Odd Hanger-On: A Profile In Catholic Creativity
In autobiographical fiction, Waugh described himself as having been a little boy "acutely sensitive to ridicule."(1) Growing up in the London suburbs in the early 1900s, he loved the high Anglican services that his family attended. Serving as an altar boy, he "rejoiced in my nearness to sacred symbols"(2) At home he drew pictures of angels and saints.
However the course of Waugh's faith would be that of many young people in The Twentieth Century who attended church-affiliated secondary schools which turned out to be institutions that either deliberately or incompetently divested their students of religious habit. Even though his passion was imitating the calligraphy and illuminations of medieval monks, Waugh was, by the time he went to Hertford College at Oxford University, a professed atheist.
As he wrote in his best-known novel Brideshead Revisited, Oxford in 1921 was "a place where men walked and spoke as they had done in [Cardinal] Newman's day." Although Waugh had no known contact with them, among the faculty in the university's many colleges then were fellow-future-authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Oxford University was also in Waugh's youth an institution in which about half the students left without earning degrees. Waugh was among those. He ran with a crowd of what we would now call "hipsters," what were then called "bright young people." Many of them were rich, privileged and able to convince others of their superiority and genius as well as they convinced themselves. They were the "bored sophisticates," precocious, posing egos who comprised a bazaar of the avant-garde that was being mass-produced and wholesaled after World War One.
An aimless university drop-out in debt -- Living beyond his means was one of his lifelong penchants -- Waugh worked as a teacher at a boarding school. He considered becoming a carpenter. He was so depressed in true "bored sophisticate" style that he attempted suicide by swimming out to sea. There he encountered a swarm of jellyfish that with their stings drove him back to land and life.
The least and last of his aspirations was to be an author. He turned to writing for money. Having several literary friends and a father who was a director of a publishing firm, Chapman & Hall, were a big help in pursuing that line.
Yet strewn on the path well-worn by godless feet were glittering nuggets of Chesterton. The young intellectual was developing a suspicion of intellectuals. In the ridiculous figure of "Professor" Silenus, the architect who declares that "All ill comes from Man," the reader sees Schopenhauer and Sartre. Mr. Prendergast is a type of clergyman who became all too common in the Twentieth-Century, one who does not believe in God. Professor Lucas-Dockery is the first of many Waugh characters who is guided to disaster by theories of uncommon nonsense rather than by common sense and actual experience.
As Waugh's star rose, he tired of his bright young friends, spoofing them in his second novel, Vile Bodies, and married the niece of the Earl of Carnarvon, Lord of Highclere Castle, financier of the discovery of King Tut's Tomb. Mrs. Waugh's first name was, believe it or not, Evelyn. In short order She-Evelyn cheated on He-Evelyn and he in equally short order divorced her.
Underneath the hard carapace that Waugh had grown, he was probably deeply wounded in his insecurity-beset ego. Another type of character, the shallow woman who has extramarital affairs, recurred in his novels.
As was the case with his contemporary Francois Mauriac, Waugh's newfound faith began to influence his work. The original version (5) of A Handful of Dust (1934) is a study of the vanities written of in The Book of Ecclesiastes. Tony Last fights to keep his grand house which in the end passes to fools. A man who "never really thought about [God] much," Tony is led to a South American jungle by one of those quack ideologue professors of Waugh fiction and ends up in a kind of Hell ruled by a devil who forces him to read the works of a writer who, unlike Tony, took God more seriously.
Throughout the 1930s, Waugh roamed the world and spent much of his time writing travel pieces. He was sent as a correspondent to cover the Italo-Ethiopian War but was fired for filing reports written in Latin. In 1937, after getting an annulment, he married his second wife, Laura, a Catholic cousin of She-Evelyn, and with her had five children.
Waugh was not cut out to be a family man; he had no understanding of or rapport with his offspring. They irritated him. He spent much of his time away from home, writing in hotels and country houses, aboard ships. When present at the Georgian mansion that he couldn't afford, he limited his time with the kids to "ten awe-inspiring minutes" a day.
Came the Second World War, Waugh saw the conflict literally as a crusade to save Christendom from evil and barbarism as embodied in German Nazism allied with Russian Communism. He served in a force of British commandos who specialized in precursing invasions. How did a doughy, unathletic 36-year-old gain entry to such a tough fighting unit? The commandos couldn't refuse a man recommended by Winston Churchill.
However they could get him out of the way. Captain Waugh did not play well with other officers. In the 1950s he fairly accurately fictionalized his war experience in a trilogy of novels, Men At Arms, Officers And Gentlemen, The End of The Battle. Like the protagonist of these, nobly born Catholic Guy Crouchback, Waugh spent much of his war service behind desks, training, waiting for missions that were cancelled, dining out, trying to make himself comfortable, looking in at the club, interacting with unreliable allies and seeing very little action. Most of the latter was experienced during the British run from Crete before the Germans.
Like Guy, Waugh injured his knee in a practice parachute jump. He spent his time in recuperation writing his most famous and most Catholic novel. Its working title was The Household of The Faith. Published, it was Brideshead Revisited. Its pages are filled with beautiful prose including metaphors such as this:
My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning at war-time.
