2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Evelyn Waugh and I started writing this post to coincide with the actual date 10th April 2016. Sadly various emotional problems of my own sapped any creative energy and delayed its publication. Waugh is without a doubt my favourite writer and I wanted to write something that expressed this properly so the gestation of this (still inadequate) post has been a long one. So much so, that various newspaper articles I have referred to in previous versions of it are now months out of date and Leicester University has since celebrated “Waugh Day” with a panel discussion including Waugh’s latest biographer Philip Eade and his grandson Alexander Waugh.
This is the first time I have ever written about Waugh. I always refused to study or dissect any of Waugh’s work at university – I was afraid it would destroy the books for me. I wrote on nearly everything else from Morte d’Arthur to T.S. Eliot, even Jane Austen, analysing my all favourites until their lines became like once loved pets that had met with the scalpel. I knew their innards, their mechanisms, their motives, their functions, but the dear pet was dead: every time something precious, complete and whole died. So I refused to write on Waugh: I had to have one author who remained locked in a golden seal beyond dissection or rigorous psychological interpretation and a result his books will remain whole and appreciated by me as the joyous triumphs that they are. I delve a little in this article but this is the first and last time. The books remain sacred!
How do I love him? Can I count the ways? Here are only a few. Not only is his prose some of the most appealing, elegant and precise; exhibiting a deftness of touch that suggests lyrical divination, not only does he have the most anarchic sense of humour, but at his core, beyond all the bluster and snarls so popularly remembered, I’m absolutely positive Evelyn Waugh was a complete honey.
For one, he is one of the most self deprecating of writers. I do not think this is affectation. If a character might be suspected to be loosely based upon himself that character will almost certainly be cast as rather foolish or dull. If a University college is to be described as like his own, it is not a very good college. Tony Last, Charles Ryder, William Boot, even Scott-King, his own sympathies, pain and joy are lifted, transformed and transcribed to parallel fictional situations. Possibly the sense of truth in them is Waugh’s own honesty about his own merits and failures, a brutal honesty which facilitates his ability to see them in others. His own enormous sensitivity to tragedy and comedy allows him to identify the locality of the stings, bites and devastation in chiaroscuro to the thrills, the hilarity, the pure spontaneous joy.
Algernon Stitch went to his office in a sombre and rather antiquated Daimler; Julia always drove herself, in the latest model of mass-produced baby car; brand-new twice a year, painted an invariable brilliant black, tiny and glossy as a midget’s funeral hearse. She mounted the kerb and bowled rapidly along the pavement to the corner of St. James’s, where a policeman took her number and ordered her back into the road.
Together they prised the lid of the case and filed the floor with packing. At last they found a neat roll of cane and proofed canvas.
‘It is a tent,’ she said.
‘No, a canoe. Look.’
They spread the canvas on the floor. With great difficulty they assembled the framework of jointed cane. Twice they had to stop when the girl’s laughter turned to a paroxysm of coughing. At last it was finished and the little boat rose in a sea of shavings. ‘It is a canoe,’ she cried. ‘Now I will believe you about those sticks. I will believe everything you tell me. Look, there are seats. Get in, quick, we must get in.’
They sat opposite one another in the boat, their knees touching. The girl laughed, clear and loud, and this time did not cough. ‘But it’s beautiful,’ she said. ‘And so new. I have not seen anything so new since I came to this city. Can you swim?’
‘So can I. I swim very well. So it will not matter if we are upset. Give me one of the message sticks and I will row you…’
As far as I can tell so much of Waugh, so much of his very being is invested in his writing that to me it is little wonder to hear of anecdotes suggesting he sometimes lacked in social niceties : he poured the majority of his generosity into his books. He was first and foremost a writer.
