Waugh, Evelyn 1903–1966
Waugh is a British novelist whose writing can best be divided into pre- and post-Catholicism. Before his conversion in 1945, Waugh's works were humorous social satires. His later works continued to use satire, but in an increasingly cynical and pessimistic vein. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Traditionalism—that past elegantly embodied in aristocratic pastoral of great houses, chestnut-tree drives, craftsmanship, hierarchy, culture—establishes the ideal of civilization, order, and permanence; but Waugh's comic act is to violate it with modernity. The novelist of instability, beyond such humanism, he depends on the memento mori, the macabre intrusion, the bleak reminder of the folly of seeking fulfilment inside time or history; the posture consorts elegantly with a modernizing history which, to his comic eye, is devoted to the same riotous and brutal reminder. The tradition of social comedy he belongs to is not Fielding's but Gogol's: society is an unstable, extraordinary fiction in a wilderness of space; and we embody it as caricature, strangely, absurdly—as his own surrogate, Gilbert Pinfold, does in acting the part of 'eccentric don and testy colonel' until that is all his friends and critics see. Waugh's version of history is of a disintegrating proceeding, a movement from greater to lesser, civilization to chaos; but that releases Dionysian comedy and a self-ironizing but poised narrative posture.
Indeed one reason why he seems so pure a comic writer is that—like his hero in Decline and Fall, Paul Pennyfeather, who accepts all outrage as it comes and is inert—he takes a disingenuous stance…. He is not a dialectical comedian of ideas in Huxley's way; his work yields ideas only dramatically. Instead the narrator stands at the centre of his comedy, omniscient yet evasively neutral, surrounded by outrage and absurdity; the world around is conveyed as an impression, a moving collage without psychological depth, flickering, quickly rendered, given largely through dialogue, short scenes, rapid transitions of place, and a wide range of characters whose inner lives rarely detain us. This economical technique Waugh seems to have got partly from the cinema and partly from Ronald Firbank, another important figure in this stylistic phase. (pp. 154-55)
His books are very much comic fictions, each making a coherent absurd world with its own laws; but each of these worlds makes reference to the prevailing one, and exposes it, by means of an entirely comprehensible vision of barbarism and disintegration. The realization of comic wholeness has its distinct historical location; it belongs to the times and has its roots in them. (p. 156)
The comic throughout is the form for treating a world in which Waugh takes enormous, delighted curiosity but no moral pleasure whatsoever; that is why the notion of him as pre-eminently a traditional writer is false, since it suggests only the basis of how he arrives at his contrasts and vision, not the basis of his invention or, above all, its form. (p. 157)
Malcolm Bradbury, in his Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (copyright © 1973 by Malcolm Bradbury; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1973.
[Waugh's] constant target is fraudulence: heretical beliefs, sentimental behavior, derivative or picturesque art and architecture, impostors of every kind—all these bear the brunt of Waugh's fierce satire. What accounts for Waugh's obsessive hatred of the pseudo, so much more virulent than the usual satiric dislike of pretence? The answer lies, at one level, in the convert's conviction that the world he has repudiated as valueless is now a grossly-blurred caricature of...
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the genuine. Thus it is that the major action in most of Waugh's novels consists of his persona's quest to escape from the condition of a cartoon. InMen at Arms Guy Crouchback feels "diminished and caricatured by duplication" and in Brideshead Revisited Charles Ryder observes, "We are seldom single or unique; we keep company in this world with a hoard of abstractions and reflexions and counterfeits of ourselves … all in our own image, indistinguishable from ourselves to the outward eye. We get borne along, out of sight in the press, unresisting, till we get the chance to … outdistance our shadows." "Outdistance our shadows": one thinks of Paul Pennyfeather, Tony Last, and Guy Crouchback attempting to elude Potts, Mr. Todd, and Apthorpe—attempts which are really outward expressions of the artist's need to exorcise a dimly-intuited fraudulence from within his own soul.
