From the Publisher: Saint Evelyn Waugh

There was a phrase in the thirties: ‘It is later than you think,’ which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.” Evelyn Waugh’s fictional author might well have felt uneasy at the thought of becoming the late Gilbert Pinfold and thus prey to a biographer’s attention.

 

My now sizeable collection of literary biography began with the purchase of a remaindered copy of Mark Schorer’s jumbo volume on Sinclair Lewis. Schorer had battened off foundations for a decade while he wrote this biography: it is a bitter, envious book which gleefully describes the tragic trajectory of Lewis’s life. Why did Mark Schorer, sustained by grants and fellowships and other largess, dance with glee on the grave of a writer who had risen from Prairie obscurity to Nobel laureate? Because Lewis was insufficiently leftist in his politics. Schorer actually compares Lewis with deservedly forgotten ideologues on the New Masses and finds him wanting. Lewis’s life may have been tragic, but not in any way Schorer could understand.

In its size, in its Day of Judgment omniscience, in the inadequacy of its standards of appraisal, Schorer’s life of Lewis was a portent of what was to happen in literary biography. The biographer has become an avenging angel—not a good angel, rather the kind we meet in the Inferno. One would like to imagine that a biographer is drawn to a writer out of love and admiration for his books in the hope that the story of the writer’s life might further enhance our enjoyment of his art. Au contraire. The motive of many literary biographers seems to be to punish the writer for literary accomplishment and/or financial success by depicting him or her as a neurotic freak you wouldn’t dare enter an elevator with.

I exaggerate of course. There are noble exceptions, such as Super’s and Hall’s recent books on Trollope and anything by Matthew Broccoli. But the trend is a leveling one, the desire to put down the artist and negate his achievements by elaborating real or alleged personal foibles and flaws or, when all else fails, pointing to politically incorrect tendencies.

These thoughts are prompted by a reading of Martin Stannard’s Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966, which is volume two (!) of his life of Waugh. The first thing to say about Stannard’s multivolume effort is that it was unnecessary, and not simply because Christopher Sykes had already done the job. Waugh’s letters and diaries are published, memoirs of friends and neighbors have appeared, he wrote an autobiography, the bulk of his journalism has been republished. Can Stannard tell us anything we do not already find in print? What we get is not more Waugh, but Martin Stannard’s ruminations.

These are of uneven quality and interest. It cannot be said that he loves Waugh, though there are many admiring pages; it cannot be said that he hates Waugh, though there are pages of presumptuous if not libelous intrusion into the secrets of another’s soul. Stannard cannot avoid Waugh’s Catholicism, but he fails to see the role that it evidently played in the life of this enormously talented, comic, generous, uxorious, patriarchal, loving and much loved man of faith.

Waugh watched with dismay the class envy of the socialist state invade the universities and the culture generally. That some persons are morally better than others, that some works of art are supreme achievements, others good in various ways, and most non-starters—these judgments were taken as a personal insult by an increasing number of reviewers and critics. They bridled at the notion of an aristocracy of achievement. Of course, if you think art is merely self-expression such ranking will seem to be an assault on the equality of all citizens.

To one of his correspondents Waugh remarked that his task in life was to become Saint Evelyn Waugh. The remark leaps off the page. Sanctity is the common goal of us all. Only in the light of that simple truth can we understand the severe self-examinations to which Waugh subjected himself. His confessions of fault in diary and in correspondence with friends are pounced upon as if they were unwitting revelations of his sordid self, affording readers occasion to feel superior. Here is Stannard’s incredible assessment of one such particular examen: “Waugh was a generous man who needed to castigate himself with the belief that he was not guilty of liberal humanism.”

