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Evelyn (Arthur St. John) Waugh 1903–1966
English novelist, short story writer, travel writer, essayist, critic, biographer, journalist, and poet.
Evelyn Waugh has been called one of the greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century for his novels of social satire on the failures of modern society. Although probably best known for Brideshead Revisited (1945), and most highly praised for A Handful of Dust (1934), Waugh also produced a substantial body of influential writing in other genres.
Waugh came from a literary family which included his father, editor-publisher Arthur; his brother, novelist Alec; and later, two of his own children, writers Auberon and Harriet. As an indifferent student at Oxford, Waugh became involved in the fast-paced, fashionably decadent world of the "Bright Young Things" (the rich young "flappers" of Britain). He eventually satirized his experiences at Oxford in Vile Bodies (1930). That book followed Decline and Fall (1928), an attack on the corrupt modern world which victimizes the innocents who live in it. Decline and Fall exemplifies Waugh's steadfast reaction against institutions which were fraudulent or abused power. This early work, the chief characteristic of which was farce, introduced some of his important themes, one of them being a desire to return to a past that he considered morally superior to the present.
Many of Waugh's ideas concerning betrayal and morality seemed to be the result of the dissolution of his first marriage. Another important influence on his writing was his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism in his search for stability and refuge from the secular world he found so distasteful. Among his so-called "Catholic novels," was his greatest commercial success, Brideshead Revisited, a novel about moral decay, religious conviction, nostalgia, and the British aristocracy. Much of the significance of Brideshead has been credited to Waugh's new direction in his writing, particularly in the more optimistic religious overtones. Although some critics praised the novel as his greatest success, others condemn it for its ponderous and sentimental writing. Some point out that the plot does not meld well with the theology and that the religious message is lost. The lushness and the romanticism which attracted many readers led others to complain that it conflicted with the satire. Brideshead served as a turning point in yet another matter besides religion—it allowed Waugh to show his skill as a stylist and as a deft manipulator of characterization, rather than simply a clever satirist. Two others of his Catholic books are Edmund Campion (1935) and Helena (1950), factual and fictional biographies, respectively, of a martyr and a saint.
A Handful of Dust (1934), Waugh's statement on soulless contemporary society, is also a caution about the pitfalls of over-idealizing the past. The book is considered by many critics to be the best of his early work, and perhaps his writing as a whole. It is his first use of a theme which recurs throughout his subsequent work: the plight of the genteel Christian (read aristocratic Catholic) man as the inevitable victim of the corrupt present. His characters believe in the Myth of Decline and, in order to escape this era's decadence, they seek mean-ing, beauty, and "rightness" in the past, a Golden Age which actually exists only in their minds. This preoccupation results, however, in the same neglect of responsibility, the same selfishness and insensitivity to immediate crises that these people condemn in others. Many critics believe that Waugh's characterizations become rounder and his satire more subtle in A Handful of Dust. Still others, however, see it as a satisfying continuation of the farcical treatment and the two-dimensional portrayals of the earlier works.
After his divorce, Waugh traveled constantly, often as a correspondent. During this period he produced fiction, reviews, articles, a biography, and a number of outstanding travel books. Among the latter are Labels (1930), Remote People (1931), Ninety-Two Days (1934), and Waugh in Abyssinia (1936). In them, he sheds the "London Waugh" and allows himself to be charming, tolerant, and sympathetic. Even in these, however, he comments in a humorous vein on the eccentricities he finds throughout the world. His travels in Africa also served as material for two novels: Black Mischief (1932), a look at the failure of imposing European standards upon African nations, and Scoop (1938), a satire on journalism.
Waugh also served in the Royal Marines during World War II and the experiences of those years appear in a number of his books. Put Out More Flags (1942) looks at the unreality of the early months of the war, the bungling bureaucracy of the military establishment in organizing the war effort, and the lives which would be destroyed by the catastrophe. It is often considered an introduction to the three novels which constitute the Sword of Honour trilogy: Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961). These books, published as one volume in 1965, comprise his final long work. The trilogy is yet another which has been hailed as containing his best and most compassionate writing. It features his first real hero, Guy Crouchback, and traces Guy's romantic idealism at the beginning of the war through his bleak pessimism at its conclusion. A decent man seeking decency in the world, Guy decides that only personal good works can provide spiritual comfort and communion amid a secular wasteland. An underlying theme in the trilogy is Waugh's own disillusionment with England's betrayal of its traditional standards of honor and integrity as a result of the war.
In addition to fiction and travel, Waugh was a prodigious letter writer. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh (1980) have recently been published—approximately 800 out of some 4,500 which were available—and the result has produced a picture of a compassionate, loyal, humane person. This contrasts sharply with the image presented in his Diaries (1976) of a misanthropic snob with an exaggerated disregard for the rest of humanity. Waugh began a projected three volume autobiography, but only one volume, A Little Learning (1964), was ever published. Two other pieces of his writing, however, are also regarded as autobiographical: Work Suspended (1942), an unfinished book which reflects Waugh's increasing feelings of alienation at the time and which portrays an artist who is isolated from contemporary society; and, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), the story of a middle-aged writer who experiences a nervous breakdown, paralleling a time in Waugh's own life. Two other recently published works are A Little Order (1977), the only collection of some of his journalism, and a fragment of a "prequel" to Brideshead, "Charles Ryder's Schooldays" (1945), published together with eleven other stories which had a limited printing in 1936 under the title Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories. One of these, "By Special Request," is an alternate ending to A Handful of Dust.
Waugh's importance to modern English literature owes much to his style and craftsmanship. Earlier works were characterized by clever phrasing and broadly humorous plots, but in later works, he translated his observations into complex ironic structures, unifying content with form. Waugh also managed, for the most part, to maintain a balance between involvement and detachment toward his characters. Some critics contend that Waugh's books are timeless because their worlds transcend current history. Others, however, believe that his books will not endure because of his nostalgic preoccupations, the rigidity of his opinions and outlook, and the restricted range of his intellectual and political focus. The assessments of his writing skills are, nevertheless, virtually uniform in their recognition of his comic inventiveness, his highly individualistic style, his devotion to clarity and precision, and his ability to entertain.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 13, 19; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15.)
