Evelyn Waugh

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Dudley Fitts (review date 21 May 1930)

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SOURCE: "O Bright Young People!," in The Nation, Vol. 130, No. 3385, May 21, 1930, p. 602.

[Fitts was an American poet, critic, and translator. In the following review, he calls Waugh's novel Vile Bodies a "failure," noting that the use of satire is heavy-handed and derivative.]

[Vile Bodies] is the kind of book that assures you, in a desperate sort of way, that it is funny. It is modeled, pretty consciously, upon the early Aldous Huxley—the Huxley, that is to say, of Crome Yellow and, more noticeably, Antic Hay; not the sad Huxley of the moment, whose touch has become so oppressive since he borrowed Mr. Wells's ouija board and achieved intimacy with God. Mr. Waugh, too, has heard the thunder on the usual Sinai: Vile Bodies has predicatory implications, the same hangover tone that spoiled Point Counter Point, but Mr. Waugh has little of Huxley's wit and none of his substance. While it was possible to forgive the latter's taking himself so seriously by reflecting that after all he had created something to be serious about, it is difficult to excuse Mr. Waugh for wrenching good slapstick into tragicomedy.

As satire the book is no less a failure. First of all, Mr. Waugh displays none of the élan that distinguishes the true satirist from the caricaturist. For all its brilliance the writing lacks vitality. The invention is tired, and effects are too often got by recourse to the devices of slapstick exaggeration. Again, the satire is self-conscious satire, which destroys itself. What made Crome Yellow so effective, for example, was its utter lack of apparent purpose. One never felt that Huxley was deliberately meaning anything; least of all was one conscious of him as the imminent critic of his characters. One is constantly aware, however, of the presence of Mr. Waugh: usually he is felt only in casual turns of expression, the occasional laying on of effect upon conscious effect; but sometimes he descends to the whimsical footnote, and at least once to the bombastic apostrophe: "O Bright Young People!" Successful satire must be impersonal (the "I" of Gulliver is dissociate from Swift) and either entirely improbable (Gulliver again, and Alice), qua history, or entirely probable (Crome Yellow, Antic Hay). Vile Bodies is none of these.

If Mr. Waugh had not tried to do so much, if he had been content to amuse, without attempting to devastate, if he had been content to laugh, without essaying a prophetic sneer at the same time; his book would be diverting in a cockeyed sort of way. It is acceptable comic knowledge that men and women drink to be drunk and sometimes sleep together; that female evangelists are often hypocrites and society editors occasionally unreliable; that movie directors are not invariably sincere artists; that many clergymen are smug, many wives adulteresses, many statesmen lechers, and many dowagers boors. And it is always pleasing to know that what used to be called the "lost generation," before it went humanist, is still energetically losing itself. It is a pity that Mr. Waugh felt that more than these ingredients was needed. Because of its weight of satiric and tragic exaggeration, Vile Bodies neither amuses nor instructs. It is not of the type of true stories, but of True Stories.


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Evelyn Waugh 1903–1966

(Full name Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh) English novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, travel writer, biographer, journalist, and poet.

The following entry provides an overview of Waugh's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 8, 13, 19, 27, and 44.

Waugh has been called one...

(This entire section contains 1603 words.)

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of the greatest prose stylists in twentieth-century literature for his satirical writings on the foibles of modern society. In such works asA Handful of Dust (1934), Brideshead Revisited (1945), and The Loved One (1948), Waugh's graceful use of minimalist language coupled with his acidic exposure of hypocrisy and superficiality among England's upper classes have led many critics to classify him alongside modern literature's preeminent men of letters.

Biographical Information

Waugh was born in London in 1903. His father, Arthur Waugh, was a prominent editor and publisher at Chapman-Hall, while his older brother Alec was a novelist and travel writer. Waugh initially resisted his family's literary leanings, concentrating on art and design at Hertford College, Oxford. The period at Oxford was turbulent for Waugh. He entrenched himself in the group he later sharply satirized in his writings as the "Bright Young Things," drank excessively, and experimented with homosexuality, which he unequivocally renounced years later. Waugh was forced to leave Oxford in 1924 because of poor grades. He went on to study for a brief period at Heatherley's Art School, where he first became acquainted with the design principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, and later was drawn to the modernist movements Vorticism and Futurism. He left the school a year later and became a teacher, but was fired from all three of his posts. At that point Waugh reluctantly turned to writing as a career, working as a journalist for the London Daily Express and producing his first novel, Decline and Fall, in 1928. The book was well-received, but due to its scathing satire, Waugh's publisher insisted that he remove certain scenes and add a note of disclaimer as a preface. Also in 1928, Waugh married Evelyn Gardner; two years later the marriage dissolved in divorce, an event which, along with his overall disillusionment with modern society, many critics and biographers believe led to Waugh's conversion to and staunch defense of Roman Catholicism. In 1936, his marriage to Gardner was annulled, and he subsequently married Laura Herbert in 1937. During World War II, Waugh had a successful military stint, rising to the rank of major in the Royal Marines. By this time Waugh had earned a place among the foremost literati of England, having published some of his most important and respected novels, essays, short stories, and criticism. He traveled extensively, often as a correspondent, and his experiences around the world frequently turn up in his work. Waugh continued, however, to become more deeply disgusted by what he considered the widespread loss of honor, integrity, and traditional mores, particularly during and after World War II. Perhaps because of his increasing sense of alienation and nostalgia for what he thought of as a more moral past, Waugh created for himself a public persona of haughty reserve and conservatism and guarded his personal life fiercely. Little is known, for example, of the circumstances surrounding the nervous breakdown he suffered in the 1950s, aside from his fictionalized account of that period of his life in his novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). Shortly before his death, Waugh published the first part of a projected multi-volume autobiography, A Little Learning. He died, leaving the work unfinished, in 1966.

Major Works

Waugh's body of work is marked by two predominant themes: satire of the vulgarity of modern society and, after his conversion, the redemptive promise of traditional Catholicism. In Decline and Fall, the narrator, Paul Pennyfeather, is a hapless naif recently dismissed from Oxford University and mercilessly victimized by the scoundrels he encounters. In his second novel, Vile Bodies (1930), Waugh again found inspiration in his own university experience. Containing Waugh's famous satirical treatment of the "Bright Young Things" from his days at Oxford, Vile Bodies is the story of Adam Symes, an innocent who unwittingly commits detestable crimes in an unstable and amoral world, and Waugh emphasized the feeling of instability by providing little coherence to the plot or scene structure. In his third novel, Black Mischief (1932), Waugh took on imperialism and the veiled savagery of Western culture. In an attempt to bring his country into the twentieth century, the Emperor Seth of Azania—a fictional African nation—enlists the help of the Englishman Basil Seal, whose directives for civilizing the country result in tragedy for its citizens. A Handful of Dust (1934) was the first novel into which Waugh incorporated Catholic themes, as well as his first departure from his earlier farcical style of satire. Based largely on the failure of his own marriage, the novel follows the collapse of the marriage of the upper-class English couple Tony and Brenda Last as they seek refuge from the cruelties and absurdities of their social rank. While Brenda has an affair with the crass and shallow John Beaver, becoming increasingly emotionally detached as she is absorbed into the cocktail society of London, Tony clings to what he considers the more genteel world of pre-twentieth-century England, engaging in a futile restoration of his outdated ancestral home. Searching for meaning in his life, Tony embarks on a South American expedition, where he is stranded indefinitely with an elderly madman who forces him to read aloud the works of the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. While many critics consider A Handful of Dust to be one of Waugh's most relentlessly grim satires, they nonetheless point out that Tony and Brenda's search for shelter in an unkind world, though deeply misguided, is symbolic of the retreat Waugh believed he had found in Catholicism. After A Handful of Dust, Waugh published Scoop (1938)—a satire on journalists—and Put Out More Flags (1942)—which most critics consider a precursor to his later war trilogy, Sword of Honour. In 1945 Waugh published his most overtly Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, which was both his greatest commercial success and his most controversial work. Brideshead Revisited traces events in the lives of a wealthy English Catholic family, the Marchmains, and their involvement with Charles Ryder—a non-Catholic. The family indulges in every conceivable form of decadence but returns to itsfaith in the end. Brideshead Revisited was a departure for Waugh in several ways. In addition to its strong Catholic message, the novel is characterized by a more lush, romantic style of prose, an idealization of nostalgia, and a non-critical tone regarding the lifestyles of aristocratic English families. Despite the popular success it enjoyed, Brideshead Revisited was excoriated by many critics, who found its romanticized depiction of upper-class life and nostalgia for a past "golden age" an unwelcome change from the brilliant social commentary of Waugh's earlier works. Waugh returned to satire in 1948 with The Loved One, which is often cited as one of his best, and bitterest, critiques of modern life. In The Loved One Waugh parodied Hollywood in the 1940s, in particular the English expatriates who set up "colonies" there seeking fortunes and the American ideal of success. Much of the novel takes place in the hyper-sanitized arena of the Whispering Glades cemetery and its counterpart, the animal cemetery Happier Hunting Grounds, and concerns the doomed relationship between Dennis Barlow, described as a "poet and pet mortician," and Aimee Thanatogenos, hostess of the cemetery and an embalming intern. While Aimee is in search of spiritual truth and genuine cultural enrichment, Dennis uses his poetry to win women and advance socially. As Dennis introduces her to the English poets, Aimee becomes increasingly disenchanted, and finally commits suicide on an embalming table as a result of her inability to reconcile her American notions of good citizenship and ethics with her deep sense of alienation. Generally considered Waugh's most successful black comedy, The Loved One has been called dystopic in tone, and has even been compared to science fiction. The year before his death, Waugh published his war trilogy, Sword of Honour (1965), as a single volume for the first time. Comprising Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (also published as The End of the Battle; 1961), Sword of Honour tells the story of Guy Crouchback, who is considered Waugh's only real hero, as he enters World War II a romantic idealist and ends up a bleak pessimist at the war's conclusion. A decent man seeking decency in the world, Guy concludes that only personal good works can provide spiritual comfort and communion amid a secular wasteland.

Critical Reception

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. Some critics contend that Waugh's books are timeless because their worlds transcend current history. Others believe his writing 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. Edmund Wilson wrote of Waugh's novels: "[They are] the only things written in England that are comparable to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. They are not so poetic; they are perhaps less intense; they belong to a more classical tradition. But I think that they are likely to last and that Waugh, in fact, is likely to figure as the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in England since Bernard Shaw."

Robert Cantwell (review date 12 October 1932)

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SOURCE: "Mr. Waugh's Humor," in The Nation, Vol. 135, No. 3510, October 12, 1932, p. 335.

[Cantwell was an American editor and fiction writer. In the following review, he objects to Waugh's light treatment of imperialism in Black Mischief.]

Like Hindoo Holiday, published a few months ago with considerable success, Black Mischief is a study of some of the more droll results of European imperialism. Hindoo Holiday revolved around the activities of an engaging, homo-sexual Indian ruler, and the humor had its source in his misuse of the English language and in his baffled attempts to understand European history and customs. The appeal of Black Mischief is on a somewhat higher level, for Waugh has more respect for factual reality, and his sense of humor is a little grim: there are various picturesque assassinations in the course of the story, and the climax comes when the hero sits in on a cannibal feast and eats his sweetheart. The central figure of Black Mischief is Seth, a Negro educated at Oxford and determined to bring progress to his native state of Azania whether his subjects want it or not. He is aided by an up-to-date soldier of fortune named Basil Seal, who tries to put through a One-Year Plan of modernization and improvement. And instead of pederasty and mispronunciation, which created the funny scenes in Hindoo Holiday, the humor revolves around revolutions, diplomatic intrigues and stupidity, birth control, graft, and the befuddlement of two dreary representatives of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

But the details of these novels are less interesting than the point of view they represent. Both Waugh and Ackerman write in the tradition which is usually associated with Aldous Huxley and Norman Douglas; both, that is to say, are commonly described in conventional literary terminology as cynical and disillusioned. So it is a little odd to find them writing of colonial disturbances with a whimsicality that is a sort of cross between Gilbert-and-Sullivan and burlesqueshow humor, and to find the relationship of the Europeans and the natives presented almost exclusively in terms of the comic situations resulting from it. In both novels there is the sharp collision between what we know of the kind of conflicts described, what common sense and experience and history tell us about them, and what the authors would have us believe. Waugh is no apologist for imperialism in the sense that Kipling was a great apologist for it; he is not politically alert in the way that Kipling was, and he is not so conscious of the needs of the dominant class of his time. On the contrary he dislikes imperialism, but not to the point of attacking it; the satire is all directed at trivial subjects, and humor in this case is only an unsatisfactory refuge.

Principal Works

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The World to Come (poetry) 1916Decline and Fall (novel) 1928Vile Bodies (novel) 1930Black Mischief (novel) 1932A Handful of Dust (novel) 1934Edmund Campion: Scholar, Priest, Hero, and Martyr (biography) 1935Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (short stories) 1936; expanded edition published as Charles Ryder's Schooldays and Other Stories, 1982Scoop (novel) 1938; published in England as Scoop: A Novel about Journalists, 1938Mexico: An Object Lesson (travel essay) 1939; published in England as Robbery under Law: The Mexican Object Lesson, 1939Put Out More Flags (novel) 1942Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel (unfinished novel) 1942; expanded edition published as Work Suspended and Other Stories Written before the Second World War, 1949Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (novel) 1945Scott-King's Modern Europe (novel) 1947The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (novel) 1948Helena (novel) 1950Men at Arms (novel) 1952Love among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future (novel) 1953Officers and Gentlemen (novel) 1955The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: A Conversation Piece (novel) 1957Tourist in Africa (travel essay) 1960Unconditional Surrender (novel) 1961; published as The End of the Battle, 1962Basil Seal Rides Again; or, The Rake's Regress (novel) 1963A Little Learning: An Autobiography, the Early Years (autobiography) 1964; published in England as A Little Learning: The First Volume of an Autobiography, 1964Sword of Honor [contains Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender] (novel trilogy) 1965The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh [edited by Michael Davie] (diaries) 1976A Little Order: A Selection from the Journalism of Evelyn Waugh [edited by Donat Gallagher] (journalism) 1977The Letters of Evelyn Waugh [edited by Mark Amory] (letters) 1980

Frank Kermode (essay date November 1960)

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SOURCE: "Mr. Waugh's Cities," in Encounter, Vol. XV, No. 5, November 1960, pp. 63-66, 68-70.

[Kermode is an English educator, literary critic, essayist, and editor. In the following essay, he examines Waugh's depiction of religious faith in England after the Reformation, particularly the place of Catholicism among the upper classes in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries as represented in Brideshead Revisited.]

It is probably safe to assume that most readers of Brideshead Revisited know and care as much about Papist history and theology as Charles Ryder did before he became intimate with the Flytes; and although the novel contains a fair amount of surprisingly overt instruction we are much more likely to allow our reading of it to be corrupted by ignorance than by an excessively curious attention to matters of doctrine. In fact this is true of Mr. Waugh's fiction as a whole; and one of the rewards of curiosity is a clearer notion of the differences, as well as of the similarities, between his most successful books.

At the end of Decline and Fall (1928), Paul Pennyfeather, back at Scone after his sufferings on Egdon Heath, notes with approval the condemnation of a second-century Bithynian bishop who had denied the divinity of Christ and the validity of the sacrament of Extreme Unction; a singularly dangerous heretic. A few moments later, however, he turns his attention to an apparently more innocent sect: "the ascetic Ebionites used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed…. Quite right to suppress them." They too tended, for all the apparent harmlessness of their idiosyncrasy, to pervert fact with fantasy and truth with opinion. More than twenty years later Mr. Waugh's Helena ridicules theological fantasies concerning the composition of the Cross (that it was compounded of every species of wood so that the vegetable world could participate in the act of redemption; that it had one arm of boxwood, one of cypress, one of cedar and one of pine with the consequent amalgam of emblematic properties). She is also offended by the untruths and mythopoetic absurdities of her son Constantine. The Cross she seeks and finds consists merely of large pieces of wood. The Wandering Jew lets her have it free, foreseeing future business in relics. "It's a stiff price," says Helena. She wanted none of that fantastic piety, only the real routine baulks of timber used on a matter-of-fact historical occasion. "Above the babble of her age and ours," comments the author, "she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone lies our Hope."

These passages illustrate what is static in Mr. Waugh's expression of his religion. Religion as a man-made answer to pressing human needs disgusts him; Constantine's nonsense is of no more value than Brenda Last's, cutting the cards to see who shall go first to the woman who tells fortunes by reading one's feet. The Church is concerned to preserve the truth, solid and palpable as a lump of wood, from the rot of fantasy. It is entirely concerned with fact. Hence it was quite right to suppress the fanciful Ebionites with the same severity as the intolerable bishop; and the sentimental myth-making of Helena's scholars is dangerous because it tends to soften hard fact.

A number of such facts are at present ignored in our society, which has apostatised to paganism. Yet they are facts. Given the necessary instruction, the necessary intellect, and the necessary grace, a man will be a Catholic. Mr. Waugh, paraphrasing Campion's Brag in his Life (1935) of the martyr does not even specify the third of these necessities: "he … makes the claim, which lies at the root of all Catholic apologetics, that the Faith is absolutely satisfactory to the mind, enlisting all knowledge and all reason in its cause; that it is completely compelling to any who give it an 'indifferent and quiet audience.'" And the author has himself written that he was admitted into the Church "on firm intellectual conviction but with little emotion." As Mr. F. J. Stopp comments, in his admirable Evelyn Waugh, it is also apparent that this "firm intellectual conviction" relates "not primarily to the vanquishing of philosophical doubts about the existence of God, or considerations of the nature of authority," but rather to "a realisation of the undeniable historical presence and continuity of the Church."

Quod semper, quod ubique…. The English Reformation was not only an attempt to break this historical continuity, but a very insular movement. The Counter-Reformation, on the other hand, was an affair of genuine vitality and spirituality, universal in its scope; England was impoverished by its failure to participate. The consistency of Mr. Waugh's opinions is indicated by his admiration for Baroque art, the plastic expression of Tridentine Catholicism and a great European movement that left England almost untouched. His version of English history at large is simply but fairly stated in this way: after being Catholic for nine hundred years, many English families, whether from intellectual confusion or false prudence, apostasised in the 16th century to schismatic institutions which were good only in so far as they retained elements of the true worship. The consequence has been modern paganism (at a guess, Mr. Waugh thinks of this as an atavism in degenerating stock); the inevitable end is a restoration of the faith, but the interim is ugly and tragic except in so far as it is redeemed by the suffering of the martyrs and the patience of the faithful. ("Have you ever thought," asks Helena, "how awfully few martyrs there were, compared with how many there ought to have been?") This conservatism is of course reflected in the author's social opinions; the upper classes are good in so far as they hold on to the values and the properties cherished by their families. Aristocracy, like the Church, fights a defensive action, and that which it defends is, in the long run, a Catholic structure. Very intelligent upper-class Englishmen are not common in Waugh, and when they occur (Basil Seal is the notable case) they are not intellectuals. Their brains have nothing solid to work on; not being Catholics they are not in a position to pursue the truth with any seriousness. Yet if they preserve their families and their customs they do as much as they can to maintain the link with those "ancestors—all the ancient priests, bishops, and kings—all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter." The words are Campion's.

This is the "historical intransigence" that Ryder (in the first edition of Brideshead Revisited) learnt to admire. It is like Guyon smashing up the Bower of Bliss; a great deal that might, to a less ruthless mind seem admirable, if mistaken, is pulled down without a regretful glance. The age of Hooker (and Shakespeare) becomes merely a good time for prospective martyrs to live in. The piety and intellect of Andrewes, the learning of Casaubon, were all wasted in a cause self-evidently indefensible. The torment of Donne's conscience (a man who knew the ways of Topcliffe and the temptation of martyrdom) was an unnecessary perplexity; his dealings with Sarpi were treasonable, and all those high eirenic hopes futile. There is no need to pray, "Show me thy spouse," for any unblinkered eye can see her. How did these great men allow themselves to be reduced to pettifogging heretics? They should have seen that it was unlikely that "the truth, hidden from the world for fifteen centuries, had suddenly been revealed … to a group of important Englishmen." They should have seen that, on the Romanist side, any apparent deviousness or error was tributary to the workings of the divine purpose. Thus it may be agreed by historians of all parties that the Bull excommunicating Elizabeth was palpably unwise: but

had he [Pius V] perhaps, in those withdrawn, exalted hours before his crucifix, learned something that was hidden from the statesmen of his time and the succeeding generations of historians; seen through and beyond the present and immediate future; understood that there was to be no easy way of reconciliation, but that it was only through blood and hatred and derision that the Faith was one day to return to England?

It may not be amiss to say parenthetically that I write without the least intention to be controversial; the point is merely to establish in a sketchy way how much Mr. Waugh's historical intransigence excludes from consideration, with a view to showing how sharp that weapon is, not that it is wrong to use it. If you consider that the English Reformation opened up the way not only to paganism but to Hooper and to the salesman with the wet handshake, dentures and polygonal spectacles, you will not be disposed to dwell on the intellect of Hooker or the spirituality of Herbert. It is not unusual for people to believe in a kind of second Fall, a great historical disaster that began our era; for Mr. T. S. Eliot it is the Civil War. Few, however, even among Roman Catholics who might share Mr. Waugh's admiration for Tridentine as well as for medieval piety, have ever applied the doctrine with such harsh consistency. The apostate aristocracy, adulterated by politic Tudors and later by other secular forces, moved slowly to disaster, checked only by a respect for ancient Barbarian traditions and by a hatred of middle-class Protestants. The second war was to be the apocalypse; meanwhile the behaviour of the lapsed could cause dispassionate amusement. But when the war came it awakes certain recessive characteristics, and even Basil Seal, in Put Out More Flags, hears the feudal call to arms and, after his amusing betrayal of the outsider Silk and his exploitation of the evacuees, renounces his intention to be one of the hard-faced men who did well out of the war; with the rest of his kind he mans the crumbling ramparts; and in spite of the nuisance caused by a thousand Hoopers, the defence does not fail. One gets the full statement of this position in the story of Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington, whose past achievements include the betrayal of Paul Pennyfeather; he leaves his Sonia and his black velvet not to take a commission but to join the ranks. The socially acceptable reason for this is that he can't bear to meet the temporary officers, but the astute Sonia knows a deeper one: Alastair "went into the ranks as a kind of penance or whatever it's called that religious people do." He was paying for all that irresponsible fun, getting back into line; soon he finds people of his own sort to be an officer with, and the penance ends.

Put Out More Flags had a new sourness; opinion crept into Mr. Waugh's fiction. Comment and diagnosis had formerly been reserved to minor, stylised characters like Father Rothschild who, in Vile Bodies, explained the wantonness of the bright young: "they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence"—for those traditions of civility that perish without the Faith. Fr. Rothschild disappears on his bicycle; but Mr. Waugh's opinions do not go with him. A few years later there was the famous eulogy of Mussolini's Abyssinian experiment, not quite imperium sine fine, not quite debellare superbos. The extension of the frontier is not, however, the main responsibility of the faithful in our time; it is defence. And with Alastair and Basil the English gentleman turned naturally to his traditional task of defending the island of Saints and so the Church, not only the faith itself but the whole civilisation in which it is incarnate.

This, then, is what must be defended: the arts and institutions of rational humanity and the clear reasonableness of the faith. Mr. Waugh is much concerned with the clarity and openness of Catholic worship as an expression of this. Here, from Where the Going was Good, is a passage from an account of his attendance at a Mass of the Ethiopian Church, "secret and confused in character":

I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religions of the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer, but I was so accustomed to this openness that I had never before questioned whether it was an essential and natural feature of the Christian system. Indeed, so saturated are we in this spirit that many people regard the growth of the Church as a process of elaboration—even of obfuscation…. At Debra Labanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement, a triumph of light over darkness consciously accomplished…. I saw the Church of the first century as a dark and hidden thing…. The pure nucleus of the truth lay in the minds of the people, encumbered with superstitions, gross survivals of the paganism in which they had been brought up; hazy and obscene nonsense seeping through from the other esoteric cults of the Near East, magical infections from the conquered barbarian. And I began to see how these obscure sanctuaries had grown, with the clarity of Western reason, into the great open altars of Catholic Europe, where Mass is said in a flood of light, high in the sight of all….

Helena, we saw, was devoted to this openness, clarity, commonsense; she is brusque and reasonable, and her spirit survives in Lady Circumference, "the organ voice of England, the hunting-cry of the ancien régime," as she snorts with disapproval at an American revivalist meeting in Mayfair: "What a damned impudent woman." (This was in Vile Bodies; the last page of Helena twenty years later recalls, with a change of tone, the figure used for Lady Circumference: "Hounds are checked, hunting wild. A horn calls clear through the covert. Helena casts them back on the scent.") The Faith may be driven back to the catacombs, but its agreement with reason must never be obscured. Mr. Waugh perhaps took a hint from Mr. Eliot in characterising the years between the wars as a period during which pagan obscenities seeped in. The Reformation opened the door to Madame Sosostris, to a society in which rich women cut cards to see who shall go first to have her fortune told by a foot-reader. The religions of darkness are the pagan intrusions; Catholic Christianity is light, order, life. The Loved One, Mr. Waugh's most perfect book (as Silas Marner is more perfect than Middlemarch), sketches a highly-developed religion of darkness, in which art, love, language are totally corrupted and brought under the domination of death, as must happen when the offices of the Church are in every sphere usurped.

This is the farcical vision of total collapse, the end of the defence which must be endless, however long Mass is said in secret. Helena would like the Wall of the Empire to be at the limits of the world, but Constantius knows that there has to be a wall; it represents "a natural division of the human race." With the Donation of Constantine ("as for the old Rome, it's yours") the secular became the holy Empire, the Catholic City that the civilised must defend. Inside the City are traditions of reason, clarity, beauty; outside, obscene nonsense, the uncreating Word. Mr. Waugh is the Augustine who, because he has a vision of this City, detests Pelagius as a heretic and Apuleius as a sorcerer; anathematises the humanitarian and the hot-gospeller.

Yet barbarism has its attractions. The "atavistic callousness" of Lady Marchmain is only another form of that barbaric vitality which animates the upper classes even in decadence. "Capital fellows are bounders"—if it were not so there would not be much fun in the early novels. Sometimes it seems that not to be corrupted is the shame, as with the dull Wykehamist of Brideshead Revisited; the chic, efficient corruption of Lady Metroland belongs inside, the depredations of Mrs. Beaver outside the pale. The moral distinctions are as bewildering as the semantics of U or the social criteria which determine what is Pont Street and what is not. And they are, of course, employed without the least trace of Protestant assertiveness; to make them appear self-evident without mentioning them is one of the triumphant aspects of Mr. Waugh's early technique. One notices that the voices which tormented Mr. Pinfold puzzled him by missing out many of the accusations he would have made had he wished to torment himself. His mind worked much as it habitually did in composing his novels; the quality of the fantasies reminds one of Lord Tangent's death or the Christmas sermon in A Handful of Dust. The vision of barbarism is a farcical one, and the fantasy has its own vitality; the truth exists, self-evident, isolated from all this nonsense, and there is no need to arrange a direct confrontation.

This co-existence of truth and fantasy is most beautifully sustained in A Handful of Dust, surely Mr. Waugh's best book, and one of the most distinguished novels of the century. The great houses of England become by an easy transition types of the Catholic City, and in this book the threatened City is Hetton; it will not prove to be a continuing city. Non hinc habemus manentem civitatem-the lament resounds in Brideshead. Hetton is not beautiful; it was "entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest," says the guide-book. But Tony Last has the correct Betjemanic feelings for the battlements, the pitchpine minstrels' gallery, the bedrooms named from Malory. He is "madly feudal," which means he reads the lesson in church at Christmas and is thinking of having the fire lit in his pew. The nonsense that goes on in the church troubles nobody. Tony is a nice dull gentleman who knows vaguely that the defence of Hetton is the defence of everything the past has made valuable. He loses it because his wife takes up with a colourless rootless bore; Hetton and Tony are sacrificed, in the end, to a sterile affair in a London flat. The death of her son shows how far Brenda Last has departed from sanity and normality. There is a hideous divorce, a meaningless arrangement in the middle of chaos. All this without comment; ennui, sterility, cruelty represent themselves as farcically funny. But the attempt of the lawyers to reduce him to the point where he must give up Hetton rouses Tony, and he breaks off the proceedings. Leaving England he goes in search of another City; but there is no other City, and this one is a fraud, like the Bõa Vista of When the Going was Good. Tony was in search of something "Gothic in character, all vanes and pinnacles, gargoyles, battlements, groining and tracery, pavilions and terraces, a transfigured Hetton." He found the deathly Mr. Todd, and a prison whose circular walls are the novels of Dickens. Hetton becomes a silverfox farm. Throughout this novel the callousness of incident and the coldness of tone work by suggesting the positive and rational declarations of the Faith. Civility is the silent context of barbarism; truth of fantasy. And Hetton, within the limits of Tony's understanding, is an emblem of the true City. Mr. Pinfold's mind proliferates with infidel irrationality; this is useful, provided the truth can be seen by its own light.

