Evelyn Waugh Waugh, Evelyn (Arthur St. John) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Edmund Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Steven Marcus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James F. Carens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Fussell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Traub

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles Champlin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Fussell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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