Evelyn Waugh was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for EDMUND CAMPION as a work of marked distinction by an author under forty. Some critics have found Waugh’s descriptions of Campion’s last Mass and sermon at Lyford, his subsequent hiding with two other priests, and their final discovery and arrest among the most descriptive and dramatic passages in all his writings. Others have pointed out that the story is related with bias, and without any attempt to create a true historical atmosphere. In any case, the short novel is told simply and does relate the tragedy of a martyr in the service of Catholicism.
It is interesting to note that the novel was written shortly after Waugh’s own conversion to Catholicism and reflects his search for inner peace and joy which he ultimately found in the martyred Englishman. Waugh reveals in Campion’s life what the Catholic faith meant to him personally, and his book is full of reverence and complete affirmation of the Church. He held a nostalgia for the past and his romantic sense of history comes out in this novel. At the time Waugh undertook to write the novel, the Jesuits were rebuilding Campion Hall on a new site at Oxford. Waugh pledged all the royalties he received from the book to the building fund for Campion Hall.
Reviewers of the book, including most of those who were unsympathetic to the general thesis it contained, praised its style and overlooked some of the inaccurate historical details. Throughout EDMUND CAMPION there is a sense of historical continuity. The opening pages picture Elizabeth on her deathbed and reflect upon the profits and losses of her reign. Waugh glances forward many years beyond Elizabeth and then returns to the queen’s encounter with the scholar, hero, and martyr, Campion. Everything is seen in the light of the “Catholic” perspective. In the last pages, the author looks historically beyond Campion, thirteen years later, and describes another martyr for the Catholic minority in England, Henry Walpole. At times, EDMUND CAMPION seems to reach beyond the boundaries of a short novelized biography, and attempt to make a larger statement about Catholicism and its struggle for survival during different periods in various places. Such a task is a large one and Waugh’s efforts seem rewarded by a generally well-accepted and respected religious biography.