In Brideshead Revisited, perhaps, it is not allowed to do so. The great house as emblem of the City is enormously developed, but opinion—or truth, if you are Catholic—breaks into the text. The tone is less certain than that of A Handful of Dust, the prose slower, more explicit, more like that of the Campion biography than any of the other novels; a slower prose, weighed with semi-colons. Even in the making of the house itself fantasy has a smaller part than it had in Hetton. It has to be seen in the historical perspective I have been sketching; the account of Ryder—"solid, purposeful, observant" no doubt, as an artist should be, but not at the time of observing a Catholic—has to be put in order. Brideshead is English Baroque, but its stone came from an earlier castle. The family was apostate until the marriage of the present Marquis, reconciled to the Church on marriage (his wife, he said, "brought back my family to the faith of their ancestors"). Lady Marchmain's family were old Catholic; "from Elizabeth's reign till Victoria's they lived sequestered lives among their tenantry and kinsmen, sending their sons to school abroad, often marrying there, inter-marrying, if not, with a score of families like themselves, debarred from all preferment, and learning, in those lost generations, lessons which could still be read in the lives of the last three men of the house"—Lady Marchmain's brothers, killed in 1914–18 "to make a world for Hooper." The Chapel at Brideshead is accordingly not in the style of the house but in the art nouveau manner of the period of Lord Marchmain's reconciliation, as if to symbolise the delayed advent of toleration.

And their old religion sits just as uneasily upon the house's occupants. Mr. Waugh is always emphatic that his reasonable religion has nothing to do with making or keeping people in the ordinary sense happy. Lady Marchmain herself uneasily bears the sins of her family; Julia (descendant of earlier, somewhat Arlenesque heroines) drifts into marriage with Rex Mottram, a sub-man with no sense of reality (the scenes in which he dismisses it—when he is under religious instruction with a view to his being received into the Church—are the most amusing in the book because Mr. Waugh is always at his cruel best with people who cannot face reality), and is forced in the end to a self-lacerating penance. Cordelia's life is, on any naturalist view, squandered in good works. Sebastian, gifted with the power to attract love, attracts the love of God and is hounded through alcoholism and pauperism into simple holiness. Only Brideshead, the elder son, lives calmly and unimaginatively with the truth; understanding even that Sebastian's career, so wildly outside his own experience, has in the end a purpose. They are all locked into a class, these characters, and into the religion, which, by the logic of Mr. Waugh's fiction, is in the long run inseparable from that class. Lord Marchmain makes his Byronic protest but dies in awkward splendour at Brideshead, finally reconciled to the Church. Only in misery, it seems, will the Faith be restored in the great families of England.

The death of Lord Marchmain is the climax of the process by which Ryder returns to the Faith of his fathers, at the end of which he can see his love for Sebastian and for Julia as types and forerunners of this love of God. He begins in deep ignorance. (In the first edition he complained that "no one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophical system and intransigent historical claims." Now he says, "They never suggested I should try to pray…. Later … I have come to accept claims which then … I never troubled to examine, and to accept the supernatural as the real." This shift of emphasis is an improvement, since Ryder's intimacy with the Flytes may teach him something of "the operation of divine grace" but nothing directly about the validity of the Church's historical claims.

Ryder learns certain associated lessons from the Flytes. It is Sebastian who shows him that the beauty of the City can be known only to the rich, that architecture and wine, for example, are aspects of it. The scene of Ryder's dinner with Mottram is a parable; the Burgundy is a symbol of civility, "a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his;" the brandy is a test of a man's truth and authenticity. Devoting his life to such civilities, exempted by an infection of the Flyte charm-as Blanche tells him—from the fate of the classless artist, Ryder is already a Catholic in everything but religion. Mr. Waugh has done a little to reinforce this point in his revised text by re-writing the passage describing the reunion of Ryder and his wife in New York. His indifference and distaste are unchanged, but now they make love with chill hygiene; a sham wasteland marriage, essentially terminable. But he too must lose everything; he loses Brideshead and Julia. So, in the end, all these lives are broken, the war is on and Brideshead itself a desolation (quomodo sedet sola civitas), defaced by soldiers and housing Hooper. However, in the art nouveau chapel the "beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design" burns anew. The saving of a soul may call for the ruin of a life; the saving of the City for its desecration.

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played.

The desecration of the City as a mysterious means to its restoration was the vision Mr. Waugh attributed to Pius V.

Mr. Waugh says he has kept in certain details because "they were essentially of the mood of writing; also because many readers liked them, though that is not a consideration of first importance." I think it is possible to like these details but to dislike other, perhaps more radical elements; though this is doubtless even less important, since to name them is to place oneself with the Hoopers. I mean that the characters are sometimes repulsive, and it spoils this book, as it doesn't the earlier work, to disagree with the author on this point. It is, for example, such a surprise to learn that Ryder is beautiful and beloved. Again there is Hooper, in whose person we are to see an abstract of the stupidity and vulgarity that beat upon the outer wall. The defenders have made a wrong appreciation; their enemy is more dangerous, much cleverer, than Hooper. As soon as Mr. Waugh disciplines his fantasy to a more explicit statement of the theme that has so long haunted him that theme is played falsely; Hooper marks the degree of distortion.

What we have in this book is the fullest statement of this image of the City, powered by that historical intransigence that equates the English aristocratic with the Catholic tradition; and very remarkable it is. But the operation of divine grace seems to be confined to those who say "chimney-piece" and to the enviable poor. Hooper and his brothers may be hard to bear, they may be ignorant of the City, but it seems outrageous to damn them for their manners. One would like, no doubt, to keep the Faith, in all its aspects, uncontaminated; but Hoopers are not Ebionites, and the novelist, imitating the action of grace, is not an infallible church to suppress them. For all that one admires in Brideshead—the City, the treatment of suffering, the useful and delightful Blanche, and Ryder's father—there is this difficulty, that intransigence when it gets into the texture of a novel breeds resistance; one fights rather than becomes absorbed. To suspend disbelief in these circumstances would be an act of sentimentality; a weakness not wholly unrelated to intransigence, and according to some discoverable in the text itself as well as in many readers.

James W. Nichols (essay date October 1962)

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SOURCE: "Romantic and Realistic: The Tone of Evelyn Waugh's Early Novels," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 1, October 1962, pp. 46-56.

[In the following essay, Nichols discusses Waugh's use of satire in his early novels, focusing on what he considers Waugh's often contradictory ideals of romanticism and realism.]

Evelyn Waugh has been asked, "Are your books meant to be satirical?" He replied, "No. Satire is a matter of period. It flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous moral standards—the early Roman Empire and 18th Century Europe. It is aimed at inconsistency and hypocrisy. It exposes polite cruelty and folly by exaggerating them. It seeks to produce shame. All this has no place in the Century of the Common Man where vice no longer pays lip service to virtue" ["Fan-Fare," Life, April 8, 1946].

The article from which the quotation is taken appeared in Life in 1946, not long after the publication of Brideshead Revisited, the first of Waugh's novels to win him a wide transatlantic public. The tone of the article suggests that he was not entirely serious. A "satire," as far as the novel is concerned, is a novel so constructed and so written as to embody a point of view which adversely criticizes the manners and morals of its characters—and often the society to which they belong, as well. Even a casual reading will make plain that most of Waugh's early novels are intended to be satiric, as well as comic.

But he raises an issue which concerns all contemporary writers of satire. Most great satire has been written at times when there was general agreement about what constituted right moral standards. The modern satirist cannot count upon homogeneous moral standards in his audience. Therefore he has to establish within the satire a moral norm which his audience will accept. One way of doing this is to let the reader know that a character is intended to represent the author's point of view. His actions or comments, then, can embody or focus the satiric attack. Waugh seldom did this in the early novels. Instead, he chose to let the tone—his implied attitude toward characters, events, social scene—bear the burden of, first, establishing a standard by which his characters, and the incidents in which they figure, may be measured, and, second, of embodying the adverse judgment upon these characters and incidents which is essential to satire.

An understanding of how satiric tone is created and employed, then, is crucial to an understanding of the satire in Waugh's early novels. Seven had been published when the quotation above was printed: Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), Scoop (1938), Put Out More Flags (1942), and Brideshead Revisited (1945). The latter has satiric elements, but is really a straight novel, rather than a "satire." Put Out More Flags has some brilliant satiric, as well as comic, passages, but the novel as a whole never rises above its glittering fragments. Scoop and Black Mischief are better as satires, but a good deal of the satire is directed against foreign customs and institutions. Waugh is best, as satirist, when his targets are domestic ones. Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and A Handful of Dust form a relatively homogeneous group. All three have similar backgrounds; all satirize the English upper classes during a crucial period in their history and that of their country, the late 1920's and early 1930's. All are informed with a tone which is distinctively Waugh's. It sharpens the edge of the comedy and provides the moral standard which is essential to satire.

Decline and Fall is a remarkably funny book which, unlike many another comic novel, improves upon re-reading. It is an apprenticeship novel and, like the heroes of other apprenticeship novels, its hero is thrust into a world for which he is ill-prepared. Paul Pennyfeather, a meek and proper Oxford undergraduate, is catapulted into an outrageously topsyturvey world outside the university walls. Stripped of his trousers by a group of drunken, aristocratic undergraduates, he is sent down for "indecent exposure," and takes a post at a prep school-in North Wales which is run by a confidenceman and staffed by criminals, misfits, and unfrocked clergymen. Paul's own meek innocence proves attractive to the mother of one of his pupils and he is taken on as a tutor at her country home, a modern showplace frequented by degenerates and eccentrics. Paul and Margot Beste-Chetwynde, his employer, are about to be married when he is arrested for white slavery, the consequence of an errand he had innocently performed for his bride-to-be. Paul is sentenced and jailed at Blackstone Gaol, a prison run along absurdly "liberal" lines. From there he is transferred to a prison on the heath from which Margot's agents arrange his escape and feign his death so that he is free to return, disguised, to his college at Oxford and resume his studies undisturbed.

The world which Paul passes through between the time he leaves and the time he returns to Oxford is an outrageous one in which the moral scheme he has been taught at home and in school is neither observed nor respected. Mere energy and effrontery are heavily rewarded, not only by the world's goods, but by the world's esteem. Modesty and virtue, what there is exhibited of them, are everywhere shown to be feckless and despicable. Margot Beste-Chetwynde, for example, is a soulless degenerate, yet is almost everywhere triumphant and is all but universally esteemed.

As I have summarized it above, Decline and Fall is likely to seem more overtly satirical than it appears on a first reading. A reader, particularly an American reader, is likely to recognize a satiric tone in much of what he reads, and yet wonder uneasily where Waugh himself stands in relation to the brilliant, chaotic world he has created. One real difficulty is that the author takes no narrow, "moralistic" view of his world. He seems to despise the methods by which the esteem of the world and the world's goods are gained, but he does not despise either the esteem or the goods themselves. Margot, for example, is completely amoral, yet is everywhere successful, and there is no indication, either explicitly or implicitly, that the way in which she has achieved her success has spoiled it. In other words, Waugh is at once a moralist and a realist.

Since Waugh does not make an explicit comment or establish unmistakably a point of view, the novel seems to lack a clearly defined center. Consider some of the things which the tone in Decline and Fall suggests are to be considered objects of satire, as well as of comedy: that is, to imply a reproof, as well as to raise a laugh. He seems to satirize the beastliness of undergraduate societies and the leniency of college authorities toward wealthy and aristocratic members of such societies. He satirizes private preparatory schools, "modern" religion, and "enlightened" prison reform. There are enough Welsh jokes to suggest that he means to impugn utterly the national character and culture of Wales. Most of all, perhaps, he seems to satirize the morals and outlook of "smart" society.

Sometimes he seems to be working both sides of the street at the same time. He satirizes "Chokey," the half-educated but pretentious Negro, but seems at the same time to be satirizing those who criticize him. The impression the novel as a whole gives is kaleidoscopic. What Aldous Huxley says of his own Antic Hay fits Decline and Fall as well: "One has, in his post-adolescence, a burst of astonishment at life. Everything seems amusing and extraordinary and amazing" [quoted in Harvey Breit, The Writer Observed, 1956]. This is just how Decline and Fall strikes the reader—it is an inspired record of the absurdity of the world outside the gates of Hertford College, Oxford, as it appeared to an undergraduate in the late 1920's. It is an outrageous, amazing world that he doesn't quite understand.

But there are a couple of passages which suggest the existence of a standard of values and point forward to the more clearly marked-out position of the later novels. When Paul is being driven to his new post at Margot's house he thinks:

"English spring…. In the dreaming ancestral beauty of the English country." Surely, he thought, those great chestnuts in the morning sun stood for something enduring and serene in a world that had lost its reason and would so stand when the chaos and confusion were forgotten? And surely it was the spirit of William Morris that whispered to him in Margot Beste-Chetwynde's motor car about seed-time and harvest, the superb succession of the seasons, the harmonious interdependence of rich and poor, of dignity, innocence and tradition? But at a turn in the drive the cadence of his thoughts was abruptly transected. They had come into sight of the house.

Later, when Paul is being transferred from one prison to another, he thinks back upon his relationship with Margot:

He had "done the right thing" in shielding the woman: so much was clear, but Margot had not quite filled the place assigned to her, for in this case she was grossly culpable, and he was shielding her, not from misfortune nor injustice, but from the consequences of her crimes; he felt a flush about his knees as Boy Scout honour whispered that Margot had got him into a row and ought jolly well to own up and face the music. As he sat over his post-bags he had wrestled with this argument without achieving any satisfactory result except a growing conviction that there was something radically inapplicable about this whole code of ready-made honour that is the still small voice, trained to command, of the Englishman all the world over.

Decline and Fall is satiric, rather than a "satire," if by satire we mean a novel organized to imply a consistent and well-developed point of view differing from that of its main characters. But Paul's realization that the world has lost its reason and that traditional codes of ready-made honor no longer apply points forward to the standard of judgment which is to be developed in the later novels.

Despite the putative inferiority of second to first novels, Vile Bodies (1930) is very nearly up to the standard set by Decline and Fall. The hero, Adam Fenwick-Symes, is more substantial and active than Paul Pennyfeather. Adam's adventures in clearing customs, as a society reporter, his attempts to raise enough money to marry Nina Blount, and so on, are the main plot, but the action includes the whole Mayfair set to which Nina and Adam belong, and the novel as a whole is a satiric picture of fashionable London society midway between two world wars.

Waugh's own point of view is much more clearly revealed in Vile Bodies than in Decline and Fall. The ways in which he manages to do this without commenting explicitly himself can be conveniently grouped under three general, although not mutually exclusive, headings. First, he stakes out points of reference to guide the reader. The Armistice and the First World War are both mentioned, a coming war is predicted, and the novel ends on "the biggest battlefield in the history of the world." Waugh's gay Mayfair set is haunted by the memory of one world war and apprehensive of the approach of another. This helps to explain, and in some measure to justify, the furious round of pleasure upon which the Bright Young Things are embarked. Other points of reference are provided by occasional comments by both the conservative aristocracy and the lower-middle-class. Often these comments have no direct bearing upon the gyrations of the Bright Young Things, but they do serve to indicate a more conservative system of values.

A second way Waugh establishes the point of view is to order the structure of the novel itself to imply it. A point of view is implicit, for instance, in a pair of contrasting scenes near the center of the book. The fantastic party in a captive dirigible given by the Bright Young Things is immediately followed by a description of a party given at Anchorage House attended by:

a great concourse of pious and honourable people … people who had represented their country in foreign places and sent their sons to die for her in battle, people of decent and temperate life, uncultured, unaffected, unembarrassed, unassuming, unambitious people, of independent judgment and marked eccentricities, kind people who cared for animals and the deserving poor, brave and rather unreasonable people, that fine phalanx of the passing order….

The most important of these devices, however, is the explicit commentary of the characters themselves. For instance, Father Rothschild attempts to explain the rationale of the Bright Young Things:

"Don't you think … that perhaps it is all in some way historical? I don't think people ever want to lose their faith either in religion or anything else. I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence. I think all these divorces show that. People aren't content just to muddle along nowadays…. And this word "bogus" they all use … They won't make the best of a bad job nowadays…. They say, 'If a thing's not worth doing well, it's not worth doing at all.' It makes every thing very difficult for them."

The subject of the war which seems to be approaching is brought up:

"Anyhow," said Lord Metroland, "I don't see how all that explains why my stepson should drink like a fish and go about everywhere with a negress."

"I think they're connected, you know," said Father Rothschild. "But it's all very difficult."

However, it is clear that while Waugh believes he understands the Bright Young Things, he does not excuse them for the way they act. The small attendance at Agatha Runcible's funeral is an implicit comment upon the heartlessness of her set.

A Handful of Dust (1934) is Waugh's masterpiece. In it his wonderfully fertile comic imagination, his ability to set, and to modulate, satiric tone, and his feeling for the macabre fuse; the result is an unforgettable picture of a brilliant, but sick, society whose decadence he emphasizes not only by choosing both his title and his motto from The Waste Land but also by echoing Proust in two of his chapter titles.

Each of his chief characters, Tony Last and his wife Brenda, epitomizes one of the things that is wrong with their society. Brenda can find no real satisfaction in being a wife and mother. Bored by her marriage to Tony, who is decent and honourable, but dull, she begins an affair with John Beaver, a half-man who lives beside his telephone on the fringes of the fashionable world. Though she is well aware of Beaver's worthlessness, Brenda insists upon a divorce and, to support her Mr. Beaver, makes such demands for a settlement upon Tony that he breaks off divorce proceedings and goes abroad. Beaver leaves her, too, but things end happily for Brenda. Tony is reported dead in the Amazon jungle and she promptly marries an old friend of his.

A good deal of the satire in the novel is aimed at Brenda and her friends, a group of aging Bright Young Things. All of the satire is indirect; Waugh doesn't tell us what kind of people his characters are, their own actions and conversation do. Thus when Tony Last, who has acted decently towards Brenda, refuses to sacrifice Hetton, his beloved home, to buy John Beaver for Brenda:

"Who on earth would have expected the old boy to turn up like that?" asked Polly Cockpurse.

"Now I understand why they keep going on in the papers about divorce law reform," said Veronica. "It's too monstrous that he should be allowed to get away with it."

"The mistake they made was in telling him first," said Souki.

"It's so like Brenda to trust everyone," said Jenny Abdul Akbar.

Although Brenda epitomizes certain qualities which Waugh detests, she is not merely a caricature—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she is more subtly drawn than most caricatures. Despite her general bitchiness, she has an oddly appealing quality even in the depths of her affair with Beaver, and Waugh so nicely tempers Tony Last's decency with dullness that the reader is not entirely out of patience with Brenda when she wants a freer life in London. What does kill the reader's sympathy for her is her reception of the news of the death of her son, John Andrew. She is in London, visiting friends, while John Beaver flies over to France with his mother. Jock Menzies, Tony's best friend, brings the news to her:

"What is it, Jock? Tell me quickly, I'm scared. It's nothing awful is it?"

"I'm afraid it is. There's been a very serious accident."




He nodded.

She sat down on a hard little Empire chair against the wall, perfectly still with her hands folded in her lap, like a small well-brought-up child introduced into a room full of grown-ups. She said, "Tell me what happened. What do you know about it first?"

"I've been down at Hetton since the week-end."


"Don't you remember? John was going hunting today."

She frowned, not at once taking in what he was saying. "John … John Andrew … I … oh, thank God…." Then she burst into tears.

At first it seems that Tony, who is dull, but a decent sort, is to embody the standards by which the Bright Young Things are judged. He is an innocent who lives amid dreams of Victorian Gothic stability and morality at Hetton Abbey, the family seat, which, slowly, he is trying to modernize and restore to its former glory. He has gotten into the habit of loving and trusting Brenda and does not suspect her affair with Beaver until she announces she wants a divorce. Even then he wants to do the traditional gentlemanly thing—to give her a generous settlement and to take all the blame for the divorce action. It is only when she demands so much that he will have to give up Hetton to satisfy her that he balks, refuses to go through with the divorce action, and leaves England.

But it is evident throughout that Tony is not only an innocent, but an adolescent as well. His room at Hetton, called Morgan le Fay, is a "gallery representative of every phase of his adolescence," and his conduct bears out the impression his room gives of his character. When Brenda takes to staying in London to be near her Mr. Beaver, Tony comes up for the night and when he can't see her gets drunk and pesters her by telephone. The whole sequence is one of the funniest things Waugh has ever done, but it is basically the record of an extended series of undergraduate pranks. Tony acts like a Victorian romantic hero during the divorce proceedings, and his leaving England when the divorce falls through is the action of a romantic juvenile.

Tony's fate in the Amazon jungle, although grotesquely out of proportion to whatever his just deserts may be, has a certain macabre appropriateness. He is seeking the city of his romantic dreams, "a transfigured Hetton, pennons and banners floating on the sweet breeze." What he finds is the distorted, but still recognizable, underside of the Victorian world. Mr. Todd is a Victorian father, monstrously selfish, despotically strict, but he provides sustenance and protection. The reading aloud from Dickens to which Tony is condemned is not only an ironic repayment for the agony he had caused Brenda by reading aloud at Hetton, but a grimly amusing suggestion of the boredom which must have made many a Victorian family evening a horror. The cream of the jest is that he should be condemned to read novels about the Victorian commercial classes, whose world and whose values overwhelmed the Victorian Gothic world Tony had dreamed of.

To put the whole matter succinctly, Tony as well as Brenda is being satirized. I make the point at some length because it is a crucial one and because Waugh has been criticized on the ground that he approves of, and sympathizes with, Tony. Quite the contrary. Neither Tony nor Brenda and her group represent values which he admires. Brenda and her circle are heartless; Tony is incapable of coping with the modern world.

A distinctive point of view is embodied in the tone of Waugh's early novels. The title of the first novel echoes Gibbon, an indication that Waugh considers English smart society, despite its surface brilliance, corrupt and decadent. Something is wrong—the traditional standards of value no longer seem to apply. Not morality, but immorality pays. In Vile Bodies he extends his portrait of English society. The values he prizes most are those of order, of selfless devotion to the service of God and country. But he is well aware that these values no longer receive even lip service. The First World War, he implies, caused or accelerated the decay of moral values, and another war, one which will destroy all civilization, is in progress as the novel ends.

A Handful of Dust complements the two earlier novels, but the main focus is upon marriage, the family, the individual. It contains some of Waugh's finest tonal effects. In the scenes at Brighton, for example, the farcical tone of the incidents in which "evidence" for the divorce action is gathered is tempered by Waugh's compassion for Tony Last's very real anguish. Thus he is able to imply a point of view—that modern marriage is hollow and farcical, although capable of causing deep distress to one who takes it seriously—which is never stated directly. Presumably, he had scenes like this in mind when he said that the novel "contained all I had to say about humanism."

Earlier I suggested that in Waugh's early novels the tone establishes the standard of values which is necessary to the satiric attack. Tone is essentially the projection of an attitude toward, a point of view about, the characters of his novels and the world they inhabit. The basis of this attitude is a conflict between what I should call "realistic" and "romantic" ideas and feelings. Waugh understands that the modern world is one in which the traditional standards—ones which he cherishes—no longer apply: "vice no longer pays lip service to virtue." But he recognizes that the rewards of vice—the world's esteem and the world's goods—are not despised, and recognizes, too, that the way in which goods and esteem are gained may not spoil the enjoyment of them.

Thus far his point of view is a good deal like that of the satirists of the past. But these satirists tempered attacks upon their times by at least implying that there was an alternative set of values, or an alternate course of action, which could rectify the evils they portrayed. Waugh too has an alternative, one which he examines in his early novels. The alternative is a romantic one—a hope that a return to the traditions and values of the past offers a way of ameliorating the beastliness of the modern world. But when this idea is put to test, it is found wanting.

Waugh's attitude toward Tony Last is a good example of this. Tony belongs to, and to some extent represents, a tradition to which Waugh is strongly attached. D. S. Savage calls Tony's outlook "adolescent romanticism" ["The Innocence of Evelyn Waugh," in The Novelist as Thinker, 1947] and infers that this represents Waugh's own way of looking at the world. This is only part of the truth, I think. While Waugh can sympathize with Tony, he satirizes him as well. He comes to the conclusion that a man armed only with a traditional code of values is helpless in the modern world. He is no philosopher; he has no alternative to propose. But he wishes that Tony's values were not so completely outdated. The tension between Waugh's realistic appraisal of what the modern world is like and his romantic yearning for a system of values that he knows no longer works informs the tone and provides the satiric standard in his early novels.

Further Reading

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Wölk, Gerhard. "Evelyn Waugh: A Supplementary Checklist of Criticism." Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies 25, No. 2 (Autumn 1991): 7-8.

Compiles significant criticism on Waugh published since 1989.

Wölk, Gerhard. "Evelyn Waugh: A Supplementary Checklist of Criticism." Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies 26, No. 2 (Autumn 1992): 5-6.

Compiles significant criticism on Waugh published since 1990.


Babiak, Peter R. "A Brief Philosophy of Stoneless Peaches." Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies 25, No. 3 (Winter 1991): 5.

Postulates that the image of the stoneless peach in Waugh's The Loved One is a metaphor for the tension between nature and culture.

Bittner, David. "Some Questions about Father Rothschild." Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies 27, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 4.

Reexamines Father Rothschild in Vile Bodies, noting possible satiric elements in Waugh's development of the character.

Lassner, Phyllis. "'Between the Gaps': Sex, Class and Anarchy in the British Comic Novel of World War II." In Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Comedy, pp. 205-17. Edited by Gail Finney. Langhorne, Penn.: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1994.

Explores the humor in three British novels about World War II-Waugh's Put Out More Flags, Marghanita Laski's Love on the Supertax (1944), and Beryl Bainbridge's Young Adolf (1978)–as satires of English xenophobia and issues of class and cultural differences.

Loss, Archie. "Vile Bodies, Vorticism, and Italian Futurism." Journal of Modern Literature XVIII, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 155-64.

Argues that Vile Bodies is a premier example of the principles of the early twentieth-century artistic movements Vorticism and Futurism as well as a reflection of Waugh's own artistic direction early in his career.

McCartney, George. "The Being and Becoming of Evelyn Waugh." In Evelyn Waugh: New Directions, pp. 133-55. Edited by Alain Blayac. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Discusses Waugh's philosophical position and its place in his satirical works.

―――――――. "Satire between the Wars: Evelyn Waugh and Others." In The Columbia History of the British Novel, pp. 867-94. Edited by John Richetti. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Analyzes the predominance of satirical works among English writers between the World Wars, and the nature of the satire as an exposition of the superficiality of twentieth-century culture.

D. J. Dooley (essay date Autumn 1968)

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SOURCE: "Waugh and Black Humor," in Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 2, Autumn 1968, pp. 1-3.

[Dooley is a Canadian writer and educator. In the following essay, Dooley examines instances of black humor in Waugh's writing and suggests possible influences to Waugh's comic sensibility.]

In an article in the Kenyon Review in 1961, C. P. Snow referred to the transmission of a particular vein of personal and capricious comedy from Russian to English fiction as one of the clearest examples of literary ancestry which he knew. He described the agent of transmission, William Gerhardi, as the chief progenitor of modern English prose comedy, and said that he had a very sharp effect on such talented young men of the Twenties as Waugh and Anthony Powell. But as the Waugh Newsletter pointed out, Saki and Firbank could not be overlooked as comic models. Similarly, when he ridiculed the whole notion of influences in a sentence quoted by Stopp, Waugh provided us with more names to conjure with: "A lecturer in English literature might discern two sources of Dr. Wodehouse's art—the light romance of Ian Hay and the social satire of 'Saki,' but the attribution is quite irrelevant in the world of the imagination." Still another influence on him, almost undoubtedly, is Maurice Baring—another interpreter of Russia to England and writer of comedies both English and Ruritanian. Another who ought not to be overlooked is E. M. Forster, author of some Alexandrian sketches which Waugh praised highly. In the "St. Athanasius" section of Pharos and Pharillon, for example, there is a characterization of Constantine which may have suggested Waugh's handling of him in Helena, and the scene in which that "charming and reasonable young man" Caligula runs through his new villa with a mob of carpenters and plumbers at his heels, as well as a deputation of Jews from Alexandria and a counter-deputation of anti-Semites from the same city, is close in spirit to Waugh's comedy. Forster writes:

He climbed up to look at a ceiling. They climbed too. He ran along a plan; so did the Jews. They did not speak, partly from lack of breath, partly because they were afraid of his reply. At last, turning in their faces, he asked: "Why don't you eat pork?" The counter-deputation shouted again. The Jews replied that different races ate different things, and one of them, to carry off the situation, said some people didn't eat lamb. "Of course they don't," said the Emperor, "lamb is beastly."