We may never learn just how consciously Waugh resorted to autobiography in describing his personae's repeated struggles to escape from their shadows. It is sufficient to say that when Waugh "outdistanced" Angel in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold he re-enacted the basic movement of all his novels. In defeating Angel he ritually exorcised an incubus which had begun to drive the very critic of the counterfeit into a state of self-caricature. No wonder that Waugh felt "there was a triumph to be celebrated"…. (p. 331)
[As] the result of Gilbert Pinfold's ordeal Evelyn Waugh triumphed over fraudulence by finally acknowledging its possible inward origin. In closer touch with reality, which he no longer viewed "with insufficient charity," Waugh went on to complete Officers and Gentlemen and the even more compassionate Unconditional Surrender. (p. 336)
Jeffrey M. Heath, "Waugh and the 'Pinfold' Manuscript," in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1976), April, 1976, pp. 331-36.
Evelyn Waugh's early novels are often thought to express the view that a traditional, stable, and dignified social order in England is quickly being replaced by a state of near chaos in which dishonesty and ruthless hedonism reign supreme. (p. 119)
But A Handful of Dust does not really support the view that Waugh believes the modern era to be marked by a decline in the quality of life. The Myth of Decline, the belief that beauty, order, and significance existed at some point in the past, but exist no longer, is certainly present in the novel, but it seems to be certain of the novel's characters, rather than its author, who cling to this belief. For Waugh undercuts these characters in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways. If Waugh's earlier novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, did indeed embody a simple version of this Myth of Decline, then in A Handful of Dust Waugh is carrying his satire a step further by attacking one of his earlier positives. But probably it would be more accurate to say that although Waugh's early novels of English life all play with the idea of decline, it is only in much later novels, like the notorious Brideshead Revisited, that Waugh uses the Myth of Decline uncritically, as an organizing principle which gives meaning to his book.
The main technique that Waugh uses in A Handful of Dust to undercut those characters who believe in one or another version of the Myth of Decline is that of playing off their beliefs against each other through ironic juxtaposition. Various characters choose to locate the lost "golden age" at various periods of the past, but no character is able to give very compelling reasons for his choice. Tony's vision of the golden age is at once the most interesting and the most confused in the novel. For Tony, the golden era is that of the immediate Edwardian and late-Victorian past—the age when owners of country houses like Hetton had the resources with which to maintain them, when the country house and the county family were still important elements in English society. Tony's dream is to restore Hetton in all its details to its late-Victorian state…. Of course, it isn't really possible for Tony to restore prelapsarian purity to Hetton. As Tony himself tacitly admits…, there is a contradiction at the heart of a dream that tries to preserve a social institution that was once vital but now has no significant function to perform. The country house, once a center of English social and economic life, is so no longer. People will not even come to such a house for the weekend unless they are offered all the amenities of modern city living. (pp. 119-21)
The antique Hetton Abbey was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style, and this extravagant gesture suggests that Tony's Victorian forbears, like Tony himself, found beauty and significance in the past rather than in the present. Yet,… the Middle Ages was hardly the era of beauty, order, spirituality, and elevated ideals that certain Victorians, in full retreat from materialism and modernity, imagined it to be. Apparently the Victorian era was not so satisfying to Tony's forbears as Tony feels it would be to himself, so they in their turn idealized the Middle Ages in a manner notorious for its disregard of historical fact. And … their confused Gothicism has become an element in Tony's essentially Victorian dream world. (p. 121)
Tony's unsatisfactory, obsolete life style is … idealized by his impoverished successors, just as Tony himself idealized the lives of his Victorian forbears, who in turn idealized … and so on. The golden era exists not in the past but in the mind. (p. 123)
Reggie's absorption in a supposedly significant past distracts him from truly significant present responsibilities…. It's no accident that Reggie is going to search for meaning in a desert. His rejection of the present in favor of the past makes him a worse man, just as the well-meaning Tony's sterile preoccupation with the restoration of Hetton blinds him to such important present problems as his wife's unhappiness.