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The new novel by Evelyn Waugh—Brideshead Revisited—has been a bitter blow to this critic. I have admired and praised Mr. Waugh [see excerpt in CLC, Vol. 13], and when I began reading Brideshead Revisited, I was excited at finding that he had broken away from the comic vein for which he is famous and expanded into a new dimension. The new story—with its subtitle, The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder—is a "serious" novel, in the conventional sense, and the opening is invested with a poetry and staged with a dramatic effectiveness which seem to promise much. An English officer, bored with the Army, finds himself stationed near a great country house which has been turned into soldiers quarters. It is a place that he once used to visit—his life, indeed, has been deeply involved with the Catholic family who lived there. The story reverts to 1923, at the time when Charles Ryder was at Oxford and first met the younger son of the Marchmains, who became his most intimate friend. This early section is all quite brilliant, partly in the manner of the Waugh we know, partly with a new kind of glamor that is closer to Scott Fitzgerald and Compton Mackenzie. It is the period that these older writers celebrated, but seen now from the bleak shrivelled forties, so that everything—the freedom, the fun, the varied intoxications of youth—has taken on a remoteness and pathos. The introduction of the hero to the Catholic family and the gradual revelation of their queerness, their differences from Protestant England, is brought off with accomplished art, and through almost the whole of the first half of the book, the habitual reader of Waugh is likely to tell himself that his favorite has been fledged as a first-rank straight novelist.
But this enthusiasm is to be cruelly disappointed. What happens when Evelyn Waugh abandons his comic convention—as fundamental to his previous work as that of any Restoration dramatist—turns out to be more or less disastrous. The writer, in this more normal world, no longer knows his way: his deficiency in common sense here ceases to be an asset and gets him into some embarrassing situations, and his creative imagination, accustomed in his satirical fiction to work partly in two-dimensional caricature but now called upon for passions and motives, produces mere romantic fantasy. The hero is to have an affair with the married elder daughter of the house, and this is conducted on a plane of banality—the woman is quite unreal—reminiscent of the full-dress adulteries of the period in the early nineteen-hundreds when Galsworthy and other writers were making people throb and weep over such fiction as The Dark Flower. And as the author's taste thus fails him, his excellent style goes to seed. The writing—which, in the early chapters, is of Evelyn Waugh's best: felicitous, unobtrusive, exact—here runs to such dispiriting clichés as "Still the clouds gathered and did not break" and "So the year wore on and the secret of the engagement spread from Julia's confidantes and so, like ripples on the water, in ever widening circles." The stock characters—the worldly nobleman, the good old nurse—which have always been a feature of Waugh's fiction and which are all right in a harlequinade, here simply become implausible and tiresome. The last scenes are extravagantly absurd, with an absurdity that would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not—painful to say—meant quite seriously. The worldly Lord Marchmain, when he left his wife, repudiated his Catholic faith, and on his deathbed he sends the priest packing, but when the old man has sunk lower, the priest is recalled. The family all kneel, and Charles, who is present, kneels, too. Stoutly though he has defended his Protestantism, his resistance breaks down today. He prays that this time the dying man will not reject the final sacrament, and lo, Lord Marchmain makes the sign of the cross! The peer, as he has drifted toward death, has been soliloquizing at eloquent length: "We were knights then, barons since Agincourt, the larger honors came with the Georges," etc., etc., and the reader has an uncomfortable feeling that what has caused Mr. Waugh's hero to plump on his knees is not, perhaps, the sign of the cross but the prestige, in the person of Lord Marchmain, of one of the oldest families in England.
For Waugh's snobbery, hitherto held in check by his satirical point of view, has here emerged shameless and rampant. His admiration for the qualities of the older British families, as contrasted with modern upstarts, had its value in his earlier novels, where the standards of morals and taste are kept in the background and merely implied. But here the upstarts are rather crudely overdone and the aristocrats become terribly trashy, and his cult of the high nobility is allowed to become so rapturous and solemn that it finally gives the impression of being the only real religion in the book.
Yet the novel is a Catholic tract. The Marchmain family, in their various fashions, all yield, ultimately, to the promptings of their faith and bear witness to its enduring virtue; the skeptical hero, long hostile and mocking, eventually becomes converted; the old chapel is opened up and put at the disposition of the troops, and a "surprising lot use it, too." Now, this critic may perhaps be insensible to some value the book will have for other readers, since he is unsympathetic by conviction with the point of view of the Catholic convert, but he finds it impossible to feel that the author has conveyed in all this any actual religious experience. In the earlier novels of Waugh there was always a very important element of perverse, unregenerate self-will that, giving rise to confusion and impudence, was a great asset for a comic writer. In his new book, this theme is sounded explicitly, with an unaccustomed portentousness and rhetoric, at an early point in the story, when he speaks of "the hot spring of anarchy" that "rose from deep furnaces where was no solid earth, and burst into the sunlight—a rainbow in its cooling vapors with a power the rocks could not repress," and of course it is this hot spring of anarchy, this reckless, unredeemed humanity, that is supposed to be cooled and controlled by the discipline of the Catholic faith. But, once he has come to see this force as sin, Evelyn Waugh seems to be rather afraid of it: he does not allow it really to raise its head—boldly, outrageously, hilariously or horribly—as he has in his other books, and the result is that we feel something lacking. We have come to count on this Serpent; we are not used to seeing it handled so gingerly; and, at the same time, the religion that is invoked to subdue it seems more like an exorcistic rite than a force of regeneration. (pp. 298-301)
The comic parts of Brideshead Revisited are as funny as anything that the author has done, and the Catholic characters are sometimes good, when they are being observed as social types and get the same kind of relentless treatment as the characters in his satirical books. I do not mean to suggest, however, that Mr. Waugh should revert to his earlier vein. He has been steadily broadening his art, and when he next tries a serious novel, he may have learned how to avoid bathos.
In the meantime, I predict that Brideshead Revisited will prove to be the most successful, the only extremely successful, book that Evelyn Waugh has written, and that it will soon be up in the best-seller list somewhere between The Black Rose and The Manatee. (p. 302)
Edmund Wilson, "Splendors and Miseries of Evelyn Waugh" (1946), in his Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; copyright 1950 by Edmund Wilson; copyright renewed © 1978 by Elena Wilson), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1950, pp. 298-305.