To mention other possible sources of Waugh's humor is not to deny the influence of Gerhardi; when the latter was awarded an Arts Council bursary towards the end of 1966, the Observer commented that the word "genius" had been applied to him by Waugh, so that presumably Waugh read and was influenced by him.

But should Gerhardi's type of humor be called black humor? The TLS review of André Breton's Anthologie de l'humour noir discovered beneath Breton's verbiage a fairly clear idea of what black humor involves: on a personal level it is a legitimate defence against the tragedy of la condition humaine, on a social level it is an essentially scandalous protest against the intolerable concept of an "ordered" world explained by science and activated by technology. Gerhardi's tone and attitude are very different; they are established by a performance of a Chekhov play early in Futility:

You know the manner of Chekhov's writing. You know the people in his plays. It seems as though they had all been born on the line of demarcation between comedy and tragedy … Fanny Ivanovna and the three sisters watched the play with intense interest, as if the Three Sisters were indeed their own particular tragedy. I sat behind Nina, and watched with that stupid scepticism that comes from too much happiness. To me, buoyant and impatient, the people in the play appeared preposterous. They distressed me intensely. Their black melancholy, their incredible inefficiency, their paralysing inertia, crept over me. How different, I thought, were those three lovable creatures who sat in our box. How careless and free they were in their own happy home. The people in the play were hopeless.

At the interval, he grasps his friend Nikolai by the arm in exasperation: "How can there be such people, Nikolai Vasilievich?… They can't get where they want. They don't even know what they want…. It is a hysterical cry for greater efforts, for higher aims … Why can't people know what they want in life and get it?…" Of course as its title suggests the novel shows the gradual disillusionment of the central character, his own failure to get what he wants. But though the book is on the borderline between comedy and tragedy, it is hardly a scandalous protest against the concept of an ordered world.

It does contain a protest against sacrificing the people of one generation to secure a better social order for the next, and in connection with this protest there are some episodes of macabre humor, especially connected with the battles of Whites versus Reds in Vladivostok. But macabre humor of this type is found in English literature well before Gerhardi; one need only think of Saki's short stories or of Norman Douglas's tale of the man who fell six hundred feet from a Capri cliff and was in no condition to swim to Philadelphia. In The Living Novel, V. S. Pritchett writes of the vein of fanciful horror in Thomas Hood—in poems such as "The Careless Nurse Mayd" and "Sally Simpkin's Lament." He goes on,

Gilbert, Lear, Carroll, Thackeray, the authors of Struwelpeter and the cautionary tales continue this comic macabre tradition, which today appears to be exhausted. There is Mr. Belloc, who digressed intellectually, and there are the sardonic ballads of Mr. William Plomer.

The tradition was not exhausted; it had merely been diverted into the novel. Waugh and Huxley made use of it in the Twenties, Douglas and Beerbohm (with his Defenestration of Noaks, for example) in the previous decade.

But once again is macabre humor to be identified with black humor? In Simon Encelberg's essay on Joseph Heller (in Richard Kostelanetz's collection of essays On Contemporary Literature), the following adjectives are applied to Catch-22: sprawling, hilarious, irresponsible, compassionate, cynical, surrealistic, farcical, lacerating, readable. The terms suggest an attitude to humor and satire which is very different from the attitudes of Beerbohm, Douglas, Saki, and Waugh. It is the difference, in a way, between Waugh's Loved One and the film of the same name, bravely advertised as "The motion picture with something to offend everyone." Discussing the movie in Life, Shana Alexander wrote that "The true queasy-making vulgarity of The Loved One … lies in the fact that it mixes up jokes about our attitudes toward death, which are often absurd, with death itself, which never is." The essentially irresponsible attitude which Tony Richardson and Terry Southern took to their material was worlds removed from Waugh's concern with it; after all, in his Life article on Forest Lawn he suggested that the decline of Western civilization might have been observable first of all in the graveyard. Describing disorder, he implied rather than ridiculed order: like Pope and Swift, he tried to shock people into a realization of how far they had departed from a reasonable and humane standard of behaviour, whereas the black humorists seem to mock the very concept of such a standard.

Barry Ulanov (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: "The Ordeal of Evelyn Waugh," in The Vision Obscured: Perceptions of Some Twentieth-Century Catholic Novelists, edited by Melvin J. Friedman, New York: Fordham University Press, 1970, pp. 79-93.

[Ulanov is an American writer, educator, and editor. In the following essay, he analyzes the "underlying structure" of the world-view that infused Waugh's novels and gave meaning to his allegorical writings.]

It is all but a fixed convention in the critical presentation of the work of Evelyn Waugh to date his decline, in mid-career, with the appearance of Brideshead Revisited in 1945. The novels written before it are comic masterpieces. Those that come after, with the possible exception of The Loved One (1948), are blighted by the disease of Brideshead, an egregious inclination to take religion seriously, accompanied by a marked distaste for the world that does not share that inclination—the modern world.

Waugh was immediately taken to task, on the appearance of Brideshead Revisited, for his shocking display of religious sentiment and his apparent loss of the satiric spirit. He answered his American critics as publicly as he could in the pages of a journal not generally thought of as literary—Life magazine. Modern novelists, Waugh explained,

try to represent the whole human mind and soul and yet omit its determining character—that of being God's creature with a defined purpose. So in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which to me means only one thing, man in his relation to God.

The work that followed Brideshead Revisited, two years later, was a corrosive political satire, a novella called Scott-King's Modern Europe. It is the tale of the misadventures of the Classical Master of a second-rate English public school in Neutralia. He has been invited to this "typical modern state, governed by a single party, acclaiming a dominant Marshal, supporting a vast ill-paid bureaucracy whose work is tempered and humanised by corruption," because of his celebration in an essay in a learned journal of the qualities of Neutralia's Latin poet Bellorius. Bellorius is about to suffer—along with Scott-King and the reader—the tercentenary of his death. With the heaviest possible irony, Waugh describes his narrative as "the story of a summer holiday; a light tale." It is not a light tale; it is a ponderous satire which brings Scott-King back to his public school by way of "No. 64, Jewish Illicit Immigrants' Camp, Palestine." The headmaster suggests that Scott-King think about teaching another subject alongside Classics—"History, for example, preferably economic history." After all, parents no longer send their boys to school to become "'the complete man.'… They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?" Scott-King's answer is direct: "Oh yes," he says. "I can and do." The last bits of dialogue permit Scott-King to put the modern world in its place.

"But, you know, there may be something of a crisis ahead."

"Yes, headmaster."

"Then what do you intend to do?"

"If you approve, headmaster, I will stay as I am here as long as any boy wants to read the classics. I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world."

"It's a short-sighted view, Scott-King."

"There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take."

Waugh did not need the cumbersome apparatus of Scott-King's Modern Europe to make clear his disenchantment with the modern world. Nor did he need the pages of Life magazine to make public pronouncements about his "preoccupation" with style and the relation of man to God. He had been making such pronouncements for almost two decades before Brideshead Revisited, but obliquely, in variously light and heavy explorations of the allegory of irony. Waugh was not finished with allegorical devices, nor did he relinquish the ironic pose after Brideshead; but the indirections of satire were no longer all. It was as though his presentation of "The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder" had evoked in him the spirit of the confessional. Like the most unconscious character in Chekhov, he seemed determined now to reveal his working purposes. In some curious way, his two creeds, as writer and as Christian, would be made to coincide. In The Loved One, he mocked the happy hunting-grounds of the American ways of death, human and animal, which sought certainties where none were to be found. In Helena (1950), he praised the simple faith of the woman who was canonized by tradition for her perseverance in seeking the wood of the True Cross, a woman of a time "Once, very long ago, before ever the flowers were named," the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, and, in Waugh's version of sacred history, a Briton and the daughter of Old King Coel.

In-between the clammy humors of California Gothic and the dry atmosphere of Celtic-Roman hagiology, Waugh followed the confessional urge where it led—to the opening pages of a collection of stories of conversion to Catholicism by well-known figures of the late 1940s. Waugh's piece was called "Come Inside." In five short pages he moved across the bare facts of his religious life, from beginnings in the Church of England and a "family tree" which "burgeons on every twig with Anglican clergymen," and an early intention of becoming a clergyman himself:

The enthusiasm which my little school-fellows devoted to birds' eggs and model trains I turned to church affairs and spoke glibly of chasubles and Erastianism. I was accordingly sent to the school which was reputed to have the strongest ecclesiastical bent. At the age of sixteen I formally notified the school chaplain that there was no God. At the age of twenty-six I was received into the Catholic Church to which all subsequent experience has served to confirm my loyalty.

Waugh's little piece is savage in its rejection of his own attempts to deal with the brambles of the higher criticism, as uncovered by a skeptical Oxford theologian ("now a bishop"), and the thickets of metaphysics, as presented in Pope's Essay on Man and in Leibniz, to whom he was sent by the notes in his edition of Pope.

I advanced far enough to be thoroughly muddled about the nature of cognition. It seemed simplest to abandon the quest and assume that man was incapable of knowing anything. I have no doubt I was a prig and a bore but I think that if I had been a Catholic boy at a Catholic school I should have found among its teaching orders someone patient enough to examine with me my callow presumption. Also, if I had been fortified by the sacraments, I should have valued my faith too highly to abandon it so capriciously.

What Waugh found in the Church was tradition, the Catholic structure omnipresent in European life, customs, ceremonies, and disciplines of learning. Americans may lack this; their world certainly does. Europe in general and England in particular may not look upon the Church as simply one of a series of splendid sects. The Church underlies everything in Waugh's world. It is his inheritance. After being admitted into the Church, he tells us in carefully weighed words, his "life has been an endless delighted tour of discovery in the huge territory of which I was made free." What he does not tell us in this 1949 piece, but does confess in the novels, the stories, the occasional pieces, the columns of liturgical controversy—in nearly everything that followed upon it—is that more and more he became a furious partisan, fighting for the survival of ancient values, ancient worlds, ancient rituals. He moved with sour obstinacy against the new liturgy produced by the Second Vatican Council. He was made sick with something like shame by the translation of the words of the Mass into the English vernacular. In this vulgate tongue, they clearly lacked unction. They were not in the ancient style. They were not in any style that he could respect. They lacked that universality and coherence that made the terrors of modernity, if not tolerable, at least endurable as a preface to a world of endless grace. He had extended his invitation to the non-Catholic to follow him inside the Church:

You cannot know what the Church is like from outside. However learned you are in theology, nothing you know amounts to anything in comparison with the knowledge of the simplest actual member of the Communion of Saints.

Could one still believe this, still feel this, after the depredations of Vatican II?

Waugh mocks the "shallowness" of his "early piety," clearly demonstrated "by the ease with which I abandoned it." To his interest in "chasubles and Erastianism" he attributes a depth comparable to the devotion to birds' eggs and model trains of his contemporaries at school. But there is something quite different in kind about his penchant, at the age of eleven, for Anglican churchmanship, the intense curiosity he describes in his autobiography: "about church decorations and the degrees of anglicanism—'Prot, Mod, High, Spiky'—which they represented" [A Little Learning]. The pursuit of grace at eleven may have been confined to a shrine he constructed for the night-nursery, complete with plaster saints, an art nouveau edition of Newman's Dream of Gerontius, and his own attempt at the subject of Newman's long poem, Purgatory—an effort "in the metre of Hiawatha" which he calls "long and tedious" in one place, "deplorable" in another. But it was grace he pursued, tediously perhaps, certainly at length. The comings and goings of his faith, now Anglican, now atheist, finally Roman, were surely never as inconsequential to him or for him as his ironic autobiographical narratives suggest. He was always a ceremonialist, always caught up in some ritual or other, as feckless student and schoolmaster, or as despairing socialite. It is ritual that fascinates him in his several worlds, even when it is altogether fatuous. It is ritual he gathers so entertainingly into his early satires. When the satire wears thin and the end in view ceases to be entertainment, the ritual remains. Only now it is no longer quite so fatuous. There is faith in it. The pursuit of grace has become, like the explorations of the allegory of irony, far less oblique.

If one sees the pursuit of grace in the work of Evelyn Waugh, sees it in the inverted and perverted rituals of Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), Scoop (1938), and Put Out More Flags (1942) as much as in the open courtings of the supernatural in Brideshead Revisited, Helena, and Sword of Honour, one is not so easily put off or surprised by the sentimentality of the later work. One sees Waugh constantly soliciting a deeper coherence than the ceremonies of the social life or the customs of international politics are likely to reveal. One sees Waugh's meticulous notation of custom and ceremony as being in the service of grace, and not at all lacking in meaning because it deals with people who have little or no meaning and are determined to do everything to escape meaning. One sees Waugh's narratives, from the beginning, as severely moralized—though not (in the beginning at least) very clear in their moral purpose. One sees an allegorist sharpening his instruments, perfecting his ironic moral tone, so that when the pursuit of grace can be made more open, when grace can emerge from the chilling shadows of a world that holds it in contempt, there will be a machinery skillful enough to deal with it and to make it recognizable.

Nowhere is this honing of the tools so evident as in A Handful of Dust (1934). There all that Waugh had learned in his early tales of the rituals of the fatuous is displayed with an ironic detachment that can easily be interpreted as with-drawal from the moral lists—or worse, as accidie. The world of the aristocracy has collapsed. Tony Last—a name at least as roundly allegorical in intent as any in the novels of Henry Fielding—brings that world to its inexorable end, condemned to spend his final days—and they are clearly to be many—reading Dickens aloud to a madman in a South American jungle. While this allegory of attrition is worked out, Tony Last's wife, Brenda, works out her salvation in the service of a personification of nullity, John Beaver, whose name spells nothing but an industrious boredom. The book takes its title from The Waste Land, and perhaps some of its hauteur as well. But where Eliot communicates his distaste for the modern world in fragments, Waugh polishes his periods in an elegantly sustained continuity, with every detail fitted firmly into place. Disaster leads to disaster in an orderly succession of horrors which everybody can accept, for the disasters and horrors follow so faithfully the ordinations of high society and never lose the approved tones. Thus the ironic echoes of Proust in two chapter titles: "Du Côté de Chez Beaver" and "Du Côté de Chez Todd"—memorializing in these cases no elegant or gifted men, but a middle-class bore and an illiterate son of a missionary with a savage devotion to the works of Charles Dickens.

The part played by Dickens in the allegorical structure of A Handful of Dust is particularly engaging to the reader of Waugh who has gone so far as to search out his occasional reviews. In 1953, examining Edgar Johnson's two-volume biography of Dickens for The Spectator, he confesses that

We all have our moods when Dickens sickens us. In a lighter, looser and perhaps higher mood we fall victim to his "magnetism."… It is this constantly changing mood of appreciation that makes everyone's fingers itch for the pen at the mention of his name.

Waugh gratified the itch in this review in such a way that one understands perfectly the particular irony of Todd's fixation upon Dickens:

—the pity of it—the more we know of Dickens, the less we like him. His conduct to his wife and particularly his announcement of the separation were deplorable. His treatment in middle age of Maria Beadnell was even worse. His benefactions to his family were grudging and ungracious. Faults which would be excusable in other men become odious in the light of Dicken's writing. He frequented the demi-monde with Wilkie Collins. He probably seduced and certainly kept the young actress Ellen Teman, to whom he left £1,000 in his will, thereby putting her name in disrepute while at the same time leaving her miserably provided. All this is very ugly in the creator of Little Emily and Martha. He claimed a spurious pedigree and used an illicit crest—a simple weakness in anyone except himself who vehemently denounced the importance attached to gentle birth. In success he was intolerably boastful, in the smallest reverse abject with self-pity. He was domineering and dishonourable in his treatment of his publishers. He was, in fact, a thumping cad [Waugh, "Apotheosis of an Unhappy Hypocrite," The Spectator, October 2, 1953].

Clearly a model for Waugh's grotesque tale, this reading of Dickens is allegorical of all the large hypocrisy and emotional emptiness that masquerades in A Handful of Dust under the small pieties of upper-class social life. What better writer could Waugh have found with whom to torment Tony Last—and the gullible reader who has been incautious enough to look for some deliverance for Tony or anyone else in this allegory of a world without grace and thus without any chance of fulfillment?

The landscape of A Handful of Dust is perfectly pieced together, as an allegorical landscape must be. The surfaces of buildings, as of people, are described with a splendid and an unmistakable precision. The rooms within, like the interior dispositions of the people, are carefully decorated. Waugh is following the example of his tutors in the allegory of irony—Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne. He has left behind at this point the epicene shallows of Ronald Firbank, an earlier guide in the tones and textures of irony. The depths in which he finds and leaves his allegorical figures are those of Hieronymus Bosch and the elder Pieter Brueghel, not perhaps because he has sought those depths but because they have sought him. This world of a pettiness so acute that it has become an almost diabolical kind of hallucination was the world which sat for its portrait in Waugh's studio. This world of evasions, of shadows in retreat and of shadows in pursuit, this world that Eliot prepared for burial in The Waste Land—"I will show you fear in a handful of dust"—Waugh drew from its winding sheets and stood end to end in its native flats and country houses. This world of the living dead Waugh painted as Bosch and Cranach and Brueghel did—in allegorical precision. This was the world without grace, its rituals superbly ordered inversions of Christianity, its instruments so perfectly tuned that one could hardly hear the difference. One had to look very closely indeed to see that the laughter bared too much gum and popped the eyes too much to be the laughter of entertainment.

For some readers, the entertainment dropped out of Waugh's novels after A Handful of Dust, never to return. He simply did not get the facts of Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia straight in Scoop, and to the hollow humors of his novel of the cold war, Put Out More Flags, he added an embarrassing tinge of patriotism. Real heroism, even if inadvertent, seemed to be popping up beneath the mock heroics. The sounds of the indecorous war that had brought Vile Bodies to its conclusion had given way to noisier exchanges in a war that shattered more than mere decorum. The comic-opera struggles for power in the African kingdoms of Black Mischief and Scoop did not amuse any longer; they had been replaced by a deadly warfare in the desert in which men Waugh loved and admired were losing their lives. The terms of the allegory were irremediably changed. The deadly sins were still there—lust, gluttony, greed, and especially sloth, of which Waugh had appointed himself the patron devil. But now there were, of all things, virtues to be dealt with. Grace hovered overhead, even appeared now and then in the lives of the Halberdiers of Waugh's trilogy about the war: Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961; The End of the Battle in its American edition). In fact, some of Waugh's fictional regiment seemed to be positively maddened by grace, not the least of them that improbable hero of the trilogy, Guy Crouchback, who seems dedicated to moral ambiguity—that is to say, dedicated to the contradictory textures of the human condition, the only textures in which grace can comfortably appear.

The leading figures of Waugh's suddenly uprighted world are not very different from those of the inverted one. They have gone to the public school of Decline and Fall, to the parties of Vile Bodies, to the hunts of A Handful of Dust; they have served their own mad little comers of the cold war bureaucracy of Put Out More Flags, and scratched their way to the top—or the bottom—of African kingdoms. Even in their weaker moments, they have more often achieved the look of lechery and the manners of sin than the matter. Their moral failures have been most frequently failures to be immoral, which in the old days could be shrugged off in the giggling manner of Vile Bodies

"What I always wonder, Kitty dear, is what they actually do at these parties of theirs. I mean, do they …?"

"My dear, from all I hear, I think they do."

"Oh, to be young again, Kitty. When I think, my dear, of all the trouble and exertion which we had to go through to be even moderately bad … those passages in the early morning and mama sleeping next door."

"And yet, my dear, I doubt very much whether they really appreciate it all as we should … young people take things so much for granted."

"Si la jeunesse savait, Kitty …"

"Si la vieillesse pouvait."

In the new days, the days of Brideshead and the Halberdiers, some sense is made of all this patchwork of immorality wished-for and morality achieved in spite of one's dearest hopes. The coherent patterns of a moral theology supervene. The revels, achieved or postponed, are permanently interrupted. The great romance of Brideshead, for example, into which the reader, following Waugh's sentimental lead, has poured so much expectant feeling, is dashed on the rocks of canon law. Julia Mottram must accept the terms of her marriage, as set forth in the positive legislation of the Church. She and Charles Ryder must separate. She must say goodbye. Ryder asks what she will do. She will not, she explains, lead a life of lies, on one side or the other:

"Just go on—alone. How can I tell what I shall do? You know the whole of me. You know I'm not one for a life of mourning. I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable—like things in the schoolroom, so bad they are unpunishable, that only Mummy could deal with-the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I'm not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God's. Why should I be allowed to understand that, and not you, Charles? It may be because of Mummy, Nanny, Cordelia, Sebastian—perhaps Bridey and Mrs. Muspratt—keeping my name in their prayers; or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won't quite despair of me in the end.

"Now we shall both be alone, and I shall have no way of making you understand."

Non-Catholic readers can surely be forgiven their revulsion at the seeming smugness of this dismissal of love. The set speech comes so easily from the rhetoric of the rectory. God has made the laws, down to their last canon, and we who have been initiated into His great legal fraternity, we understand. Pity we cannot make others understand.

Was Waugh trying to make others understand when he constructed his canonist's copybook adultery? Had he given up irony for apologetics? The same question can be asked about the sterile marriage which haunts Guy Crouchback, made twice as barren by the unyielding law of the Church which prevents any satisfaction to Guy in the relationship. His attempt to seduce his former wife is ruined when he informs her that the seduction is entirely licit since their marriage had never been dissolved by the Church; she runs, appalled, from his arms. He can only remarry her, to make legitimate her child by a brother officer, a malingerer and moral neutral with the precisely allegorical name of Trimmer, who has become a hero malgré lui, in a series of events typical of the activity of grace in the Sword of Honour trilogy. Grace pursues its victims in the Crouchback novels in the ancient manner, makes heroes of trimmers and withholds the trappings of honor from those who have performed with virtue. Grace achieves the textures of irony in these books. When it lands on a hero's head, it dents his skull; it marks him a fool. If Waugh has turned to apologetics, he has not relinquished the allegory of irony to do so. He has discovered, like the Flemish painters before him, where that allegory leads.

Irony, now that it is to be employed in the precincts of grace, must make chivalry seem gauche, a hopeless anachronism; charity, the always underlying virtue in these quarters, must appear the refuge of fools. Guy Crouchback forms himself, as best he can, in the image and after the likeness of a medieval knight, Roger of Waybrooke, and grace confounds him, after having long confused him, by supporting his insane sentimentalization of the past. He finds his appropriate roles, is splendidly victimized in war and peace, and ends up, mirabile dictu, with a marriage that works, after his first wife has died. The original, British-edition title of the last of the Crouchback novels, Unconditional Surrender, is the final irony in the saga: everyone, everything concedes; grace settles on Guy's head with all the sweet finality of happy events at the end of a novel by Charles Dickens. Guy, it is clear, is a thumping saint. To the consternation of the conventional hagiologist, he is a saint rewarded on earth, although not exactly with public honors and a grand justification of his follies. His rewards come in retirement from the battles, to the family estate which is as much his inheritance as are the motions of chivalry. His life in retirement opens before him in the manner of the last years of the medieval knight. The moves are classical. Guy is, as his name makes abundantly clear, a throwback, a minor aristocrat in the annals of the blood, a major aristocrat in the annals of the spirit. One has to look twice to find him, in either set of records, crouched, like a self-conscious gargoyle, hiding beneath the benches, not of royalty or the first families of the realm, but of the quieter and less heralded families at the periphery. But one finds him—or rather grace does. And we respond—or rather grace permits us to, if we accept the terms of Waugh's allegory—in spite of all our inherited distaste for religious sentiment and the coincidences and inadvertencies which it keeps stirring up.

It is silly to reproach Waugh with the coincidences and inadvertencies of his books, whether they are the contrivances of a late religious romanticism or those of an early dyspeptic expressionism; almost as silly as the accusation that his figures are without objective reality. An allegorist's figures, like his landscapes, are deliberately contrived. Events in an allegorist's world are chained together by coincidence and inadvertences which are quite without spontaneity. Causal connections are made by the logic of the imagination and tied firmly together by the webs of dogma—whether of art or of religion or of both. Waugh's allegories take root in the real world, but they flower in no world that ever was, no matter how close their world may seem at times to the world we know. Their reality is a spiritual one, which is not to say a rational one or one that seeks the balance it does not have. The reality of the spirit may be a deranged reality or a supremely sane one. Who is to say whether the world of Brideshead and the Crouchbacks and the Halberdiers is more or less deranged than that of Tony and Brenda Last or the public-school and party-going folk of the early satires—such as Captain Grimes, Agatha Runcible, Ambrose Silk, Basil Seal, Margot Metroland, and Mrs. Ape? From beginning to end, it is the reality of the spirit that concerns Waugh. He is relentless in his efforts to get at it and ruthless with the devices of fictional realism. His novel is the novel of the eighteenth century. His techniques of characterization and narration are those of the originators of the English novel. And so in his novels, right to the end, we live with personifications and placards—Lord Outrage and Lady Circumference and Lord Tangent, Miss Tin and Miles Plastic, Mr. Joyboy and Aimée Thanatogenos, Trimmer and Major Hound. Like the titles of his books, the names of his characters signify much in the construction of his allegories. He is never shy about extending meanings beyond the uncertainties of chance and the imprecisions of the laws of probability.

In reading Waugh, one does well to meditate, for a few moments at least, on his contrivances. They are not schoolboy jokes, as they may at first appear, nor are they allegorical commonplaces. They are lines into a world of moral speculation in which every image is a potential icon and every proper noun a likely emblem. They begin as counters in a game of great comic gusto. They end as the blazons of a devout and complex heraldry.

It would be a great mistake to overestimate the depth of Waugh's allegories, to see either in the comic counters or in the heraldic clutterings a profound insight into the human condition. It would be a distortion of these materials to find anything entirely fresh or novel in them, and from Waugh's point of view an impertinence. His allegories are of an ancient kind and their content as far outside the philosophy, psychology, and sociology of this century as his devices could make it and as a vocabulary intelligible to modern readers would permit. To find more than a passing joke or a lingering sentimentality in Waugh, one must surrender to his world of the spirit and the style in which it is encased. One must, in a sense, accept and undergo the ordeal of Evelyn Waugh as a kind of spiritual exercise. For that, surely, is what Waugh's performance amounts to, looked at as an entity. It does represent a complete oeuvre, I believe, a unity not always sought but somehow usually found. Working with the materials of a dying society, a society in which such values as could be discovered were inevitably blurred and sometimes impossibly opaque. Waugh found coherences and even more—an underlying structure: the "Catholic structure [that] still lies lightly buried beneath every phase of English life; history, topography, law, archaeology everywhere reveal Catholic origins." That revelation of coherence and structure, and of underlying design and purpose, led to another revelation for Waugh: it was possible to give the history and topography of his novels an unmistakable coherence, structure, design, and purpose, and not simply to allow those qualities to appear as the functions of a rigorously measured prose style. An irony that accidentally produced an allegory of sorts gave way to an allegory of irony dedicated to the exploration and even, sometimes, to the explication of Christian values. A covert regard for the ridiculous people with whom he lived out his public-school and college and party-going youth became an open sentiment of support for the soldiers who survived the opening ceremonies of World War II long enough to fight with style—in whatever task, fatuous or glorious, they were assigned—for Christian values, whether or not they understood or even professed those values.

Waugh had discovered some years before he died that, as he explained in the introductory note to The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), "Hallucination is far removed from loss of reason." He was explaining that he himself had undergone "a brief bout of hallucination" very much like that described in the novel. "The reason works with enhanced power," he went on, "while the materials for it to work on, presented by the senses, are delusions. A story-teller naturally tries to find a plot into which his observations can be fitted." That, it seems to me, is the point of Waugh's work, a point made with more and more clarity and precision as his life wore on, and with more and more warmth that sometimes settled into sentimentality. Hallucinations and all the other demonstrations of human fallibility, Waugh's fables tell us, and tell us with particular strength of conviction at the end, are also opportunities for a show of reason. That is his faith. It makes, finally, even the modern world endurable for him.

Robert Barnard (essay date April 1979)

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SOURCE: "What the Whispering Glades Whispered: Dennis Barlow's Quest in The Loved One," in English Studies, Vol. 60, No. 2, April 1979, pp. 176-82.

[Barnard is an English writer and educator. In the following essay, he analyzes Waugh's satirical attack on superficiality and illusion in The Loved One.]

One of the most haunting images one retains of Evelyn Waugh's life, a life rich in incongruities and contrasts, is the author's own account of how, during his brief and abortive visit to Hollywood in 1947, he was driven daily (in the car that was supposed to take him to the studio) to the cemetery called Forest Lawn, and how he spent hour after fascinated hour exploring the mysteries of the place. He had exhausted the possibilities of Hollywood in days, but the appeal of Forest Lawn seemed inexhaustible. This preference is mirrored in The Loved One, both in the career of Dennis Barlow, and in the structure of the novel itself; after a few pages devoted to the great dream factory, the novel takes wing for Whispering Glades and the Happier Hunting Ground, and remains there.

