Book Review

Evelyn Waugh Revisited

“It is an exciting time to be working on Waugh,” writes Ann Pasternak Slater at the beginning of her excellent book on the writer.[1] Exciting, since Waugh’s grandson, Alexander—who has already written a sharply amusing family memoir—is in charge of producing forty-two volumes of Waugh’s complete works, to be published sometime in the (near?) future by Oxford. Exciting also, she tells us, for the “growing, cohesive community of Waugh students and admirers” at conferences and other celebrations. What the old rascal would have made of The Evelyn Waugh Society we shall never know, though his quick and sardonic temper might well have been less than thrilled.

The arrival of a new biography is not likely to make hearts beat faster, since Waugh has been thoroughly and scrupulously biographed. Since Martin Stannard’s definitive enough two-volume work of twenty-five years ago, there have been two further substantial treatments, by Selina Hastings and Douglas Patey. Both pay serious attention to Waugh’s books as well as his life: Patey with special attention to Waugh’s political and religious ideas; Hastings with critical judgments that give a sense of what the man was like. The new biography by Philip Eade seems to have been written without more purpose than providing another readable account of the life.[2] Eade tells us he wrote the book at the request of Alexander Waugh, who gave him full access to the Waugh archives. But although Eade dutifully lists what counts as new material—a cache of not very interesting letters Waugh wrote to “Baby” Jungman, a woman he was in love with after his first wife, “She-Evelyn,” left him; an interview the first wife gave sometime back; and some adjustments to previous accounts of Waugh’s army career—there is nothing revelatory that I could determine. Eade praises Selina Hastings’ “outstanding” biography, and the new book in no way supersedes it. Eade admits that he is not writing a “critical” biography that would reassess Waugh’s achievements as a writer; still his total absence of commentary on Waugh’s books—which is why we care about him anyway—seems a curious procedure. It’s also not clear from Eade’s previous two books, biographical in approach, that he has any special credentials as a literary critic. (He has been “a criminal barrister, English teacher and journalist.”) Eade’s book is smooth reading, but Selina Hastings’ was superbly so, and with incisive treatment of the works.

By contrast, Ann Pasternak Slater is nothing if not critical, her book a march through the novels from Decline and Fall to the Sword of Honour war trilogy. With her husband, the poet Craig Raine, she edits Areté, a lively, pointed English periodical that isn’t afraid to stick its neck out. When, in her discussions of the novels, she addresses a mistaken claim made by another critic, she turns briskly on it with “Not so,” before administering her own corrective. On more than one occasion, she consults Waugh’s manuscript to one of the novels, and her lengthy discussion of the ins and outs of the war books is informed in a scholarly as well as critical manner. At the outset, she proposes that Waugh is “the most consistent of our great comic novelists,” though “maverick and unpredictable.” I presume that “our” great comic novelists are Jane Austen and Dickens for starters (does anyone read Fielding anymore?), and there is splendid comedy in Mrs. Oliphant’s Carlingford Chronicles and in the Grossmiths’ Diary of a Nobody. But the major names of English novelists from the last century—Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Ford (perhaps), Virginia Woolf—don’t yield much in the comic direction. In that direction, Waugh’s contemporaries, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Henry Green, and, especially, Anthony Powell, offer sustaining humorous pleasure, and Kingsley Amis is—by these eyes if not by every pair—a major comic writer. But Pasternak Slater’s claim for Waugh is well founded, and she sets out to substantiate it, quoting from the end of his last book, the incomplete autobiography, when, after a botched attempt at drowning himself, Waugh writes: “Then I climbed the sharp hill that led to all the years ahead.”

Probably the major question in critically appraising Waugh’s fiction is how to weigh the earlier part of it as compared with the later. “Early” means Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1933), A Handful of Dust (1934), Scoop (1938), and Put Out More Flags (1942). There may be added to these The Loved One (1948) and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). “Later” consists of the unfinished Work Suspended (1942), Brideshead Revisited (1946), Helena (1950), and the war trilogy collected as Sword of Honour (1965). A crude but acceptable way to characterize the two Waughs is by the prevailing style of each phase. The voice of the early novels is detached, delighting in the outrageous behavior of his characters, brisk, offbeat, full of mocking and parodic sentences. Waugh’s acceptance of the different worlds of these novels is colored by disdain and wicked humor that often approaches travesty and farce. By contrast, the later Waugh’s voice is predominantly sober, eschewing the flashy inventions of narrative treatment. It presents a world whose foundation should be the truth of Catholic Christianity but more often denies or neglects what really matters in human life.

