish disdain that he had for so many; yet he cannot fail to have been gratified by how mistaken he was in this case. For Brideshead Revisited ended up having a very big public indeed: since its publication, a few months before the war ended, it has been enthusiastically received by readers—American as well as British—and is now generally considered to be his most popular novel. And yet the book’s huge popularity tends to bemuse connoisseurs of Waugh’s writing, who, entirely apart from considerations of Brideshead ‘s internal flaws—not least, the fatal unpersuasiveness of a crucial female character—find distasteful the novel’s excesses of nostalgic sentimentality and its rather purple rhetoric, which seem to stray disastrously from the amusing tartness and impressive economy that characterize his earlier, satiric works. To them, it is an irritating irony that the most popular of Waugh’s novels is, in fact, the least Wauvian.
Brideshead Revisited may nonetheless be seen as a work that, rather than breaking with its predecessors, merely shifts emphasis, amplifying certain qualities that had always been present in the author’s work while eschewing others. After dabbling in art, carpentry, and illuminated manuscripts, and after a none too spectacular stint as a teacher at a boys’ school, Waugh made his name as a writer at the age of twenty-five, in 1928, with the publication of Decline and Fall, which traces the increasingly farcical adventures of a hapless Oxbridge undergraduate who becomes a teacher at a boys’ school after he’s unjustly sent down as a result of a run-in with an upper-class boor. Like much of Waugh’s fiction, this one borrowed heavily from his own life—which, however, did not include an unwitting participation in a prostitution ring run by an elegant socialite.
The figure of the well-intentioned, well-educated young man who becomes the perplexed victim of circumstances beyond his control, one whose haplessness and passivity deflects attention onto the sinister and manipulative world around him—a highly useful kind of character if you happen to be writing social satire—would recur fruitfully in Waugh’s work. He appears in Vile Bodies, a caustic satire of the vacuity of the lives led by the Bright Young Things in the 1920s (“when it comes to the point there doesn’t seem to be anything I much want to do”), as well as Scoop, Waugh’s satire of modern journalism, in which, as a result of a confusion about names, a young country squire who’s mistaken for a famous young writer gets sent to Africa to cover a civil war and ends up being hugely successful, mostly by dint of his utter cluelessness. The structure of these novels—the hero, after all, always manages to be saved and restored to the class to which he belongs—allowed Waugh to poke sometimes rather strained fun at the high and mighty (there are upper-class characters with names like Lady Circumference and Lord Zinc, and a prime minister called Mr. Outrage) while never quite rejecting that world entirely, either.
Indeed, while a good deal of Waugh’s impish satire is more or less what you’d expect of a clever and ambitious twenty-something with enough contact with the great world to know what its foibles were, what’s intriguing is that, from the start of his career, the deep and reflexive conservatism that would later inspire dismay in even his closest friends (“his political opinions were utterly ridiculous,” Sykes would write) was in fact always present. In a famous passage that gives Vile Bodies its title, the narrator provides a long list of the various kinds of parties at which the frivolous young of the age exhausted themselves:
Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…. Those vile bodies….
This is deliberately contrasted with a wholly different kind of party being given at the “last survivor of the noble town houses of London,” at which the guests are the parents of those other party-goers. These dignified older folk constitute, in the narrator’s eyes,
a great concourse of pious and honourable people…their women-folk well-gowned in rich and durable stuffs, their men-folk ablaze with orders…unaffected, unembarrassed, unassuming, unambitious people, of independent judgment and marked eccentricities, kind people who cared for animals and the deserving poor, brave and rather unreasonable people, that fine phalanx of the passing order….
The assumptions that underlay the blithe collocation of “animals and the deserving poor” are ones that Waugh himself wasn’t interested in investigating. At twenty-seven he was already mired in nostalgia for a more authentic British past and impatient disdain for the modern era. (The glamorous and vacuous socialite with whom the hero of Decline and Fall falls in love decides to raze her country house, a perfectly preserved masterpiece of Tudor architecture called King’s Thursday, in favor of an angular modernistic structure designed by an architect called Dr. Silenus.) Small wonder that Vile Bodies closes with an apocalyptic coda set in “the biggest battlefield in the history of the world”: like all great satirists, Waugh was a moralist (you can’t help wishing he’d taken on the biography of Swift that he once considered writing) and it’s clear that for him, the sinning world must be purged by blood.