Commentary Magazine


The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Mark Amory

Cynic and Moralist

The Letters of Evelyn Waugh.
by Mark Amory.
Ticknor & Fields. 664 pp. $25.00.

There can be little doubt that the least trendy literary talent of our century was the British novelist Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh (1903-1966). The son of a middle-class Victorian publisher who read Dickens aloud to his children, Waugh had a writing career that spanned four decades and was bounded on either end by crushing disillusionment: betrayal by his first wife in 1929 while he was writing his novel of the “bright young people,” Vile Bodies, and betrayal by his adopted Church after the Vatican Council of 1962-64.

Following the precepts of the pre-Johannine Catholicism he had embraced in the 1920′s, Waugh equated most forms of political liberalism and socialism with the Marxist heresy, and carried on a sometimes splendid, sometimes petty rear-guard action against intrusions of the “century of the common man.” Though his friends included politicians of every stamp, Tory and socialist, he gagged on the political process itself, with its endless compromises and accommodations, and never voted in a parliamentary election (“I do not aspire to advise my Sovereign on her choice of servants”). In his trilogy of the adventures of a “dim” co-religionist in World War II, Sword of Honour, he observes that no good comes from public causes, “only from private causes of the soul.”

The usual view of Waugh, of course, is that he was a thundering snob, clawing and kicking his way up the social ladder and showering drunken abuse on those he could afford to insult—those who were not Cavendishes, Pakenhams, or Ponsonbys—and this view dominated much of the critical comment that greeted publication of his diaries eight years ago. In keeping with the changed temper of the times, this new selection of his letters by Mark Amory has been hailed with something like nostalgic affection—though for the most part it is Waugh’s manner that is praised by reviewers hankering after lovable literary eccentrics, while his ideas are conveniently overlooked. Still, the snob issue will not go away in the century of the common man.

It is worth remembering that Waugh was not pretending to belong to a social stratum; he did belong to it. He went to school with aristocrats, caroused with them at Oxford, served with them in exclusive regiments, married the granddaughter of an earl (a cousin of his first wife), and lived out his years of fame in the role of a country squire, though one dependent on astute literary agents and the public’s taste for anarchic comedy. Waugh himself met the snob issue head on by insisting the world had been a saner and stabler place in the 19th century when each class emulated the one above it. While he could be defensive about it to old friends, the pose was also a convenient “put-on” for gullible outsiders, including literary groupies and critics whose work he did not admire.

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If Waugh ever put his worst foot forward in his work it was in his wartime novel, Brideshead Revisited, where his aristophilia collides with his first fictional attempt to get serious about religion. The purple paragraphs (later rewritten) in praise of recusant Catholicism in the ancien régime brought down on him the fury of previously friendly critics like Edmund Wilson, who denounced the novel as a Catholic tract, and the ridicule of others like Sean O’Faolain and Conor Cruise O’Brien (“Donat O’Donnell”) who condemned him for romanticizing English Catholicism as a grace peculiar to a few upper-class families.

Among several ironies in Waugh’s life were his choice of modern history as his field at Oxford and his initially buoyant patriotism after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939, when for some 22 months he could justify the war as a gentleman’s crusade against “the modern age in arms.” The noblesse oblige view went sour with Hitler’s invasion of Russia and the shift of the Soviets to the Allied side. “I was staying with him in Naples in 1944,” he writes in 1963 of the then-Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, “when he got the news that Churchill & Roosevelt had consented to the destruction of (Catholic) Lithuania. He showed obvious satisfaction saying: ‘Well, that’s one problem the less.’ I think he has grown a carapace of cynicism to protect a tender conscience. Perhaps he may find his soul in retirement.” Waugh’s concern for Lithuania and the Prime Minister’s soul is balanced by his horror, in the same letter, at Macmillan’s “gravest crimes” as chancellor of Oxford University: demolishing a posh hotel to put up a Woolworth’s and appointing Hugh Trevor-Roper, whom Waugh saw as a Catholic-baiter, as Regius Professor.