Edmund Wilson was the first critic who drew a sharp line between early and later Waugh by vastly preferring the early. His first essay, in 1944, titled “The Art of Evelyn Waugh,” took us briefly and admiringly through the early novels; then, after having read Brideshead two years later, Wilson regretted Waugh’s abandoning of the “comic convention” in the latter reaches of that novel and particularly at its end, with the conversion of both Lord Marchmain and the skeptical narrator, Charles Ryder. A “Catholic tract,” Wilson called it, and probably no one could have less sympathy for such a tract than the sturdy atheist Wilson. Perhaps the most crucial motive of Ann Pasternak Slater’s book is her attempt to put things right by making a case for the greatness of “Catholic” Waugh’s creation in Brideshead and the war trilogy. Her emphasis can be seen in the number of pages devoted to later rather than earlier Waugh, roughly 200 for the later, 100 for the earlier. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate Comic Waugh, but she may have felt the earlier novels had been more sympathetically dealt with than the later ones. Thus Decline and Fall, which Kingsley Amis thought Waugh’s masterwork, is allotted nine pages; Brideshead gets thirty, suggesting that Decline and Fall has already been well scouted, Brideshead not so well.

Overall I concurred with Pasternak Slater’s judgments about the novels from Decline and Fall to Put Out More Flags. The latter she finds underrated in comparison with its predecessors, and she is right to pick out the great comic sequence about the displaced children, the Connollys, whom Basil Seal brilliantly palms off on unsuspecting neighbors; then when they prove ghastly, makes money by taking them back and beginning over. Scoop she sees as Waugh’s “happiest and most intricately constructed novel,” and she is resourceful in making a case for Black Mischief as a book whose canvas has vastly expanded over its predecessors, and whose “tangle of modernism and barbarity” Waugh’s narrative explores. Vile Bodies she makes heavier weather of than I should do, referring to it as one of Waugh’s “grimmest” novels and employing “grim” and “grimmest” more than once. Yet the scene, one among a number, that remains most vivid to me is one in which the “hero,” Adam Fenwick-Symes, looking to speak to his prospective father-in-law Colonel Blount, stumbles across the filming of the life of John Wesley, where he meets a man “dressed in a surplice, episcopal lawn sleeves and scarlet hood and gown, smoking a cigar”:

“Just what in hell do you want,” said the Bishop.

“I came to see Colonel Blount.”

“Well you can’t son. They’re just shooting him now.”

“Great Heavens. What for?”

“Oh, nothing important. He’s just one of the Wesleyans, you know—we’re trying to polish off the whole crowd this afternoon while the weather’s good.”

Adam found himself speechless before this cold-blooded bigotry.

“Creative Fantasy” is a weak term to characterize the nature of this scene, but it needs to be distinguished from satire, if by satire we mean some pointed criticism of human behavior. Early Waugh was too anarchic to be a moral satirist; it’s the outrageous character of “cold-blooded bigotry” that makes the scene so brilliant.

In her few pages on Decline and Fall, Pasternak Slater admires its “insouciant iconoclasm and cheerful irreverence,” but in the two pages subheaded Style she avoids direct inspection of passages where that style is at its most individual. For example, on the opening page describing the festivities at Scone College of the Bollinger Club, members of which are about to debag the hapless hero, Paul Pennyfeather, an impersonal narrator informs us with high enthusiasm about former “contentious” parties given by the club:

There is tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been!

It’s the exclamatory close that caps the already sensational stoning of the fox and hints at the high originality of Waugh’s style in his first novel. A bit later, at prize day at the prep school in Wales where Paul teaches for a short time, a Welsh band, imported for the occasion, is described thus:

Ten men of revolting appearance were approaching from the drive. They were low of brow, crafty of eye and crooked of limb. They advanced huddled together with the loping tread of wolves, peering about them furtively as they came, as though in constant terror of ambush; they slavered at their mouths, which hung loosely over their receding chins, while each clutched under his ape-like arm a burden of curious and unaccountable shape.

“Cheerful irreverence,” Pasternak Slater’s term, hardly does justice to the creative fiction of these sentences that work—in T. S. Eliot’s words about Ben Jonson’s plays—“not by hitting off its object, but by creating it.” Such “enhancing” of the object, as Eliot remarks about Dryden’s satire, makes that object “great . . . by transforming the ridiculous into poetry.”

Equally brilliant is Waugh’s pacing of the narrative, a rhythm admit­tedly difficult to describe. One instance, at the Prize Day festivities where Margot Beste-Chetwynde shows up accompanied by one “Chokey,” a black man provoking commentary by the assembled such as Mrs. Clutterbuck, who calls it “an insult to our own women to bring a nigger here.”

“Niggers are all right,” said Philbrick [another employee of the school]. “Where I draw the line is a Chink, nasty inhuman things. I had a pal bumped off by a Chink once. Throat cut horrible, it was, from ear to ear.”

“Good gracious,” said the Clutterbuck governess; “was that in the Boxer rising?”

“No” said Philbrick cheerfully, “Saturday night in the Edgware Road. Might have happened to any of us.”

What makes this “go” is the brisk movement from the Boxer rebellion (nineteenth-century China) to London’s Edgware Road, hardly an exotic place. When I teach the novel, I read this aloud to my class, who may not quite believe that this writing and the professor admiring it could say or approve of such things. There is no reason why Pasternak Slater should have singled out these particular passages from Decline and Fall for commentary; it’s just that her very efficient concentration on structural and thematic components of the novel neglects such wayward, startlingly original examples of Waugh’s creative comedy that call out for more attention.

