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 Also, Stannard is able to draw on a range of material—published, unpublished, and interviews—which Sykes either did not have or did not want to use.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.

There was in fact nothing exceptional about Waugh’s racist attitudes and assumptions. These were very general among whites, of all classes, in the period. Stannard’s mistake is to try to show that Waugh did not share these attitudes and assumptions whereas in fact, on Stannard’s own showing, he did.

Waugh’s racism is not strident, and it is nothing like as obsessive as his class feelings, of both type 3(c) and 3(d). But it is logically inseparable from his class feelings, and in particular from his attraction to the English nobility. The idea of a hereditary nobility is basically a racist idea, resting as it does on a theory of genetically transmitted all-around superiority in humans. The seminal document of racist ideology, Comte Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, had its originating impulse in a nostalgia for France’s fallen aristocracy, supplanted by their natural inferiors, as a result of the French Revolution. Waugh, like most other English 3(c) people, believed that England’s aristocracy were in danger of a similar fate. That is why he was so delighted with the “people of Kenya,” Kenya being an aristocratic paradise in which the genetic inferiority of the people who did the manual work was something taken for granted. If the lower classes should win out in England, there was a terrestrial Valhalla waiting in the highlands of East Africa.

Stannard suggests that Waugh was a more serious thinker than most people have taken him for. The great comic novels are not just great because they are so wonderfully comic: they have a profound significance, which has escaped the vulgar, Stannard thinks. Rebecca West, who managed to bracket Vile Bodies with Eliot’s The Waste Land, was the only one among the contemporary critics who “succeeded in penetrating the facade,” according to Stannard. He deals sternly with other reviewers, who just thought the book was funny: “hack critics oblivious of the consistent nature of Waugh’s abstract literary aims.”

These aims, it seems, had been discernible, by the discerning, since Waugh’s first published novel, Decline and Fall. Captain Grimes, according to Stannard is “an unmistakably Bergsonian protagonist.” Well, certainly Paul Pennyfeather does say of Grimes, “He was a life force” and that is indeed a Bergsonian allusion. Also, a readily recognizable one. Everyone who was anyone at the time “knew”about Bergson–and–the–life–force just as everyone “knew” about Freud–and–the–Id. It was part of the culture of the time, which Waugh shared with his readers. Waugh had read some Bergson; so had anyone who did not wish to sound like an ignoramus in society at the time. The interest may perhaps have gone deeper, in Waugh’s case, but Stannard produces no convincing evidence that it did.

This does not stop Stannard from going on a good deal about Waugh’s alleged debt to Bergson. There are eight references to Bergson in the index to Stannard’s book, none of them relating to anything of substance, unless we count Paul Pennyfeather’s remark as substantial.

As I gloomily contemplated the question of “Waugh’s debt to Bergson” I had a terrible vision, which still holds me in its grip, even as I write this. The vision is of a young graduate student at the University of Leicester, where Martin Stannard is Professor of English. The student is hard at work on his Ph.D. thesis. I look over the student’s shoulder and, with a shudder, I read the title: “The influence of Henri Bergson on the Work of Evelyn Waugh.”

The vision will not leave me, because I have a horrible feeling that it may well be true. There may be a student who, at this very moment, is locked into such a doomed enterprise. Still, it may not be too late. That student—if he or she does indeed exist—is almost certain to read this review, given the subject matter. So let me issue a warning: “Fly! Get away from what you will be expected to prove, for fear of boggling your mind beyond repair!”

In Stannard’s theory of Waugh’s intellectual development, the alleged Bergsonian phase is a stage along the road to Waugh’s emergence as Catholic thinker. Stannard the apologist—essentially a booster of “Waugh studies”—wants us to take Waugh the Catholic thinker very seriously indeed. But as usual—and to the biographer’s credit—Stannard the biographer lets the apologist down.

Let us look at Waugh’s reception into the Catholic Church, first as that event is presented by Waugh himself (and accepted by Stannard), and then in its biographical context.

Waugh was received into the Catholic Church on September 29, 1930. He always liked to speak of his “reception,” rather than “conversion.” The latter being an emotional experience (and perhaps with a suggestion of lower-class evangelicalism about it). As Waugh put it: “On firm intellectual conviction but with little emotion I was admitted to the Church.” And Father Martin D’Arcy, who instructed him, spoke of their discussions “based primarily on reason.”

One would like to know more about the steps of reasoning involved. What we do hear about them is decidedly odd. “Once the theological justification of Christ’s divinity had been established to his satisfaction,” writes Stannard, “there is no option but to accept Catholicism.” That’s quite a jump, intellectually speaking. Outside the Roman Catholic communion, all Christians would think it a total non sequitur. A person who considers that the acknowledgment of Christ’s divinity automatically entails the acceptance of the whole corpus of Catholic doctrine is already a Roman Catholic. The intellectual approach to Catholicism is a charade. Some of Waugh’s other obiter dicta about his religion are even more peculiar. “For me Christianity begins with the Counter-Reformation,” he writes in a letter from Jerusalem, of all places. I don’t know where that leaves Jesus Christ.