Tony and Reggie are not the only characters in A Handful of Dust who satisfy their longings for order and significance by retreating into dream worlds located in the past, while remaining selfish and insensitive to others' sufferings in their handling of everyday life. The syndrome takes its most extreme form in the case of Mr. Todd. Todd's golden era is located in the fictionalized Victorian world of Dickens' novels—where kindness and charity have the power to alter reality, where human suffering has meaning and arouses pity and indignation. Superficially, Todd is Dickens' ideal reader: "at the description of the sufferings of the outcasts in 'Tom-all-alone's' tears ran down his cheeks into his beard"…. But Dickens intended his readers to be moved to moral action by his novels, and for Mr. Todd, the retreat into the imaginary, significant past which Dickens' work provides is an end in itself, giving his altruistic emotions a good workout which apparently incapacitates them for further action…. Todd has located all moral significance in an imaginary past totally severed from the ugly and hedonistic present which he accepts quite matter-of-factly. This is the danger inherent in using a Myth of Decline to satisfy one's longings for a more beautiful life. Both Tony and Todd's emotional lives take place in a past world which never really existed as they imagine it—both neglect the present. (pp. 124-25)
Tony actually encounters two people—Thérèse de Vitré, daughter of an old, Catholic family in Trinidad, and Mr. Todd—who unmistakably suggest or represent the two past periods that are blended in Tony's English Gothic dream, the Victorian era and the Middle Ages. (p. 126)
Given Waugh's Catholicism, we might expect him to idealize the conservative Catholic society of Trinidad. Here, if anywhere, Waugh would be likely to employ a straightforward version of the Myth of Decline by portraying traditional Trinidadian life as more satisfying than English modernity. But in fact what is most striking about Thérèse's response to the stable, ordered life of Trinidad is her unavowed, yet obviously violent, desire to escape from it. (p. 127)
In addition, Waugh's description of Thérèse's father as "the complete slave owner" reminds the reader that Trinidad's aristocrats did not gain their social pre-eminence in a morally irreproachable manner. So the encounter with Thérèse vaguely and suggestively, yet unmistakably, undercuts Tony's belief that the orderly Victorian past was a satisfying and edifying time to live.
The Gothic element in Tony's English Gothic Myth of Decline is at least as deeply undercut by his dealings with Mr. Todd as its Victorian element is by Thérèse. (p. 128)
Critics of A Handful of Dust often describe Todd as crazy, but Todd's sanity isn't really at issue here. Whether he is sane or not, it is clear that Todd's behavior closely resembles the behavior of all the aristocratic English characters in the novel. Like them he uses the social power circumstances have placed in his hands ruthlessly and selfishly (Tony … is at best a partial exception to this generalization); like them, he demonstrates a schism between moral ideals and practical conduct. If Todd is extreme, he is also typical, and the ruthlessness with which he uses his power demonstrates something about the nature of power which undermines the Gothic element in Tony's Myth of Decline. Those whose society gives them great and unquestioned authority over other human beings (the sort of authority Todd has inherited, with the gun, from his missionary father; the sort of authority feudal aristocrats inherited from their fathers) are likely to accept that authority as their right and to use it with little human sensitivity. The extremely powerful feudal aristocrats who use their monoply of physical force chivalrically, in the interests of the whole community, are a figment of Tennyson's and Tony's imaginations. The real aristocrats are Reggie, Brenda, Mr. Todd, and, alas, Tony himself, who all unquestioningly accept the social arrangements which give them rank and power and use their power in a basically selfish manner. And Todd's cruelty is the greatest at least in part because his powers are the most absolute. Thus Tony's "journey into the past," like so much else in this novel, suggests, not decline, but rather the essential similarity between past and present. (pp. 129-30)
Jane Nardin, "The Myth of Decline in 'A Handful of Dust'," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1977, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburgh), Winter, 1977, pp. 119-30.