What was the appeal of Forest Lawn to Waugh? Of course to some extent the appeal was that of an incubating story. Waugh himself was very conscious of how limited his experience had been since his marriage, and he welcomed both the war and the hallucinatory experiences that gave him Pinfold precisely on the ground that one should be grateful for experience that was potential fiction. He himself, in the Preface to the Collected Edition reprint of the novel draws the parallel between himself and Barlow, and the simple explanation of the fascination is that, like him, Waugh came away with a chunk of experience which was to be turned (in Waugh's case) into a novel rather than a poem. But the interesting question is: Why this experience? Why, of all places in the States, did Waugh's imagination feed so ravenously on Forest Lawn? And, since Dennis Barlow's search for his 'chunk of experience' is presented, like Tony Last's, in terms of a quest, what is the quest for?

The relationship between the two major objects of satire in the novel is clear-cut. Hollywood and Whispering Glades deal with illusion, with throwing a mist of unreality over the unpalatable. Life's dream factory is complemented and completed by Death's dream factory. Just as Baby Aaronson can be transformed by the artists of the studio into Juanita del Pablo and then (as fashions change) into Kathleen Fitzbourke, so can the bulging indigo face of Sir Francis Hinsley be transformed by the artists of the mortuary into the dignified mask that will greet his mourning Waiting Ones. True in the first case the star's singing of The Wearing of the Green may have a flamenco ring, and in the second the peaceful image may appear to Barlow even more horrible than the strangulated reality. But these are extreme cases: on the whole the dream machine works its magic, and blurs the distinction between reality and illusion.

And in blurring that distinction it contributes to the dismal process of standardisation which is Waugh's second prong in his satirical attack. Mr Medici may not (like Baby Aaronson) lose his name, but it has to be pronounced Medissy ("'how you said kinda sounds like a wop and Mr Medici is a fine young man with a very, very fine and wonderful record…'"). The truth about Mr Medici's origins is lost, and the illusion is produced of him as the standard product. This illusion is almost universal, since it must be within the reach of all to become the standard product. Air hostesses lose everything that makes them individual women, and become American Womanhood. Kaiser's peaches lose their stones and become fruity cotton wool. Waugh is perhaps the last of a long line of writers for whom America was the great revolutionary leveller (the position now occupied, in some American eyes, by the countries of Northern Europe).

An account of the novel along these lines is convincing enough, and true to the text—a neat and simple pattern, appropriate for such a tiny satiric gem of a novel. And yet it leaves one dissatisfied. This is not because (as has often been objected) Waugh's lines of attack were well-worn: the effectiveness of satire does not depend on the originality of the satirist's viewpoint. Yet, the more one reads the novel, the more complex it seems, or—to be more precise—the more one senses lurking layers of meaning below the mordant hilarity of the surface. This feeling, that there is something enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos—something complex which is never allowed entirely to become explicit, is reinforced by the Conradian opening to the novel.

If The Loved One were simply the hard, bright satire on American illusion and American standardisation which it is easily taken for, it is difficult to account for the deliberate mystification of this opening. We are—apparently—in some Far Eastern Outpost of Empire, with mystery and menace lurking in the jungle around the British Presence. What one would underline about this opening is not the suggestion of savagery lurking behind sophistication (which has been a constant theme of Waugh from the beginning of his career), but precisely the mystery, the disorientation the gambit produces. The reader takes some time to get his bearings, and in fact he is never allowed to be too sure that he has got them. He may feel he has resolved the mystery when the scene is revealed as Hollywood. The British are parody Empire-builders, parodying the public-school code of games, keeping up appearances, and drumming out the rotter who does not play by the rules. The Americans are the natives, whose bizarre customs are observed rather as Marlow observes the signs of savage life along the banks of the Congo—strange, terrifying, fascinating, and above all other.

Yet as soon as this pattern is established in our minds, the kaleidoscope is given another shake, and we are back in uncertainty: Sir Francis is dismissed—more, he is de-personed. The studio not only does not employ him, it does not know him, and seems not ever to have known him. He has no identity; he has no history. A new pattern then emerges: the Americans are all-powerful rulers, God-like as Kurtz; the British are the shabby hangers on at their despotic court, barnacles posing as pillars. The new pattern is a suitable mirror of the British in the twilight of their day as Empire-builders.

Building on this beginning, Waugh makes sure that as soon as the reader thinks he has a firm foothold on the satiric viewpoint of the author, he finds himself on a slippery slope. We are in 'that zone of insecurity in the mind where none but the artist dare trespass', and when he has mentioned that zone, Waugh goes on: 'the tribes were mustering. Dennis, the frontiersman, could read the signs'. Dennis, then, is our guide; his quest, and Waugh's, and ours, is into the heart of the American emptiness. But the mystification and ambiguity of the opening warns us to beware of clear-cut simplifications, simplifications such as the American Innocence and European Experience platitude which Dennis himself mentions: the American experience is judged, and found wanting, that is certain, but the point of view from which this judgment is made is far less obvious. Only the total experience of the novel can reveal the deeper shades of meaning behind the simplistic pattern of the surface, and in talking of them we enter 'zones of insecurity' with a vengeance, for Waugh has made nothing explicit.

In his well-known and much quoted article in Life which was a prelude to The Loved One, Waugh described the creator of forest Lawn as 'the first man to offer eternal salvation at an inclusive charge as part of his undertaking service' [Life, September 29, 1947]. In The Loved One itself, the Happier Hunting Ground certainly seems to conform to this description: it offers a heaven for pets to wag their tails (or go through other appropriate motions) in. And Whispering Glades is described frequently in terms of a Church, with Mr Joyboy as its High Priest: "'Mr Joyboy's kinda holy'". But the Whispering Glades of the novel comes no closer than this to a guarantee of eternal salvation. Indeed, one could well claim that some of the more self-confidently exclusive varieties of Protestantism come nearer than Wilbur Kenworthy to offering such a guarantee. Actually, all that seems an offer here (to Caucasians only) is a kind of life-less life, a trouble-free, wait, an unstimulating dream. All THE DREAMER foresees for the Loved One as they await, inurned, immured or insarcophagused, their reunion with their Waiting Ones, is a 'Happy Resting Place', no further description vouchsafed. This could be a result of a desire to avoid sectarian controversy, but it seems more like a failure of the imagination. After a flavourless life, all that can be imagined is a flavourless eternity. THE DREAMER, after all, is a product of the society whose principal characteristics Waugh has seized on as standardisation and witless dreams: as a consequence he is hard put to promise as a Way of Death anything but its equivalent—sterilised, prettified, and monotonous. In fact it is not merely paradoxical to say that the principal characteristic of Wilbur Kenworthy's conception of the after-life as its lifelessness. It is as if, for the inhabitants of this hygienic Eden, the imagination has been so anethetised that it can prefigure as a reward for enduring this life only the gift of lack of life (in peaceful and artistic surroundings). Kenworthy offers not salvation, but drugged rest—the eternal Kaiser's peach.

The points Waugh is making through the burial rituals of Southern California are, then, both social and religious: pressing on from the satire on the monotony of classless, stressless, uniform America, he traces the Americans' obsession with smooth surfaces to its ultimate, death, and finds there the same falsification, the same trivialisation. But by glossing over pain, they have lost the sharp taste of delight; and by denying the existence of evil, and misery, and loss, they have rendered meaningless not only the age-old sanction of hell in the hereafter, but the age-old inducement of Heaven. Eternity has been so emptied of significance that one can no longer hope for or even imagine it. And yet, beneath the glossy surface, through the anæthetised response, a new pain asserts itself—the pain of emptiness, of sameness, of routine. It is this pain that Mrs Joyboy protests against, that Aimée dumbly senses. It is this pain that is the Grail of Dennis's quest.

The characters in the novel and their progress (or lack of it) to self-knowledge and an awareness of the nullity around them are chosen to illustrate a spectrum from complacency to desperation. They certainly do not divide themselves up by nationality. Sir Ambrose Abercrombie is self-sufficiently at home in it, and so—until he is savagely brought up against the ruthless underbelly of the Dream world—is Sir Francis Hinley. On the other hand, not all Americans can accept it so complacently, for they sense (without always putting it into words, which would imply disloyalty, might even be unethical) the cracks in the pretty painted face. The girl at Whispering Glades whom Dennis sees as 'the standard product' and forgets the moment she leaves the room may think she finds life tolerable, for she is of an age to do so. But when Mr Joyboy goes home, it is to his Mom. Without finding this character in the least endearing, one warms to her, because she is alive, and she protests: Life is not good, life is not sweet, she seems to say; I am not good, I am not sweet—nor will I be until I lie under the mortician's fingers. I am a nasty, cantankerous old woman, and I'll make sure you know it, if only to tear down some of the rosy veils from your dream world.

But the main character who comes gradually to see through to the reality behind the surface of American life is, of course, Aimée Thanatogenos, and it is in fact Mrs Joyboy who is one of the elements in the novel that persuade her that life cannot be standardised to anybody's satisfaction. Other things that are of weight are Dennis's 'unethical' behaviour, the failure of her Guru Brahmin (a figure drawn from Nathanael West, but sadly prophetic of the 'sixties), and the forceful murmurs of her own ancestral gods. It is these last that most engage Waugh.

The dining car attendant who replied to Waugh's 'I am a foreigner' with 'In this country we are all foreigners' deserves a place in any account of The Loved One's genesis quite as prominent as that of the lady from another nation of immigrants, Australia, who first directed his steps to that place of 'sheer exquisite beauty', Forest Lawn. For the straw that Waugh clutches at in this novel is the links all Americans must have with older, more diverse, and (apparently above all) decadent cultures. Just as conservative people who talk of 'levelling down' nurture in their hearts the confident hope that new inequalities will immediately arise to nullify the levelling, so Waugh believes that the standardised emptiness of American life ignores the rich diversity of American origins, and cherishes the hope that, in some cases at least, the old gods will fight back, and win. Seen from this point of view, Aimée's death is a triumph—of her 'decadence', her 'absurdity', and the 'shady businesses (fencing and pimping)' of her ancestors, qualities and attributes which in turn link her to Greece's Gods and Greece's ancient greatness. Her end is no more a 'tragedy' (as the subtitle of the novel has it) than the ending of Vile Bodies is a 'Happy Ending'. It is a glorious reassertion of ancient values, a communion with greatness, a rejection of mediocrity.

It is, above all, a victory of the spirit over the heart. We are told of Aimée that her heart 'was a small inexpensive organ of local manufacture', but that her spirit 'had to be sought afar … in the mountain air of the dawn, in the eagle-haunted passes of Hellas'. This denigration of the heart is not surprising, in view of the would-be classicism of Waugh's earlier fiction, and in view of the immediate inspiration for the novel: he was in the Hollywood of the 'forties, when romantic and Victorian stereotypes had been debased to absurdity. It was a world which devalued the very word heart by its usages: 'heart-warming', 'heart throb', 'heart-broken'. It is also worth noting that Waugh's objection to the proposed film treatment of Brideshead Revisited, the purpose of his visit, was that it was treated as a simple love-story, with the spiritual and theological implications ignored (surely he can not have been surprised?). In this book, then, he shows a distinct preference for the man 'of sensibility rather than of sentiment'—and this description is probably explanation enough of Barlow's failure to prosper in Hollywood.

Dennis Barlow, in fact, is the least loved of Waugh's (mostly unlovable) central figures. Carens says that 'his cynicism and his incapacity for feeling mark him as another hollow man' and Sykes calls him 'loathsome'. This dislike of Dennis no doubt springs mainly from the last pages of the novel, from his cool reception of the news of Aimée's suicide ("'Of course I never thought her wholly sane, did you?'"), and his self-interested organisation of her final combustion. But of course the point about Dennis is precisely his refusal to participate in Joyboy's gutless wailings ("'She was my honeybaby'"), which are the emotional small change of an impoverished imagination. We are told specifically, as Carens should have noted, that Dennis 'went out alone into the pets' cemetery with his own thoughts, which were not a thing to be shared with Mr Joyboy'. Dennis is not incapable of emotion, but he can control it with classical finesse, and use it. He poaches the romantic poets for his wooing, and he even has recourse to the decadents of the nineties for his own pleasure—but when he does he uses them as a 'branded drug', guaranteed to 'yield the sensation he craved'. He is in touch with the world of emotions, but in the most practical possible way. Life, and the war, have left him without illusions or ideals: he is cool, aloof, Augustine in spirit.

He has, in fact, to a frightening degree, the detachment of the artist. 'Here at the quiet limit of the world', one of the lines he repeats like a monk's text, hints at the contracting out, the withdrawal he finds necessary to his art. Ironically, this withdrawal links him to America: just as he forgets the mortuary attendant as soon as she has left the room so 'standard' is she, so Aimée complains that "'When I turn away I can't even remember what you look like'". He is so detached as hardly to be a complete person. Whispering Glades momentarily upsets that necessary aloofness, for it presents itself as the ultimate embodiment of his American experience. It excites him intolerably, because he knows '[t]here was something in Whispering Glades that was necessary to him, that only he could find'. Later we are told:

He had abandoned the poem he was writing, long ago it seemed, in the days of Frank Hinsley. That was not what the Muse wanted. There was a very long, complicated, and important message she was trying to convey to him. It was about Whispering Glades, but it was not, except quite indirectly, about Aimée. Sooner or later the Muse would have to be placated. She came first.

But if Aimée is not the Grail of Dennis's quest, it is she who provides the final ray of light that illuminates his goal. With her death Dennis's discovery is made, the excitement is over, he can settle down to the moulding of his spiritual discoveries into satisfying aethetic shape. He is enriched in spirit by his experiences, and enriched, too, by the loss of his heart:

On the last evening in Los Angeles Dennis knew he was a favourite of Fortune. Others, better men than he, had foundered here and perished. The strand was littered with their bones. He was leaving it not only unravished but enriched. He was adding his bit to the wreckage, something that had long irked him, his young heart, and was carrying back instead the artist's load, a great, shapeless chunk of experience; bearing it home to his ancient and comfortless shore; to work on it hard and long, for God knew how long. For that moment of vision a lifetime is often too short.

Aimée's death, then, has provided the illumination which is the end of Dennis Barlow's quest: she has shown the saving madness, the redeeming horror, behind the bland surface of American life. His literary transformation of that illumination must be what Waugh's book is too: a hymn to pain; a celebration of unpredictability; a justification of disaster. His message is not a comfortable one, and to bring it to literary fruition he needs the rigour of the Saint and the Artist—never companionable figures. Dennis has to be tough to accept the message, tougher still to wrest it into artistic shape. But the Whispering Glades have whispered him a message—about the desirability of pain, the necessity of diversity, and chaos, and madness, and despair. And, against all odds, he has survived, and will pass the message on.

Alain Blayac (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Evelyn Waugh and Humour," in Evelyn Waugh: New Directions, London: Macmillan, 1992, pp. 112-32.

[In the following essay, Blayac explains the classical meaning of "humor," rooted in the theory of the four humors of the human body, and applies it to Waugh's novels.]

Humour, English humour, has always been a subject of interest (and puzzlement) for the French who have always had the utmost difficulties in understanding their neighbours, hence the number of French essays devoted to the analysis and explanation of the concept. Across the Channel, the notion strikes deep roots in the British collective unconscious. Born of the medical 'theory of humours', it still prevailed during the Renaissance. Initiated by Hippocrates, theorised by Galien, it referred to the four fluids of the human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Physical diseases, as well as mental and moral temperaments, were the result of the relationship of one humour to another. When the humours were in balance, an ideal temperament prevailed, genial or melancholy according to the circumstances. This explains how the word 'humour' came to mean disposition, then mood or characterized peculiarity, like folly or affectation.

In literature, even though Chaucer and Shakespeare had amply drawn upon the subject, it was Ben Jonson who created the 'Comedy of Humours', depicting characters whose behaviour was determined by a single trait or humour. The Prologue to Every Man Out of His Humour gives the first definition of both 'humour' and 'humorist'.

     Asper: Why humour, as 'tis ens, we thus define it      To be a quality of air, or water,      And in itself holds these two properties,      Moisture and fluxure: as, for demonstration,      Pour water on this floor, 'twill wet and run:      Likewise the air, forced through a horn or trumpet,      Flows instantly away, and leaves behind      A Kind of dew; and hence we do conclude,      That whatsoe'er hath fluxure and humidity,      As wanting power to contain itself,      Is humour, So in every human body,      The choler, melancholy, phlegm and blood,      By reason that they flow continually,      In some one part, and are not continent,      Receive the name of humours. Now thus far      It may, by metaphor, apply itself      Unto the general disposition:      As when some one peculiar quality      Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw      All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,      In their confluctions, all to run one way,      This may be truly said to be a humour.      Cordatus: […] now if an idiot      Have but an apish or fantastic strain,      It is his humour,      Asper: Well, I will scourge those apes,      And to these courteous eyes oppose a mirror,      As large as is the stage whereon we act;      Where they shall see the time's deformity      Anatomised in every nerve, and sinew,      With constant courage, and contempt or fear […]      Now gentlemen, I go      To turn an actor, and a humorist,      Where, ere I do resume my present person,      We hope to make the circles of your eyes      Flow with distilled laughter…

The comedy of humours has its characters, eccentrics, maniacs, lunatics, swindlers, victims, and its themes of eccentricity, whims and fancies, madness. It creates 'humour', what is laughable, whose creator is the 'humorist'. Since then, and up till today, humour has developed and endured in Britain and its arts. In the last thirty years, considerable progress has been made towards the definition of humour. An article dating back to the eighteenth century suggests that the English are animated by a natural, original vein called 'humour'. According to it, everyone in England offers some bizarre slant of mind, some original humour. In the course of time, the term became the expression of a collective mood which the English relish and cultivate. Unlike the Cartesian French, who turned their backs on sentiment and the concrete to move towards concept and the abstract, the English leaned towards humour, which they linked with the particular and the ephemeral; in the process they initiated a literary climate which could only flourish in a people born of the union of the Anglo-Saxon heart and the Anglo-Norman mind.

Michel Serres's latest book, Le Contrat naturel, opens on a description of a painting by Goya: two men brandishing cudgels are fighting on quicksands. Intent on their duel, they forget that they have already sunk knee-deep in the mud. Each motion, each gesture they make contribute to their being gradually buried together. Their aggressivity determines the rhythm of their sinking and the time of their interment. Such blindness to the surrounding world is by no means new or incredible; the trouble is that it is pregnant with catastrophic consequences. As such, the painting could perfectly illustrate the lesson of Evelyn Waugh's fiction, if, that is, a dash of humour were added to the Spanish artist's tragic manner.

Indeed Waugh may be considered as a typical representative of the British dual nature, even in the very reductive clichés about his life which see him first as a young scapegrace iconoclast, later as a bitter ageing hypochondriac. In this essay, we shall take as a starting point the (today widely-held) hypothesis that Waugh is a genuine moralist and satirist, who draws on all the forms of humour to propound in an oblique manner the moral, religious and philosophical principles which he advocates for the saving of the individual and society.

What is humour? Before attempting to answer the question, let us suggest that it is high time the reading public, and indeed the critics, realised that humour and humorists must not be made light of, Evelyn Waugh no less than others. To be humorous about humour amounts to confusing the object and the instrument of the study. Let us also remember that the notion is increasingly arduous to grasp; everybody discusses and defines it in more or less overlapping or contradictory ways, when it should be strictly circumscribed so as to avoid commonplaces or overgeneralisations.

Historically, French, unlike most other languages, split its vocabulary into 'humeur' and 'humour', hinting at a new awareness of the phenomenon seen as a rational reaction and, for such as knew a little philology, suggesting its emotional and affective roots. Seen from a different perspective, an essay on Evelyn Waugh, whose Britishness is both ingrained and peerless, cannot but make the distinction between English and American humours. L. W. Kline believed the latter resulted from the conflict between a sense of inner freedom and external societal pressures: thus American humour acts as a safety-valve. Today in the USA one encounters a growing temptation to reduce 'humor' to an aesthetic of the absurd and the nonsensical which is by no means the case in Britain. In his own study, Escarpit presents the 'British sense of humour as an aesthetic form of the self-consciousness', in other words as a national reflex of discretion and decency, concurrently individual and collective (transposed in Waugh's writings to the point of becoming the mask behind which the satirist lurks and chastises through laughter), whereas in the USA, he regards the word as indicating a national reflex of indiscretion or indecency. Two last capital distinctions must be made, the first for the French, the second for the English. Humour should never be confused with what initiates laughter, nor mistaken for irony or wit. Humour and laughter are two different phenomena; Bergson's demonstrations only tangentially concern humour. On the other hand, wit and irony are far too intellectual to be identified with it, for humour demands the sympathy of a witness or accomplice. To the pleasure solitarily enjoyed by the 'wit', self-satisfied, convinced of his intellectual superiority, the humorist prefers the sympathetic wink, the sentimental connivance. He appears humble, only too willing to hand the fruits of his labours over to the invisible inter-locutor who he himself has conjured up beforehand for his own purpose and pleasure. In this respect, humour (which has been described as a current passing between two poles) diverges aesthetically, because of its deep affective roots, from wit and irony (which cut the current between two people).

When successively reading Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, one cannot but be struck by the drastic evolution of Waugh's tone and humour induced by the trauma of his divorce and the revelation of the Roman Catholic faith. After the callous, careless impertinence of the first novel and the first half of the second, humour suddenly becomes the touchstone and the instrument of the writer's wounded affectivity, directly debouching on to bitterly heartfelt satire. This affectivity provides the next novels with their peculiar atmosphere, a sui generis flavour whose infinite nuances range from rosy to grey and black. When the tender element dominates, rosy humour prevails, as in the following passage in which the writer himself admits his sympathy for the tourists he describes.

The word 'tourist' seems naturally to suggest haste and compulsion. One thinks of those pitiable droves of Middle West school teachers whom one encounters suddenly at street corners and in public buildings, baffled, breathless, their heads singing with unfamiliar names, their bodies strained and bruised from scrambling in and out of motor charabancs, up and down staircases, and from trailing disconsolately through miles of gallery and museum at the heels of a contemptuous and facetious guide. How their eyes haunt us long after they have passed on to the next stage of their itinerary—haggard and uncomprehending eyes, mildly resentful, like those of animals in pain, eloquent of that world-weariness we all feel as the dead weight of European culture … And as one sits at one's café table playing listlessly with sketch book and apéritif, and sees them stumble by, one sheds not wholly derisive tears for these poor scraps of humanity thus trapped and mangled in the machinery of uplift.

In many cases, one observes that affectivity is neither openly didactic nor sentimental, it thus steers clear of the potential dangers of cheap, impersonal moralism or mawkishness which Evelyn Waugh deeply mistrusts. Father Rothschild's famous speech on the Bright Young Things' being possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence is at worst a minor flaw, but, seen in a more positive perspective, it provides a moral standard by which to judge their behaviour.

Waugh's art may also serve, by dint of his humour, to numb his reader's sensibility. Then, in the case of such exemplary occurrences as Little Lord Tangent's or Simon Balcairn's deaths, humour turns grey. It is born not so much of the narrator's dehumanising detachment as of the fact that the reader, not allowed to feel that those are real people's deaths, smiles at happenings which, in other contexts, would be deemed tragic but here become essentially fantastic. The second epigraph of Vile Bodies gives the key to this type of humour. The writer quells moralism by resorting to modern techniques—montage, collage, intertextuality—which generate humour in as much as they allow the reader to distance himself from his reading. In the epigraph, the moral slant is concealed by an apparently casual, or jocular, attitude. But, in most cases, the technical skill hides a hopeless or desperate brand of immorality. It is prominent in the pranks and hoaxes of the Bright Young Things and particularly in Agatha Runcible's adventures culminating in her untimely, but inescapable, and ultimately tragic, demise.

When the realistic element supersedes the 'Alice-in-Wonderland' atmosphere, merrymaking turns sour, bitterness sets in, and grey humour is strengthened. The older generation, a constant butt of Waugh's humour, illustrate this aspect; the description of their gathering at Anchorage House belongs in such a category.

She [Lady Circumference] saw … a great concourse of pious and honourable people …, uncultured, unaffected, unembarrassed, unassuming, unambitious people, of independent judgment and marked eccentricities,… that fine phalanx of the passing order …

Here the profusion of mostly negative adjectives turns them less into laughing stocks than creatures of a bygone age, grotesque characters in a sad fairy tale. The humour has turned dark grey in the melancholy realisation that the former rulers are both out of touch with the modern world and unconscious of it—in a word, decadent. Darker—for symbolic of the hero's misconceptions—is the reality of the pseudo-refuges, the 'Lush Places', which the Younger Generation and their like wrongly consider as genuine shelters immune from the aggressions of the outside world.

The immense trees which encircled Boot Magna Hall, shaded its drives and rides, and stood tastefully disposed at the whim of some forgotten, provincial predecessor of Repton, single and in groups about the park, had suffered, some from ivy, some from lightning, some from the various malignant disorders that vegetation is heir to, but all, principally, from old age. Some were supported with trusses and crutches of iron, some were filled with cement….

The lake was moved by strange tides …

Boot Magna Hall fares no better than the members of the Older Generation, is no better fortress than Oxford, Mataudi or Hetton Abbey ever were. The humour, in its grey, dull melancholy, springs from the personification of a place victimised by the passing of time; more essentially and obliquely, it mocks the delusions of the protagonists and the responsibility they bear for their own misadventures.

When directed at the characters, humour varies with the degree of naivety or cynicism, innocence or perversion which they display. It may range from the tender to the sarcastic and the downright cynical, from rosy to grey or black again. Tenderness is the keynote to Nina Blount's shyly admitting to her lack of experience in amorous matters.

Adam undressed quickly and got into bed; Nina more slowly arranging her clothes on the chair … with less than her usual self-possession. At last she put out the light.

'Do you know', she said, trembling slightly as she got into bed, 'this is the first time this has happened to me?'

'It's great fun', said Adam, 'I promise you.'

'I'm sure it is', said Nina seriously, 'I wasn't saying anything against it. I was only saying that it hadn't happened before … Oh, Adam'.

It is remarkable that, after this scene, Waugh will never again present a perfectly innocent character, but here the gap existing between the bold situation and the reserve, coyness or self-consciousness which characterise the two lovers at this turning point of their lives is both touching and amusing. On the contrary, with Colonel Blount, Nina's father, the humour becomes jarring as one realises the nefarious treatment to which he submits historical truth. When his film, ambiguously entitled A Brand from the Burning, is presented on a Christmas Day desecrated by Adam and Nina's adultery and the declaration of war, it appears exactly to reflect the downright cynical mood and utterly deleterious atmosphere prevailing in England. The darkening humour of the novel evidently coincides with the breakdown of the author's marriage and personal values. In the 'Happy Ending', Waugh, who has hit the bottom of despair, resorts to the blackest kind of humour he has used so far.

When all references to sentiment are erased, when the writer wavers on the brink of despair or sadism, when his comedy opens on to the absurd, then black, kafkaesque humour crops up. The most numerous instances are to be found, not innocently so, in The Loved One. There the decadence of the British exiles in Los Angeles can be classified as grey humour. It merely concerns the uprooted, self-deluding British colony. Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, its leader, paints it in a ludicrous, but not wholly humourless, profession of faith.

We limeys have a particular position to keep up … It's a responsibility, I can tell you, and in various degrees every Englishman shares it. We can't be all at the top of the tree but we are all men of responsibility. You never find an Englishman among the underdogs—except in England of course.

This debased 'White Man's Burden' type of speech, the deluded (and deluding) assertions, the self-imposed blindness of Sir Ambrose associated with his use of American slang ('limeys'), contrasted with the typically English metaphorical understatement that they are not at the top of the tree bring out the reader's compassion for, and amusement at, the plight of the Britisher in Hollywood. Black humour develops when more serious subjects are concerned-religion and interment rites in particular-in the juxtaposition of Whispering Glades, the Hollywood cemetery, and the Happier Hunting Grounds, its counterpart for pets, and its sombre implications of a society forsaking its most sacred values. The Biblical parody and the reversal of Christian values are central to a novel in which the notion of human death is sacrificed to that of efficacy, pleasure substituted for pain, merrymaking for mourning, all religious references banned from the Service of 'the Loved Ones' but reinstated for defunct animals.

Dog that is born of bitch hatch but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay …

The parody of Job (14, 1-2), under the imperturbable mask of ignorance, obliquely conveys the indignation of the author at what appears to him as an evil perversion of the sacred texts in the same way as the Entrance Poster to Whispering Glades exudes humour in its lyrico-biblico-prophetic style, its caricature of the Creation and the Revelation wryly denouncing the debasement of the most sacred Christian values. Different, but as subtle and efficient, is the type of humour presiding over Tony Last's punishment. Condemned to read Dickens for ever, to live vicariously in the petit-bourgeois Victorian universe he abhorred, imprisoned in a jungle which negates the City he envisioned, Tony Last finds Hell because he had rejected the realities of the world, refused the primordial necessity of religion. In both A Handful of Dust and The Loved One, black humour (obtained through intertextuality) is resorted to to create a hellish universe which a contrario imposes the absolute necessity of religion in human existence.