These memories, which are my life -- for we possess nothing certainly except the past -- were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark's, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl.
Brideshead Revisited is a study of the members of a noble Catholic family, the Flytes, who live in a grand house inspired by Castle Howard, a real edifice that resembles St. Peter's, and how they react in various ways to their Catholicism. Half the family remain faithful to the church. The other half rebel against the faith. However, they, at various stages of life -- spoiler alert -- all return to it. Sebastian the homosexual, alcoholic son and implied lover of narrator Charles Ryder becomes, as Sebastian's nun-like sister Cordelia characterizes him, one of the faith's "odd hangers-on," not the type one would expect to be a believing Catholic. That could be said of Evelyn Waugh himself.
Readers have often found the conclusion of Brideshead Revisited, specifically the sudden conversions of Lord Marchmain and Charles Ryder, who goes from being an atheist on one page to praying on the next, to be an unrealistic plot twist, difficult to swallow. However, it must be remembered that Waugh's embrace of Catholicism was itself a sharp, unexpected turn. Around the time he was writing Brideshead, he witnessed the actual deathbed repentance of a friend who had seemed recalcitrant.
Peace found Waugh embittered. The war that had begun as his country's crusade against evil ended in his country's alliance with Soviet communists who had been half of that evil. England and its allies abandoned those who had fought with them, including Catholics, behind the Iron Curtain where they were slaughtered and oppressed by regimes that were as bad as Hitler's had been.
The Fanfare For The Common Man, too, surely made the author cover his ears and grimace. Waugh believed in a class system and that the nobility, imperfect as it was, was best suited to lead and uphold civilization as well as furnish its well-made and beautiful things. He looked with horror at the vulgar flotsam and jetsam rising on the postwar tides. His novels, including the war trilogy, cast more characters such as Hooper in Brideshead, men who had neither noble motivations nor classical educations, to whom History was about "humane legislation" and "recent industrial progress," small-minded men who were in over their heads when placed in leadership positions. "Fido" Hound in Officers and Gentlemen is incapable of using discretion and acting unless he receives orders. Ivor Claire, one of Waugh's less honorable upperclassmen, rationalizes his desertion to Guy Crouchback:
"And in the next war, when we are completely democratic, I expect it will be quite honorable for officers to leave their men behind. It'll be laid down in King's Regulations as their duty -- to keep the cadre going to train new men to take the place of prisoners."
One of the forms Waugh's disgust with modern Europe took was in his third Catholic novel. Plotwise it was historical fiction, set in the declining years of The Roman Empire.Its main character was Helena, the saint who uncovered the true cross. However in Helena's pages are many analogies between the empire of the mid A.D. 300s with civilization of the late 1940s: "huge, new shabby apartment houses;" sculptors who are incapable of creating art of earlier quality. Helena's husband Constantius makes a deal with a civil-war enemy wherein the latter will get away safely if he leaves his army where it can be massacred. She spends most of her life in what would become Twentieth-Century Yugoslavia where betrayals by the victors and communist atrocities that haunted Waugh had occurred.
Probably the only fictionalized story of a saint ever written in which there is coded sexual humor, Helena is also about the state of Christianity in the Twentieth Century. The title character, the red-haired, common-sensed, horsey-set daughter of England's King Coel, becomes a Christian because the faith seems so much more authentic to her than the other myriad myths and cults of the empire. The church's founder was a real person who died in a real place in a specific year. It has "accounts written by witnesses...knowledge handed down from father to son...the cave where he was born...the tomb where his body was laid."
However Helena comes upon her faith during one of its eras when the divinity of Christ is doubted by many Christians, when there are calls to tune Christianity to modernity, when the concrete things of the faith are overshadowed by abstractions such as "wisdom" and "peace."
Helena makes it her mission to find the true cross. "Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union," she declares, "there's a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against."
Years of Confession
For much of his adult life Waugh suffered from insomnia often caused by the sleep-depriving fever that writers experience when their creativity is gushing, when they are "unable to put the pen down" and pulling all-nighters. On top of being an alcoholic, he became addicted to sleeping drafts that he concocted himself.
By the mid 1950s, he was experiencing audial and visual hallucinations and paranoia. After a family intervention, he turned even this low-point of life into a comic novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. In this work Waugh assesses himself as a welcomed and over-rewarded youth who had gradually assumed a "character of burlesque," casting himself as an eccentric, offering the world "a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion." He acted so, he said, to hide the fact that he was "modest" [humble, religious, moral].
He was probably one of those types who is pleasant when he is one-on-one with people, but who wears masks of aggression and antic when he is in public or a group. Thomas Merton, with whom Waugh developed a friendship, knew him as "a humble, self-lacerating soul, tortured by a sense of sinfulness." (6) In A Little Learning (1964), the first part of an autobiography that Waugh did not live to complete, he shared with readers his horror at the writings of his school days. "I was conceited, heartless and cautiously malevolent...I absurdly thought cynicism and malice the marks of maturity."
Evelyn Waugh died on Easter Sunday, 1966. He was a creative genius who undertook a journey that many of his century and its immediate successor are taking, a journey from the belief of childhood, through the abyss of youthful atheism and to a slow, climb up a sharp hill to renewed and firm faith.
(1) The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, 1957