The Lost, Unlovable Evelyn Waugh

Why are his later, Catholic novels so dismissed?

Illustration by Lilli Carre.

Tory, class apologist, snob, born-again Catholic, anti-Semite, admirer of Mussolini and Franco, employer in the mid-1960s of a Victorian ear trumpet, and general Pooterish misanthrope, Arthur Evelyn (“Eve-” like “Christmas Eve”) St. John (“Sin-jin,” like in Mad Men) Waugh (“waw,” as a British person might say “war”) is a difficult man to love. And yet his novels—with one notable exception—have never been out of print. In fact, they are being reissued this very month in print, audio, and, for the first time, digital editions. Just in time for America to revisit Waugh’s warm appraisal of the British upper crust before reigniting our own love of same come January, when Downton Abbey’s third season is set to air.

Waugh’s career is generally divided in two: the satiric and somewhat more cynical work of his early years, and the “Catholic” work of his later, with Brideshead Revisited the purplish dividing line between. He’s lauded for his humor and for the stylishness of his prose, which is precise and elegant even when parroting the idiom of the day (“shy-making,” “wet,” “shaming,” “righto,” and so on). But these plaudits usually come with an asterisk, thanks to Waugh’s snobbishness and dogmatic beliefs.  Add to this the fact that he’s been effusively praised by some of the wrong people (Clive James, William F. Buckley) and criticized by some of the right ones (Edmund Wilson, George Orwell), and Waugh’s endurance seems almost surprising.  

But style and substance aren’t as separable as some might hope: Inside the grotesquerie, energy, and wit for which Waugh is admired hides the despair that prompted his less than attractive temperament. At base, Waugh was out of sympathy with the modern world. His ideal society was located earlier, somewhere in the 13th century or thereabouts, while around him—as he despaired in A Handful of Dust—“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.” So Waugh retreated into two types of eccentricity: romanticism, and the stabilizing force of Catholic dogma. The first made him merely an anti-modern snob—looking backward even as Modernism demonstrated what was ahead—and is, to readers today, more or less forgivable. The second, ensuring in his later novels a sense of supernatural as fact and insistence on salvation, is not.

Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, shortly after the dissolution of his unfortuitous marriage, to Evelyn (“Ev-” like “every”) Gardner, but the decision was intellectual: He claimed to find the world “unintelligible and unendurable without God.”* (He’d attempted to drown himself at sea some years earlier, but was stung by a jellyfish and turned back.) He also reportedly enjoyed the limits religion imposed on behavior—for he had been a bit of a Bright Young Thing himself. “Conversion,” he wrote to Edward Sackville-West, “is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made.” It was this real world he sought to document, while modern novelists, he thought, tried “to represent the whole human mind and soul and yet omit its determining character—that of being God’s creature.”

Conversion was fairly common in the England of Waugh’s day, as were Catholic novelists—though many, with the exception of Waugh and his close contemporary Graham Greene, have been forgotten. Today, Catholic writers—those with a good reputation as writers among both Catholics and non-, and who write “openly” as such—are rare. Even the writing of Catholics like Hilary Mantel, David Lodge, and, I guess, Dean Koontz, isn’t much occupied with “being God’s creature.” There are several reasons for this. Not only has Catholicism positioned itself as an antagonist to culture generally, retreating more and more into conservative and untenable positions, but a largely secular intellectual culture has arrived at the reasonable consensus that religious morality is just too simplistic for art. Religion imposes undue limits on literature, and religious fiction, where it exists, too easily becomes garish, saccharine, or just plain bad. Perhaps because belief in the novel—as James Wood has suggested—must be contingent where that of religion is absolute, and this, perversely, is what makes fiction “believable”—that it doesn’t demand to be believed.

Even in Waugh’s time, Catholics were political and cultural outsiders in England. By electing to become one, Waugh both cemented and justified the outré position he’d built himself through satire. Brideshead is his first novel in which Catholicism—especially through Ryder’s conversion, suggested at the end—is presented as a way out of the modern. By attaching himself to something ancient, Waugh was able to remain conservative even as Modernism, as he saw it, led the rest of history astray. (Joyce “ends up a lunatic,” he once said; he abhorred Picasso, plastics, and jazz.) A man committed to the defense of a nonexistent world, he loved nothing so much as a unicorn.