Humour, whatever its coloration, requires a proper soil, special conditions to strike root in the substance of the literary work ('substance' is the proper word as a concrete basis is necessary to its growing, blooming and bearing fruit). Oxford, Mayfair, Abyssinia, Fleet Street, California, the Army provide the soils in which Waugh plants it. Unlike wit, humour thrives on the immediate observation of, and response to, the surrounding universe. It never focuses on a single word, phrase, paragraph, but suffuses the deep layers of the work of art. Waugh, a genuine humorist, patiently conjures, and bolsters, up an 'atmosphere', a 'climate' through his technique of writing and composition. He relies on a gradual refining of the raw, immediate impressions. The very genesis of the novels shows how he uses them as foundations for his fiction. His literary creation develops in three successive stages, the initial and personal experience, later transcribed into a diary or travelogue, and finally refined into an imaginative fiction which creates a new reality coloured by the writer's humour. The situations lived at the first degree are revived and transposed at the second. In order to preserve the appearance of realism, a number of 'serious' passages are inserted within the plot and serve as touchstones, foils or guide marks to the invented stories. The 'Guidebook' style for the introduction of Hetton Abbey, or the 'History' style for the Ishmaelia of Scoop play this role.

Ishmaelia, that hitherto happy commonwealth, cannot conveniently be approached from any part of the world. It lies in the North-Easterly quarter of Africa, giving colour by its position and shape to the metaphor often used of it-'the Heart of the Dark Continent'. Desert, forest, swamp, frequented by furious nomads, protect its approaches….

Various courageous Europeans in the seventies of the last century came to Ishmaelia, or near it, furnished with suitable equipment of cuckoo clocks, phonographs, opera hats, draft treaties and flags of the nations which they had been obliged to leave. They came as missionaries, ambassadors, tradesmen, prospectors, natural scientists.

None of them returned …

These passages are characterized by a meticulous presentation of apparently historical or technical details, by the dignified, unruffled attitude of a narrator intent on brushing up the setting of the plot in as rigorous and scientific manner as possible. For a brief moment, the moralist dons the garb of the scientist. Devoid of indifference, close to the passion of the scholar, Waugh's humorous fictions are always founded on realistic observation either personally acquired or invented for the sake of the cause, more frequently halfway between the two. In all cases, his realism is suddenly and brutally, but cleverly and consciously, destroyed. It hardly needs the next few words 'They were eaten, everyone of them; some raw, others stewed and seasoned …' for the truth to jump to the reader's eyes and mind, and the writer's position to be clearly defined.

In this respect, one can say that affectivity is a second necessary ingredient of Waugh's humour. Although it primarily rests on the concrete, the affective quality is essential to its development. Again it adheres to a precise pattern. Waugh's humour—humour in general perhaps—develops in three successive stages. First the reality of a social group is subverted, which provokes the reader's confusion or distress; then, a few hints dropped by the writer relieve the reader who, confronted with the mind-boggling absurdity of the proposed scheme, bursts out laughing and thus comes to share the author's humorous criticism. The way in which Lord Copper selects his journalists, Seth his personal advisers, the workings of all institutions in Britain and abroad—staff and students at Oxford, the diplomatic corps in Azania, the Press' gossip-writers and foreign correspondents, the Army—all partake of the utmost absurdity.

A third condition, the most specific, must be added: two persons—actor and witness, author and reader—must be involved for humour to appear. Actor and witness may coincide, in which case first-degree humour is achieved. Oxford students, Fleet Street journalists, Army officers are so many alter-egos of a self-mocking Waugh who, having at one time of his life lived his characters' experiences, laughs no less at himself than at those he caricatures—Paul Pennyfeather at Llanabba, Gilbert Pinfold on a cruise among others re-enact the author's past experiences. But Waugh can also create a kind of 'foil', when second degree humour is conjured up. The foil may be totally irresponsible, dull-witted and passive (Paul, Seth, William) or, on the contrary, clever, cunning and prepared to go all lengths to accomplish his aims (Basil, Julia Stitch etc …). Waugh plays freely on both alternatives, but the important fact remains that, owing to his personal commitment in his novels, a close relationship is set up between the work of art and the intellectual or sentimental response it rouses in the reader, hence, between the writer and his public. Obviously such a relationship is not easy to establish. Being linked with an 'aesthetic response', it can only be appreciated by those who are willing to collaborate. The hostility which some people have to the so-called defects of Waugh (a cad, a Papist, a conservative, a fascist!), a hostility which feeds on the multifarious provocations of a man who relished aggravating people, nips in the bud not the writer's humour but the very sense of humour of a reader overwhelmed by a devastating phobia for the writer or his writings. Naturally the phobia often derives either from personal prejudices or from a first degree analysis of oblique writings (is it not both easy and tempting to mistake Waugh for a racist?), or from the utter refusal to have anything to do with a man one abhors. Humour, let us repeat it, presupposes the reader's collaboration; it rests on his capacity to understand obliquely presented truths through an intimate knowledge of their contextual frames and/or his thorough adherence to the writer's angst. To read, for example, the conclusion of Remote People is enough to wash Waugh of the accusation of racialism so often directed at him.

On the night of my return I dined in London … I was back in the centre of the Empire, and in the spot where, at the moment, 'everyone' was going. Next day the gossip writers would chronicle the young MPs, peers, and financial magnates who were assembled in that rowdy cellar, hotter than Zanzibar, noisier than the market at Harrar, more reckless of the decencies of hospitality than the taverns of Kabalo or Tabora …

      Why go abroad?       See England first.       Just watch London knock spots off the       Dark Continent.

For humour to operate we must then agree that some modus vivendi has to be worked out between the artist and the more perspicacious reader, better still, connivance will add spice to the scandalous impact of pages that may be shocking or meaningless to the unsophisticated or unprepared public. Hence the fact that Waugh, like all satirists, has either bitter enemies on whom his humour is lost or unconditional defenders who feel his humour is supreme. Either one fights him to the bitter end or one accepts and is carried away, surrendering unconditionally to his humour.


The notion of complicity opposes humour and wit. Wit strives towards dazzling phrases, mesmerising formulas. It is not so much linked with a context as with the genius, the essence of the language. As such, instead of establishing a current between two poles, it provokes a short circuit. A fire is suddenly set ablaze, and quickly put out. Wit obviously exists in Waugh's writings, but it never informs them (as it does, say, Aldous Huxley's earlier novels). Waugh prefers to set up links, to switch on the current so to speak. In this respect the irony he directs at characters whose innocence, ignorance, nay imbecility, are palpable, is not far removed from humour. It stimulates the reader's response, obliges him to pass a personal judgment on the actors of the novels and their actions. All satirists—Montesquieu in Lettres persanes, Voltaire in Candide, not to mention Pope or Swift—have drawn on this technique propitious to the flowering of humour. Paul Penny-feather, Adam Fenwick-Symes, William Boot, Dennis Barlow, Guy Crouchback here replace Usbek, Rica or Candide.

The 'suspension of evidence', a subtle derangement of the natural order, which turns the world upside down and eradicates reason from the human organisation, is another source of humour pervading Waugh's novels. The Loved One provides the perfect illustration of a religion absurdly turned awry, in which the instant is made more important than eternity, sensual gratification more central than the soul's salvation. As a corollary to this topsy-turvy world, demanding the reader's 'suspension of evidence', Waugh's humour assumes a new acumen when it allows reality, which the fantastic adventures and preposterous fancies of the characters had blotted out, to reassert itself dramatically in the nightmares of protagonists whose minds have been deranged (Agatha, Tony and Brenda, Gilbert Pinfold). The world then is felt to be truly out of joint, only the most severe shocks may set it right, but without the protagonists ever realising it, and consequently ever becoming conscious of their own errors and responsibilities for the misfortunes which befell them. The humour springs from the unreal atmosphere surrounding events which the reader alone can appreciate at its face value once the suspension of evidence has been annihilated by the drama.

D'you know, all that time when I was dotty I had the most awful dreams. I thought we were all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop,… and car after car kept crashing until I was left all alone driving and driving—and then I used to crash and wake up.

Let us note at this point that, Waugh's humour transcending the comic and arising from almost any situation and technique, from language to structure, Bergson's comic hierarchy, which ranges from the mechanic to verbal and psychological devices, is of little avail to analyse it.

Humour indeed can occur when the writer uses his style pleasantly enough to convince the reader of his good sense. It is universally acknowledged that Waugh ranks among the best stylists of modern British literature. He himself claimed that, for the novelist he was, style was primordial

Properly understood style is not a seductive decoration added to a functional structure; it is of the essence of the work of art. ['Literary Style in England and America', in Books on Trial, October 1955]


One thing I hold as certain, that a writer, if he is to develop, must concern himself more and more with Style … a writer must face the choice of becoming an artist or a prophet. ['Literary Style in England and America']

Countless examples of humorous style can illustrate our purpose. Tony Last's Sunday ritual

Tony invariably wore a dark suit on Sundays and a stiff white collar. He went to church, where he sat in a large pitch-pine pew, put in by his great-grandfather at the time of rebuilding the house, furnished with very high crimson hassocks and a fireplace, complete with iron grate and a little poker which his father used to rattle when any point in the sermon excited his disapproval …

is a pastiche of Addison's well-known portrait of Sir Roger de Coverley at church. The squire, vested with the remnants of feudal power, suffers no inattention from the parishioners for whose moral health he feels responsible … but he allows himself occasionally to doze off during the sermon. Humour then proceeds from the identification of Tony with Sir Roger, from the stereotyped, unconscious archaism of an attitude out of keeping with modern times and revealed through style. At bottom it opens onto Waugh's critical awareness of his hero and of his times. At this level the writer's specific humour may rightly be said to depend on his perception of an historical and political background, the past historical grandeur, the decadence of the ruling classes, the degenerescence of the religious and political leaders. Style has transformed Waugh into a prophetic artist. At the level of the overall structure, the final retribution of the herovictims (Adam, Tony, Ambrose, Guy) introduces a tragic element in which pathos and eiron are associated, whereas the apparently successful characters only duplicate their preceding errors and are taken back to their starting points. The more you run, the more you stay in the same place.

At the elementary level, the most innocuous puns or euphemisms become significant. In Vile Bodies, for instance, the vocabulary often opens up ironic vistas. Divine, just too divine the characters exclaim at the very moment they enter Hell. Toponymy (Sink Street) and onomastics (the angels' names) partake of the same epiphanies. Occasionally the play-on-words is merely an affair of humorous backchat. The play on the different meanings of the French verb baiser (to kiss, but also 'to screw') in Scoop is immediately perceptible to French readers as a simple joke. Superficially amusing, it is nevertheless connected with the desecration of Christmas, eight years earlier, by the adulterous protagonists of Vile Bodies. The central, most serious reflexion of Black Mischief, [Prudence] 'I'd like to eat you', takes a threefold meaning. It suggests Basil Seal's physical attraction to Prudence, foreshadows the nature of their amorous activities, and eventually, with the heroine's tragic demise, illustrates the deep nature of Azania. The humorous play-on-words all function as the euphemisms of human manners. The germ of the humour basically lies in the distanciation created by the style between the reader and the text. Whether spatial or temporal, it is primarily created by a clever handling of language, style, structure, and their hidden potentialities.

In some cases, when exceptionally tender feelings are involved (Paul for Margot, William for Kätchen), a dash of pseudo-lyricism allows the reader to escape from the bleak reality. Descriptions break the dramatic rhythm, the action stops in a stasis which is a mere structural lull, a dreamlike interval in a world whose harsh nature cannot but reassert itself in a brutal way. In such cases the humorous effect resides in the momentary (but deceptive) dissipation of the prevalent dullness into a fireworks of shimmering images, in the gap between reality and dream.

A week of blue water that grew clearer and more tranquil daily, of sun that grew warmer, radiating the ship and her passengers, filling them with good humour and ease; blue water that caught the sun in a thousand brilliant points, dazzling the eyes as they searched for porpoises and flying fish; clear blue water in the shallows revealing its bed of silver and smooth pebble, fathoms down; soft warm shade on deck under the awnings; the ship moved amid unbroken horizons on a vast blue disc of blue, sparkling with sunlight.

Obviously such an escapist passage is not humorous per se, but it is based on a pathetic fallacy soon to be dispelled, when the drab aspects of the world will predominate again … i.e. very soon

Muddy sea between Trinidad and Georgetown; and the ship lightened of cargo rolled heavily on the swell.

This type of humour is basically structural and essential to the emergence of the message. It springs from the confrontation of the passages, from the illusions harboured by the characters (and presumably the reader) that all may be well, that the interlude may last for ever. But a close attention to style and context reveals the vanity of the dreams, and the writer's intentions are clarified by his structural humour.

It has often been noticed that polarisation and counterpoints are constant features in Waugh's fiction. According to G. McCartney they are 'the structural analogues of the divisive tensions he sensed both within and outside himself', but they go beyond the personal idiosyncrasy and concur in the structural development of humour. By juxtaposing scenes, applying in the process the discoveries of modern art (collage, montage etc….), Waugh may exert his humour at the generational division, the faults of the couple, the city and the jungle (the banquet and the cannibal feast, war and racket, phony war and phony games etc….). Amusing as they are the counterpoints or montage effects confront the reader with unmistakable, but hitherto unrealised, discoveries.

Another source of humour lies in the apparent indifference of the narrator to his story which he interrupts with great disdain for his plot. The humour lies in the fact that in their own bizarre way the apparent digressions turn out to be absolutely pertinent to the novel. In Vile Bodies, the disquisition on 'Being and Becoming' parodies the argument about the ontological primacy of essence on existence. In Decline and Fall, the Big Wheel at Luna Park stands for Silenus's metaphor of life. In the process, the reader is led to realise the insignificance of modern man caught in the infernal machinery of a world running loose or mad. Metaphors of this plight abound in all the novels (the film and the car race in Vile Bodies, the funeral parlour in The Loved One). Humour conceals Waugh's didactic stance; the mask it provides does not need to be elaborately contrived, but it is essential to the writer's strategy. The humorous (apparent) detachment of the narrator strengthens the situation of the writer as producer. Detached, unmoved by his characters' misfortunes, reluctant to get the readers involved, he all the same suggests a moral. He draws on the strategies of modern art to ridicule the 'modern' way of life. The humour lies in the ridiculing through which he demonstrates the failure of a feckless and faithless world, the futility of a society which has lost its fundamental values. Later, Waugh will switch from humour to realism, from detachment to commitment in an attempt to offer positive solutions to his drifting contemporaries. The humour will die in the process, to the regret of the readers who had not grasped the didactic nature of the early novels or enjoyed its discretion.

The didactic nature of the novels, essential as it is, does not suffice to make of Waugh a major novelist. Waugh's originality does not lie so much in the denunciation of an insane society as in a new form of humour; or rather the emergence of a demented or corrupt language initiates another species of humour designed to set off the degraded nature of contemporary society. Language becomes the mirror of society, the demented language rubs out reality and substitutes the Verb to it, becomes a possible key to the nature of Seth and his like whose estrangement from reason it symbolises. Seth's humorously unreasonable decrees fail because of the perversion the king imposes on language, in the same way as the utopian dreams can be said to represent another perversion of language.

Such phenomena culminate in what may be called corrupt language, which, once a meaning and desire to communicate have been eradicated, ultimately boils down to mere gibberish and jargon. The characters then forget reality, take refuge in an imaginary universe of their own and avoid contact with others. Humour, at this level, emerges in the superabundance of tags: 'so', 'then', 'now', 'presently' establish links whose logic is merely apparent. The language, severed from reality, functions as a humorous code devoid of any significance. Dialogues disappear, there only remain incoherent phrases muttered by characters wrapped in their own obsessions. The humour of it all carries the message that the Babel cacophony is the objective correlative of a society disintegrating in insanity. It allows both reader and writer to smile at the simultaneous discovery of the mad ways of the world, and, in the eloquent silences between the corrupt dialogues, it carries the message that societal energies must be mustered to fight the spreading anarchism and dementia, to set up a wall against the proliferating jungle.

Ironically enough, one should keep in mind Waugh's own experience: there was a Waugh idiom made fashionable by the 'Hypocrites' Club'. As W. Bogaards shows in her 'Waugh and the BBC', only a few intimates understood it and it did imply scorn or pretended scorn for anything or any person outside the circle. Another miracle of humour is that it urged Waugh to transpose a negative personal habit into a positive element of his fiction. The humorist runs with the hare, and never hesitates to castigate the pack of hounds in which he once belonged.

To round up this essay, three things must be said. Firstly, if humour can proceed from the complete identification of the writer with his subject, this is not always the case with Evelyn Waugh whose brand of humour is often marked with ambiguity. He asserts what he apparently denies in his novels (that 'Lush Places' are no real shelters) and constructs what he pretends to destroy (religion, essential for man's salvation, never directly appears as a recourse in most of the novels). A new outlook on life resulting from this ambiguity pushes his comedy to open on to the tragic as apparently comic actions entail disastrous consequences. For Waugh, the prime function of humour consists less in propagating ideas than in setting off their relativity (Rosa, the Macushi woman, is more dependable than all the Mayfair 'ladies'), in showing that the ambiguity of things often debauches on a form of nonsense illustrating the absurdity of contemporary mores. But, more important, the relativity it introduces improves the lesson, makes it more efficacious. "'Oh! please God, make them attack the Chapel," said Mr Sniggs' (the Junior Dean of Scone College). The message is coded (as satire demands) but the important point is that the satirical lesson is always tinged or suffused with humour.

Secondly, the concrete and affective elements humour contains also make it reversible so that the heroes can be mocked without weakening the message. Surely to don a mask of innocence, or to have an incompetent fool (Paul), a blissful imbecile (William) or an archaic moron (Tony) playing the role of hero, are brilliant ways of ridiculing social mores. Through the outsider—who never suspects the schemes wielded behind his back—the reader may form the weirdest impressions of the characters and social sets he meets (Margot and Chokey, the Bright Young Things, Lord Copper and Fleet Street, British exiles in Hollywood etc …). A subtle power of correction goes hand in had with the reversibility of humour. It steers clear of the pitfalls of puritanical morality. The seduction of Prudence by Basil might have inspired a sermon, Waugh succeeds in making it authentic satire, matching in excellence T. S. Eliot's 'Seduction of the Typist' scene. The bitterly humorous clash between the 'love scene' (as seen by Prudence) and reality, i.e. 'The Burma cheroot … slowly unfurling in the soapy water …, the soggy stub of tobacco emanat[ing] a brown blot of juice', allows the writer to avoid moral indignation and to find an objective correlative to his disgust and reprobation. Thus the blackest humour arises of a situation which encompasses in a nutshell (or more precisely here in a bathtub) the faults, vices and blemishes of modern and western life, whose horrifying reality is never directly attacked but always, indirectly, denounced.

Thirdly, humour acts as an authorial catharsis. It does not only purge the writer of the moral or sentimental temptations, it also refines the whole gamut of his emotions. Waugh's sadistic tendencies, destructive leanings, suicidal attraction are refined into positive creations. The catharsis operated by humour helped Waugh to forget, if not to heal, the wounds of his divorce, and, in the fifties, those of his physical decrepitude. It freed him from himself, as it were. It somewhat smothered nostalgia and sentiment and invited him to assert his liberty to the face of the world. Thus it eventually achieves a twofold effect, heal the writer, touch or teach the reader.

As a conclusion, we can say that humour, within its possible combinations, remains relatively stable in its matter, although the manner in which Waugh shapes it remains specific of his creative imagination. Waughian humour, although it may verge on the most scathing irony, also includes affective elements which illustrate an extreme sensitivity and shed light on the innermost recesses of the writer's personality.

We must also add that ironically, in the course of his career, Waugh ceased to be the youthful humorist of the twenties to become a genuine 'humour' in the medical sense. In the fifties an unfortunate identification of the ageing man with the artist reinforced the clichés, stereotypes, and blatant untruths which are occasionally retailed in the general public and against which critics have fought in order to restore Evelyn Waugh to his true status as one of the greatest of English humorous writers. In this sense, the lines he wrote in his private diaries pathetically demonstrate his thirst for the absolute and the constant fight he had to wage to be of use in this trite age of ours.

To make an interior act of renunciation and become a stranger in the world, to watch one's fellow countrymen as we used to watch foreigners, curious of their habits, patient of their absurdities, indifferent to their animosities—that is the secret of happiness in the century of the common man.

Fortunately Waugh's incapacity to resign himself to indifference, to watch his fellow countrymen as foreigners, is a blessing which begot his humour for our pleasure and moral edification. But for his humour (and his religious faith), his would have been held a pessimistic, almost nihilistic vision of man. One can at times see him as a desperate man, but his good sense allied to his sensibility made him favor the smiles and benevolence of ravaging humour and reject the wailing and gnashing of teeth of black melancholy. To this humour Evelyn Waugh owes his status as a major novelist and satirist of our times.

David Leon Higdon (essay date October 1994)

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SOURCE: "Gay Sebastian and Cheerful Charles: Homoeroticism in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature," Vol. 25, No. 4, October 1994, pp. 77-89.

[Higdon is an American writer and educator. In the following essay, he argues that Brideshead Revisited depicts very deliberate homosexual relationships, contrary to the opinions of other critics, whom Higdon considers deeply in denial.]

There is a highly visible homosexual population in the novels of Evelyn Waugh, ranging from the "smooth young men of uncertain tastes" in Decline and Fall (1928) to the hallucinatory visions and encounters in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). Ambrose Silk of Put Out More Flags (1942) and Anthony Blanche of Brideshead Revisited (1945) may be the most memorable and certainly are the most flamboyant members of this population. However, there are, in addition, Sir Ralph Brompton, Martin Gaythorne-Brodie (the Honorable Miles Malpractice in the American editions), Captain Edgar Grimes, David Lennox, and Corporal-Major Ludovic—seven men in total, ranging from an Oxford aesthete declaiming The Waste Land from a Christ Church window, through a capable diplomatic adviser, a society photographer, and an author of a bestselling novel to an accused Fascist who ultimately receives the Order of Merit. Much disagreement results, however, when one attempts to add other Waugh characters to this group, as shown by the exchange between David Bittner and John Osborne, in the pages of the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies between 1987 and 1991, about whether or not Brideshead Revisited's Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte are homosexual. In an early sally, Bittner maintains that "Waugh's basic intention, despite several contradictory inadvertences, was not to write Brideshead Revisited as a piece of 'gay' literature whose two main characters were homosexuals" ("Sebastian and Charles"). Despite the finality of Bittner's claim, I argue that it is impossible to regard Sebastian as other than gay; that Charles is so homoerotic he must at least be considered cheerful; and that Bittner's attempt-and others like it—is a representative skirmish in a much larger and more important sexual war being fought as entrenched heterosexuality strives to maintain its hegemony over important twentieth-century works.

The conclusions reached in earlier Waugh criticism on the question of the characters' sexual orientation are mixed, ranging from truculent denial to moralistic condemnation, and are often fatally flawed in both logic, assumptions, and execution. One simply may ignore their sexuality, as does George McCartney, or hurry into illogical denial within parentheses, as does Harvey Curtis Webster: "Ryder's long journey to faith starts when he meets and falls in love (not homosexually) with … Sebastian" [After the Trauma: Representative British Novelists since 1920, 1970]. Just how one man "falls in love" with another man without the act being homoerotic or homosexual is an interesting contortion of definitions. Others resort to coded signals whose language barely disguises underlying homophobia and mistakenly locates homosexuality within discourses of illness and freely willed action. William J. Cook notes that Sebastian "has become degenerate and dissipated" [Masks, Modes, and Morals: The Art of Evelyn Waugh, 1971]; Robert R. Garnett glances hastily at Charles's "youthful love for Sebastian," "the beautiful, charming, and doomed young aristocrat," who, "unable or unwilling to abandon childhood, retains his irresponsibility and his teddy bear" [From Grimes to Brideshead: The Early Novels of Evelyn Waugh, 1990]. Jacqueline McDonnell admits that Charles Ryder has "a romantic relationship with Lord Sebastian Flyte," who later becomes "drunk and delinquent," but finally situates Sebastian by concluding that he "is a major romantic creation, drawn from the heart of the Christian tradition: the hopeless sinner saved" [Evelyn Waugh, 1988]. After suggesting that the picnic scene early in the novel may be "a homosexual idyll," Calvin W. Lane points out that "Julia is really Sebastian's alter ago" [Evelyn Waugh, 1981], a point to which this essay will return. Finally, Gene D. Phillips writes that Sebastian "gradually … sinks into both dispsomania and homosexuality" [Evelyn Waugh's Officers, Gentlemen, and Rogues: The Fact behind His Fiction, 1975]. These comments evince what Elaine Showalter has called "homosexual panic": "the discovery and resistance of the homosexual self" [Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, 1990]. The homosexual and the homoerotic were present in Brideshead Revisited long before the 1981 British Broadcasting Corporation adaptation visualized Sebastian's and Charles's kiss, close dancing, and gondola ride and equally long before today's gay liberation movement. In other words, we have here a clear attempt by critics to suppress, either by ignoring, trivializing, or ridiculing, a sophisticated text's sophisticated handling of a full range of human sexuality, including the homoerotic and the homosexual.

Neither Bittner nor Osborne seems to pay much attention to the quality of his own assertions and arguments. This homophobia—even in Osborne, who accepts that Sebastian is unmistakably gay—is evident in virtually every paragraph of their exchange in the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter. To Osborne, Sebastian is sunk "deep into human wickedness" ("Sebastian Flyte"), a rather extreme claim for an alcoholic who has had but two known affairs; to Bittner, "Charles is leaving behind … not a relationship involving gross sensual gratification but one of idealized spiritual love" ("Long-Awaited"). Both critics deliberately have confused such concepts as sexuality, masculinity, homosexuality as a state of being, and homosexuality as a behaviourial action. Although Bittner's essays will never be among the "essential" articles on Waugh—and one must admit that Bittner is clearly aware of this—a close look at his claims and disclaimers, suggested in six statements from his essays, demonstrates clearly what can happen when a character such as Sebastian threatens the heterosexual critical hegemony exercised over a text.

If Sebastian is introduced as a homosexual character and remains a confirmed homosexual throughout the novel, then—in a story whose whole point is the "boomerang" influence of Catholicism—wherein lies the point of his religious return? Would the thread that twitches a homosexual Sebastian back to the Church be valid if it stopped short of reforming his English habits? ("Long-Awaited")

Several points are askew here. Like many people, Bittner apparently believes that homosexuality is an assumed behaviour that is selected or rejected at will and is not an inherent identity. Sebastian cannot control whether or not he is homosexual, but he can control whether or not he allows his homosexuality active sexual expression. His church does not condemn the homosexual, though it does condemn homosexual activity, and in the novel we are given every reason to assume that after his infatuation with Charles and the death of Kurt, Sebastian has become a celibate homosexual, clearly "twitched" back to his church. Bittner has confused a noun of being with a noun of activity and has thus muddled a crucial distinction within the novel. Waugh's generation was clearly of two minds concerning homosexual identity. In Our Age, Noel Annan points out that "homosexuality became a way of jolting respectable opinion and mocking the Establishment" and that his generation "made homosexuality a cult"; these comments suggest that homosexuality could be self-selected, merely a phase associated with the all-male worlds of the English public school and university. Such a conclusion is supported by Alan Pryce-Jones's comment that "it was chic to be queer, rather as it was chic to know something about the twelve-tone scale and about Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase'" (qtd. in Carpenter). On the other hand, the generation had no doubts that the sexual orientation of such individuals as Howard Sturgis, Brian Howard, Joe Ackerley, Christopher Isherwood, and others seemed fixed, a stand that Freudian analysis supported. Bittner's confusion is equally evident in such comments as "Sebastian could hardly be a homosexual without someone to 'tango' with" ("Long-Awaited"), even though the lives of hundreds of thousands of single homosexual men testify to the contrary. Substituting "Cordelia" or "Bridey" for "Sebastian," and "heterosexual" for "homosexual," lays bare the confusion in Bittner's rhetoric. Also, using "tango" trivializes crucial sexual identities in the novel.

Besides, if Waugh wanted to present Sebastian as a homosexual character, why doesn't he drawn [sic] him in the full lineaments of the role, as he does Anthony Blanche … whom Waugh intends in the tradition of the flamboyant, artistic homosexual. ("Sebastian and Charles")

Obviously Waugh does not do this because Sebastian is neither "flamboyant" nor "artistic." Bittner seems to suggest that all homosexuals are of a type, a type represented by Anthony. Of course, Waugh knew better, as can be seen from the range of homosexuals he presents in his novels. Anthony Blanche and Ambrose Silk are exceptional figures, as unique, say, as Quentin Crisp or Boy George; Sebastian is far closer to the norm of the ordinary, semi-closeted gay. Moreover, both Ambrose and Anthony seem to attract Waugh's censure more because of their modernist ideas and stances than because of their homosexuality.