“I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Collins told me it was seemly to hold back. But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”
To capture life with such immediacy and vividness and beauty requires talent and practiced craftsmanship. I can only think of Austen and Shakespeare balancing the music of English so poetically, (and elsewhere so potently, so hilariously). That “faint unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find…”, is an unknowing first step towards Charles’s conversion: Charles is truly on the cusp of the discovery of the privilege of love and it is what is so often felt when reading Waugh as one is drawn along into his prose and meaning.
All the satire, all the superficial disdain is laced with some continuous thread which takes delight in life, as in Shakespeare, in the good and bad. There is equal joy to be had in the antics of the comedic saviour Mrs Stitch and the ferocious yet soppy Brigadier Ritchie-Hook as in the diabolical Basil Seal. Although the general and popular persona of Waugh depicted in the press and media is one of pompous conservative snobbery, I find a kind and sympathetic authorial voice threaded amongst the thorns of black humour, like a persistent honeysuckle amid piquant, thorny brambles. For example, for all the ridicule of the child, Winnie, in the ridiculous situation of the shady squalor in the seaside hotel scene in A Handful of Dust, through Tony Last, through the seediness and farce shines the enduring nobility of Tony and the witless helplessness of Winnie and her mother. The stupidly awkward child and her single mother’s desperate situation as a call girl mirrors Tony’s own at the other end of the social spectrum. The clownishness of their ugly and humiliating state seems to lock that crucial element of tragedy to the comedy. In humiliation there is always that element of mockery which searingly heightens the chiaroscuro between nobility and lowliness. Tony and the single mother are victims of a situation, both largely beyond their own control and a remnant of their relationships with other people. But amid the social mockery there is also a sense of sympathy, of the knight passing the unfortunate maiden. This again is echoed in one of my favourite passages in the book where Tony’s Tennyson-like dream of Romantic love is shattered; it is the turning point in Tony’s mind regarding giving his unfaithful wife a divorce and making her a generous settlement.
“He hung up the receiver and went back to the smoking room. His mind had suddenly become clearer on many points that had puzzled him. A whole Gothic world had come to grief … there was now no armour glittering through the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the green sward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled…”
(A Handful of Dust)
The Telegraph surprised me with their tone in their commemorative article of April, casting Waugh as a bigot and a snob. There are many types of snobberies these days and it seemed an odd thing for The Telegraph to say. As to bigotry there is only one set of opinions to have these days and those are of the liberal, one cannot be anything else without being termed a bigot, so when I say I like Waugh’s writing, I do not see myself as subscribing to bigotry or snobbery, but just as another free person holding opinions that don’t always concur with the mainstream.
“‘One couldn’t conceive of Granchester without Scott-King. But has it ever occurred to you that a time may come when there will be no more classical boys at all?’
‘Oh yes. Often.’
‘What I was going to suggest was – I wonder if you will consider taking some other subject as well as the classics? History for example, preferably economic history?’
‘But you know, there may be something of a crisis ahead.’
‘Then what do you intend to do?’
‘If you approve headmaster, I will stay as I am her 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.’
(Scott-King’s Modern Europe)
I have read Waugh’s own self deprecating words about himself in A Little Learning. Waugh holds up a harsh and lucid mirror to himself and condemns his own behaviour to the point that you cannot believe he likes his former self very much and is wholly repentant. I have met wonderful glimpses of him in the letters and recollections of others, most notably Alec Guinness, Edith Sitwell and Diana Cooper, and I did read his correspondence with Nancy Mitford but even this felt like an intrusion onto what must for me remain sacred ground. A new biography is out and I doubt whether I shall read it. Online there is more written about Waugh’s private life than there is about his work, this is a tragedy and deplorable indicator of the appetites of contemporary society. Throughout 2016 articles hinting at hypocrisy and nastiness have crept into my sphere of consciousness through social media; idiots have been given platforms and I have avoided them. Like Waugh I am a Roman Catholic so I am fortunate to have the strong and earnest belief that Waugh absolutely repented for any sins and is absolutely forgiven, now and forever, no matter what anyone writes about him now or in the future. What remains of him is love.