The primary component of both Evelyn Waugh’s distinctive “voice” as an author and his moral vision is his almost manic compulsion to regard all human existence from a satirical perspective. This angle of perception prohibits the development of character beyond the deft portraiture of representative figures of the world on view. Waugh is such a keen observer and so imaginative a recorder of behavior, however, that his depictions of the members of the British Colonial Service and the Mayfair “Smart Set” have become archetypal, the standard version of accepted historical truth. In addition, Waugh is comfortable with this satirical tack because, in the majority of his work, he is more interested in the reaction of his own mind/sensibility to the circumstances than that of almost any of his characters. With a few exceptions from his later works, particularly the Sword of Honour trilogy (1965), he is writing at a remove from all the characters. Even when he chooses to sympathize with them to some extent or to indicate his admiration for them when they act with reverence for the code he covertly cherishes and discretely proclaims, he maintains a judgmental distance. He expects only a few rare superior people to be able to see and know as much as he does, and, consequently, his attitude toward his characters ranges from mild amusement through scathing displeasure to absolute disdain and contempt.
The characters in Black Mischief are, for the most part, not worth contempt. Seth, with his pathetic misrepresentations of everything he has studied, is trying so hard to be regal with no instinct for how royalty should behave that he evokes pity for the most...
(The entire section is 690 words.)