Evelyn Waugh: No Abiding City 1939-1966 
by Martin Stannard.
Dent, 523 pp., £25, April 1992, 0 460 86062 3
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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.’

One can’t help finding this impressive, even if one belongs to the school of thought which believes Waugh was a brilliantly cruel farceur, sadly ill-equipped to write the sort of books he attempted in the second half of his career. Even those who find his ‘serious’ tone embarrassing – particularly when he was writing about religion – can find some hilarious stuff in the post-war years: above all, The Loved One and Pinfold, which must be among the two funniest things he ever wrote. Nor were the books the only work of art which he perfected in these years. There was that strange persona with the bookmaker’s tweeds and the ear trumpet, who could be embarrassing, no doubt, as all clowns can, but who was also capable of being howlingly funny. ‘An offensive letter from a female American Catholic,’ reads a diary entry in March 1946. ‘I returned it to her husband with the note: “I shall be grateful if you will use whatever disciplinary means are customary in your country to restrain your wife from writing impertinent letters to men she does not know.” ’

Of course, like all manic clowns, Waugh went too far. Going too far was the very essence of his artistic vocation, as of his private character. The joke, repeated endlessly, was a refusal to recognise things, or people, as they actually were, and to react with puzzlement, or dismay, or rage, when the discrepancy was pointed out. He was prepared to go to endless lengths, both in his work and in his life, to hone the effects of a joke. How many writers, however lonely and bored, would bother to ask some unknown American admirer to stay in their house for the weekend, simply in order to tease them? But this is what Waugh heroically did to Mr Paul Moor. After Moor had been ushered over the threshold by Waugh’s butler (the date is 1949, when outside the pages of P.G. Wodehouse butlers were a virtually extinct species) he encountered the man he described as his ‘idol’. ‘After an elaborate reaction of exaggerated astonishment, there came, “But I thought you’d be black! ... What a disappointment! My wife and I had both counted on dining out for months to come on our story of this great, hulking American coon who came to spend the weekend.” ’ It had obviously never occurred to Mr Moor that Waugh was making a joke about his name. At dinner, while Waugh himself drank wine, he offered Moor iced water under the supposed impression that this was what Americans liked to drink. In the morning, he affected dismay that Moor wanted an English breakfast. ‘I expect you’ll want Popsy Toasties or something like that, won’t you?’ And so on, for two days. When Moor admitted that he was a Baptist, Waugh observed: ‘Perhaps it’s different in America, but in England only the lower classes are Baptists.’ Having endured all this, Moor came away with the impression that Waugh was ‘an essentially kind man’.

Stannard is quite good at exploring the way Waugh’s alienation from the ‘real world’ provided him with rich fodder for his fiction: and nowhere is this more hilariously apparent than in The Loved One, where the funeral parlours and pet cemeteries of Forest Lawn provided his delighted mind with a wonderful example of marionettes doing ‘extraordinary things’.

The same disparity between things as they are and things as Waugh wished or pretended to believe they were, is apparent in all his ‘serious’ writing too. Brideshead Revisited owed its immediate and enormous success with the public, on both sides of the Atlantic, to the fact that it was pure fantasy. (‘What does Ben know of dukes?’ was the reaction of Disraeli’s father, a middle-class man of letters, when he read his son’s earlier novels; Arthur Waugh, not unlike Isaac D’Israeli, took a quizzical view of his son’s upper-class fantasies.) Brideshead Revisited (hence its appeal to the Americans) is not a picture of what the world is like: rather, a carefully painted canvas of what Waugh would like the world to be like.

Again, like Disraeli, a novelist he in many ways resembles, Waugh spent money with an attractive abandon: houses, elaborate Victorian furniture, paintings, decanters, gold watches, cigars, expensive hotels, all ensured that however much money he earned, he was always lurching from one financial crisis to the next. He was also extraordinarily generous, lavishing money on poverty-stricken friends and dingy ecclesiastics. During one of his most painful confrontations with the Inland Revenue, he wrote to Nancy Mitford: ‘It’s a sad prospect, isn’t it. I shall have to go to prison but that is hell nowadays with wireless and lectures and psychiatry. Oh for the Marshalsea.’