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It is almost certain that Evelyn Waugh is the finest entertainer alive. It is certain that both Waugh and the kind of book he writes are supremely distasteful to many of the most serious people…. Waugh has been variously characterized as nasty, hateful, snobbish, trivial, reactionary, vindictive, fawning, immature, pompous, and rude, ascriptions which are substantially true yet somehow beside the point. The general repugnance of the contemporary intellectual for the literature of entertainment is, I think, related to his dislike of Waugh…. Our culture has to an unprecedented degree succeeded in dividing our entertainment from our elevation…. [We] are quick to mistrust any piece of writing which does not seem immediately to challenge profound assumptions or elicit the most delicate moral choices. Our less ponderous relations to literature have suffered an attrition, and it is possible that a certain kind of literature—the kind I assume Waugh to represent—is losing the capacity to express anything significant. (pp. 88-9)
[But] Waugh is essentially a comedian, and his early novels are celebrations of Mayfair, not satires of it. Nothing is more patent than that he loved … all the raffish, bored, useless, picaresque characters who fill the pages of his earliest novels. These novels, and Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust and Scoop, are successful because of the purity of their comic vision—they are elaborated spoofs. Remarking the absurdity and waste of a particular social life, they omit its real consequences. The worst fate that overtakes anyone in them (besides, of course, being bored) is being eaten by cannibals, or reading Dickens aloud to a madman—grisly consummations, but merely grisly. Although Waugh understood that the assumptions his "bright young things" lived by were preposterous, he was honest enough not to deny that, with certain qualifications, their standards were sympathetic to his own. They were thundering snobs, xenophobes, opportunists, ignoramuses, and thoroughly cultivated ladies and gentlemen. Like Waugh they were more outspoken than an American can easily imagine, and like Waugh they accepted with an abandoned equanimity their misfortune in being three hundred years too late. In his early novels Waugh was able to sustain a tone of bemused mournfulness over a society bent on smashing itself to pieces, while at the same time depicting the feckless innocence of both those who were most active in the smashing and those most hurt by it. The matrix of his comedy is this conjunction of the most abrupt and violent events with the most innocent villains.
Waugh's initial vein was a shallow one, though, and sometime in the late thirties it began to run thin; Basil Seal, who had once blithely survived a meal made of his sweetheart's flesh, could not survive his own self-pity, and Waugh's repining over the evanescence of his generation soured his appetite for comedy. He wrote a couple of slim, adequate satires, The Loved One and Scott-King's Modern Europe, and he wrote two pretentious novels about his religion, Brideshead Revisited and Helena, his most conspicuous failures. They failed because Waugh's snobbery and growing biliousness could not accommodate themselves to humane, religious impulses; indeed, they overrode his Christianity and made it seem just slightly disreputable…. Even Catholicism, most hierarchic of religious dispensations, is too democratic for Waugh, whose admiration of "blood" and class will always compromise his obligations to the poor in heart and spirit and pocketbook. The unpleasant atmosphere of Brideshead Revisited was directly a result of the far-reaching disagreement between Waugh and his religion.
In the last few years, however, Waugh has found himself again, and has just published the second part of a novel in two volumes, Men at Arms and Officers and Gentlemen. These volumes belong with his finest comedy, and they show a surprising maturity, for in them Waugh has been able to poke fun even at his Catholicism. But their excellence derives principally from his having found something that again exhilarates him: the Army. Waugh fell in love with the Army in much the same way, and for the same reasons, that he fell in love with Mayfair twenty years ago. The Army, Waugh finds, is more interesting in its distinctions of position and privilege (and in its ability to harbor the pretenders to them) than a society which has been "democratized"; it is the final repository of the remnants of class and tradition, of unlimited pride in inheritance, of true values, and of honor. It is also very funny. Through its ranks move some of the phoniest, most brazen picaroons in English literature, and in its infinite, inefficient reaches lurk the grotesques, fossils, and fantasts of all good burlesque. (pp. 90-3)
The qualities that make them interesting and worthy are not organic to their structure or their moral implication, but are there in the things that exist before the reader's eye, in the events arranged and acted out.
These outward, superficial virtues can be sustained only by a professional writer, and the remarkable attractiveness of Waugh and his fellow entertainers, Graham Greene, Henry Green, and Joyce Cary, is inseparable from the unobtrusive rectitude, the professional style, of all their writing. What we feel in them is a kind of superb efficiency in expending their talents. They seem most of the time to have been able to calculate just what they can do, and they do it with the strictest economy of effort. By fully exploiting their comparatively modest talents they rise above their rank and demand comparison with America's more serious writers, writers of demonstrably finer intelligence and fuller seriousness than these entertainers but less gifted in their capacity for articulating the intelligence they have to communicate. (pp. 97-8)
Steven Marcus, "Evelyn Waugh and the Art of Entertainment" (originally published in Partisan Review, Vol. XXII, No. 3, 1956; copyright © 1956 by Steven Marcus; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), in his Representations: Essays on Literature and Society, Random House, 1975, pp. 88-101.
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INTERVIEWER: E. M. Forster has spoken of "flat characters and round characters"; if you recognize this distinction, would you agree that you created no "round" characters until A Handful of Dust?
WAUGH: All fictional characters are flat. A writer can give an illusion of depth by giving an apparently stereoscopic view of a character—seeing him from two vantage points; all a writer can do is give more or less information about a character, not information of a different order.
INTERVIEWER: Then do you make no radical distinction between characters as differently conceived as Mr. Pendergast and Sebastian Flyte?
WAUGH: Yes, I do. There are the protagonists and there are characters who are furniture. One gives only one aspect of the furniture. Sebastian Flyte was a protagonist.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say, then, that Charles Ryder was the character about whom you gave most information?
WAUGH: No, Guy Crouchback. [A little restlessly] But look, I think that your questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing. I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.
INTERVIEWER: Does this mean that you continually refine and experiment?
WAUGH: Experiment? God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.
INTERVIEWER: I gather from what you said earlier that you don't find the act of writing difficult.
WAUGH: I don't find it easy. You see, there are always words going round in my head; some people think in pictures, some in ideas. I think entirely in words. By the time I come to stick my pen in my inkpot these words have reached a stage of order which is fairly presentable.
INTERVIEWER: Perhaps that explains why Gilbert Pinfold was haunted by voices—by disembodied words.
WAUGH: Yes, that's true—the word made manifest.
INTERVIEWER: Can you say something about the direct influences on your style? Were any of the nineteenth-century writers an influence on you? Samuel Butler, for example?
WAUGH: They were the basis of my education, and as such of course I was affected by reading them. P. G. Wodehouse affected my style directly. Then there was a little book by E. M. Forster called Pharos and Pharillor—sketches of the history of Alexandria. I think that Heming way made real discoveries about the use of language in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I admired the way he made drunk people talk.
INTERVIEWER: What about Ronald Firbank?
WAUGH: I enjoyed him very much when I was young. I can't read him now.
WAUGH: I think there would be something wrong with an elderly man who could enjoy Firbank. (pp. 110-11)
INTERVIEWER: It is evident that you reverence the authority of established institutions—the Catholic Church and the army. Would you agree that on one level both Brideshead Revisited and the army trilogy were celebrations of this reverence?