Stannard represents Waugh’s embracing Catholicism as an act of heroic sacrifice on his part, since Waugh was a divorced man, and so could not remarry under the uncompromising laws of the Church of Rome.

In accepting [Roman Catholic] tenets he was effectively debarring himself from something he needed and desired—a secure marriage, a home and family. The Church did not recognise divorce. At the time, he told Greenidge that he had adopted the faith to prevent the foolishness of ever wanting to remarry. But this seems to have been nothing more than a bitter, defensive joke at his own expense. He was, despite his numerous friends, a lonely man. So far as he knew, he was condemning himself to this condition in perpetuity. The decision represented a massive sacrifice for absolute standards. But the world was “unintelligible and unendurable without God.” There was no room for compromise.

Then Stannard goes on, in his own endearing way, to demonstrate that his own thesis is nonsense. There was plenty of room for compromise, and Waugh took advantage of it, when the need occurred, without the slightest scruple.

The Church did not recognize divorce, but it did annul “marriages” which it could be induced to regard as never having taken place. Waugh coached his first wife (nee Evelyn Gardner, known as “She-Evelyn”) on what she was to say to the Ecclesiastical Court. As She-Evelyn tells the story of the coaching:

Evelyn gave me lunch near Westminster. As you can imagine, I was more than anxious that he should be able to marry again. He told me to say that I had refused to have children, where the Devil’s Advocate would sit and where the priest who was on his side would be. It was very intimidating as there appeared to be many black-clothed priests sitting on each side of a long table. Otherwise the hangings in the room were red. I had not refused to have children, but we had agreed to wait until we had an income which did not depend sometimes on others. I think Evelyn must have forgotten this. I didn’t remind him. But my sister Mary had a letter from him, after an operation I had, saying how glad he was we could have children.

Stannard comments:

No-one could blame Waugh for attempting to “nobble” the witnesses on this fine point of Catholic law. He was in danger of being persecuted for the sincerity of his original intention.

Waugh had made a “massive sacrifice for absolute standards,” but it would have been “persecution” to ask him to stick with it, and put up with “fine points of Catholic law,” without cheating.

Having nobbled his way through the Ecclesiastical Court, Waugh went on into a new phase of his career, as Catholic polemicist and propagandist, throwing the weight of his Catholicity to the right, in support of Mussolini in Abyssinia and Franco in Spain.

This phase gets Stannard into yet another of those difficulties of his. Always fussily protective of his subject, Stannard is here eager to repel charges of Fascism. While defending on that front, Stannard brings out that what Waugh was really trying to do was not so much to defend Christian civilization as to impress Laura Herbert’s family.

Waugh was in love with Laura, and her family were upper-class right-wing Catholics, who were suspicious of Waugh’s bona fides and of his “fast” novels. Waugh’s reception into the Church did not automatically disarm such suspicions. The upper classes were alert to the possibility that persons in the 3(c) classes might be using religion for purposes of upward social mobility. A late-Victorian author refers to “a type of snobbery which regards the established religion as a stepping stone to respectability.” And not the established religion only. The English Catholic upper classes and their friends were wary of conversions in the 3(c) category, especially when followed up by proposals of marriage. Waugh’s diaries, just on the eve of his conversion, record some meaningful remarks, by a fellow guest at the Sitwells, Lady Ankaret Jackson. “I can’t see any point in being a Catholic,” said Lady Ankaret, “unless one belongs to an old Catholic family. Now when I stay at Arundel I feel very Catholic.”

To overcome such resistances, the Catholic parvenu needed to exert himself, to fight the good fight and show himself a useful ally. Hence the apparently Fascistoid polemics: a bouquet to the Herberts.

I don’t believe Waugh was ever a Fascist, or even liked Fascists, and I find the “Herbert hypothesis” convincing enough. But it is not a hypothesis that leaves much of the case, which Stannard had built up so carefully, for Waugh as a profoundly serious Catholic thinker. Stannard seems fated, like Penelope, always to undo the fabric that he weaves.

The effort to build up Waugh as “serious” would in fact demean him, if it worked. That which is truly serious in Waugh is his comic genius. That which is ostensibly most serious in his public persona is mostly fustian, the stuffing of a shirt.

The pleasing paradox about Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years is that it achieves the reverse of what its author set out to achieve, in all the main particulars. The scholar in Stannard defeats the apologist, at almost every turn. Stannard set out to show that Waugh was neither a snob nor a racist, and shows that he was both. Stannard set out to show that Waugh should be taken seriously as a Catholic thinker, and shows that he should not. The book does change our overall impressions of Evelyn Waugh, but it changes them in the reverse direction to that intended.

The scholar in Stannard deserves our felicitations; the apologist, our commiseration.

This Issue

February 4, 1988