Possessed

A.N. Wilson

  • Evelyn Waugh: No Abiding City 1939-1966 by Martin Stannard
    Dent, 523 pp, £25.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 460 86062 3

Martin Stannard resisted the temptation to call this story Decline and Fall, but it would not have been a bad title. On one level, the last 27 years of Evelyn Waugh’s life make melancholy reading. The book begins with Waugh’s sometimes bizarre career in the Army; it chronicles his prodigious commercial success as the author of Brideshead Revisited. It watches him struggle with madness and depression and boredom. He could be said to have died of boredom, but, like the woman in Belloc’s poem, ‘not before/Becoming an appalling bore’ himself.

His war had begun, like Guy Crouchback’s in the ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy, as a crusade against the forces of atheism and modernism; he was a bit old for service, but he was courageous, and, even when sober, enthusiastic for the cause. Unfortunately, his fellow officers in the Marines disliked him intensely, and he failed to get promotion. ‘I have become a marionette,’ one of his friends in the Marines observed. ‘You make me do the most extraordinary things.’ Waugh’s witch-like power of making everyone he knew into characters who danced to his tune, puppets in his own interior pantomime, did not ideally suit him to army life. Nor did things improve when his friend Major-General Sir Robert Laycock arranged for his transfer from the Commandos to the Guards. If anything, his time in the Guards was even less happy than his spell as a Marine. When his superior officer, Lord Lovat, who had seen him drunk in the bar at White’s every day of the previous week, received a letter of advice from Waugh about how he should be running the unit, there was a colossal falling out between the two men from which Waugh’s military career never recovered. Stannard is surprised that Waugh should have fallen out with Lovat. As a Catholic aristocrat, surely Lord Lovat was all the things Waugh most approved? Stannard perhaps misses the point. Waugh was a fantasist about class, but not a cringer. I wonder, by the same token, how accurately Stannard captures the flavour of Waugh’s relationship with his in-laws, the Herberts. Here again, if Waugh was the cringing snob of popular legend, you would have expected him to suck up to the Herberts. The opposite would have seemed to be the case. He abused them all roundly, particularly his brother-in-law Auberon. His mother-in-law believed him to be ‘possessed’, an opinion with which he himself flirted.

By some standards, however, Waugh’s war was full and remarkably successful. He saw action in the Cretan campaign, where he was extremely courageous; and at the end of the hostilities he was part of the Allied Mission to Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia, a dishonourable alliance with Communism, as Waugh saw it, engineered by Lord Lovat’s brother-in-law Sir Fitzroy Maclean, who became another of Waugh’s bêtes noires. The war suited him in many ways: the extended periods of separation from his family, the periodic opportunity to practise or to suffer violence, the constant threat of sudden death, were alike congenial. Above all, when contemplating his life as a soldier, one admires the way in which he nurtured his art to the exclusion of all else. He was one of the most ruthlessly self-protective artists who ever lived.

‘I shall not visit my children during Christmas leave,’ he wrote to his wife in December 1941, ‘they should be able to retain the impression formed of me for another three months. I can’t afford to waste any time on them which could be spent on my own pleasures.’ You can almost feel the biographer’s intake of breath as he quotes this letter. Stannard laboriously suggests that Waugh really wanted to stay away from the Herberts’ house, Pixton, because there were some poor evacuee children living there. As a ‘parvenu’, Waugh would – in Stannard’s idea – have identified uncomfortably with these working-class children, more than with the high-born family into which he had married. The biographer fails to see that the letter is both funny and revealing. Having told his wife that he does not wish to waste time on his children which could be spent on his own pleasures, Waugh added: ‘I have sent them some kippers as compensation.’ A perfect punch-line – and like all Waugh’s better jokes, calculated to appeal more to himself than to anyone else.

Had Waugh not pursued a rigorous regime of self-protection, of course, he would never have been able to write the books. No Enemies of Promise here as for his half-hated friend Connolly. If Waugh had seen a pram in his hall, he would probably have been mortified; his reaction as a writer when his wife had babies was to go away and put up in a hotel where he could write in peace. Many novelists, like Anthony Powell, found that they could not get down to work while hostilities were in progress. Not so Waugh, for whom hostilities were natural. In the beginning of the war he made time to write Put out more flags, one of his funniest books. By the end he had written Brideshead Revisited. And the war was to provide him with his theme for the ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy. ‘I dislike the Army,’ he wrote in 1944, ‘I want to get to work again. I do not want any more experiences in life. I have quite enough bottled and carefully laid in the cellar.’

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