Sebastian stands apart from Waugh's other homosexuals in that he has a much more dynamic role to play and because the tone in which he is presented is so distinctive. Ambrose and Anthony are critiqued; Grimes and Malpractice are ridiculed; Sebastian is romanticized. There are, I believe, several reasons for this, one of them involving autobiographical nostalgia. Sebastian may take some of his actions and features from Hugh Lygon, Alastair Graham, and others, but he also memorialized much of the 1920s Oxford Waugh. When John Betjeman said, "[e]veryone was queer at Oxford in those days" (qtd. in Annan), he certainly included Waugh, who had an affair with Richard Pares and perhaps others, since Waugh called Pares "my first homosexual love" (Waugh, Letters). Waugh, however, effectively silenced much from his undergraduate days through the destruction of the diaries (Standard). In Sebastian we meet Waugh's nostalgia for his lost past and the orthodoxy of his Catholicism, which required him regretfully to condemn Sebastian.

It is probably a mistake to conclude, if one thinks of characters other than Charles Ryder, that "filled with regret for time past, deeply elegiac, the early chapters are suffused with a Words-worthian intimation that growing up inexorably alienates one from the lifegiving source" (Garnett). It is a mistake because the moral schema Waugh endorses in the novel requires the reader to see Sebastian as a beautiful, seductive, irresistible tempter, more tempting in many ways than Celia Mulcaster and Julia Flyte Mottram, but, like them, situated carefully within a complex hierarchy of sexual corruptions. As Jeffrey Heath points out, "Waugh never says so explicitly, [but] he regards Charles's love for Sebastian as a gorgeous mistake and a felix culpa" [The Picturesque Passion, 1982].

When Sebastian complains that all his life people [actually, Sebastian refers only to his family] have been "taking things away" from him, it is tempting to conclude that, among other things, he is referring to a deprivation of his masculinity.

It is also true, of course, that men like Sebastian, who are of much above average appearance, frequently are characterized—or thought to be characterized—by same-sex preferences. ("Sebastian and Charles")

One scarcely knows how to correct the flimsy assumptions in this passage. Are there actually individuals so shallow as to believe that a handsome man—by the mere fact of his physical attractiveness—is probably homosexual? Further, "homosexuality" and "masculinity" are in no way mutually exclusive terms, despite the implications of Bittner's sentence.

I cannot believe it would not have occurred to both surveillants [Mr Bell and Mr Samgrass] to keep their eyes peeled for evidence of pederasty as long as they were scrutinizing every other aspect of the boys' behavior. ("Long-Awaited")

At the time to which Bittner refers, Sebastian and Charles are 19 or 20 years old—scarcely boys—adult enough that their actions cannot be considered pederastic. Pederasty almost always refers to an adult having a sexual relation with a boy.

It seems to me there is nothing really to "agree" upon as regards Charles's calling Anthony Blanche a "pansy." He just does. It is there in black and white. My point was that if such expressions found their way naturally to Charles's lips, then one would expect him to describe Sebastian by means of the same term if Sebastian were a homosexual. The fact that Charles doesn't I take as an indication that Sebastian must be intended as a heterosexual character. ("Long-Awaited")

Since Charles uses the term "pansy" but twice in the novel (and Waugh rarely uses it elsewhere), it is not a word that comes "naturally" to his lips; moreover, "pansy" always refers to dandified, affected, or noticeably effeminate men, traits Sebastian never demonstrates. Charles carefully chooses his words, much in the manner of the individual of the 1990s who understands the nuances separating "homosexual," "gay," and "queer." Also, Charles's affair with Sebastian has been over for 13 years. He discusses Sebastian only with Cordelia and then with Julia—contexts in which the term "pansy" would have been most inappropriate. Cordelia tells Charles that Sebastian is now "very religious," apparently reconciled with his church, though apparently still alcoholic.

[I]t requires a greater leap of reason than I am prepared to make to assert that [Sebastian] could practice homosexuality without setting his family on edge about the fact. Lady Marchmain is nobody's fool; if Sebastian were a homosexual she would know it, and if she knew it, would have to disapprove because of her strict Catholic principles. I cannot believe that Waugh would introduce Sebastian as a homosexual character and then not deal with the issue, as, for instance, by having Lady Marchmain add this to "the sorrows she took with her daily to church." ("Sebastian and Charles")

Lady Marchmain may be "nobody's fool," but she is certainly her own fool. She is an extraordinarily self-deluded woman who does not see, much less understand, what she is doing to her children, and she is quite isolated from the male world of Oxford. She lacks the worldliness of Cara. Indeed, Lady Marchmain seems tailored after the popular analysis of homosexuality in the 1920s and 1930s, which held that the male turned homosexual because of an ineffectual, often-absent father and a domineering, powerful mother, an idea now thoroughly discredited in psychoanalysis but one still holding remarkable popular appeal.

Of course, no discrediting of either the overt or covert homophobia of critics demonstrates that Sebastian is indeed gay or that Charles is homoerotic. For this demonstration one needs to return to the text of Brideshead Revisited. There seems no doubt that the characters' tie is homosocial, that Charles is homoerotically attracted to Sebastian, and that their relationship is homosexual, though perhaps not sexually active. The evidence is more than "several contradictory inadvertences." During the picnic near Swindon, for instance, Charles's eyes linger long on Sebastian's "profile," a purely erotic male gaze; later he recalls Sebastian as being "magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings aloud for love." He even likes to wander into the bathroom while Sebastian is in the tub, and at Brideshead Castle has "no mind then for anything but Sebastian." During the golden year of 1923, Charles tells us he and Sebastian "kept very much to our own company that term, each so much bound up in the other that we did not look elsewhere for friends"; indeed, Charles once climbs out of his college, only to be found by Mr Samgrass in Sebastian's rooms "after the gate was shut." Considering the early death of his mother and his father's cold disdain, Charles may well claim that he "was in search of love in those days" and mean several very different things, but he also confesses that he participated in "naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins" that summer and learned "that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom." Paraphrasing Goronwy Rees, Martin Green provides a general description of such Oxford affairs in the 1920s: "The Fall of Man happened only to Eve. She was expelled, and Adam was left to enjoy the garden alone with the serpent. Men remembered Oxford in a golden glow because only after it came their fall from grace into heterosexual relationships" (qtd. in Littlewood).

Virtually all of the other characters assume that Charles's and Sebastian's relationship is both homoerotic and homosexual. Despite all of the satiric thrusts directed at him, Anthony Blanche functions as one of the genuinely perceptive truth-tellers in the novel; he says, "I can see [Sebastian] has completely captivated you, my dear Charles" and later tells Charles "you threw him over," surely the language of an intensely homoerotic friendship, if not of more. The informed, aware, and worldly Cara takes in all in one glance and then tells Charles, "'I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans …'" and subtly warns him, "'they are very good if they do not go on too long'." At Old Hundredth, "Death's Head" and "Sickly Child" dismiss Sebastian and Charles as "only fairies" before picking them up, and Charles hints at Julia's opinion when he says that the arrest "had clearly raised us in Julia's estimation [because] we had been out with women." Julia also recalls her early impression of Charles as "the pretty boy Sebastian brought home with him," a hint that she may see more than does her mother. It is not at all surprising that Charles, in Venice, confesses "I was nineteen years old and completely ignorant of women." Until the novel reached the page-proof state, it included a similar statement by Sebastian: "'You know, Charles, I've never slept with a woman'" [Davis, Evelyn Waugh, Writer, 1981].

Bittner would object to the preceding paragraphs, pointing out Charles's marriage to Celia Mulcaster and his affair with Julia Flyte Mottram, but sexual relations with women do not necessarily prove that a man is heterosexual. Study of the married homosexual male was only tangential to early studies such as A. G. Kinsey's, W. B. Pomeroy's, and C. E. Martin's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and R. A. L. Humphreys's Tearoom Trade (1970), but since the research of H. L. Ross (1971) and M. T. Saghir and E. Robins (1973), we have become aware that perhaps as many as 20 per cent of homosexual men are or have been married (M. W. Ross, The Married Homosexual Man, 1983). Ross could have been discussing Charles and Celia, because at one point he notes that "homosexuals who married often stated that the marriage was initiated by the wife."

This is exactly what happened to Charles. In New York, waiting to sail to England, Charles remembers Celia "had married me six years ago," an odd phrasing, but one that would pass unnoticed except for their cabin conversation, in which Celia says, "'Darling, it was the night you popped the question'" and Charles responds "'As I remember, you popped'." Also, Charles's response to his wife's adultery is rather atypical—no rage, no wounded ego, just relief and triumph: "I heard her unmoved, and suddenly realized that she was powerless to hurt me any more; I was a free man; she had given me my manumission in that brief, sly lapse of hers; my cuckold's horns made me lord of the forest." Celia Mulcaster recognized an up-and-coming artist, annexed him, forwarded his career through her social connections and skills, and then turned to an affair, perhaps to find the sexual satisfaction missing from her marriage. In contrast, Charles's affair with Julia appears to be passionately heterosexual, but Julia's first attraction to Charles came precisely because of her close physical similarities to Sebastian: "On my side the interest was keener, for there was always the physical likeness between brother and sister, which, caught repeatedly in different poses, under different lights, each time pierced me anew." This is a similarity Charles noticed the very first time he met Julia. He does not find her to be Anthony's "passionless, acquisitive, intriguing, ruthless killer," but he does feel "a sense of liberation and peace" when she leaves him alone with Sebastian at Brideshead Castle. Aboard the ship, Julia initiates their love-making; later, she proposes to Charles.

About Sebastian's sexual preferences there can be little doubt. He initiates two very different affairs, and he seems to enjoy his power over his "chums," a reflection of the English tendency for men like Sebastian to take lovers from lower classes. He "courts" Charles with a "room full of flowers" as an apology, with an idyllic picnic, and with brilliant luncheons, holds his arm while they walk in Oxford, and at just the right psychological moment dazzles Charles with Brideshead Castle. Charles writes him daily from Ravenna. Worldly Anthony observes, "'I can see he has completely captivated you'" and cynically suggests that Sebastian probably even flirted with priests through the confessional's grill when he was younger. After leaving England, Sebastian stays with Anthony Blanche in Marseilles, where Anthony attempts to do something about Sebastian's alcoholism or to introduce him to drugs more potent than alcohol, before they go on to Tangier, where Sebastian acquires a "new friend … a great clod of a German who'd been in the Foreign Legion." Sebastian is content with the relationship and tells Charles "'it's rather a pleasant change … to have someone to look after yourself'." Although he and Kurt do not share a bed, they do share six years together, and his attempts to rescue Kurt from the German nightmare, especially his lingering in Germany for "nearly a year," speak of more than "chumminess."

Jacqueline McDonnell sees clearly the relationship between the incremental repetitions of character types and sexual acts: she writes that Charles "spends most of the novel being seduced" [Evelyn Waugh, 1988] Indeed, Charles is seduced three times physically and once spiritually, and his partners are "forerunners" of the later spiritual love he will develop for God. His erotic and sexual relationships with Sebastian, Celia, and Julia are central to Waugh's "attempt to trace the worship of the divine purpose in a pagan world, in the lives of an English Catholic family, half paganised themselves" (Stannard, Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage). Waugh presents Charles moving through three corrupted states of human sexuality and passion. Bittner should have conceded the battle to win the war: Waugh has not written a novel gay liberationists will eagerly embrace. Charles's and Sebastian's mutual love is enticingly seductive, but thematically appears the most corrupted and the most distant from Waugh's God. Critics often note that Waugh's rhetoric insists on Sebastian's child-like, if indeed not childish, attitude and behaviour. His inadequacies are almost too evident. Nanny Hawkins calls Sebastian and Charles "a pair of children"; Cara says "'Sebastian is in love with his own childhood'"; even Charles images Sebastian as "happy and harmless as a Polynesian." Thus Waugh moves his reader and his protagonist through a homosexual affair he condemns; a loveless, almost mercenary marriage; and a passionate affair between two desperate souls that is condemned by the other characters. Finally there comes the moment in the chapel when Charles is seduced into a very different kind of love.

Sebastian and Charles, Julia and Rex, Cara and Alex—these and other partners in Brideshead Revisited force a reader to confront the complex range of human sexuality. The binary opposition of homosexuality and heterosexuality that informs so much Western thought about male sexuality is clearly too simplistic a paradigm for the world Waugh depicts. It is reward enough to teach the novel's conflict between materialism and spiritualism, between free will and fate, but first its characters' sexual identities must be won back from frightened criticism.

Charles Hallett (essay date November 1994)

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SOURCE: "A Twitch upon the Thread," in New Oxford Review, Vol. 61, No. 9, November 1994, pp. 19-20.

[In the following essay, Hallett examines Charles Ryder's reaction in Brideshead Revisited to the Catholicism of the Flyte family.]

"Is Evelyn Waugh a Catholic novelist?" a friend of mine asked. "I am thinking," he explained, "of Brideshead Revisited. That book has a compelling quality; every few years it draws me back to it. But its mystery escapes me."

In a way my friend is sensing the very mystery that draws the book's narrator, Charles Ryder, to write about the family that lived at Brideshead. Charles, a non-Catholic, is both repulsed and attracted by the mysterious force that unites and directs the seemingly disparate members of the Flyte family. Part of the attraction of the book is that Waugh never explains the mystery; instead, he renders Charles Ryder's experience of it.

Almost as soon as he becomes the chum of Sebastian Flyte, Charles makes us feel his repulsion for the Flyte family religion and for its chief representative, Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain, whose attempts to bring stability to Sebastian's life are viewed as the insidious cause of the decline she wishes to prevent. I have always suspected Waugh of laying a trap for the unsuspecting reader, in that he so deliberately makes us identify with Sebastian and Charles, those free spirits who find Oxford constraining, that we adopt Charles's view of Lady Marchmain. Not until late in the novel do we realize that Waugh continually likens this remarkable lady to the Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows).

The mystery that Waugh is rendering is best approached through a survey of the members of the Marchmain family. At one extreme stand three who remain staunchly Catholic. Lady Marchmain's oldest son, Bridey, "massive" in his "rectitude," embodies the "legalistic" side of the Church. Bridey knows all its regulations and never deviates from any. His strict adherence to Catholic precepts, especially at moments of crisis in the family (marriages, say, or deaths) causes spiritual explosions. Waugh uses "Bridey's bombshells" to keep bringing reality into his sister Julia's life and to precipitate the dramatic climax of the novel.

Lady Marchmain is Waugh's tribute to the old Catholic families, England's Recusants. She is charitable, believing that "it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included." Lady Marchmain lives for others, unobtrusively, selfless but not a saint, enduring with fortitude an inner suffering undetected by all but her daughter Cordelia. Chief among her sorrows are the defection of her husband, Lord Marchmain, the miseries her children bring upon themselves by their willfulness, their abandonment of the Faith, and consequentially a "deadly sickness in her body." Waugh associates Lady Marchmain closely with her chapel, which houses the Eucharist. When she died, Cordelia tells us, "the priest came in … blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty." Suddenly, "there wasn't any chapel any more, just an oddly decorated room."

Cordelia, the youngest child, more overtly a touchstone, presents the Faith from the wholesome viewpoints of wisdom and humor. She can baffle both catechumen and priest by mischievously representing common superstitions as articles of the Creed, but lives the Faith selflessly. In Cordelia's confidences to Charles, we hear Waugh's own voice.

At the other extreme are Julia's two lovers. In Julia's husband Rex Mottram, Waugh draws a fascinating portrait of the hollow man: handsome, rich, powerful, and absolutely amoral. Rex "needs setting up solidly" and finds Julia, London's top debutante, "a suitable prize." He is all for a Catholic wedding, because "that's one thing your Church can do … put on a good show," but prefers to waive the instruction. The Jesuit charged with acquainting Rex with Catholic precepts finds that Rex "doesn't seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety," and Julia learns, over time, that Rex "isn't a real person at all; he's just a few faculties of a man highly developed." She sums him up as "something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory, a tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole."

Charles, the narrator of the story and the proposed second husband of Julia (he and Julia have been living together at Brideshead and at a certain point she decides that they must marry, for she "wants to be made an honest woman"), has greater potential than Rex. Both men are worldly, but Charles's worldliness is civilized—witness the scene between them over dinner at Ciro's. Charles, too, even after his travels to the New World, even after the growth of his love for Julia, is "still a small part of myself pretending to be whole." But unlike Rex, Charles knows it, though he doesn't know yet what he learns later, that a man can be complete only if God resides in him.

In between these two extremes wander the apostates—Lord Marchmain, Sebastian, and Julia—those members of the Flyte family who flee from God.

Lord Marchmain embraces Catholicism in the initial stages of his love for Lady Marchmain and says when they are married, "You have brought back my family to the faith of their ancestors," but soon finds the bonds of marriage confining. He flees to Italy, where he sets up with a mistress. His chief characteristic is to hate his wife, and one of the main activating forces in his life is to authorize any action on his children's part that will give her suffering.

In Sebastian, their younger son, a homosexual, Waugh paints a consummate portrait of a dipsomaniac. Seeking to be "free," Sebastian flees all civilizing and restraining forces—not only the dons at Oxford, Monsignor Bell the bishop, and his mother, but "his own conscience and all claims of human affection" as well. He drinks at first, like Charles, from the pure joy of overflowing spirits, but later to escape from reality. A true Flyte, Sebastian spends most of the novel "running away as far and as fast as I can," to Italy, Constantinople, Tangier, and is finally "found starving and taken in at a monastery near Carthage."

Julia too turns her back on the family religion and embraces instead the magnetic Rex Mottram. When that marriage fails, she follows an American to New York but soon recognizes her folly. Charles in the meantime has sought refuge from the boredom of his own marriage in Mexican jungles, and their paths cross on the ship that brings them both back to England. Charles moves in with Julia at Brideshead, an arrangement that Rex finds utterly convenient.

It is through Cordelia that Waugh introduces the final chapters of the novel that show the mysterious power of the Faith to reclaim those who have been shaped by it. Speaking to Charles at the end of Part I, Cordelia observes that

the family haven't been very constant, have they? There is Papa gone and Sebastian gone and Julia gone. But God won't let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk … Father Brown said something like "I caught him … with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."

And later she reveals to Charles that Sebastian has gone back to the Church. The suffering that Sebastian undergoes, "maimed as he is" by drink—"no dignity, no power of will," Cordelia declares—acts as a purgation, making him holy. Sebastian becomes an under-porter at the monastery, "a great favourite with the old fathers," whom he serves, and in his humility he is "very near and dear to God." Waugh portrays the reeling in of Julia and Lord Marchmain in fuller detail.

Bridey's bombshells play a key role in awakening the conscience of Julia. The first of them occurs when he announces his engagement to Beryl, then states that because "Beryl is a woman of strict Catholic principle" he couldn't possibly bring her to Brideshead, where Julia is "living in sin with Rex or Charles or both." Bridey's frank observation sparks in Julia a deep realization of the meaning of her actions, an awareness that she has been "living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out"; that Mummy carried that sin with her, "dying with my sin eating at her, more cruelly than her own illness"; that Christ bore her sin too, "hanging at noon, high among the crowds and the soldiers." Julia believes at this point that though "I've gone too far [from God and] there's no turning back now," yet she can still "put my life in some sort of order in a human way" by marrying Charles. And thus does Julia feel the twitch on the thread.

Bridey's next bombshell explodes after Lord Marchmain, driven out of Italy by impending war and a serious heart problem, comes back to Brideshead to die. Bridey announces that "Papa must see a priest," a proposal that brings into focus the spiritual gulf that separates Charles from Julia. Julia leans toward the family's point of view: What is at stake here is the salvation of a soul. Lord Marchmain has not been a practicing member of the Church for 25 years and must before his death be reconciled to God. Charles staunchly opposes summoning a priest, on the grounds (ironically) that Lord Marchmain should be allowed "to die in peace." In Charles's view, the Church will "come now, when his mind's wandering and he hasn't the strength to resist, and claim him as a death-bed penitent"; it's all "superstition and trickery."

I suggested earlier that Waugh lays a trap for the reader who admires Charles's worldly wisdom. Waugh makes it a crucial question of his dénouement how Lord Marchmain will respond to the ministrations of Father Mackay. Then he gives an apparent victory to Charles. When Lord Marchmain sees the priest and sternly orders Bridey to "show Father Mackay the way out," Charles feels jubilant: "I had been right, everybody else had been wrong," he exults. But Waugh's plot does not end here. As Lord Marchmain's condition worsens, Julia brings the priest back. Her father seems "nearer to death than life" as Father Mackay begins to administer the sacrament of absolution. Then suddenly there is a change, first in Charles and then in Lord Marchmain—Charles "knelt, too, and prayed: 'O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin,' and the man on the bed opened his eyes." At that moment Charles feels an intense longing for a sign. Then Lord Marchmain moves his hand to his forehead, to his breast, to his shoulder, and makes the sign of the cross.

Lord Marchmain's deathbed conversion effects Julia's. At the novel's end, Julia faces the inevitable truth—that a marriage to Charles, legally achievable by his divorce from Celia and hers from Rex, would be no marriage in the eyes of God. It is not this marriage that will "make her an honest woman" but fidelity to the commandment, Thou shalt not commit adultery. Julia knows, finally, that "the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy." And Charles sees the truth of her choice.

Evelyn Waugh is indeed a Catholic novelist, permitting us, his readers, to experience the transformation worked in Charles through his contact with the Marchmain family. When we last meet Charles, years later, as he revisits the Brideshead estate which has called forth these memories that make up the novel's story, we find that Charles now shares the Marchmains' respect for the Holy Eucharist. He goes straight to Lady Marchmain's chapel, where he discovers "a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle … burning anew among the old stones," and before the tabernacle he prays. Such are the ways of Grace.

Brooke Allen (essay date Fall 1994)

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SOURCE: "Vile Bodies: A Futurist Fantasy," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall 1994, pp. 318-28.

[In the following essay, Allen contends that Waugh satirizes the principles of the Futurist movement in art and literature of the 1920s and 1930s in Vile Bodies.]

One of Evelyn Waugh's most perceptive critics, Robert Murray Davis, has commented that "like many writers more obviously committed to modernist experiment, Waugh took great care to guide his readers by means of external form" [Evelyn Waugh, Writer, 1981]. It is true that Waugh was not "obviously" committed to experiment, but close readings of his early novels show that such experiment is indeed present. Pastiche and quotation, two devices much employed in the modern period, play an especially important role in his work. But in spite of Waugh's rather free use of many of the techniques of modernism, critics have been reluctant to classify even his work of the twenties and thirties as modernist, and, though it seems unusually characteristic of its period, his fiction cannot be relegated to any one contemporary artistic movement. In his youth Waugh affected a pose of ultra-modernity, but it is impossible not to believe that one of the principal pleasures he took in this role was in its power to outrage his elders, for Waugh always leaves the reader with the impression that he faced the period he did so much to define with a peculiar diffidence. Superficially the most "modern" of moderns, he is simultaneously the most mandarin.

In fact Waugh's attitude was quite pragmatic. He allowed himself the luxury of reaction by deploring all modernity, while all the time using whatever stylistic tricks modernist experiment afforded him: collage, the interior monologue, classical parody, the intrusive narrator, the camera eye, montage.

Waugh's education in modernism began in his early teens, and he attributed it to his young sister-in-law, Barbara Jacobs Waugh. "She was an agnostic, a socialist and a feminist…. My father always assumed (as I do now) that anything new was likely to be nasty. Barbara found a specific charm in modernity" (A Little Learning). For several years Waugh, too, was to find charm in modernity: "I halted between two opinions and thought it more showy to express the new." Waugh's involvement in the modern movement, however, shallow though it may have been, proved instrumental in forming not only the style of his novels but their content and their frame of reference. As George McCartney points out in his study of Waugh's involvement with the modernist movement, "at every turn, [Waugh's] writing pays parodic tribute to modernist art and literature" [Confused Roaring: Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition, 1987].

Though sometimes it was straightforward hommage, in general the "tribute" was to remain both parodic and uncomfortable throughout Waugh's career. There were several reasons for this ambivalence. First, there was the tendency of the various movements of modern art to ally themselves with one or another variety of political commitment: Waugh's rejection of such commitment, throughout most of his career, was firm. Another reason for Waugh's disaffection from modernist art evolved from his distaste for the aesthetic of Roger Fry and the other dominant theorists of Waugh's youth, an aesthetic Waugh perceived as dry and narrow. Also, he never fully accepted the validity of nonrepresentational art. Waugh's later railings against Picasso became something of a set piece in his old-fogey persona, but he was nonetheless sincere in his belief that "Titian might have though Frith intolerably common but he would have recognized that he was practicing the same art as himself. He could not think this of Picasso," and he picks out Gertrude Stein as a literary equivalent of Picasso, an example of a writer who is "outside the world-order in which words have a precise and ascertainable meaning" (Letters).

It is because of this disaffection from the dominant theories of modern aesthetics that Waugh's use of modern techniques concerned itself almost exclusively with their superficial characteristics, often in an openly parodic fashion. Waugh quickly moved from an early, and quite genuine, fascination with Cubism and Futurism, to an easy and familiar utilization of their more obvious techniques. His natural ability to pick up the jargon and rhetoric of a fashionable theory soon evolved into the style already fully in evidence in his first published piece of fiction, "The Balance" (1925), the way in which he was able to exploit isolated elements of avantgarde art so as to give a conventionally romantic, rather run-of-the-mill plot an air of clever modernity. In both his literature and his graphic art of the twenties and thirties, Waugh employed techniques borrowed from Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Dada, though the philosophies informing all these schools remained essentially repellent to him. Waugh's presentation of the various schools of modern art is a reductive one which mocks each "ism" by flaunting its surface elements, never acknowledging that it might have any truly valuable raison d'être in itself.

When Waugh chose to confront modernity directly in his fiction, he usually did so parodically, as a method of emphasizing his own cynical and skeptical position. The Emperor Seth in Black Mischief is the ideal mouthpiece for everything Waugh found ridiculous not only in the modern world but in the very weight that the concept of "modernity" was given in the thirties discourse of progressivism. Similarly, Surrealism is mocked in Put Out More Flags, Expressionism in "The Balance," architectural Purism and the theories of Ozenfant and Corbusier in Decline and Fall. And in Vile Bodies Waugh parodied, though in a less direct way, both the philosophy and the mannerisms of Futurist art and rhetoric, answering its enthusiastic affirmations with his own resounding "No."

Vile Bodies was not one of Waugh's own favorites among his novels; it was hurriedly written during a time of considerable emotional upheaval, and to it he devoted little of his accustomed care over structural solidity. But despite his own disclaimers, this "lapse" is not to be regretted, for Waugh packed Vile Bodies with more detailed raw material than he did his other books. Frederick Stopp points out that Waugh applies the very techniques of modern art in the construction of the novel: "Everywhere pastiche keeps raising its irrepressible head, as in the constant intrusions of the language of the gossip columns, the superbly bogus conversations between middle-class matrons in a train to Aylesbury, and the stream of technical commentary overheard in the pits at the motor-race. The whole produces a patchwork impression which conceals the cunning with which the pasteboard figures have been mounted" [Evelyn Waugh, Portrait of the Artist, 1958]. This patchwork effect is expertly employed in order to achieve the effect of an impersonal narrative that is self-perpetuating, unauthored, as though Vile Bodies were a collage made up of jagged segments of contemporary magazines, newspapers, and conversation fragments. It is significant that Waugh wrote the novel at the height of his fascination with Hemingway, the writer he admired above all other moderns: the telephone conversations between Adam and Nina are, he later admitted, direct stylistic imitations of The Sun Also Rises.

George McCartney highlights noise as an integral factor of the more hellish scenes Waugh liked to portray. He specifies the "confused roaring" of the Bollinger Club at the opening of Decline and Fall, the whining race cars in Vile Bodies, the African feasts and drums in Black Mischief, the voices in Gilbert Pinfold, the popular music on the wireless played by the enlisted men in Sword of Honour, and he emphasizes "the hostility between eye and ear that recurs throughout Waugh's work." "In his fiction, savagery always manifests itself aurally." In Vile Bodies that noise is almost exclusively talk—most of it vacuous enough to qualify as noise, pure and simple. It is a quintessentially urban book as none of Waugh's other novels were to be, written in response to what Hugh Kenner characterizes as the "episodic" nature of city life in the twentieth century: "A city shaped by rapid transit, and later by a telephone network, delivers its experience in discrete packets" (The Mechanic Muse, 1987). Vile Bodies, appropriately, is an episodic book. The attention span of its characters is not long enough to justify more than episodic treatment, and in this, as in other elements, the novel marks the apex of Waugh's concern with modernist technique.

The novel also illustrates Kenner's thesis that "kinesis was the rhetoric of that decade [the twenties], when Americans did with pure motion what the English did about 1600 with language, and the French about 1880 with color" (The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy). With a minimum of description Waugh succeeds in reproducing the aura of the recently modernized, mechanized city almost solely through his use of accelerated dialogue and truncated conversations.