WAUGH: No, certainly not. I reverence the Catholic Church because it is true, not because it is established or an institution. Men at Arms was a kind of uncelebration, a history of Guy Crouchback's disillusion with the army. Guy has old-fashioned ideas of honor and illusions of chivalry; we see these being used up and destroyed by his encounters with the realities of army life.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say that there was any direct moral to the army trilogy?
WAUGH: Yes, I imply that there is a moral purpose, a chance of salvation, in every human life. Do you know the old Protestant hymn which goes: "Once to every man and nation/Comes the moment to decide"? Guy is offered this chance by making himself responsible for the upbringing of Trimmer's child, to see that he is not brought up by his dissolute mother. He is essentially an unselfish character.
INTERVIEWER: Can you say something about the conception of the trilogy. Did you carry out a plan which you had made at the start?
WAUGH: It changed a lot in the writing. Originally I had intended the second volume, Officers and Gentlemen, to be two volumes. Then I decided to lump them together and finish it off. There's a very bad transitional passage on board the troop ship. The third volume really arose from the fact that Ludovic needed explaining. As it turned out, each volume had a common form because there was an irrelevant ludricrous figure in each to make the running.
INTERVIEWER: Even if, as you say, the whole conception of the trilogy was not clearly worked out before you started to write, were there not some things which you saw from the beginning?
WAUGH: Yes, both the sword in the Italian church and the sword of Stalingrad were, as you put it, there from the beginning.
INTERVIEWER: Can you say something about the germination of Brideshead Revisited?
WAUGH: It is very much a child of its time. Had it not been written when it was, at a very bad time in the war when there was nothing to eat, it would have been a different book. The fact that it is rich in evocative description—in gluttonous writing—is a direct result of the privations and austerity of the times.
INTERVIEWER: Have you found any professional criticism of your work illuminating or helpful? Edmund Wilson, for example?
WAUGH: Is he an American?
WAUGH: I don't think what they have to say is of much interest, do you? (pp. 112-13)
INTERVIEWER: Do you think it just to describe you as a reactionary?
WAUGH: An artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand out against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along; he must offer some little opposition. Even the great Victorian artists were all anti-Victorian, despite the pressures to conform.
INTERVIEWER: But what about Dickens? Although he preached social reform he also sought a public image.
WAUGH: Oh, that's quite different. He liked adulation and he liked showing off. But he was still deeply antagonistic to Victorianism.
INTERVIEWER: Is there any particular historical period, other than this one, in which you would like to have lived?
WAUGH: The seventeenth century. I think it was the time of the greatest drama and romance. I think I might have been happy in the thirteenth century, too.
INTERVIEWER: Despite the great variety of the characters you have created in your novels, it is very noticeable that you have never given a sympathetic or even a full-scale portrait of a working-class character. Is there any reason for this?
WAUGH: I don't know them, and I'm not interested in them. No writer before the middle of the nineteenth century wrote about the working classes other than as grotesques or as pastoral decorations. Then when they were given the vote certain writers started to suck up to them.
INTERVIEWER: What about Pistol … or much later, Moll Flanders and—
WAUGH: Ah, the criminal classes. That's rather different. They have always had a certain fascination.
INTERVIEWER: May I ask you what you are writing at the moment?
WAUGH: An autobiography.
INTERVIEWER: Will it be conventional in form?
INTERVIEWER: Are there any books which you would like to have written and have found impossible?
WAUGH: I have done all I could. I have done my best. (pp. 113-14)
Julian Jebb, in an interview with Evelyn Waugh in April, 1962 (originally published in Paris Review, Vol. 8, No. 30, Summer-Fall, 1963), in Writers at Work: The "Paris Review" Interviews, third series, edited by George Plimpton (copyright © 1967 by The Paris Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), The Viking Press, 1967, pp. 103-14.
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Brideshead Revisited, less a satire than a romance, marks the first accomplishment of the second stage of Evelyn Waugh's career. Though something of the old, hard brilliance remains, there is a new tone of lush nostalgia in this work, the first of Waugh's novels in which his Roman Catholicism is pervasive. Indeed, excepting Helena, it is Waugh's only novel to date in which a religious theme has been dominant; although Guy Crouchback is a Catholic and Roman Catholicism figures constantly in Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender, the essential theme of these three volumes is the total collapse of civilized values which is the concomitant of war. In effect, in Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh turned from the nihilistic rejection of his early satires to an affirmative commitment; to satisfy the other impulse of the artist-rebel, as Albert Camus has described him, Waugh affirmed a vision which he believed gave unity to life. Brideshead Revisited was his "attempt to trace the divine purpose in a pagan world."
Reviewing Brideshead, Edmund Wilson [see excerpt above], who had most highly praised the earlier satires, concluded that in this more normal world the novelist "no longer knows his way"; he found the novel to be "disastrous." By contrast, a reviewer for the Catholic World judged Brideshead "a work of art." (p. 98)
A novel which has provoked such diverse views deserves consideration. It may be an imperfect work; it can scarcely be a vapid one. Since the apologetic nature of the work is an issue, we should, before analyzing the effects of the subordination of satire to romance, determine whether Evelyn Waugh's vision has given life a form it does not have.
In honesty to the novel, we must note at once that if by "apology" we mean a systematic and reasoned defense of a theological system, then Brideshead is not an apology for anything. It is not a preachy book. To be sure, the Catholicism of the Flytes is sometimes discussed. But, if we turn to the longest discussion of a theological nature in the novel, one provoked by Bridey's insistence that his dying father must receive Extreme Unction, we find not didacticism but, instead, satire. The course of the conversation proves that most of the family are confused about the issue. (pp. 99-100)
Over this entire scene Waugh has cast his satirical irony; the scene exists for novelistic rather than dogmatic reasons, since it prepares for an important event in the action (Lord Marchmain's conversion), satirizes the varied and confused nature of religious faith among these people, and indicates a significant stage in the development of Ryder's character. Waugh must surely be absolved of apologetic didacticism.
Similarly, if by "apologetic novel" we mean one that crudely or even subtly simplifies experience and glosses over certain of life's complexities so as to flatter a fixed system of belief, then again Brideshead cannot be classified as such a work…. Indeed, the author gives us no reason to believe that he is making a case for his Catholics qua Catholics, for the lives of the Marchmains and of Charles Ryder are not pretty ones, and their Catholicism is no easy consolation. Only Cordelia, the younger daughter, finds an honest contentment in faith. Her elder brother's religion is narrow adherence to system (which Waugh ridicules); and her mother's is resignation to suffering. The others—Lord Marchmain, Sebastian, Julia, and Ryder—know no rest.
