Evelyn Waugh (1903 - 1966)

Within a couple of decades after the Second World War ended, there was hardly any celebration of novelists of the inter-war period. As mentioned before, there was a sense that D H Lawrence and James Joyce had made seminal contributions, but otherwise those who had been widely read at the time were treated largely as period pieces.

I should note that this applies only to British fiction, because it was certainly felt that on the continent several writers had transformed fiction during those two decades. This applied most obviously to Kafka, but also to less obviously revolutionary figures such as Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust. Unfortunately I cannot hope to do justice to them in what must be a limited series focusing on English Literature.

I will therefore, at the risk of seeming parochial, devote a couple of columns to English writers of that period. At the same time, though the novelists I will talk about are not in the league of the great Europeans I have mentioned, I feel that they are at least as interesting as Lawrence and Joyce, perhaps even more so.

My own favourite amongst them is Evelyn Waugh, who was incidentally brought vividly to life in the collection of Graham Greene’s letters which sparked off this series of columns. Waugh was also a Catholic convert, and aggressively traditional about it, unlike his more revolutionary friend. But he was also extremely funny, and well aware of his own foibles. In a sense then he seems never to have moved too far, despite appearances to the contrary, from the Oxford undergraduate who is perhaps the most evocative celebrant of that city of aquatint, as he described Oxford as once having been.

His best known novel is ‘Brideshead Revisited’, which was a sensational television series in the seventies, and has recently been filmed again, from a different perspective which helps to illuminate a complex study of human relations. Not surprisingly the novel is best remembered for its account of the relations between the middle class Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, the aristocrat he falls in with, though in fact the novel extends into life after Oxford, and Charles’s relations with Sebastian’s sister Julia. She marries a ghastly man, based it seems on the Canadian newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, who played a powerful if not entirely savoury role in British politics during and between the two World Wars. She and Charles have an affair but, being a Catholic brought back to a sense of religious obligation when her disreputable father comes back to the Church just before he dies, she decided not to get a divorce.

Waugh’s capacity to express the bleakness of life sometimes seems to me without parallel. After the sheer joy of Oxford, a joy in which shadows are always gathering, the depiction of how life breaks up is unrelenting. The novel ends with Charles going back to Brideshead, the great house of the Flytes, a billet for soldiers during the war. The only sign of the world of its previous inhabitants is Sebastian’s old nanny, still there, almost forgotten, except by the youngest Flyte, the nun-like Cordelia, and through her by Julia.

Like Greene, Waugh’s range was extraordinary. He too traveled widely, and amongst his funniest works is ‘Scoop’, about a journalist sent to Africa at a time of turmoil. Unfortunately the management got the wrong man, and sent out the gardening correspondent, rather than a similarly named international expert. In Waugh’s world, which we realize bears a closer relationship to what really happens than the compartmentalized perceptions we privilege, the wrong William Boot does better than the professional might have done, both in finding out what is happening and in understanding it.

Another of Waugh’s ventures into foreign territory has perhaps the most depressing, if chillingly funny, ending of anything I have read. Written at the time Waugh’s own marriage broke up, it is about how Tony Last lost his wife to an obviously unworthy rival, and traveled abroad to recover. He ended up lost in a remote settlement in South America, dominated by a British expatriate who could not read, but loved Dickens. He makes Last read to him, and conceals his presence from the team sent out to find him. The novel is called ‘A Handful of Dust’, and as we realize that Last is doomed to stay in the Amazonian jungle for ever, reading Dickens aloud, we realize what is meant by the Biblical phrase about seeing despair in a handful of dust.

Waugh’s range was remarkable, including the late ‘Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold’, which is about a middle aged man losing hold of reality, as he realizes things can only get worse. Before that was the War Trilogy, which caught brilliantly the social changes that the Second World War brought, with both nostalgia and contempt for the ineffective social order that still held sway in inappropriate places. ‘The Loved One’ deals with funeral practices for pets, and incidentally people, in Calfornia, while ‘Helena’ is an account of the search for the true Cross of Christ made by the mother of Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to embrace Christianity.

With all this however, I still go back often to Waugh’s first two novels. ‘Decline and Fall’ is another odyssey of a comparatively poor young man who goes up to Oxford, having taught in a seedy prep school, a phenomenon that was only just fading away by the time I went up to University myself. Paul Pennyfeather gets caught up in the social whirl of London, and is about to marry the mother of one of his pupils, when he is arrested on charges of white slavery after he has run a small errand for her– it turns out that part of her fortune comes from the procuring of prostitutes for service abroad. The juxtaposition of different worlds, and the manner in which some can whirl through them whilst others cannot cope, is a feature that Waugh was to expand on throughout his career.

And then there was ‘Vile Bodies’, a personal favourite, since we set up a dining society of that name which swiftly became a cult, the photographs now being a sort of collector’s item in the strange world of nostalgia that Oxford precipitates. We had distinguished members, a head of the Australian Liberal Party, a Conservative front bencher though sadly he has not made the Cabinet. It was a world of Turkish cigarettes and brown sherry, of Agatha Runcible who got into a motor race by accident and went round and round in circles, which would have been funny except that she was traumatized and lost her mind. Something similar happened to our own Agatha Runcible, which brought home to me the sheer unpredictability of life.

There is a flavour to Evelyn Waugh that is unique, and still finds echoes even if the life he described seems so far away. I see him as a master of space and time, showing us how change is relentless, how people see everything around them change, believing they are themselves constant, even as they themselves alter as their own relationships shift. His capacity for nostalgia is immense, so is his ability to show how useless it all is; and then that that too matters little in the immense scheme of things.