Brideshead Revisited enjoyed enormous success as a television series and deservedly so. Its faults are those of the novel, but its virtues are inadequate to convey why Evelyn Waugh is increasingly recognized as the most accomplished Catholic novelist of the 20th century. Waugh himself came to have misgivings about Brideshead. Written in wartime, it was a retreat into a better past, self-indulgent in many ways, sentimental and uncharacteristically lush in its prose. The spare Firbankian style Waugh had perfected in his early novels had been put to the service of superficial, even trivial, themes. In Black Mischief and Scoop, potentially heavy subjects dissolved into farce. A Handful of Dust marked a significant turn into tragicomedy, but Brideshead retreated from this and wallowed elegantly. The war trilogy—brought together finally under the title Sword of Honour—was Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece.
The three novels appeared one at a time over the course of a decade—Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and The End of the Battle (1962). In 1964, Waugh fused them into a final form and gave them the omnibus title Sword of Honour. In his preface to this edition, Waugh makes an unforgettable assessment of his work:
On 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…. It never occurred to me, writing Sword of Honour, that the Church was susceptible of change. I was wrong and I have seen a superficial revolution in what then seemed permanent. Despite the faith of many of the characters, Sword of Honour was not specifically a religious book. Recent developments have made it, in fact, a document of Catholic usage of my youth.
Waugh was a convert to Catholicism, and like many for whom the doctrine, ritual, and culture of Catholicism represented the very antithesis to modern decadence, he found Vatican II a severe test, if not of his faith, at least of his loyalty. He was appalled by the sanctioned and unsanctioned changes made in the wake of the council. He communicated his views to John Cardinal Heenan, and their correspondence has been published. Part six—appropriately titled Contra Mundum—of Donat Gallagher’s Penguin collection of Waugh’s essays, articles, and reviews includes a number of Waugh’s estimates of changes in the Church, though the bibliography lists many more. I have often thought that these deserve to be brought together in a volume of their own. The fact that the very aspects of the modern world from which he was fleeing should suddenly be regarded as worthy models for the Church elicited memorable prose from Waugh.
But he tells us that he did not set out to write the obituary of the Church as he had known it. What he intended to write was the story of World War II through the eyes of Guy Crouchback, a middle-aged cuckold who sees the campaign against Hitler as a crusade, as the defense of Christendom against barbarism. Stalin and Hitler descended upon Poland at the start of the war, invading from different directions, partners in perfidy. When Hitler turned on Stalin and an alliance was entered into with the Soviet Union, the raison d’être of the war was lost. Crouchback can no longer see the war as a crusade. The story ends in Yugoslavia with the betrayal of that country into the hands of Tito. Throughout, we have seen the infiltration of communists into the British military and diplomatic corps, men whose first allegiance was to Russia.
It is a thoroughly disenchanted Guy Crouchback who returns to civilian life. The wife to whom he had been reconciled is killed in the buzz bombing of London, and he settles down to raise her child by another man. With a new wife, he becomes a small farmer. The ending is bucolic, happy in its way, with a happiness born of total disillusionment with modern society.
Waugh was said to dearly love a lord, but it was not the hierarchy of class that gave structure to his world. The problem he faced was being a Catholic in the new diaspora: He saw our situation before it arrived, and better than anyone else, he described how we got here.