Sword of Honour is generally regarded as Waugh’s finest achievement in fiction. Having begun as the highly comic chronicler of gilded youth in such novels as Decline and Fall: An Illustrated Novelette (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930), Waugh gradually introduced a more serious tone into his writing that culminated in the essentially tragic realism of Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (1945, 1960). Sword of Honour brings his humorous and serious sides into fruitful combination in way that, for the first time, enables him to deal with a broad range of characters and situations, and, as a result, to create a multilevel literary work that blends affecting personal drama with sweeping panoramas of social and historical events.
Unfortunately, this hard-won mastery of literary technique was not destined to be exercised again. Waugh’s deteriorating physical and mental health in the 1960’s forced him to turn his hand to the less demanding genres of autobiography, travel writing, and light fiction, and, by the time of his death in 1966, he had become a reclusive figure who occasionally emerged to sna at would-be interviewers. Despite the unfashionability of his religious, politcal, and social sentiments, however, his work continues to be respected by the balance of critical opinion, and there has been no sign of the radically negative reevaluation that often occurs after the death of a contemporary writer. Great cynic and reactionary though he was, Evelyn Waugh’s dissenting views regarding the value of progress have perhaps touched responsive chords in readers who have also experienced the painful transformation of youthful idealism into world-weary pragmatism.