Only if we choose to equate apologetics with the presentation of Catholics and Catholicism, through a "Catholic" vision of life, may we argue that the novel is an apology. (pp. 100-01)
If we grant that Brideshead is no mere work of apology, if we grant that its purpose is pre-eminently aesthetic rather than didactic, and if, as surely we must, we grant a writer the choice of a Catholic view of life, how do we account for the fact that Brideshead does not fulfill the promise of its brilliant satirical opening? I believe that Sean O'Faolain is illuminating on this point when he suggests that "the theme … is universally valid; the treatment is not." Perhaps an exploration of Waugh's "treatment," which depends upon the relation between his satire and his values, will pinpoint the reason for the failure.
Brideshead Revisited is elaborately architectonic, as are other later Waugh novels. Subtitled The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, the novel beings in the profane modern world and ends in the sacristy of the chapel at Brideshead. In the prologue and the epilogue, which represent the present, we find the novel's most sustained satire. As the bitterly ironic prologue opens, Charles Ryder, a captain in the British Army during World War II, is shifted from one army camp to a second locale. Arriving at night, he does not discover until morning that his new headquarters are the baroque country seat of the Flytes. This discovery moves Charles in Book I to memories of his undergraduate days and of his warm friendship with Sebastian; and in Book II, wherein Sebastian, Lord Marchmain, and Julia are all drawn back to their faith by the urgency of God's will, to memories of his love affair with Lady Julia. Book I takes place in the middle twenties and Book II in the late thirties; the intervening years are sketched in so that continuity, in the chronological sense at least, is not impaired. In the epilogue, surrounded by the "sudden frost" of the modern age, Ryder enters the chapel at Brideshead, where he is revivified by the sight of a "small red light," the sacristy lamp, signifying to him the redemptive survival of faith in a pagan world. The prologue and the epilogue are something more than a mechanical use of the frame technique; they are not merely a device for setting off the memories, but a means of expressing Waugh's emotional attitude toward the past and his satirical view of the present.
Waugh's satirical-ironic projection of a sordid present against the rich traditions of the past is strikingly effective. The landscape of the prologue, bringing into relief the traditional values which Waugh associates with Brideshead, has symbolic force. (pp. 102-03)
For all these depressing satirical contrasts of the prologue and epilogue, however, and for all the pleasing parallels of several returns to faith, which we find in the body of the novel, the structure of Brideshead is not a success. A brief examination of the organization of the two major divisions may provide an explanation of this failure. Book I, composed of eight chapters, contains 201 pages; Book II, having five chapters, occupies 116 pages. So the first book of Brideshead is well over half again as long as the second book…. Is it possible that Brideshead has what Henry James called a "misplaced middle," that having extended himself in sentimentally recreating the glories of a vanished past and particularly of youth, Waugh then scanted what ought really to be the center of the novel, the religious conflict engendered by the love of Julia and Ryder? Perhaps Waugh himself answered this question when he revised Brideshead (1960), and divided the original two books into three, apparently in an attempt to emphasize Julia's role and to subordinate the Sebastian-Oxford part to the whole.
More disturbing even than the structural flaw of Brideshead is the novelist's tendency so to romanticize experience that his tone degenerates into sentimentality. Nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in the Julia-Ryder love affair, a relationship which provokes one purple passage after another. (pp. 105-06)
The consequences of the subordination of satire to sentiment are particularly evident in the point of view—that of the first-person narrator, Charles Ryder—from which Waugh has chosen to present the novel. This fictional device, whatever its merits, has also its dangers. Not only has the first-person narrator contributed to the structural defect, but his presence has nearly banished from the novel the objective, ironic, satirical detachment which had hitherto distinguished Waugh's art. In Brideshead, Waugh is totally committed to his hero's, and his own, strengths—a love of the past, a sense of beauty, a moral awareness of the sterility of much contemporary life. But Waugh is also committed to Ryder's weaknesses—snobbery, smugness, narrowness of sympathy, and superficial idealizations. (pp. 106-07)
The terrible weaknesses of the Marchmain family are fully developed, but so many excuses are made for them (which is not done for the nonupper-class, minor characters, nearly all of whom are satirized), so extravagant are Ryder's claims for them, so romanticized is their class position, so much nostalgia is lavished on the life they were able to lead before the war, so many indications are given of their exclusive right to consideration, so much of Ryder's smugness and self-satisfaction permeates the whole, that the novel seems to accept Brideshead and everything it entails totally and at the expense of all other beings.
But the last words on Brideshead really belong to Evelyn Waugh. In the preface to the revised edition—itself a comment on the original—Waugh left no doubt at all as to his dissatisfaction with this work, which had damaged his reputation at the same time that it brought fame. He frankly admitted that its "rhetorical and ornamental language" had become "distasteful" to him. Indeed, in the very act of offering the revised novel to a new generation of readers, as "a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties with which it ostensibly deals," he seemed to be unconvinced that he had greatly improved it. And, it must be said, the revised novel is not a success. Although Waugh did curb some of the excesses of the original, he did not obliterate its grosser qualities. (pp. 109-10)
James F. Carens, in his The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh (copyright © 1966 by the University of Washington Press), University of Washington Press, 1966, 195 p.
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Evelyn Waugh was forty-one when the war—his war—ended in 1945. It is an age when most successful professional men have achieved their first senior position and look forward to a further twenty five years of increasing power, responsibility, and probably happiness. Many if not most creative artists, having passed through initial stages of imitativeness and experiment, have found their distinctive style and go on productively enriching it until the end of their lives. Not so Evelyn Waugh. "My life ceased with the war", he wrote nine years later. Alas, it did not. He lived on for another twenty years to die at the comparatively early age of sixty-three: twenty years of accidie spent seeking relief from rural loneliness and boredom in drunkenness and worse boredom in London; toppling over occasionally into clinical insanity; dependent for his writing, on introspection and memory; rejecting the world as totally as if he had entered a monastery, but without finding any alternative discipline and peace.
This melancholy picture of Evelyn Waugh is perhaps overdrawn in the collection [The Letters of Evelyn Waugh], for out of 600 pages two thirds are taken up by his easily recoverable correspondence of the post-war years…. This was the period in his life when Waugh, cut off for long periods from his scattered friends and at his wits' end to know how to pass his time, found most relief in letter-writing. Nor should one set too much store by letters written in hours of loneliness and despair…. Uprooted from the metropolitan culture that he despised but on which he remained so dependent, he found no alternative pleasures in the country…. He hated what he could see of the world and he hated himself. And though he was a totally committed Roman Catholic, he found no consolation in his religion. It simply presented him with a set of bleak, incontrovertible facts from which no personal comfort whatever could be drawn.