And so with Brideshead, Waugh began to make good on his promise to treat “man in relation to God.” For Charles Ryder, the book’s narrator, the profane love of an aristocratic Catholic family is shown to be an expression of religious longing. In this family, the Flytes, a strange sense of time unfolds—as Lady Julia, for instance, envisioning her sin in multiple eras, places, and selves: “Mummy dying with it; Christ dying with it, nailed hand and foot; hanging over the bed in the night-nursery; hanging year after year in the dark little study at Farm Street with the shining oilcloth; hanging in the dark church where only the old charwoman raises the dust and one candle burns; hanging at noon, high among the crowds and the soldiers. … Nameless and dead, like the baby they wrapped up and took away before I had seen her.”

Original sin, the crucifixion, and the nativity exist both in the ancient past and, in the practice of faith, the present. In this sense belief is a way for time to exist twice, a mechanism similar to that of reading, in which a story is seen simultaneously as a past occurrence and as something happening before our eyes. There is, despite what Wood says, something literary about a religion in which the past streams ceaselessly into the present; the kind of partial belief Wood locates in fiction reflected in a life lived as if Jesus were dying every day, on every crucifix in town.

It’s the referent of belief itself that’s examined in Helena, Waugh’s only historical novel, and his only one to have dropped out of print. (Hachette is reissuing it.) Waugh believed it to be the best thing he ever wrote, though hardly anyone agreed—it’s generally dismissed as a misguided attempt at seriousness, and few people read or write about it at all. The novel recounts the legend of St. Helena, mother of Constantine and discoverer of the true cross. It’s funny—Waugh makes Helena a horsey British teenager and peppers the book with anachronisms and postmodern jokes. (Her father is called “King Coel,” and calls, without much ado, for pipe, bowl, and fiddlers.) But it’s also Waugh’s most concerted effort to explain his faith. Helena’s discovery of the cross, the “remorseless fact of the lump of wood,” is necessary because it’s the only distinction between Christianity as Waugh saw it and the rest of what Helena calls “bosh” and “rot”—the Gnostics and humanists as much as the Mithras cults of Rome. She wants to know, and Waugh wants to ask: “Do you really believe all this? Believe, I mean, that Mithras killed his bull in the same way you believe Uncle Claudius beat the Goths?” This is exactly as clear and simple as Waugh believed religion should be—either real, historically, or rot.

The book is more than a simple apologia for Christianity though. Toward the end, Helena attends an Epiphany celebration in Bethlehem, and reflects on the meaning of the Wise Men:

‘Like me,’ she said to them, ‘you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way. For you the primordial discipline of the heavens was relaxed and a new defiant light blazed among the disconcerted stars. … How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!’

With the passage that follows, the satirist Aubrey Menen wrote, Waugh accomplished something that “nobody else has succeeded in doing in English literature for three centuries”: a convincing and acceptable prayer. In recognizing the Magi as patron saints of the unnecessary (what use, exactly, were myrrh and frankincense to the kid?), he reconciles prayer and literary aestheticism. The Wise Men, though committing, as Waugh put it, “every kind of bêtise,” arrive in the end and find their silly gifts accepted. In so doing, they allow for the acceptance of the artist’s gifts as well: “For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts,” Helena entreats, “pray always for all the learned, the oblique, and the delicate.” And so Helena’s search for something true and eternal—the indisputable fact of a cross—opens into the truth and eternity of metaphor.

“All we ask of the poets,” Waugh once wrote in Horizon, “is to sing.” He believed in a lyricism that could be individual, passive, and apolitical. As he told the Paris Review in a 1962 interview (during which he insisted on remaining in bed): “I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed.” This is a valid—if politically irresponsible—attitude for fiction to take, as to appreciate myrrh and frankincense without quite caring what they’re good for. And Waugh’s gifts, like those of the Magi, have been accepted for themselves despite his copious flaws. Actually, it seems likely to have been the flaws themselves that led Waugh to build the rampart of prose from which he glowered out at his despised world.

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Correction, Dec. 3 2012: This piece originally described Waugh as converting to Catholicism after the annulment of his marriage; in fact, he converted after the dissolution of his marriage but was granted an annulment afterward. This piece also incorrectly named Marilynne Robinson as a Catholic novelist. (Return.)