Just as Vile Bodies focuses specifically upon urban life, it also deals extensively with the characteristics of a modern city. Adam's forays to Doubting Hall are meant to emphasize, by contrast, the accelerated pace of London life (though Doubting Hall, of course, is no more reassuring a place than any other in the novel). In his use of modernity itself as a protagonist, and in his treatment of it, Waugh consciously parodies the Italian Futurists, whose manifesto he "studied" in early youth.

The Futurists had made a considerable impression during Waugh's childhood. Waugh was educated in the basic tenets of Futurism by Barbara Jacobs, and admits to having had an enthusiasm for C. R. W. Nevinson, the only English painter to become a Futurist after the dissemination of the Initial Manifesto of Futurism. In his autobiography Waugh states that his youthful admiration for the Futurists was "spurious" (Little), but his immersion in their work, brief as it was, provided him with a knowledge which was to be useful for the purposes of Vile Bodies. The vision behind Marinetti's rhetoric-glorious, but already highly tarnished by 1929, the year in which Waugh wrote the novel—is an ideal backcloth against which the stale, vapid characters of Vile Bodies are made to act out their futile lives; Marinettian themes and motifs are continually played out in both the subject matter and the style of the novel. Philosophically they are found inadequate again and again; stylistically, Waugh is able to use them to considerable effect. Thus, though much of Vile Bodies is devoted to mocking the beliefs of the Futurists, in its style Waugh pays them a certain sidelong homage.

The Triumph of the Machine: this was a constant refrain of the Futurists, who were intoxicated by the events of their own period—the flights of Wright and Bleriot, the advent not only of the automobile but of the racing car as well. "The opening and closing of a valve creates a rhythm just as beautiful but infinitely newer than the blinking of an animal eyelid," wrote Boccioni (Joshua C. Taylor, ed., Futurism, 1961); and Marinetti continually uses animal imagery to describe machinery, as he lays his "amorous hands" on the "torrid breasts" of "snorting beasts" (motorcars) (Selected Writings, 1972). The thesis of the Initial Manifesto extols the beauty, specifically, of steamers, locomotives, and airplanes as well as of automobiles.

Vile Bodies also treats these mechanical modes of transport, but while novelty (as with the Futurists) is stressed, the emphasis is finally placed on the staleness of the vision that these so recently new inventions now evoke. Even the shiny modernity of the works of mechanical magic is unable to dispel the sourness and sameness of life, and the machines in Vile Bodies produce for the most part not exhilaration but nausea.

The description of the steamship ride at the beginning of the novel is typical of the book's attitude toward modernity, "Sometimes the ship pitched and sometimes she rolled and sometimes she stood quite still and shivered all over…. 'Too, too sick-making,' said Miss Runcible, with one of her rare flashes of accuracy." The captive dirigible in which the Bright Young People give their party is another case in point. There is no reason whatever for giving the party in the dirigible—which is tethered only a few feet above the ground—except insofar as it represents a novelty, a new kind of party for the bored young people. "New," "unconventional," and "modern" though it is, the dirigible only induces the same nausea as the steamship. "Inside, the saloons were narrow and hot…. There were protrusions at every corner, and Miss Runcible had made herself a mass of bruises in the first half-hour. It was the first time that a party was given in an airship."

The airplane, a standard object of Futurist enthusiasm, gets no better treatment from Waugh. Marinetti had described the experience of flying in aesthetic terms: "As I looked at objects from a new point of view, no longer head on or from behind, but straight down, foreshortened, that is, I was able to break apart the old shackles of logic and the plumb lines of the ancient way of thinking" (Selected). Waugh's aesthetic reaction was very different, and in 1929 he wrote: "After a very short time one tires of this aspect of scenery. I think it is significant that a tower or a high hill are all the eminence one needs for observing natural beauties" (Labels). Waugh's work is everywhere permeated with the idea that the only advantage "progress" can bring is the perishable one of novelty; when that has worn off, the machine is empty of any value, having added nothing in the way of real aesthetic enjoyment or spiritual life. This is the attitude conveyed in the description of Nina's honeymoon voyage on an airplane to Monte Carlo: all the ingredients of the Futurist fantasy are present, but tarnished and tawdry after twenty years of unfulfilled promise. "Nina looked down and saw inclined at an odd angle a horizon of straggling red suburbs; arterial roads dotted with little cars; factories, some of them working, others empty and decaying … wireless masts and over-head power cables 'I think I'm going to be sick,' said Nina" (Vile).

The car, of course, is the prototypical Futurist symbol. Wyndham Lewis spoke of Marinetti's "automobilism," and of all Marinetti's imagery it is the automobile, specifically the racing car, that has proved the most memorable. This is partly due to his sexualization of the automobile, a legacy that has remained with us; it is also due to Marinetti's persistent deification of speed, and his use of the automobile as its physical symbol. "We declare that the world's splendour has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed. A racing motor-car … is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace" (Selected). He presents the automobile not only as the greatest achievement of human art but as a god in its own right, a modern Pegasus: "Dieu vehement d'une race d'acier, / Automobile ivre d'espace / qui pietines d'angoisse, les mors aux dents stridents" (Taylor). In thus usurping the position formerly held by deities, the automobile not only symbolizes the apex of men's material achievements, but represents a spiritual exaltation in its own right, as Joshua Taylor points out. The introduction to the Initial Manifesto sets this forward in revealing terms:

But, as we listened to the old canal muttering its feeble prayers and the creaking bones of sickly palaces above their damp green beards, under the windows we suddenly heard the famished roar of automobiles.

'Let's go!' I said. 'Friends, away! Let's go! Mythology and the Mystic Ideal are defeated at last….'

We went up to the three snorting beasts…. I stretched out on my car like a corpse on its bier, but revived at once under the steering wheel, a guillotine blade that threatened my stomach. (Selected).

This theme, of course, is directly parodied in the race-track segment of Vile Bodies and in Agatha Runcible's unhappy end. When Adam, Agatha, Miles, and Archie arrive at the race track the reader is treated to a disquisition on the difference between cars of "being" and of "becoming." "Some cars," the narrator tells us in his most formal mode,

mere vehicles with no purpose above bare locomotion … have definite "being" just as much as their occupants…. Not so the real cars, that become masters of men; those vital creations of metal who exist solely for their own propulsion through space…. These are in perpetual flux; a vortex of combining and disintegrating units.

McCartney takes this, and Agatha's subsequent hallucinations after her accident, to be parodies of Bergsonian thought; I believe it to be more indebted to Futurist rhetoric. As Taylor formulates it, the Futurists saw all objects as embodying two kinds of motion: "that which tends to move in on itself, suggesting in its centripetal force the internal mass of an object" (Waugh's cars of "being"), and "that which moves outward in space mingling with space itself" (the cars of "becoming"—the race cars, the "real" cars). Taylor points out that the Futurists share with Bergson the idea that the consciousness only perceives moments of flux rather than motionless objects. So while Waugh may parody Bergsonian ideas indirectly, he directly addresses those of the Futurists (Taylor).

Waugh refers directly to the Futurist aesthetic in his description of the statute reserved for the race's winner, "a silver gilt figure of odious design, symbolizing Fame embracing Speed." He also refers to it by making the most ruthless of the speed demons on the track an Italian, suggestively named Marino; Marino drives like "sheer murder" and is "a real artist and no mistake." Agatha's joining the race as spare driver is appropriate in that the whole novel, basically, has dealt with the theme of speed, and she is Speed's goddess. The most feckless and novelty-hungry of the Bright Young People, she personifies the general (though futile) speeding up of modern life which is one of the principal themes of Futurism: "Acceleration de la vie, qui a aujourd'hui presque toujours un rhythme rapide. Equilibrisme physique, intellectuel et sentimental de l'homme sur la corde tendue de la vitesse, parmi les magnetismes contradictoires. Consciences multiples et simultanées dans un même individu" (Marinetti, Mots).

"Already we live in the absolute, since we have already created speed, eternal and ever-present," wrote Marinetti (Selected), and Agatha Runcible, in her fevered ramblings, also lives in an absolute of sorts. (It should be noted that Agatha's neighbor in the nursing home has had his wits addled in another Futurist accident, a fall from an airplane). In the introduction to the Initial Manifesto Marinetti describes his own car wreck in terms of rebirth; after turning over into the ditch and drinking its muddy water he rises as a new man. Such, alas, is not the case for Agatha. She too suffers an accident, when her racing car crashes against a market cross, but far from being reborn, she staggers half senseless out of the wreckage and begins her steady decline toward death. Her delirium is a kind of Futurist nightmare in itself. "'Darling,' she said. 'How too divine … how are you?… how angelic of you all to come … only you must be careful not to fall out at the corners … ooh, just missed it. There goes that nasty Italian car … darling, do try and drive more straight, my sweet, you were nearly into me then…. Faster." The constant refrain of "Faster, faster" that Agatha hears is not only an ironic comment upon her own life but also a parodic reference to the principal Futurist obsession.

Another favorite subject of Futurist rhetoric was militarism, the glorification of war being one of the factors that contributed to the Futurists' fall from fashion after World War I. In his Manifeste naturiste, an influential text for the Futurists, Saint-Georges de Bouhelier declared that "the art of the future must be heroic," and the Futurists adopted this preoccupation in their unconventional fashion. Waugh appropriates this theme in order to make his jaundiced, disabused point; from the postwar perspective it was only too obvious that war had failed to be "the world's only hygiene." Vile Bodies ends on "the biggest battlefield in the history of the world." It is an ending that might seem inappropriate in the face of the novel's primary focus on its own self-enclosed social world, but it is actually the Futurist militaristic credo that is being invoked and mocked. The war as presented in the novel is markedly vague and unfocused; we do not even know who the combatants are. Like the Futurist ideals of Speed and Machinery, the advent of war leaves the essence of the world—its flatness and tiredness—remarkably unchanged.

While Waugh used the themes of the Futurists to invert and negate their philosophies, he also made use of certain elements of Futurist aesthetics in the actual execution of Vile Bodies. It is done in his usual manner, exploiting the principles behind the stylistic credos rather than practicing the techniques themselves. "Destroy the I in literature" Marinetti wrote: "that is, all psychology," and he urged Futurist writers to "substitute for human psychology, now exhausted, the lyric obsession with matter" (Selected). "Material has always been contemplated by a cold, distracted I, too preoccupied with itself, full of preconceived wisdom and human obsessions."

In Vile Bodies, as we have seen, the role of the narrator has been purposely suppressed, giving the reader the impression of a narrative that is self-generating, almost mechanical. When the narrator is in evidence he is neutral, formal, and machine-like. This antiseptic tone is affected in contrast to the narrated events: suicide, homosexuality, war, wife-selling, violent death, prostitution. The paucity of psychological exposition corresponds with Marinetti's cry for the artist to destroy the "psychology" in literature. "The suffering of a man is of the same interest to us as the suffering of an electric lamp, which, with spasmodic starts, shrieks out the most heartrending expressions of colour," wrote the Futurists (Taylor); appropriately enough, when Agatha disappears it is the car and not herself that is the subject of the driver's concern. Indeed, the Bright Young People's reactions to the violent events that befall them appear generally to be mechanical rather than emotional, and these affectless responses only add to the characters' already impenetrable masks.

In Vile Bodies Waugh's technique conforms with the Futurist principles of Dinamismo, compenetrazione, and simultaneita. These three principles are maintained through Waugh's extensive use of montage: the rapid cutting back and forth reinforces the dynamic effect, the various scenes penetrate one another via the abrupt switches from place to place. Simultaneity—"the synthesis of what one remembers and what one sees" (Apollonio, Futurist Manifestos, 1973)—is achieved through the juxtaposition of scenes and characters and the conversational non sequiturs that bridge the gaps in space from one almost indistinguishable gathering to another. Characters melt together; when Simon Balcaim, Adam Fenwick-Symes, and Miles Malpractice succeed one another as Mr. Chatterbox they lose whatever little individuality they possessed to begin with.

The Futurist artists' aim was to put the viewer into the center of the work of art, to make him feel at the vortex of a whirling dynamism. They maintained, as Boccioni explained, "unlike Cézanne, that the boundaries of the object tend to retreat towards a periphery (the environment) of which we are the center" (Apollonio). Waugh manages to achieve a similar effect by allowing the drunken, speeded-up gyrations of his cast of characters to encircle the reader, who thus himself becomes the only stable center.

Waugh's treatment of Futurist themes in Vile Bodies is typical of his general attitude toward modern art and theory. He usurps individual motifs and techniques and then superimposes them onto his structure—often, of course, with the purpose of mocking or criticizing some aspect of modern life, or indeed the modern school itself. His aim is to infuse his own skepticism into the aesthetic he chooses to parody, and thus to emphasize its absurdity and even, more seriously, its philosophical error. He argues passionately against the Futurists' idealization of war and destruction as morally cleansing, and shows their pseudo-religion of speed and machinery to be not only sterile but laughable as well. Waugh's own vision of the future was already, in youth as in middle age, a bleak and hopeless one, totally unlike that of the Futurists. In Vile Bodies he focused specifically on Futurism and its ideal, whereas in his next novel, Black Mischief, he would focus more generally upon the hazier notion of "progressivism"—but in all his work the vacuity of modernity in all its guises is emphasized.

Richard P. Lynch (essay date Fall 1994)

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SOURCE: "Evelyn Waugh's Early Novels: The Limits of Fiction," in Papers on Language & Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall 1994, pp. 373-86.

[In the following essay, Lynch contends that Waugh's lack of didacticism in his early novels points to his view of the limited ability of fiction to express permanent, meaningful ideas.]

Apart from his own willingness to classify himself as an entertainer, one of the major reasons for the general view of Evelyn Waugh's early novels as frivolous is that they betray little in the way of overt philosophical content. While it is true that the didactic novel has fallen into disfavor and we tire of the Rupert Birkins more easily than we used to, we still demand a message from fiction, and Waugh seems to deny us one. The problem raised here is one of subject matter. If Waugh's subject is merely the foibles of English society between the wars, then he is a sort of humorous chronicler of the period, and of limited interest to later generations, who will find him funny but will not perhaps understand allusions to the Oxford aesthetes. But English society is not Waugh's only subject. In his first six novels, in fact, he was writing to a considerable extent about fiction, particularly its limited ability either to imitate "reality" in the sense that conventional realistic and naturalistic narratives attempt to do, or to present the ideal suggested by Dr. Johnson's "just representations of general nature." Nor, in spite of his fascination with fantasy, did he aspire to Sidney's poetic world, which offers not an insight into reality, but a superior alternative to it: Nature's world is "brazen, the poets only deliver a golden." Although he contradicts himself on the matter in his statements on fiction, Waugh clearly rejects escape and mere entertainment in his own novels; as D. H. Lawrence said, trust the tale, not the teller.

Further, while he did not anticipate the alternatives to traditional novel form offered by later writers, Waugh shared post-modern ideas about the novel's limitations, especially the objections to the conventions of the realistic novel raised by Alain Robbe-Grillet and the other proponents of the nouveau roman in France and their followers in England and America. The majority of these writers would agree, I think, that a message on the limits of fiction, on what art cannot do, is not trifling with the novel or with art, but bears its own importance as a subject. It is here that Waugh's permanent value as a novelist (as opposed to his value as a satirist) lies.

Waugh's attitude toward realism in fiction is clear. He avoided both Victorian attempts at verisimilitude through causal plot structures and modern experiments in realistic character representation, particularly stream of consciousness techniques: he did not believe the novel should be an attempt to represent life directly. Waugh admired writers like Ivy Compton-Burnett, creators, as he says, of "a timeless wonderland directed by its own interior logic, not distorting, because not reflecting, the material world" (Robert M. Davis, "Evelyn Waugh on the Art of Fiction," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 2, 1966). He insisted on the separation between the artistically created and the actual world. Thus in his first novel, Decline and Fall, he presents us with Paul Pennyfeather, a fictional character based on another fictional character. The whole book, the narrator explains, "is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather," and we have actually been reading about the adventures of his shadow, for, "as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness." Waugh is not merely defining the picaresque hero, who is, indeed, less important than his surroundings; he is making a statement about fiction as mimesis, and he puts the artist's imitation in much the same position Plato did—at two removes from reality.

Far from the position of Henry James, then, who wrote that at times his characters seemed to have lives of their own, or, to take a more recent example, of John Fowles, whose double ending in The French Lieutenant's Woman is supposedly caused by a character's decision to do something other than what the author had planned, Waugh insisted that his characters remain fictional. His treatment of Paul Pennyfeather reminds one of Max Beerbohm's "Enoch Soames," a parody on the Faust theme. Sure of his ability as an artist but ignored by the critics and the public, Enoch Soames makes a bargain with the devil which allows him, in exchange for his life and soul, to travel one hundred years into the future and spend the afternoon reading all the references to himself and his work in the British Museum. When he arrives there, however, the only place he can find his name is as a character in a story by Max Beerbohm. Soames, who at first desires only to be recognized as an artist, eventually finds himself trying desperately to prove that he is real, but, as another character in the story puts it, Enoch Soames is not just "dim"; he is non-existent; and Beerbohm, who has inserted himself in the story as a character, is a "treacherous ass" for having given Soames the illusion of being real.

In his treatment of Pennyfeather and elsewhere, Waugh anticipates some of the objections to the traditional novel voiced by Robbe-Grillet, who argues that the universe in which entire films and novels occur is a "perpetual present" which "obliterates itself as it proceeds": "This man, this woman begin existing only when they appear on the screen and in the novel the first time; before that they are nothing; and once the projection is over, they are again nothing. Their existence lasts only as long as the film lasts."

The "disappearance" of the hero in Decline and Fall has a further implication. Although some of Waugh's protagonists aspire to heroic status, they invariably fail. Neither these, however, nor any of the other protagonists in the early novels may quite be tagged as anti-heroes; it is more as if, as in Pennyfeather's case, they did not really exist, or were so unimportant that the issue of their existence was not worth resolving. This condition is a result of Waugh's refusal to accept one of the primary assumptions on which the novel of realism is based—the importance of the individual. The personality of a character in a realistic novel, Ian Watt notes, "is defined in the interpenetration of its past and present self-awareness. "The individual is "in touch with his own continuing identity through memory of his past thoughts and actions," and through this contact achieves personal identity [The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, 1957].

It should strike a reader as odd that Waugh, who makes considerable use of film techniques in his early novels, does not use flashback to portray a character in the sense that Watt describes. Indeed, what is peculiar about his early characters is that they do not seem to have a sense of the past, or of what they have done or thought in their own past. Critics have marvelled at Pennyfeather's ability to adapt to any situation (though in fact it is not so much that he adapts as that others make what they want of him), but he has no need to adapt, for he comes to each situation in the novel as though he had not existed before it. Adam Fenwick-Symes, in Vile Bodies, behaves in much the same way. The thin plot of this novel consists of Adam's attempts to make enough money to marry his fiancée, Nina Blount. Several times he reaches the required amount (two thousand pounds) only to lose it through carelessness, naiveté, or sheer coincidence. Each time he has the money in his pocket, he calls Nina and announces his willingness to marry her immediately. Each time he loses it, he again calls her and tells her the wedding is off. None of his disappointments impinges on the succeeding hopes and happy telephone calls. Even after he has "sold" Nina to a character named Ginger Littlejohn and she has married, Adam believes that he can buy her back. The traditional expectations of a romantic plot demand that marriage end the matter, and Waugh demonstrates throughout the novel that Adam is something of a romantic. But Nina's marriage to another man has no effect on him; given another chance at the money, he persists in his expectations of a happy ending to a traditional love plot.

Tony Last, in A Handful of Dust, is perhaps Waugh's most realistic character among the early heroes, and his pathetic attempt to discover what has gone wrong in his marriage to Brenda is representative of the whole problem of personal identity and the past in Waugh: "He could not prevent himself, when alone, from rehearsing over and over in his mind all that had happened since Beaver's visit to Hetton; searching for clues he had missed at the time; wondering where something he had said or done might have changed the course of events; going back further to his earliest acquaintance with Brenda to find indications that should have made him more ready to understand the change that had come over her; reliving scene after scene in the last eight years of his life." But Tony's struggle to find a causal chain leading to and explaining his present situation is fruitless, for the causal relationships are not there. In denying Tony and the other early heroes logical connections with the past, Waugh objectifies his characters, makes them like so many well-made chessmen, to be examined curiously, but not probed or humanized. Michel Butor describes the effect of this loss of the past: "A rigorous effort to follow strict chronological order, not allowing any flashback, leads to surprising discoveries: all reference to universal history becomes impossible, all reference to the past of the characters encountered, to memory, and consequently all interiority. Thus the characters are necessarily transformed into things" ["Research on the Technique of the Novel," in Inventory, 1968]. Waugh's ideal was exactly this: to make his characters "things," to prevent even the more fully developed figures like Tony from appearing to be more than they were. Tony Last has a memory, it is true, but he cannot establish the necessary relationship between past and present and so the past no longer belongs to him; it too has become an object, without signification.

Tony is, in fact, rather like Enoch Soames; he is a fictional character desperately attempting to be "real." Instead of relying, as Soames and Penny feather do, on what other people make or say of him, Tony, in effect, becomes a literary critic: he tries to make sense of the narrative. But Waugh is no more disposed to provide motivation for action than he is for character. The source of the trouble between Brenda and Tony is a deus ex machina named Mrs. Beaver, who sends her son off to visit the Lasts at Hetton. Every narrative must have a device to begin the action, but most novelists attempt to disguise this force as some natural event in a causal chain, or the inevitable consequence of a particular character trait. Waugh makes it as obvious as possible that the action of his novel begins at the writer's whim, and he uses such arbitrary plot movers to that end throughout the early novels.

Waugh's carefree treatment of motive forces in plot and his ridicule of other traditional techniques of the novel (at the end of Scoop he parcels out futures for the main characters much in the Victorian manner) places him, again, in a more avant-garde position than most critics have given him credit for. He confuses the matter by describing himself in the admittedly autobiographical Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold as a sort of 18th century craftsman, a refiner of what has been established rather than an innovator. He is, however, nothing of the kind; his plots are nearly as unconventionally constructed as those of Raymond Roussel, probably the earliest writer to influence the practitioners of the nouveau roman in their choice of arbitrary structure. Vivian Mercier reports that Roussel wrote stories by first choosing two similar words, then adding them to identical sentences, in which, however, the same words took on different shades of meaning: "The two sentences once found, it was a matter of writing a story that could begin with the first sentence and end with the second" [A Reader's Guide to the New Novel: From Queneau to Pinget, 1971]. Waugh did not, perhaps, go this far toward arbitrariness in the writing process, but he did, for instance, write A Handful of Dust by beginning at the end. The episode with Mr. Todd in Brazil began as a short story, and Waugh wrote the novel, he claimed, because he wanted to see how it began. Beginning at the end might serve as a means of building a more logical plot, but there is no evidence of such logic in A Handful of Dust. What is more, such a beginning sweeps aside the illusion of free characters whose actions and personalities will determine their fate. Waugh accepted, in any case, none of the conventions of 19th century realism without modifying them for his own purposes, and one of his purposes was to deny the assumptions which underlay 19th and early 20th century novel structure.

He refused, to put it in Robbe-Grillet's terms, to reassure his readers about their prefabricated schemes of reality. The 19th century novelists, as Frank Kermode has remarked, wrote "protective fictions": "They created artificial beginning and end, a duration minute but human in which all, between those points, is ordered, and so in a fiction challenges and negates the pure being of the world" [The Sense of an Ending. Studies in the Theory of Fiction, 1967]. But the fictions were also protective because their structures reflected a solid and eminently reasonable world view. David Goldknopf, in The Life of the Novel, traces the plotted novel and its machine metaphor to the influences of the Industrial Revolution and its cosmic model, Deism. This novel of reason culminates in the detective fiction of the last half of the 19th century, in which, as Goldknopf says, "plot assumed frank control over all other narrative elements" [The Life of the Novel, 1972]. Waugh himself took an oddly rationalist view of religion, but he would have no part of such a structure for the novel.

It is true that he expressed admiration for certain mystery writers, as Harvey Breit records in an interview: "What he'd like to write, Mr. Waugh confessed, would be a detective story. 'Not like Graham Greene, but rather like the story of the Agatha Christie or Erle Stanley Gardner sort, where the clues are given and an actual solution takes place. I admire very much books of pure action'" [The Writer Observed, 1956]. But Waugh did not see these books as imitative of life or of any particular world view, and his own works, far from being the models of logic he admired, are travesties of the melodramatic simplifications, probable occurrences, and happy endings of many Victorian novels. To come to the conclusion, as he did in an article titled "Fan-Fare," that there is "no such thing as normality" and that the artist's sole task is to "create little independent systems of order of his own" denies the very basis of mimetic fiction.

This refusal to reaffirm a systematic view of the world by mirroring it in the structure of his novels indicates that Waugh was as reluctant to imitate or present general truths as he was to follow the conventions of realism and naturalism. Here again he anticipates the nouveau roman, especially in its rejection of "significantion" and "depth." Traditional views, according to Robbe-Grillet, "reduce the novel to a signification external to it, make the novel a means of achieving some value which transcends it, some spiritual or terrestrial 'beyond,' future Happiness or eternal Truth" [For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, 1965]. Further, such views spawned and perpetuated the myth of depth in the novel: "The writer's traditional role consisted in excavating Nature, in burrowing deeper and deeper to reach some ever more intimate strata, in finally unearthing some fragment of a disconcerting secret."

Waugh not only avoids such discoveries and illuminations—he parodies them. He guides the ridiculous Pennyfeather, for instance, through a whole series of mock-epiphanies, the most preposterous of which occurs as Paul accepts his imprisonment in place of the guilty Margot Beste-Chetwynde on the theory that, as her son Peter reasons, "You can't see Mamma in prison, can you?": "The more Paul considered this, the more he perceived it to be the statement of a natural law … he was strengthened in his belief that there was, in fact, and should be, one law for her and another for himself" (Decline and Fall). It was precisely Waugh's point that the artist is incapable of revealing any "natural laws" through his work. To do so would be to fall back on the protective fictions of earlier novelists and to claim for the artist the status of prophet.

Waugh's most effective parody of depth and signification also occurs in Decline and Fall: it is Professor Silenus's speech on the big wheel at Luna Park. Silenus's question to Pennyfeather warns us that the whole tradition of philosophical truths delivered by fictional characters who serve primarily as mouthpieces for their authors is about to be debunked:

"Shall I tell you about life?"

"Yes, do," said Paul politely.

"Well, it's like the big wheel at Luna Park…. You pay five francs and go into a room with tiers of seats all round, and in the center the floor is made of a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly … the nearer you can get to the hub of the wheel the slower it is moving and the easier it is to stay on…. Of course at the very center there's a point completely at rest, if one could only find it. I'm not sure I am not very near that point myself…. Lots of people just enjoy scrambling on and being whisked off and scrambling on again. How they all shrink and giggle! Then there are others, like Margot, who sit as far out as they can and hold on for dear life and enjoy that. But the whole point about the wheel is that you needn't get on it at all, if you don't want to. People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they've got to join in the game, even if they don't enjoy it. It doesn't suit everyone."

"Now you're a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got onto the wheel, and you got thrown off again at once with a hard bump. It's all right for Margot, who can cling on, and for me, at the center, but you're static. Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic."

Critics have largely accepted Silenus's speech without sensing its irony, arguing only over the question of whether Waugh was merely providing an explanation of the difference between Margot's world and Pennyfeather's world, or attempting to justify moral confusion in the novel. But there is nothing in the novel to support the contention that Waugh agrees with either Paul or Silenus. Indeed, he has Silenus dismiss his own lecture immediately after delivering it: "I know of no more utterly boring and futile occupation than generalizing about life." Probably the most telling comment on the speech is Paul's reaction to it: just as he accepts the double standard of morality and honor on the question of Margot, so he adopts Professor Silenus's definition of life, which also assumes separate standards for different kinds of people.

To accept Silenus's judgment on matters of character is to accept not only the double standard, but the idea that humans are inferior to machines: "The problem of architecture as I see it … is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men." Silenus's fascination with machinery leads naturally to his use of a machine image to explain life to Paul. The explanation reduces people to static and dynamic (or kinetic) and simplifies them in predetermined, unalterable states. Such a view of human character is merely an extension of the machine-like plot which Goldknopf finds in the Victorian novel. Waugh's point was exactly the opposite—that real people are too complex to be crowded into such neat patterns.

A further reason for rejecting the classification of characters into static and dynamic is that it is uncomfortably close to the traditional distinction between "flat" and "round" characters, a distinction that Waugh, when interviewed by Julian Jebb for the Paris Review, would not admit: "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" ["The Art of Fiction XXX: Evelyn Waugh," Vol. 30, 1963]. Like Robbe-Grillet, Waugh objected to the fictional character who was supposed to represent a human type, complete with concrete qualities, associations, and predetermined patterns of action. Such a character is only another way of achieving signification, of rising to the level of a category or universal. Static and dynamic also call up suspicious echoes of Joyce, whom Waugh criticized for attempting to reveal the whole human mind and soul in his fiction. Stephen Dedalus divides art into "static" and "kinetic," and it is quite possible that Pennyfeather's discovery of the division of human character types into these two classes is a parody of the earlier revelation.