It is tempting to generalize from Evelyn Waugh about his generation and about the state of England as a whole. Up to a point it is justifiable to do so—so long as we start by recognizing his unique qualities. Of these the most important were ruthlessness and intensity. Both are to be seen in the glaring eyes of the young man drawn and painted by Henry Lamb as well as those of the portly old buffer in loud tweeds photographed in later life. Both are also to been seen in his prose, from which (except in the disastrous first version of Brideshead Revisited) every inessential word had been pruned…. He did nothing by halves and had no time for those who did. He made no effort to understand politics…. The whole teeming energy of the United States he totally rejected; in his eyes Americans were either boors or bores. He appears to have had no interest in music of any kind. In the arts he despised virtually everything which had been produced in his lifetime. As for literature, he prided himself on being out of touch with everything that had happened since the war…. But without curiosity there can be no new experience; and without new experience a creative artist, unless he has the genius to create new worlds every day out of familiar experience, rapidly declines into sterility.
All this was something that Evelyn Waugh quite deliberately brought on himself. He created his persona with dedicated care, as he admitted in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. "The part for which he cast himself", he wrote there, "was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel, and he acted it strenuously, before his children at Lychpole and his cronies in London, until it came to dominate his whole personality…. He offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright and antiquarian as a cuirass."
These letters, on the whole, show how consistently and effectively he played that part, but there are some that show a deeper humanity. His love letters to his second wife during their courtship are as tender and moving as any in the English language. He wrote to his children with wisdom and affection; and his letters to a few old friends—notably Lady Mary Lygon—sparkled as entertainingly through the 1950s as they had in that infinitely remote decade, the 1930s. But these letters to his close friends are in many respects the saddest of all. He told his son Auberon that he had made all his friends at Oxford or in the Army, but that was not strictly true; many of them came from the Metroland period between the two. Certainly he made no new friends after the war, and his correspondence with his contemporaries chronicles with melancholy but typical ruthlessness the aging and disintegration of the Bright Young People he did so much to make famous, their decline into drunkenness, disease, senility, and all too frequently suicide….
But it was in this cage of parrots that Evelyn Waugh had chosen to pass his life, from Oxford onwards. As with so many of his brilliant and unhappy generation, his time at university was not, as it is with most young people, an adolescent preliminary to a life of ever deepening maturity and enjoyment. Rather it was an experience of total self-fulfilment to be prolonged if possible throughout life. The party had to go on. Nothing must change. Affectations acquired during those years hardened into dogmas. Friends clung together for mutual comfort in a rapidly changing world to which they refused to adjust. Though rejecting the mores of their parents, they looked back with nostalgia on an age which had vanished while they were still children, and spent their lives trying to escape from the bleak realities of the new one. They had neither certainties inherited from the past nor hopes for a happier future. They only had one another.
This was the world of Evelyn Waugh, and he had no illusions about it, or about himself. That merciless eye illuminated all it saw with a brilliant and lurid light. Beyond that all was darkness, and soon everything would be darkness. By his own standards he was guilty of two of the deadliest of sins: accidie and despair.
Even by his own lights Evelyn Waugh was not an attractive figure, but he was an honest and honourable one. The implacable God he worshipped had given him the gift of Faith in abundance, but little Hope, and even less Charity. Rather more of the latter might not have made him a better writer, but it would surely have made him a happier man.
Michael Howard, "In the Parrot-Cage," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4046, October 17, 1980, p. 1164.
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One of the saddest of recent literary sights has been the stacks of unwanted copies of Evelyn Waugh's "Diaries" … visible all over town. While the works of, say, Harold Robbins have moved briskly, Waugh's have languished, sad casualties of the apparent American war against wit. It's as if Waugh were too clever, as well as too hard, for us. A pity, because Waugh is much needed as an antidote to the current solemnity, earnestness, literal-mindedness and verbal sloppiness….
Waugh is indispensable today, for one thing, because he is that rarity, a writer who cares about language. He knows that writing is an affair of words rather than soul, impulse, "sincerity" or an instinct for the significant. If the words aren't there, nothing happens. And in our atmosphere where verbal accuracy and elegance and wit seem almost to have disappeared, Waugh is one of the heroes, perhaps one of the saints, of verbal culture. He is extraordinarily sensitive to idiom and its social and ethical implications, and in these letters he reveals himself to be, like Jonathan Swift, a master parodist of styles. He can do the novelist Henry Green by deploying "like" as a conspicuously illiterate conjunction. He can return to the idiom of nursery and schoolroom by using endless repeated "so's" as connectives between narrative moments. He can send up would-be colorful travel writing and would-be portentous military reporting. He is adept at Cockney rhyming-slang and at adolescent-in-group slang (a sinking ship is "sinkers," sleeping-draughts "sleepers," congratulations "gratters")….
[In the correspondence included in "The Letters of Evelyn Waugh" he] is pained to have to inform Louis Auchincloss that he misuses "mutual" and to remind Nancy Mitford that "nobody" and "each" are singular. When Graham Greene sends him his novel, "The End of the Affair," in 1951, Waugh writes back that he greatly admired it but that Greene has written "cornice" when he meant "buttress." (Greene kissed the rod and made the change in the next printing.) As a devoted friend he informs Harold Acton that he has committed the vulgar error of mistaking the meaning of "inverse ratio," and he pronounces himself "shocked" to find the gossip columnist and member of Parliament Tom Driberg "falling into the popular misuse of 'expertise.'"… Waugh is sensitive to every pert or pretentious or fraudulent or cowardly usage.
All this may sound as if these letters reveal their author as a terrible prig. "I am by nature a bully and a scold," he admits. "I am a bigot and a philistine." Indeed, there are some terribly embarrassing Catholic doctrinal letters to Clarissa Churchill abusing her brutally for her apostasy in marrying a divorced man, Anthony Eden. But there's another side. Waugh is vulnerable and tender. He addresses his wife as "My darling love child," and, laying aside his elaborately constructed role of the outrageous Catholic Tory, says to her again, "Darling Laura, I love you. Thank you for loving me."