During one of his only interviews with a psychiatrist, Waugh observed that the doctor had not inquired about the most important thing in a man’s life – namely, his religion. Certainly, religion was the most important thing to Waugh. His life was punctuated by Catholic observances. True, some aspects of his faith were of a piece with his taste for the grotesque. It must be difficult for anyone reading Waugh’s life to know at what point his early love of Firbank turned into ‘genuine piety’ (whatever that may be). In 1952 he went all the way to Goa to venerate the body of St Francis Xavier. ‘One brown stump of toe emerging from white wrapping,’ he noted approvingly. ‘Body fully vested, one grey forearm and hand, and grey clay-like skull visible.’ This seems only a step away from the pet cemetery in Forest Lawn, and Waugh’s gleeful interviews with the Californian embalmers: but in this case, he approached the relic of the great Jesuit missionary in full seriousness.

He was tolerant of the agnosticism of his female friends, such as Ann Fleming, Diana Cooper and Nancy Mitford. But he became obsessed by trying to convert John Betjeman to his own faith, and bombarded the poet with furious injunctions to submit. ‘If you try to base your life and hopes on logical absurdities YOU WILL GO MAD,’ he wrote, adding, with a sentence which is not distinguished for its sanity: ‘It would be a pity to go to HELL because you prefer Henry Moore to Michelangelo. THIS GOES FOR PENELOPE TOO.’

Stannard is rather coy in his dealings with this episode, which eventually resulted in Penelope Betjeman becoming a Roman Catholic – a step which in effect ended her marriage. In his first volume, Stannard tells us that Penelope Betjeman was ‘alarmed’ when, before and after her marriage, Waugh ‘made advances to her’. Now that all parties are dead, it surely would have done no harm to tell us that these advances, whether or not they caused alarm, were not always rebuffed. Waugh told a third party that he had been humiliated by Penelope Betjeman’s habit of laughing when he reached his sexual climax. Henceforward, his advances took a furiously spiritual turn. Betjeman’s distaste for Roman Catholicism deepened to hatred after this: but, rather to both men’s credit, they remained friends, and continued to admire one another’s tastes and talents – Betjeman giving Waugh Victorian wallpaper and the famous Burges wash-stand which comes into Pinfold.

One should not, however, say that Waugh’s sexual interest in Penelope Betjeman (which inspired his charming portrait of her, Helena) was the sole explanation for his proselytising zeal. One should expect his Catholicism to have been distinctive, but it was entirely straight. His preparedness to give many of his royalties to the Jesuits, to pay the Poor Clare nuns to pray for fine weather, and to write absurdly laudatory notices of any book, however feeble, by a co-religionist, were all motivated by a profound personal faith. One could say that it was the greatest joke in his armoury, but he would not have agreed. His fastidious eye never blinded him to the ghastliness of the Catholic Church in England. When he was introduced to Cardinal Griffin, he observed that ‘he is a man of mean appearance, sly, pleased with his job, absolutely philistine, absolutely charmless.’ Apart from clever priests like Ronald Knox and Martin D’Arcy, Waugh tended to dislike the clergy, and he famously abominated the changes which were introduced by the Fathers of the Second Council. His letters to Cardinal Heenan during that Council make sad reading. He must have spoken for many conservative-minded Catholics when he expressed his disgust at the wholesale destruction of the ancient liturgies, and the introduction of a vernacular mass with the priest facing the people as he celebrated.

With an intrusiveness which mars much of his book, Stannard seems faintly puzzled that Waugh should not have enjoyed the ‘happy clappy’ religion forced upon Roman Catholic congregations in the Sixties. ‘A psychoanalyst might unearth a tangle of complexes and repressions here,’ he writes ponderously. ‘He might see a social climber disgusted by the taint of the “second rate” he had always struggled to escape; the fierce little snob counterfeiting compassion to defend his élite; the fear of crowds, perhaps agoraphobia ...’

That Waugh was a snob could hardly be denied, but he was oddly unsnobbish about his religion – and indeed worshipped with enthusiasm alongside Americans and Mexicans and black South Africans, Whom in social life he would have regarded as merely comic. (On religious grounds he was firmly opposed to apartheid.) He hated the changes in the liturgy so much because he felt that the Church was no longer the Church he had joined. And his conversion had been so much the most important event in his life. For this reason, he was prepared to abandon work on a novel he was writing and research the biography of his old friend Monsignor Ronald Knox.

Returning from Rhodesia, where he had been gathering material for his biography of Knox, Evelyn Waugh observed: ‘Thing is to get all facts down while they are in my poor nut and then spread myself being elegant.’ He was not, perhaps, a very careful biographer; and there were those, when the Knox book appeared, who questioned its accuracy. An impertinent young priest called Warlock wrote to him: ‘Alas, I think that I am but one of many who feel that inaccuracies and the general tone of certain sections of your book have given its readers a wrong impression of Monsignor Knox as a priest, of his bishops and of his fellow clergy.’