Composed in 1938, Work Suspended, whose title announces its nature, would be the beginning of the style he employed in his fiction and journalism for the rest of his life. Pasternak Slater calls it, in a good phrase, “the Augustan manner.” One registers it in the stateliness of the following sentences describing the house in London which a writer of detective stories, John Plant, inherits upon the death of his father, “a painter in a by then outmoded style”:

Now, I supposed, the house would be sold; another speculator would pull it to pieces, another great, uninhabitable barrack would appear, like a refugee ship in harbour; it would be filled, sold, emptied, resold, refilled, re-emptied while the concrete got discoloured and the green wood shrank, and the rats crept up by thousands out of the Metropolitan Railway tunnel; and the trees and gardens all round it disappeared one by one until the place became a working-class district and at last took on a gaiety and life of some sort; until it was condemned by government inspectors and its inhabitants driven further into the country and the process began all over again.

Waugh abandoned the novel after two chapters, but there is no reason to think that a masterwork would have resulted, since the second chapter compared to the first seems relatively trivial.

The thirty pages Pasternak Slater devotes to Brideshead Revisited are partly directed at refuting Edmund Wilson’s assertion about the end of the novel, in which the agnostic narrator, Charles Ryder, suddenly falls on his knees and prays at Lord Marchmain’s last rites (Marchmain having feebly crossed himself, thus, presumably, saving his soul). Wilson remarks sarcastically, “What has caused Mr. Waugh’s hero to plump on his knees isn’t the cross but Lord Marchmain’s aristocratic prestige.” Pasternak Slater insists rather that “revelation” is the point of the novel, and that both Ryder and the reader are slowly, sometimes unwillingly, brought to this realization. She assumes that most of Waugh’s readers are non-believers, so would be taken in by Ryder’s pre-conversion skepticism; such “rational,” “reasonable” readers are precisely in a position similar to Ryder’s (“Poor agnostic” she calls him), and so his revelation is equally ours.

This just doesn’t seem to me to be true, since I don’t find myself “identifying” with the earlier Ryder, nor do I experience “revelation” when he falls on his knees. One needn’t agree with Wilson that Waugh has given in to his unrequited love for aristocracy; instead he has fallen for the Beautiful Prose his earlier work in the comic convention scorned. Here is Ryder after he has realized his love for Julia Marchmain—“This haunting magical sadness which spoke straight to the heart and struck silence”:

The sun had sunk now to the line of woodland beyond the valley; all the opposing slope was already in twilight, but the lakes below us were aflame; the light grew in strength and splendour as it neared death, spreading long shadows across the pasture, falling full on the rich stone spaces of the house, firing the panes in the windows, glowing on cornices and colonnade and dome, drawing out all the hidden sweetness of colour and scent from earth and stone and leaf, glorifying the head and golden shoulders of the woman beside him.

I suppose you could claim that this later style was a development over the earlier one that immortalized the stoned fox, the Welsh band, and the Edgware Road, but it seems to me rather a forced, quite awkward attempt to do the highfalutin’, “poetic” manner about romantic love. The five months in which Waugh wrote Brideshead weren’t long enough to bring forth a convincing “serious” style to replace the earlier comic one. Like Charles Ryder’s sudden conversion, it doesn’t ring true to the nature of Waugh’s genius.

Of the hundred pages Pasternak Slater devotes to the war trilogy, I will say little except to call it the heart of her book and her appreciation of Waugh. For fullness of presentation, sharpness of argument, I don’t see that it will be bettered. As with Brideshead, she shows, but this time more convincingly, the intertwining of Guy Crouchback’s unfolding story and the novel we’re reading about him. Perhaps the most problematic of the three books is the middle one: Officers and Gentlemen, as Dryden said of Paradise Lost, has its “flats.” (Kingsley Amis in an adverse review pointed out some of them.) Pasternak Slater speculates that the narrative, which seems to “fizzle out” at one point, does so at the moment in Waugh’s life when he experienced the hallucinations he would treat memorably in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which followed hard upon Officers and Gentlemen. But she suggests there is a strong connection between the trilogy’s ultimate ending—which offers neither fulfillment nor abject defeat—and what we experience over the course of the long narrative. She calls this unfulfillment “the leitmotif of the trilogy” and declares, justly it seems to me, “the reader’s narrative expectations are as implacably thwarted as the novel’s characters’, in their respective hopes of high comedy, heroic promotion, and honorable death.” But, she writes, it’s insufficient to call the outcome of the trilogy “unfulfillment” merely, since it reveals rather “the delusion of moral aspirations.” In that sense Sword of Honour is the “Catholic” novel that movingly completes thirty-three years of novel writing.
[1] EVELYN WAUGH, by Ann Pasternak Slater. Northcote House Publishers. $59.95.
[2] EVELYN WAUGH: A Life Revisited, by Philip Eade. Henry Holt. $32.50.