His handicap was an excessively developed sense of honor. This provided the dynamics of idealism and disappointment in his trilogy "Sword of Honor" and led to some preposterous behavior as an officer during the war, when he stuffily insisted that everyone in the Royal Marines and the Army act in accordance with their professed ideals of heroism and self-abnegation…. Waugh cared about these things, and it is the ethical intensity, excessive and rigorous as it sometimes grows, that makes these letters so instructive. He sees everything in moral terms, and his comedy is possible only because of his never-resting moral imagination. (p. 3)
His firm sense of what is morally right supports his conviction of an author's obligation to write meticulously well. Nancy Mitford is the recipient of most of his strong views here. "It is the difference (one of the 1000 differences) between a real writer & a journalist," he tells her, "that she cares to go on improving after the reviews are out & her friends have read it & there is nothing whatever to be gained by the extra work." Thomas Merton also receives some much-needed advice, which he's let himself in for by sending "The Waters of Siloe" to Waugh for praise. "You tend to be diffuse," Waugh tells him, "saying the same thing more than once. I noticed this in 'The Seven Storey Mountain' and the fault persists. It is pattern-bombing instead of precision-bombing…. It is not art…."… Once writing is understood as an art and a craft rather than a mystery, one's obligation to do it well is clear. (pp. 3, 36)
These letters, running from Waugh's 11th year to the year he died, at 63, bring him entirely alive, even more than the admirable "Diaries."…
Reviewing this book in England, Reyner Heppenstall has concluded that "Waugh clearly never had anything to teach us, except that a man may act like a fool and yet remain a master of English prose narrative, perhaps the finest in this century." But Waugh actually has a lot to teach us, especially if we aspire to write. In these letters one serious recurring theme is the writer's obligation to write well by revising…. In addition to reminding writers of the hell that awaits them if they send out sloppy work, Waugh teaches another valuable lesson, and one we greatly need: namely, the usefulness of the comic vision in transforming anger and violence into verbal art and verbal play. (p. 37)
Paul Fussell, "A Hero of Verbal Culture," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 2, 1980, pp. 3, 36-7.
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About Evelyn Waugh as a novelist: It is certain that he was a master in the hardheaded and militant tradition of English social comedy, of which both wit and the fantasies of malice are the graces, even the cement. He appeared as the immediate successor of the Saki of "The Unbearable Bassington," of Max Beerbohm, of the hilarious fairy tales of Wodehouse and the romantic flightiness of Firbank. Their comfort had been savaged by the 1914 war, and Waugh's line was the comedy of outrage. (Our own sour "black" comedy was yet to come.) But as a man—what was he? Like his father before him, as we can guess from the son's brief autobiography, "A Little Learning," and from a large selection of his … [correspondence in "The Letters of Evelyn Waugh,"] Waugh was a born actor and impersonator, with a bent for exaggeration and caricature and a delight in the inadmissible….
Waugh's many selves and persistent impersonations are candidly and divertingly projected in his letters. He has the naturalness of the best letter writers…. His spell as a letter writer lies in his gift for changing his tone to beguile or tease most of his correspondents. He knows that a good letter must have some of the inconsequence of talk. (p. 109)
In his talking style, he has Bryon's art of slipping into one-line asides. Olivia Plunket-Greene—an early flame of his schoolmastering days—is in 1948 "stark mad. She broke her arm writing a letter." About Heralds: "All Heralds stammer." Randolph Churchill is three times as fat as before. Since the Budget, all the members of White's are yelling that they are ruined, except the really rich, who now sit apart smoking their pipes, because they turned themselves into registered companies in Costa Rica. (p. 110)
The last letter in this volume, written ten days before his death, was to Lady Mosley…. As the letter proceeds, he slips in one of those news flashes of gossip which the best letter writers know will make their correspondents laugh: "John Sutro had hallucinations of poverty and was cured by electric shock."…
One understands why these letters are so enjoyable: it is because Waugh treats society as a Wonderland in which he plays the part of a rude, libellous, yet domestic Alice. (p. 114)
V. S. Pritchett, "A Form of Conversation" (© 1980 by V. S. Pritchett), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVI, No. 44, December 22, 1980, pp. 109-10, 112, 114.
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Evelyn Waugh belongs in the select company of Swift and Twain and a very few others in English literature's Pantheon of Haters. Newspaper editors apparently kept Waugh's corrosive juices flowing by assigning the ever-hard-up author such topics as "Why Glorify Youth?"…. and, as a dyspeptic young man, he reciprocated by writing, for example, of the English girl, "how one longs to give you a marron glacé, a light kiss and put you under the chair, with the puppies and kittens who are your true associates." But this is mere bull-in-the-china shop iconoclasm. Age and piety only made Waugh more ferocious, as in his jeremiad against Stephen Spender: "to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee."
This is the Waugh most of us know. But this fine selection of his journalism [A Little Order], most of it dashed off for a quick buck, shows him, if anything, a finer appreciator than derogator. His paeans to late Victorian furniture, architecture and design show a profound familiarity with the subjects and rapturous attachments to the objects. Better still are his brief reviews in praise of neglected authors, including P. G. Wodehouse, Max Beerbohm, Henry Green, Ronald Firbank and Angus Wilson. Here Waugh proves himself too dedicated a craftsman to let prejudice stand in the way of judgment. Though he predictably discards D. H. Lawrence, "who wrote squalidly," he speaks of Hemingway as "a master"—"lucid and individual and euphonious."
Though written over a period of 40 years, these 55 articles show a fixity of taste and outlook almost unheard of in journalism. Waugh ever delighted in extending generally repugnant ideas to their most unpleasant conclusion, and these essays continually find him playing Swiss Guard to a demoralized aristocracy. In an introduction to a suitably reactionary book by one T. A. McInerny, he even advocates a society based on four estates—monarchy, aristocracy, "industry and scholarship," and manual labor. Have any of our contemporary conservatives the courage of such medieval convictions?
James Traub, in a review of "A Little Order," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 25, 1981, p. 14.
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The principal item of interest in this collection of Evelyn Waugh short stories ["Charles Ryder's Schooldays and Other Stories"] most of them first published in 1936, is the title piece, a lately discovered prequel—as they do say these days—to "Brideshead Revisited."
Written in 1945, it gives us a glimpse of the novel's narrator, the rather recessive Charles Ryder, as a fifth former of 15 or 16 at Spierpoint, his public school (not one of the great public schools, being less than a century old).
Dreadful place, invented, it seems clear, out of Waugh's unpleasant memories of his own school days at Lancing….
Waugh always wielded a stiletto pen, and his account of the school, the mean traditional tyrannies of upperclassmen over lowerclassmen, the pettifogging life, the posturing, and the cliques and the collective loneliness, is of the regimen that was meant to build character. Waugh seems to demonstrate that it achieved the opposite, burring off spontaneity and individuality to achieve a sheen of mannered snobbery.