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The war years saw a metamorphosis of the protagonist in Waugh’s novels, from the resilient bounder who comes out ahead—Basil Seal of Black Mischief and Put Out More Flags— to the dim prig as victim—Charles Ryder of Brideshead and Guy Crouchback of the Sword of Honour series. Both of these types, the bounder and the prig, partake of the growing accidie that afflicted their creator himself in the 1950′s and 1960′s, his sense that he “had been born in sunlight and lived to see night fall.”

It is significant that Waugh should have discovered affinities of temperament with Swift. A satirist is in the end a moralist, and Waugh’s fierce indignation is to a considerable extent his own carapace of cynicism, his defense against the Victorian sentimentality of his father’s age which he both dreaded and inherited, and which he exposed so tellingly in his single greatest novel, A Handful of Dust.

Caustic and petulant as he was, Waugh was also fortunate in his friends. They were certainly a diverse lot: Cyril Connolly, whom he teased without respite, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, Ronald Knox, Maurice Bowra, Alfred Duggan, John Betjeman, and the bumptious prototype of his cad-heroes, Randolph Churchill. He was a first-rate entertainer in private as in public, as the comic hyperbole of the letters shows—especially the letters to his children. Sometimes the joke went on too long, as in his famous insistence that Marshal Tito was not only a woman but a lesbian (“Her face is rather pretty but the legs are very thick”), but like many artists with a passion for order he showed extraordinary zest in depicting scenes of disarray and chaos. Up to the very last months, life amused him as much as it nettled him, and he was determined to share his amusement with his friends.

Where Waugh shines most luminously in Mark Amory’s collection is in the letters to the women who were his most constant pen-pals. To his young second wife he is protective and gently jocular, even censoring out language he thinks “unsuitable” for her, but he opens out pages of gossip and ribaldry to old chums like the Lygon sisters, Mary and Dorothy, Pamela Betjeman, Lady Diana Cooper, Mrs. Ian Fleming, and Nancy Mitford. In a firm but self-effacing and unprudish letter he lectures Randolph’s cousin, Clarissa Churchill, on her “apostasy” from the Catholic Church in marrying the divorced Anthony (“Jerk”) Eden, recalling his prior failure to save the soul of another traveler on the primrose path, Kathleen Kennedy, daughter of the U.S. ambassador (and sister of the future President), who was killed in a plane crash while eloping for the second time.

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Waugh’s patience with modern Catholicism ran out precisely when the Church entered what his son Auberon has called its “silly season” in 1964. It was not merely the theological hedging or the self-conscious ecumenism of the aggiornamento that riled him but the cheap gimmickry that characterized Vatican II’s appeasement of the 20th century. In language, as in architecture and etiquette, order and beauty were all to Waugh; he railed at the “selective return” to practices of the early Church and at the atrocious translations of Scripture being inflicted on the faithful in the name of a modernism he clearly saw as fraudulent.

“For me Christianity begins with the Counter-Reformation,” Waugh wrote from Jerusalem in 1935—perhaps the most revealing comment in the Letters. Near the end of his life he was writing to prelates to find loopholes in his obligation to attend the “new” mass, and fuming that “in a happier age [Hans] Küng would have been burned at the stake.” He even fantasized that his son-in-law might be persuaded to assassinate Pope Paul in New York.

On Easter Sunday, 1966, weary of the silly season and begloomed by premature old age and the loss of old friends, he had the consolation of hearing the old mass said in the old way, in Latin, and then fell dead in his house in Somerset. Randolph Churchill, serving with him in the war, had once exploded at some infuriating quibble of Waugh’s by bellowing that it was always the avowedly religious people who were the worst shits. Waugh fixed him with his round blue eyes and asked quietly, “My dear Randolph, have you ever thought what I should be like if I weren’t?”

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Amory’s selection is annotated enough to suit the crustiest Waughian, given the necessity to excise much repetition in the glum final decade, and he has on the whole been generous to his subject, a classic English eccentric and a master of English prose style whose work deserves reconsideration as we continue to slide (linguistically and otherwise) down the tube.

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