Stannard, like others, finds Waugh’s indifference to money, capacity to inspire loyal friendship, boundless generosity, and the love of his children, difficult to reconcile with the negative self-portrait. But Waugh was judging himself by a standard far more exacting than his biographer appears to grasp. To see him as insufficiently socialist, not devoted to the working class, or as obsessively sectarian when he opposed the British Foreign Office’s appeasement of Tito on behalf of Catholic—and Jewish—victims of the Communist dictator, is to fail to understand Evelyn Waugh. Waugh’s campaign against Tito’s post-war visit to Britain is treated by Stannard as quixotic “fundamentalism.” In fact it was Waugh’s finest hour. Churchill’s cynical reaction when his ambassador reported to him what Tito was up to goes uncommented on by Stannard. Churchill: Do you intend to live in Jugoslavia after the war? Ambassador: No sir. Churchill: Neither do I. That cynicism continued into the post-war period, and it was courageous of Waugh to point it out. His hero Guy Crouchback had gone to war as to a crusade against the enemies of Christendom. He ended by thinking it was a struggle between two indistinguishable gangs of louts. How could Waugh not oppose the public honoring of a thug like Tito and the linking of his country to an ideology at least as bad as fascism?

Waugh was a political conservative—though not a Conservative; indeed he never voted—and a foe of the Age of the Common Man. “The ‘West’ is incomprehensible unless one understands the CHURCH—which is identical everywhere: a single supernatural body.” This is how Waugh began his description of three lectures on Chesterton, Ronald Knox, and Graham Greene. His own fiction is incomprehensible unless one understands his Catholicism.

In The Loved One, Waugh skewered Los Angeles’ Forest Lawn Cemetery and its marbled efforts to negate the consciousness of death, but it was a modern not a merely American way with death that prompted his satire. Waugh actually came to see the United States as the place where the next great chapter of Church history would be written. It is interesting to compare Waugh’s 1949 essay “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church” and Richard John Neuhaus’s The Catholic Moment, published almost forty years later.

Catholicism is a tale of two cities. It points us to a destiny beyond this world, but far from devaluing the temporal and secular order, our faith enhances it. This is the arena in which we decide the eternal fate of our souls. The pursuit of sanctity is not a withdrawal from the world, but a manner of involvement in it. A diversity of manners. An infinity of manners. Waugh’s was one of them. He was a foe of the deadening secularization of his country and, while in one mood he felt that the only way he could survive in England was to pretend he was a tourist, the contribution of his art will do more to link the present time to Merrie England, the England of Mary, than many efforts of more proximate and practical aim.

It is a sign of the accuracy of Waugh’s judgment on his times that his view of life, which is central to the literature of the West and places his novels squarely in the mainstream of that literature, is regarded by even a sympathetic biographer as an aberration, an oddity, something to be excused if not forgiven.

Waugh was pained by changes in the Church that occurred prior to the Second Vatican Council. His annual Holy Week retreat at Downside became doubly penitential. The reports on and interpretations of the sessions of the Council itself filled him with gloom. When, in 1961, he issued the unified version of his World War II trilogy as Sword of Honour, he made this observation in the preface:

In reading the book I realized that I had done something quite outside my original intention. I had written an obituary of the Roman Catholic Church in England as it had existed for many centuries. All the rites and most of the opinions here described are already obsolete. When I wrote Brideshead Revisited I was consciously writing an obituary of the doomed English upper class. It never occurred to me, writing Sword of Honour, that the Church was susceptible to change. I was wrong and I have seen a superficial revolution in what then seemed permanent.

We must not overlook the occurrence of “superficial” in that last sentence, but even if the essence of the Church does not change, the aesthetic shock, the psychological numbing, the chilling of devotion Waugh and many others experienced when commando raids were made on religion as they had known it were massive. Nor did it help that the very meaning of the Council was systematically distorted. Waugh died before the Council ended; it would be too much to say he died because of it, but something in him was killed by the iconoclasm of liturgical levelers and theological dissidents. He would have had to live until 1985 to hear an official acknowledgement, by the Second Extraordinary Synod, that the letter and spirit of the Council had been subjected to widespread distortion for 20 years. It is generally agreed now that it was a grievous mistake to savage the liturgy and worship of the Church in the name of renewal. Traditions can be killed but they cannot be replaced by fiat. The author of Sword of Honour is the patron of all those who have suffered from the commissions, committees, conferences, and bureaus which continue to afflict the Church. Saint Evelyn Waugh, pray for us.

By

Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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