Ryder is already the incipient artist, an observant loner who has had a schoolboy crush on one of the masters who went off to war (the year is 1919). He is making a stab at passive resistance to the conformities of school life, but looks nothing like a leader who will one day march from the playing fields to triumph at Waterloo. What is clear is that he'll be an instant disciple for Sebastian at Oxford a couple of years hence.
The other item of particular amusement is "By Special Request," an alternate ending to "A Handful of Dust," which for many of us is the best and sharpest of Waugh's early comic novels, a satire on the golden youth and fast times of the post-World War I period.
The novel's ending—protagonist Tony, beyond hope of rescue, condemned to reread Dickens aloud endlessly to a mad jungle chieftain—is horrifying and blackly comical in equal measures.
In the story, which concluded the serialized version, Tony never goes near the Brazilian jungle but takes a long cruise and returns to an ending satiric and sardonic in its own way, nastier because closer to reality and also predicting a long future.
"Incident in Azania" is a Saki-like story of colonials at play, using some of the characters Waugh invented for another of his splendidly malicious early comic novels, "Black Mischief," which foreshadowed the difficulties of African colonies going independent.
The other stories, unavailable as a group for years, are amusing now mostly as period pieces, and as fresh reminders (to readers new or old) that Waugh early found a unique voice, sly, waspish, economical, disdainful both of snobs and common folk but by no means entirely misanthropic, as grew clearer with his own passing years.
Above all, Waugh was a prose stylist for whom a boring sentence was the most mortal of sins. His "Excursion in Reality" finds a well-reviewed but broke young novelist (whose morning mail includes several overdue bills and "six pages of closely reasoned abuse from a lunatic asylum in the North of England") hired to do a screenplay that will make a good yarn out of "Hamlet."
Several story conferences later it has become "The White Lady of Dunsinane," to get some kilts into the action. No difficulty discerning here the eye and the intelligence that would later compose "The Loved One."
Charles Champlin, "A Novel Narrator Years Before 'Brideshead'," in Los Angeles Times Book Review (copyright, 1982, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), October 3, 1982, p. 3.
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Nobody would argue that vintage Waugh lurks in any of his short stories or that we meet there anything like the magisterial wit of A Handful of Dust, Ninety-Two Days, or The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Short forms tempt Waugh toward his melodramatic, schoolboy-rag side—he needs more room to develop nuance and the appearance of sympathy with his characters. Still, [Charles Ryder's Schooldays and Other Stories] is a worthwhile collection of short pieces if not a startling one, eleven of the twelve stories having first appeared in book form as far back as 1936….
Twelve stories for $12.95, plus tax. It works out to about $1.13 per story, certainly moderate as reading matter goes today…. But even Waugh's most frantic admirers would have to admit that some of these stories are worth less than $1.13. "Cruise" ("Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure"), with its repeated tag-line "Goodness how sad," I'd rate at about 35 cents. On the other hand, some of these stories are worth more than $1.13. "Mr. Loveday's Little Outing, despite the crudity of the irony, is a valuable ($2.75?) enactment of the theme that the violent and irrational are often housed quite comfortably within the benign and the reasonable. "Excursion in Reality," a satire on the philistine stupidities of filmmaking, probably seemed funnier in 1932 than now, but it's still worth about $2.00. "Bella Fleace Gave a Party" is right up there too, almost unbearably wrenching with its intermingling of wit and pathos. "Winner Takes All," about a meddling mother's arranging things so that her elder son triumphs in all ways over her younger, thus paying homage to the sacred tradition of British primogeniture snobbery, is another valuable bit of irony….
Another valuable piece of goods is the Saki-like "On Guard," largely about Millicent Blade's boyish nose, the feature all suitors fall for, but less because it's hers and cute than because it's like the noses of the younger boys they used to love at school…. This story is a brilliant and thoroughly honest depiction of an important truth—that when a public-school Englishman loves and marries a woman, he's likely to do so because she reminds him of some kid he used to love at school. It's like Charles Ryder's "thing" about Sebastian Flyte. No wonder so much elegiac nostalgia attaches to the British understanding of "schooldays."
And what about the title story?… As comparison with Waugh's autobiography A Little Learning suggests, the fiction here is too close to an autobiographical transcript of actuality; it's full of attractive texture but weak in action, plot, and significance. But although not worth $1.13, it has some interest because it's another one of Waugh's stabs at his lifelong theme, in which the worthy junior (younger brother, or junior officer) is shafted by the convention that elders or seniors, no matter how undeserving, get the goodies. (p. 38)
These stories are a handy reminder that Waugh's reputation as a social snob may need reconsidering, no matter how badly such a second look might unsettle uncritical celebrators of Brideshead Revisited. If in that overripe fantasy, manufactured in the grim 1940s, he seems at pains to register his worshipful intimacy with the aristocracy, in these stories of the 1930s he exhibits for the unearned-income set an intellectual and moral disdain hard to distinguish from that of a contemporary Marxist-Leninist. If he'd conceived Sebastian Flyte in 1935, he'd have had little trouble discerning from the start the selfishness, cruelty, and fatuity behind those expensive good looks. In "Mr. Loveday's Little Outing," the person who gets the apparently harmless Mr. Loveday released from the lunatic asylum (whereupon he immediately strangles a girl) is Angela, a representative of the upper orders. There's no reason in the logic of the story why she should be an aristocrat. Waugh makes her one solely to suggest the dangerous susceptibility of that class to willful, sentimental, silly impulses, which superior station provides the freedom to gratify. In the alternative ending to A Handful of Dust—included in this book as if it were a short story—Tony and Brenda Last, ruined by money, go on as before, she adulterously in the country, he adulterously in a new London flat. In "Cruise" the young lady "of leisure" writing home from her costly pleasure trip is characterized not just as a social ninny but as a rich and therefore dangerous illiterate unable to read, spell, or punctuate. No one comes to Bella Fleace's elaborate party because she's forgotten to mail the invitations, and she's forgotten to mail them because she's a scatter-brained aristocrat, yes-womaned on all sides, who doesn't notice that her senility has reduced her now to equality with any other forgetful old lady. Despite their sometimes dubious success as art, these stories do convey the valuable news that if Waugh ended as something like a snob, he didn't at all begin that way. (pp. 38-9)
Paul Fussell, "The Genesis of a Snob," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 187, No. 3542, December 6, 1982, pp. 38-9.