Evelyn Waugh Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 19) - Essay

Christopher Hollis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Waugh] was sometimes criticized for his lack of pity, but the criticism, I think, a little misses the point. It may indeed fairly be said of his earlier works that, brilliant and funny as they are, they give us a picture of a society of irremediable futility. (p. 5)

Yet, if we turn from the portrait of society at large to the portrait of individuals, the criticism of lack of pity has little meaning. For the characters in his first two novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, are too wholly fantastic for any question of sympathy or antipathy to arise. No one can shed tears over the death of Mr Prendergast or of Agatha Runcible because they are clearly not real people. (pp. 5-6)

[It] is not until we come to Brideshead Revisited that we come to what may be called a wholly three-dimensional novel—to a novel on whose characters we can pass judgements as if they were real people.

On the other hand, that is by no means to say that the early novels can fairly be dismissed as merely frivolous, nor even that the religious influences which have been so predominant in Waugh's later work were wholly absent even then. (p. 7)

[Waugh gives us in Work Suspended a sustained excellence of style, which we are to get again in Brideshead Revisited, but which we had not found in the earlier books. We are no longer in the world of the jerky, short, comic sentences of conversation…. The book is the forerunner of Brideshead Revisited in the sense that its characters are much more nearly full and real people than those of the preceding books. (p. 15)

With Brideshead Revisited we enter upon the first of the third series of Waugh's novels—the explicitly and consciously Catholic novels. Brideshead Revisited is about religion, but it is about nothing except religion, nor is there any question at all of any other religious truth except that of the Catholic Church. It is in no way a work of apologetics. There is no consideration of the historical and metaphysical evidence for the Catholic claims…. [The] significance of Brideshead Revisited is the inescapable strength of the hold of the Church over the members of the Flyte family. It does not make them perfect. (p. 18)

All that Waugh, the novelist, is concerned to do is to show the strength of [the Church's] claims on those who have ever come under their influence—to show, whatever superficial appearances of similarity there may be, how there must inevitably be a sundering difference in every action of life between those to whom life is a religious adventure and those to whom it is not such an adventure. (p. 20)

The point of [The Loved One], if we retranslate it from fiction into propositions,...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Waugh's] travelogues are of a very special kind: they do not shout aloud. They present Waugh at his most unobtrusive. He ignores, ordinarily, the famous sites, those glamorized by history and legend…. He feels that the famous has received its due already, and indeed this is true; but his real reason is that a greater attraction was always near: that is, man. As he says: "I soon found my fellow passengers and their behavior in the different places we visited a far more absorbing study than the places themselves." (p. 97)

It is possible that some of this attitude is acquired from Hilaire Belloc's famous The Path to Rome, which Waugh discusses in Labels. Belloc's reputation was still great in 1929, the year in which Waugh made his first recorded trip. Belloc's eye was not quite so keen for human follies, but he did have his detachment from historic monuments. Both men admired the great works of civilization, but then they turned away from them in their own literary productions. Both were religious but irascible men, both were literary artists, both were in love with history. Of the two Waugh is the finer artist, although the other gives the impression of greater vitality and greater passion.

In Labels we see him pursue the kind of thing that interests him. He watches people, it appears, in order to catch them in some comic pose or action. He has his own angle of vision; where another would give a quick glance and forget, Waugh stops in fascination before some unique revelation of human eccentricity. (pp. 97-8)

Just as he is always on the lookout for the evil and the fantastic, so he is also ready to acclaim the good….

In Egypt's exotic atmosphere he is much more likely to condemn the tourist than...

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Jerome Meckier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dickensians will quickly discern that Waugh [in A Handful of Dust] caricatures Dickens outrageously and, in places, unfairly. But the joke, hilarious and effective, is definitely against Dickens. Waugh's reaction, like Aldous Huxley's, indicates that the response of modern satirical novelists to Dickens has been mixed. At other times an imitator of Dickens, Waugh puts the works of Boz in Mr. Todd's hut for a very satirical reason: he considers the Inimitable largely responsible for the breakdown of social restraints. This collapse, a consequence of the secularization of life, has resulted in the prevalence of savagery in the modern wasteland. To explicate the joke against Dickens from Waugh's perspective, one must discover why Mr. Todd reads Dickens instead of Conrad. (p. 171)

[The] real-life model for Mr. Todd is "stripped … of his religious ecstasy" and burdened instead with "a mania for the work of Charles Dickens." This enables A Handful of Dust to satirize the idea that one can make a substitute religion out of Dickens; one cannot believe in Boz, the novel argues, because modern reality does not obey humanistic Dickensian patterns….