This view of Silenus's speech is also supported by the fact that it is almost alone of its kind in the early novels. The only other thematic and philosophical discourse of anything like the same length appears in Vile Bodies, when Father Rothschild analyzes the behavior of the Bright Young People. Rothschild himself, as Neil D. Isaacs points out, is a caricature of the intriguing Jesuit and not to be taken seriously. His speech, Christopher Sykes recalls, later bothered Waugh as a "silly" artistic flaw in the novel.

To a point, as I have suggested, Waugh keeps pace with the advocates of the nouveau roman in his objections to the power of the novel to imitate reality or to discover general truths and permanent human types. But he was less optimistic about the future uses of fiction and its ultimate value. When he presents the pastoral—the fictional world within fiction—in his novels, it does not fare well. In Scoop, William Boot retreats from London and the modern world into the aging Boot Magna, an old country house that is slowly falling apart. Several critics have pointed out the images of decay associated with the house and surrounding trees, and the moon-like image of sterility which describes the landscape. But William's escape does not depend so much on what Boot Magna is, as on what he makes of it in his weekly newspaper column, "Lush Places." Here he creates a pastoral paradise, a link with a more peaceful and decorous past. Unfortunately, the escape is enclosed not only by a decaying world, but by a world whose traditional values have been turned upside-down, as evidenced by the stately home in which the family must wait on the servants, who are too old and bed-ridden to take care of themselves. The benefits of the imagination and its creations are shaky at best.

No better illustration of this last point exists than the fate of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, who also enters an ostensibly pastoral world as a means of escaping modern society and his unfaithful wife, Brenda. The traditional benefit of the pastoral retreat is that it allows the hero to shed the complexities of everyday experience and to glimpse the underlying forces with which he must align himself; it simplifies his vision and enables him to reset his goals and return to the active life with a renewed sense of purpose. But Tony is granted no such vision, and the only simplification of life he is offered is in the melodramatically simple stories of Dickens which he is forced, for the remaining years of his life, to read to Mr. Todd in the Brazilian jungle. Although Waugh was not given to messages in his novels, the implication is clear: art will not save us.

The point is not that art is worthless; Waugh certainly did not believe that. But it may well be that he shared the aesthete's view that art is useless. He was, after all, primarily a thirties writer, surrounded by those who were absorbed in writing for political and moral ends. Not involved in the didactic Left, he had time to think about fiction itself, and to write about it. While he did not share the hope that the novel might be used eventually to disabuse humans of their misconceptions about the world, Waugh would have agreed with Robbe-Grillet's analysis of the artist's true concern; "Whatever his attachment to his party or to generous ideas, the moment of creation can bring him back to the problems of his art, and to them alone."

Although Waugh maintained some of the same views on the limits of fiction in interviews as late as 1962, there is no question that his actual practice as a novelist changed substantially in the later works. With the exception of The Loved One, which is pure satire, from Brideshead Revisited on, Waugh's characters and plots become more conventional, and he appears to take expressions of "truth" on the part of his characters more seriously. In short, his later novels are more reassuring to readers of conventional romance, and what he reassures them about is, among other things, the value of a fictional account of things.

Brideshead, though it is atypical among Waugh's novels in its triumph of sentiment over satire, demonstrates the shift in attitude toward what fiction can do. Unlike earlier characters who lacked a past or even a fixed identity, Charles Ryder constructs the entire novel out of his memories. Julia, as James F. Carens points out, is as empty as earlier heroines, but Waugh tries to present her as a substantial human being by adding "Roman Catholicism and great wealth, now viewed through the mists of sentiment" [The Satirical Art of Evelyn Waugh, 1966]. Further, although the structure of Brideshead has been criticized, there is no playing with the conventions of plot, and while the novel makes no claims for the discovery of universal values, it asserts the value and importance to individuals of Catholicism and tradition. In the Prologue in particular, there is a longing for "stately old England" which would never have escaped ironic treatment in the earlier novels. So, while there is no reassuring systematic view of the world (the modern world is too corrupted for that), there are "pockets of value" offered in much the same way Dickens offered "pockets of goodness" in some of his characters.

As for the Crouchback novels which make up the war trilogy Sword of Honour and are generally considered Waugh's best later work, sentiment is controlled but the emphasis is on traditional structure and serious theme. In these three novels, Waugh "adjusts," as Carens says, "to the conventions of the novel," and in the process creates "meaningful positive values." The source of Guy Crouchback's religious inspiration in the trilogy is his father. Frederick J. Stopp reports Waugh as having said to him in a conversation that Mr. Crouchback's function in the novel was "to keep audible a steady undertone of the decencies and true purpose of life behind the chaos of events and fantastic characters" [Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist, 1958]. Even in A Handful of Dust, the most mature of the early novels, there is no such undertone. The very writing of a trilogy with the same main character suggests a continuity of being and concerns not present in the early novels, and if Carens is right in his description of the story line as "Guy's return to life after disillusionment, descent into hell, and discovery of self," Waugh has used, quite seriously, a plot at least as old as the Aeneid.

Carens and others may be justified in valuing Waugh's later development as a maturing of expression and broadening of sympathies, but the fact remains that his reputation rests on the early novels. Many better conventional novels have been written in the twentieth century, but few have matched the early works in satirical humor and in comic treatment of the conventional novel form, when Waugh was skeptical not only about the targets of his satire, but about the power of fiction itself.

T. J. Ross (essay date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: "Reconsidering Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One," in Modern Age, Vol. 37, No. 2, Winter 1995, pp. 156-62.

[Ross is an American educator, literary critic, and writer. In the following essay, Ross claims that The Loved One is Waugh's only truly satiric novel and notes that Waugh displays in it his deft understanding of the American character.]

If we were to grade British authors of this century according to the degree of compassion manifest in their works, one novelist sure to flunk would be Evelyn Waugh. In recent years "compassion" has become a buzz word and it is precisely the overtones carried in its buzz that may account in part for Waugh's unsteady place on the literary stockmarket on this side of the Atlantic. Not only, as a writer, does Waugh lose points for his low compassion-count but also, as a person, he comes across as hardly tolerable: the image of him in the public mind leaves perhaps too much to be desired. As Steven Marcus sums it up, "Waugh has been variously characterized as nasty, hateful, snobbish, trivial, reactionary, vindictive, fawning, immature, pompous, and rude." All of which, Marcus feels, is "somehow beside the point." For it doesn't affect what is offered in novels like Decline and Fall (1928), or Vile Bodies (1930), or A Handful of Dust (1934), or Scoop (1938): what is on offer, according to Marcus, is a dazzling form of entertainment, socially observant and immaculately written, which on occasion reaches the level of art but more often settles for being "artful." Marcus' essay, which can be found in his Representations: Essays on Literature and Politics (1975), is entitled "Evelyn Waugh and the Art of Entertainment," and for him, such an art is art enough.

He cautions, therefore, that we not bring to Waugh the "great expectations" we have been taught to bring to literature, expectations which depend on "our mistrust of any piece of writing which does not seem immediately to challenge profound assumptions or elicit the most delicate moral choices."

Now I am not sure that one can as easily as Marcus assumes disentangle a writer's blind spots from his virtues. Nor am I sure Waugh himself was in fact the snob and callow toady he has been made out to be. Few British critics, for example, recognize Waugh in Marcus' caricature. A critic as esteemed for his compassionate views as John Bayley finds Waugh the man to be, all in all, and despite himself, a "fundamentally good egg"—the public image no more than a defense against intrusions on his private life and literary aims. (Bayley refers to the death scene of the heroine of The Loved One [1948] is one of the most "moving" in modern literature.)

But beyond the matter of Waugh's personal qualities, a further question not raised by Marcus presents itself. One can get away with a low grade in compassion if one is otherwise seen as a thinker or visionary driven by the urgency of one's disturbing perceptions. Consider how commentators on D. H. Lawrence tend to go easy on the brutal tonalities that resound through his work, given the urgency of his prophetic vision. In Lawrence's perspective on social breakdown and sexual renewal we have the sort of "vision" that assures his canonical status—no matter that "vision," like "compassion" serves at present as another shopworn and rather fuzzy counter in literary discourse. Nor does it hurt that Lawrence's fiction easily lends itself to interdisciplinary studies. He is an obvious choice for any core curriculum.

Waugh in contrast would seem lacking in interdisciplinary appeal; in his best work he is neither visionary nor intellectually arduous—though he is clear-eyed indeed in characterizing ideologues. And he also resists, as Marcus is careful to observe, classification as a satirist. "His early novels," Marcus writes, "are celebrations of Mayfair, not satires of it. Nothing is more patent than that he loved … Lady Metroland, proprietress of an international chain of brothels … or that he loved all the raffish, bored useless picaresque characters who fill the pages of his earliest novels."

Satire seeks to warn us against the kind of world and characters it exposes. This is not usually the point with Waugh: he usually takes the world as he finds it. In the case of the "beautiful people" of London's Mayfair, Waugh's attitude is rightly described by Marcus as celebratory. But celebration is surely not the word for Waugh's one novel set in America and centered on its "dream factory": Hollywood. Both in its treatment of the dream factory and of its corresponding dream burial ground, Forest Lawn Cemetery on which the "Whispering Glades" of the novel is based, the novel offers a social and cultural critique which, with the passage of time, comes across today as all the more prescient and apt and with a power that invites labelling as visionary.

The opening paragraphs of The Loved One establish a satiric equation between the English "colony" in Hollywood and earlier colonists deposited in equatorial outposts. Nursing their whiskeys-and-soda in a "barely supportable heat," two Englishmen listen to music coming from "nearby native huts" while a "palm leaf" stirs in the breeze. They are identified as "counterparts of numberless fellow countrymen exiled in barbarous regions of the world." One of them, Ambrose Bierce, is evidently modeled on the late C. Aubrey Smith, a leading light in life, as in this fiction, of the British social enclave which enjoyed its heyday in Hollywood in the late 1940s, the time in which The Loved One is set. Smith made a career of portraying, in Waugh's words, "many travesties of English rural life," as well as flinty colonialists in travesties of English imperial life. And it's the Smith/Bierce character who remarks of another Englishman forced to return under a cloud to the mother country. "He went completely native." As Bierce sums up his policy: "In Africa, if a white man is disgracing himself and letting down his people, the authorities pack him off home." Bierce is troubled by the doings of a newcomer, a young English poet and adventurer who also threatens to let his side down, having accepted a job at a pet cemetery. Proving to be remorselessly adaptable, the poet takes to the ways of the "barbarous region" with deadpan relish.

In describing this character's arrival on the scene. Waugh places him metaphorically with one foot on either side of the line dividing West Coast natives from English Colonials. "As a missionary priest making his first pilgrimage to the Vatican, as a paramount chief of equatorial Africa mounting the Eiffel tower, Dennis Barlow, poet and pet's mortician, drove through the Golden Gates." Dennis will prove equal to the natives at their own level of the game and his cool sufficiency is here signaled.

At Whispering Glades, Dennis meets a young woman who serves not only as hostess of the burial ground but also as a member of its elite corps of embalming interns. In their motives and expectations Dennis and the intern, Aimee Thanatogenos, will find themselves at cross purposes; and in their misreadings of one another and missed cues, they will enact a classically neat "clash of cultures." The name of the American specialist in such conflicts, Henry James, is in fact introduced in an exchange between Dennis and his boss at the animal cemetery, the Happier Hunting Ground. "I have become the protagonist of a Jamesian problem," says Dennis, who further notes that James's stories "are all tragedies one way or another"—as one way or another is The Loved One, which bears the subtitle An Anglo-American Tragedy.

What keeps the encounter between Dennis and Aimee from cliché is Waugh's view of the American character as chiefly determined by spiritual and cultural rather than material motives. A year before the novel's publication in 1948, Mary McCarthy in a celebrated essay, "America the Beautiful," which is included in her collection On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946–1961 (1962), had stressed that "the virtue of American civilization is that it is not materialistic." Of earlier notable works based on a similar theme we might note George Santayana's Character and Opinion in the United States (1920). In fact, as Lionel Trilling has pointed out, it is precisely Santayana's own insistent materialism, as a good European, that makes him, for the American reader, hard to take.

Waugh himself is closer to Santayana than McCarthy in his qualified response to what for her is entirely a "virtue." The idealist virtue McCarthy extols is seen by Waugh to be in separable from what is tragic in American life. Both the humor and the critical attack of his novel stem from the depiction of a world which casually exploits spiritual and cultural aspirations. Whatever Aimee looks to for cultural nourishment or moral guidance proves a scam.

Waugh takes pains to distinguish Aimee from what he calls the "standard product," which is to say, the sort of airline hostess or reception-desk attendant whom one could leave "in a delicatessen shop in New York, fly three thousand miles and find her again in the cigar stall at San Francisco." This product is certainly, as the author says, "convenient," but "Dennis came of an earlier civilization with sharper needs." And in the "bustling hygienic Eden" of Whispering Glades. Aimee stands out as its "sole Eve." For one thing, her skin is "transparent, untarnished by the sun." This gives her an advantage that Waugh ordinarily reserved for women of his own class; he disliked the sunbathing which became fashionable in the twenties and was put off by sun tans. Aimee's pallor is a small touch but one that reveals sympathetic authorial approval. The author would also be happy to see, as does his hero, that Aimee goes easy on cosmetics. But what excites the hero above all is "the rich glint of lunacy" detectable in Aimee's eyes. Given her untutored aspirations, her "virtue," she is bound in the circumstances to be a bit mad.

Dennis possesses the culture for which the intern is starved. His manner harks back to nineties' aestheticism-the sort of manner and stance with which Waugh in his youth identified. The young poet is to a degree a sketch of the young pre-Catholic Waugh. He is described as "a young man of sensibility rather than sentiment," an apt definition of the type of aesthete whose responses tend more to the coolly appreciative than to stronger currents of feeling. In his new world, our aesthete and anti-hero at once recognizes that he can exploit his cultivation and skills only as a hustler. He hustles rhymes at his job and uses art to hustle Aimee, who responds to the verses culled from anthologies—the cultural tokens he woos her with—as an earlier native might have responded to the wampum and beads tendered to him by Dennis forbears.

In her essay, Mary McCarthy notes that we rarely find misers in American fiction although they abound in European; rather, a recurring figure in American stories is the con man. It is an aspect of Dennis' adaptability that he wheels and deals effectively as a con artist. He learns the game from Whispering Glades, a compound where the arts and artifacts of culture entirely serve a cosmetic function—further elements of an overall embalming process.

Thus no building, no statue, no replica of this or that art emblem—Rodin's The Kiss or whatever—is left to be scanned or taken in on its own: instead, an instant explanation of its place in the scheme of things, which is to say its educational value, accompanies each art object, on placards in large print or hummed through the sound system. "This perfect replica of an old English manor," Dennis reads, "Is constructed throughout of grade-A-steel and concrete." Dennis takes note of how "in Whispering Glades, failing credulity was fortified by the painted word." Several decades before Tom Wolfe, Waugh here anticipates the theme and the very title of Wolfe's book, The Painted Word (1973) an attack on an art scene marked by an excessive dependence on hushed explanations and rationalizations of often fluffy works.

Waugh's concern is with the reduction or domestication of art forms to kitsch formulas; Wolfe's with a putative avantgarde. Yet what Wolfe sees in Soho galleries is the same process Waugh ascribes to Whispering Glades: the gradual, in Wolfe's word, "disintegration" of art works and the enjoyment of art in "the universal solvent of the word." Wolfe is led to look back to a time when "one actually struggled to see paintings directly, in the old pre-World War II way." In his novel set in the immediate post-World War II period, Waugh proves exact in his focus on key cultural issues. Nor is his response to the culture of the "painted word" aimed simply as a sardonic passing shot. A deeper response is evident in the musings of his protagonist: "His interest was no longer purely technical or satiric. Whispering Glades held him in thrall. In a zone of insecurity in the mind where none but the artist dare trespass, the tribes were mustering. Dennis, the frontier-man, could read the signs." For the artist the signs point to a crucial subject: art hucksterism in a world whose main expressive modes are those of salesmanship and boosterism.

Waugh's portrait of Aimee proves all the more perceptive and moving in being defined chiefly through her relation to the liberal arts. Waugh observes that Aimee's "only language," learned at the "local High School and University … expressed fewer and fewer of her ripening needs." With its Rotarian stress on good citizenship, Aimee's education has left her not only culturally deprived but also ill-prepared for the shocks of personal relations. And that she is not entirely blocked in her aesthetic responsiveness and capacities puts her even more on dangerous ground: she is stirred by the verses of Keats and Poe and Shakespeare that are dangled before her. Besides her responses to particular works, her attitude to art in the abstract is reverential. It is only when Dennis identifies himself as a poet that he manages to break through her facade "of impersonal, insensitive friendliness which takes the place of ceremony in that land of waifs and strays."

The more Dennis begins plying her with anthology pieces, the more disorienting they prove. Aimee finds too many of the verses to be "unethical." And Dennis is led to brood: "The English poets were proving uncertain guides in the labyrinth of Californian courtship—nearly all were too casual, too despondent, too ceremonious, or too exacting: they scolded, they pleaded, they extolled. Dennis required salesmanship." Although Dennis begins decreasing Aimee's ration of verses, she has been infected: under the influence of her suitor and his verses she begins to suffer intimations of alienation. She is unable, however, to move past her good citizen's notions of the "ethical" (which she confuses with the inspirational). Her education has allowed her no hint of the effects of either art or passion. Unable finally to handle a modicum of alienation as a fact of life, she lies back on an embalming table and destroys herself. She is presented as victim of a scene whose artistic culture is revealed to be a synthetic Disneyland.

In contrast to Aimee, her would-be tutor and lover is all too adjusted to alienation and in consequence is excessively cool. He exploits the language of passion as Aimee's mentor in embalming, Mr. Joyboy, exploits the idiom of good citizenship. For Waugh culture is inseparable from community and his California lacks both. The natives are as uprooted as the colonials, lacking not only aesthetic but familial sustenance. Mr. Joyboy's mother is a self-absorbed monster who coos over her pet, a stubbornly silent parrot.

It was his first sight of California that spurred another English expatriate, Aldous Huxley, to the writing of Brave New World (1932); in key respects both Huxley's novel and Waugh's correspond. Waugh's critical aim in The Loved One is as overt as in the classic dystopias of science fiction. The more we are immersed in the mortuary marvels of Whispering Glades, the closer we seem to the tone and trappings of science fiction. In character, Huxley's John the savage is just what his name implies: both cultural primitive and religious zealot. So too is Aimee who, like her counterpart in Brave New World, ends a suicide. Even as her full name spells out and conjoins love and death, so does her story, a story which, given its scene, tends inescapably toward the macabre.

Like other features of the novel, the characterization of its heroine seems ahead of its time; it is easy to imagine her in an absurdist play. The presentation of Aimee anticipates the sort of characterization that would be developed for a time by left-wing writers. One can easily imagine Aimee, for example, in the Norman Lear sitcom of the seventies: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The comic mode of both Huxley and Waugh is what we recognize today as "black humor"—a kind of humor which provokes at the same time both laughter and guilt. The more we laugh, the more we feel chastised. Both in its dystopian and comic modes, The Loved One takes us well beyond the bounds of the artfully entertaining. This may account for the reserve of critics who find that it goes too far. As great an admirer of Waugh as Kingsley Amis put down the novel for being "coarse." The coarse or brutal tonalities, I would suggest, are inseparable from Waugh's social and critical concerns—perhaps in none of his other works is a critical motive more apparent.

In its plot development the novel divides pretty much in two halves—each dealing with a casualty of the times. The first is Sir Francis Tinsley, an older member of the British colony who works in public relations. When he is shunted out of his office and job he hangs himself. In his best days Sir Francis had enjoyed a spot on the literary map as a reviewer, versifier, and travel writer; but this was in the time of the Georgians, before the rumbling advent of "Joyce and Freud and Gertrude Stein"—a line-up that Sir Francis tells Dennis "he couldn't make any sense of." When he arrived in Hollywood, he was already a literary fossil: and with the loss of his Hollywood post, he is finished. Following this account, Aimee's doomed romance is brought to the foreground. As Dennis officiated at the literary man's burial at Whispering Glades, so too he oversees the disposal of Aimee's body in the crematorium of the pet cemetery. In his profession, Sir Francis, a pre-World War I type, found himself out of his time. Aimee, a pre-World War II type, also seems in her personal dilemma out of her time, Neither has a future in the post-War II world.

Waugh tended to look benevolently on his fossil-types: that he links Aimee's fate with Sir Francis' further suggests his sympathetic attitude toward her—despite, to be sure, the surgical dispassion and precision with which her "case," like Sir Francis' own, is delineated.

Waugh concisely fills us in on the social and cultural backgrounds of both characters; the more he fills us in, the more we see how each is fatally unfit for dealing with the crisis each is caught up in, the one, vocational, the other, personal. Sir Francis is baffled not only by Freud but also by a roster that includes "Kierkegaard and Kafka and Compton Burnett and Sartre." He asks of these, "Who are they? What do they want?" If Sir Francis has outlived his time—"If asked, Dennis would have guessed that he had been killed in the Dardanelles"—Aimee proves too green and misguided for hers. Waugh is as careful to pinpoint her cultural credentials and blank spots as Sir Francis. As she tells Dennis: "I've always been Artistic. I took Art at College as my second subject one semester." In answer to a query about what she took, she explains: "Just Psychology and Chinese. I didn't get on so well with Chinese. But of course they were secondary subjects too: for Cultural Background."

As Waugh anticipates Wolfe's attack on hucksterism in the art world, he here equally anticipates recent observations by Paul Fussell and other critics on hucksterism in the University. In outlining his heroine's curriculum vitae, Waugh, with, to be sure, greater dramatic economy and power, says everything that Fussell touches on in his essay, "The Life of the Mind." included in his book Class: A Guide through the American Status System (1983). That Waugh can as deftly sketch in Aimee's background as Sir Francis' again suggests that his portrayal depends on an understanding that borders on compassion and a sympathy that borders on love.

We may also note of the literary allusions strewn through the story that they function as something more than elitist flag-waving. Lines from Tennyson's Tithonus or parodic echoes from his Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington summon up expressive and ceremonial means in coming to terms with death which mark not simply a contrast with the style of Whispering Glades and its environs but with the language and mood of present times in general. Also foreign to the present are the avowals of love cited from Tennyson, Keats, or Shakespeare. That Aimee responds to their lines on love and death is an aspect of her tragic circumstance. The Loved One deals not only with the tragic fate of an individual but also with the contours of a tragic age. On this score Waugh would seem to join hands at the last with D. H. Lawrence who begins his Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) with the famous admonition: "Ours is essentially a tragic age …" This premise determines the tone and point of Waugh's novel.

In its treatment of the "clash of cultures" the novel proves more astute and more sensitive than most critics have been willing to grant. The film version of 1963, directed by an Englishman as far to the left politically as Waugh was to the right, wholly misses his view of the American character and cultural climate. The film remains gleefully platitudinous in its belaboring of American materialism and capitalist villainy. But this miscarriage should not affect our response to a work which, both as love story and as cultural criticism, can still speak to us, and move us, now.

Joan Didion (review date 11 December 1995)

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SOURCE: "Gentlemen in Battle," in National Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 23, December 11, 1995, pp. 128, 130-31.

[Didion is a prominent American novelist, essayist, and screenplay writer. In the following, originally published in National Review in 1962, she reviews The End of the Battle, the final novel in Waugh's Men at War trilogy, noting what she considers Waugh's excellent depiction in the book of utter futility in the modern-post-World War II-world.]

Distinctively dolorous by nature, I have to date been saved from my own instincts mostly by the relentless interference of my acquaintances, one or two of whom seem to have perfect pitch for my absurdities, if not always for their own. I recall in particular one bitter morning in New York, my 23rd birthday, when I woke with intimations of mortality to find outside my door, attractively done up in a Henri Bendel box, the jacket of a Henry James novel painstakingly altered to read The Tragic M(o)use. It was accompanied by a gray plastic mouse with a red ribbon around its tail, and if I did not immediately stop fancying myself a kind of East End Avenue Ophelia, I began at least to entertain certain doubts.

Although this battle is still far from won, I sometimes have mixed feelings about the desirability of winning it at all: the only prize, after all, would be a sense of the absurd, the beginning of a kind of toughness of mind; and to win that particular victory is to cut oneself irrevocably loose from what we used to call the main currents of American thought. Every real American story begins in innocence and never stops mourning the loss of it: the banishment from Eden is our one great tale, lovingly told and retold, adapted, disguised, and told again, passed down from Hester Prynne to Temple Drake, from Natty Bumppo to Holden Caulfield; it is the single stunning fact in our literature, in our folk-lore, in our history, and in the lyrics of our popular songs. Because hardness of mind is antithetical to innocence, it is not only alien to us but generally misapprehended. What we take it for, warily, is something we sometimes call cynicism, sometimes call wit, sometimes (if we are given to this kind of analysis) disapprove as "a cheap effect," and almost invariably hold at arm's length, the way Eve should have held that snake.

It is precisely this hardness of mind which creates a gulf between Evelyn Waugh and most American readers. There is a fine edge on, and a perfect balance to, his every perception, and although he is scarcely what you could call unread in the United States, neither is he what you could call understood. When he is not being passed off as "anachronistic" or "reactionary" (an adjective employed by Gore Vidal and others to indicate their suspicion that Waugh harbors certain lingering sympathies with the central tenets of Western civilization), he is being fêted as a kind of trans-Atlantic Peter DeVries, a devastating spoofer who will probably turn out really to be another pseudonym for Patrick Dennis.

Consider these comments made at one time or another upon Men at War, Waugh's long trilogy, finally complete this year: "Highly entertaining … about some of the preposterous experiences of the Second World War…. Waugh's sharp wit and sure touch of satire are always at work…. Contains comic passages as funny as anything since Decline and Fall…. First-rate comic genius…. Satirical…. Wickedly witty … right to the hilarious, if not poignant, end."

Although it would be difficult to construct from these quotations the dimmest impression that Waugh was trying for anything much more devious than See Here, Private Hargrove or at the outside Mister Roberts, what he was up to in this trilogy happened in point of fact to be a complex elegiac study of the breakdown of a civilization, a great work, so right in every way that if my grandchildren should ever ask me how it was when I was little, I think I would press upon them, along with Faulkner's chronicle of the Snopes family and some bound volumes of the wartime Vogue, Waugh's Men at War.

But that is social history, and Men at War—begun in 1952 with Men at Arms, continued in 1955 with Officers and Gentlemen, and completed this year with The End of the Battle—is a great deal more than social history. One of the virtues of the hard mind is that it can deal simultaneously with an individual, his God, and his society, neither slighting nor magnifying the subtle, delicate pressures each exerts upon the others. (American novelists are on the whole incapable of this kind of thing. With the exception of Henry James, they have been determinists at heart—or very lazy.) What Men at War is about is one man's aridity, and his foredoomed attempt to make a social cause a moral cause in a society bereft of moral meaning; I can think of no other writer who has made that bereavement quite so clear to me.

The man is Guy Crouchback, an English Catholic who went to war in 1939, when he was 35, at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty, an extraordinarily crucial moment and a brilliant stroke on which to begin this particular book: "… now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle." Closing his house in Italy in order to enlist in London, Guy prepares as if for a Crusade, stopping by the tomb of an obscure English knight, Roger of Waybroke, waylaid on the way to his own Crusade and buried there "far from Jerusalem, far from Waybroke, a man with a great journey still all before him and a great vow unfulfilled": "Sir Roger, pray for me," Guy asked, "and for our endangered kingdom."

Guy's Crusade is short-lived. By the time of the alliance with Russia in 1941, he felt himself "back after less than two years' pilgrimage in a Holy Land of Illusion in the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant men proved traitors and his country was led blundering into dishonor." By 1943, when The End of the Battle begins, he is back in London, a London crowded with old people, disorder, fragments of things once known. As the end of the war approaches, the heaviest awareness of all strikes him: that whatever it had been to which he had dedicated himself on the tomb of Sir Roger that day in 1939, it had not been a Crusade. As he is told by a displaced person, "Even good men thought their private honor would be satisfied by war…. Were there none in England?"

"God forgive me," said Guy, "I was one of them."

What happens to Guy Crouch back at the end of the war is nothing much: he marries, and lives with his wife and children in the agent's cottage on his family land. But he is stranded, in a real sense, exactly as far from Jerusalem and exactly as far from home as Roger of Waybroke had been, there in Italy, centuries before. What Guy can never be—and that he cannot be is the measure of something that happened in those centuries between—is what Sir Roger had been: "a man with a great journey still all before him and a great vow unfulfilled."

To know as Waugh knows that there are no more great journeys and possibly no more great vows and still to trouble to write a novel at all exhibits precisely that fine hardness of mind most characteristic of him; to know it and to trouble to write a trilogy exhibits, above and beyond hardness, whatever it was that made Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit to hold Khartoum.


Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 1)


Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 13)