Waugh transforms Dickens, the novel's primary scapegoat, into a satiric symbol. Discrepancies between life as he finds it in 1934 and as it appeared to him in Dickens' novels suggest to Waugh that Dickensian ethics no longer work. Nor were they powerful enough to forestall an unattractive modern world. Waugh compels the nineteenth-century novelist to represent the futility of Victorian humanism, the failure of its pernicious attempt to preserve the moral order by secularizing Christian values. One cannot make a religion out of the religion Waugh ascribes to Dickens: his pseudo-Christian humanism. Replacing religion with literature as the source of moral standards and an influence upon the actions of men—the humanist's favorite impulse—becomes one of the principal targets in Waugh's modern satirical novel. (p. 172)

With the Brazilian jungle, like the African in Conrad, a reliable index to the nature of things back home, the fruitlessness of Dickens' secularized Christianity becomes as universal as the disintegration of Kurtz's Western ideals.

One of the shrewdest methods of establishing the barbarousness of modern life is by constructing events that violate popular sequences in Dickens. This enters the elimination of Boz as a relevant moral guide, for Dickens' brand of humanism contributes significantly to the ongoing decline and fall of Western civilization. Where other Victorians confidently secularized Christianity and proclaimed a new dispensation, Dickens, according to Waugh, pretended the result would still be a recognizably unchanged Christian world. This position the modern satirist not only finds reprehensible but actually designates as enfeebled Christianity's last stand. (pp. 172-73)

Waugh attacks the reliance of liberal Victorians on the educative worth of good literature and Dickens' romantic sympathy for semi-illiterates. Todd's callous treatment of Tony shows that the increase of literacy in Victorian and modern times has not occasioned a broadening of moral responsibility to offset the decline in religious belief. Todd would be just as odious if he could read Dickens by himself. At the same time, illiteracy for Waugh is not an acceptable form of noble savagery….

Waugh stands up for literacy and civilization when they are threatened by foolish myths about their opposites, but cannot embrace the humanist's faith in them as replacements for traditional orthodoxy. (p. 174)

Todd represents the breakdown of civilized conduct that humanism was not puissant enough to prevent. Consequently, the half-breed has the literary tastes of a Victorian gentleman and the ethics of a jungle savage. Similarities between Tony's plight and the misery of social outcasts escape him. He overlooks resemblances between Tony's sentence and those being served by prisoners of legal proceedings. Reading Dickens to Todd forever becomes appreciably more futile than awaiting judgment from Chancery or standing trial in Kafka. (p. 175)

Chuzzlewit illustrates Dickens' modern fear that savagery and civilization, as Conrad later realized, are variations on a theme, different shades of darkness (Conrad) or of hypocrisy and selfishness (Dickens). But Dickens, Waugh insists, was unable to cajole the allegedly civilized world into behaving differently from men in their natural state. Consequently, parallels between Tony's plight in the jungle and the victimizations that drove him away from England persist not as proof of Dickens' prognostic powers but as a reminder of the failure of his humanism. (p. 176)

A Handful of Dust, like Chuzzlewit, is carefully built around a central idea: Waugh's contention that alternatives to genuine Christianity (i.e., Catholicism) do not perform well in the modern world. Anglican church services dutifully attended at Hetton, Dickensian humanism that leaves Todd unmoved, and religio-aesthetic debacles such as the Gothic Revival discredit one another not simply by association but by their common failure to fill man's religious needs. (p. 177)

Critics have generally realized that humanism, in Waugh's opinion, is...

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Brad Leithauser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Evelyn Waugh who emerges [in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh] is far more humane and interesting than the man who was presented a few years ago with the publication of his diaries. With age Waugh suffered increasingly from oppressive boredom…. Waugh indulged his boredom in his diaries, with predictable results; in his letters, spurred by an audience, he sometimes produced prose as lively as that in his novels.

I suspect—and this would be a large misfortune—that a number of Waugh's books will not weather well. In his willingness to accept the prejudices of his friends, in his nostalgia for the past and lack of curiosity toward the future, and in his restricted range of intellectual and...

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Clive James

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unless the telephone is uninvented, [The Letters of Evelyn Waugh] will probably be the last collection of letters by a great writer to be also a great collection of letters…. [It] is a wonderfully entertaining volume—even more so, in fact, than the Diaries. Here is yet one more reason to thank Evelyn Waugh for his hatred of the modern world. If he had not loathed the telephone, he might have talked all this away….

Waugh was unhappy about himself, and on this evidence he had every right to be. People who want to emphasize his repellent aspects will find plenty to help them here. For one thing, he reveled in his contempt for Jews, which in his correspondence he usually spelled with...

(The entire section is 830 words.)