Little could Warlock guess that, by writing this letter, he was placing himself in the galère of Waugh’s enemies: a minor character, it is true, but of the same company as the adulterous Anthony Eden (who had committed the mortal sin of going to bed with a woman Waugh himself loved), Smarty-Boots Connolly, Fuddy-duddy Fishface Quennell, the dreaded Cruttwell, and so many more. Long after the novelist’s demise, Warlock, by then a bishop of the Catholic Church, would find himself being regularly lampooned in Auberon Waugh’s ‘Diaries’ in Private Eye, an accolade which, as the prelate bitterly remarked to me on the only occasion we met, ‘cost me the Cardinal’s hat’.

No one could accuse Martin Stannard of failing to do his homework. His second copious volume shows evidence of his having turned over thousands of letters and documents. The hundreds of footnotes, and the voluminous acknowledgments reveal that he has devoted many hours to interviewing Waugh’s contemporaries. He has made every effort to get the facts into his poor nut: it is in the more difficult art of arranging these facts with elegance that he is sometimes deficient. Waugh’s Knox was criticised by mean-spirited monsignori, but by the subject’s friends it was hailed as a masterpiece, because the overall picture of that melancholy eccentric was so deftly drawn: it was a likeness. Waugh’s family have dissociated themselves from Stannard and detached observers must recognise it as a blunderingly inappropriate book to have written about such an elegant and well-delineated stylist. Not that it is all bad ... far from it. But one cannot lay down two volumes, totalling over a thousand pages, without making the protest that the biography is far too long. ‘Laura,’ we are told at one point, ‘loved Waugh for his eccentricities, his talent, his jokes.’ The reader pines for more of the jokes.

This is not a purely frivolous complaint. Stannard’s solemnity, and his desire to pass judgment on his subject, lead to a false emphasis. Stannard is free with literary analogies which set up entirely inapposite trains of as sociation in the reader’s mind. Laura Waugh is described as a Mrs Jellyby. Stannard really only means that Mrs Waugh was a slightly scatty mother, but by mentioning Mrs Jellyby, he implies that Waugh’s wife neglected her domestic duties because of an overriding interest in overseas charities – which was certainly not the case. Early in the book, we are told that Waugh ‘became Polonius but he was happier as Hamlet’. Later, forcing a strange marriage of metaphors between Shakespeare and The Diary of a Nobody, Stannard suggests that Waugh had entered manhood as Lupin-Hamlet but in his early fifties had become Pooter-Lear. True, Waugh once made a playful analogy between himself and Lupin Pooler, but similarities between the Laurels and Combe Florey House are not immediately obvious. We are never told which characteristics of Hamlet or Lear Waugh was supposed to have shared. Lear is chiefly memorable as an old man who was unable to maintain happy relations with his daughters. Waugh, in spite of his undisguised loathing of young children, settled down to friendship with all his daughters once they had grown-up. Being preternaturally irascible does not make a man into King Lear; nor could anyone who had read The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold say of its author that ‘he hath ever but slenderly known himself.’

Herein, no doubt, lies the nub of the difficulty for anyone attempting to write the biography of so highly-developed a ‘character’ as Evelyn Waugh. If figures from Shakespeare come to mind when contemplating his life, it is now the jesters, now the absurd courtiers. We can see him as Osric, or Jaques, or Puck at different stages of the pantomime which he chose to enact for his own amusement. He was not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. He was more like Edward Lear than King Lear.

All successful artists view the world through a distorting glass which one can loosely define as style. It is a commonplace that artists make up their own worlds, and Waugh’s hilarious vision of things was so pervasive and distinctive that it could not be contained within the pages of his books. ‘I see nothing objectionable in the total destruction of the earth, provided it is done inadvertently,’ he wrote in the early Sixties, when contemplating the nuclear threat. It is the second half of the sentence which is truly distinctive of Waugh’s whole way of seeing things. In spite of being, or perhaps because of being, the most bigotedly orthodox Roman Catholic, he really saw the universe as a sort of farcical playground, a perpetual sports day at Llanabba Castle; calamities were unavoidable, but it was ever to be hoped that as many of them as possible would be entertaining. The insults, the carefully manufactured feuds with which he liked to enliven his existence are all of a piece with the exquisitely crafted comedies he wrote.

Too much can be made, perhaps, of the strange experiences which Waugh describes in Pinfold, during which he heard hostile voices, and by his own confession went mad. I was struck, rereading the tale in Stannard, by how little ‘madness’ appeared to change his habitual demeanour. When Waugh disembarked from his ship at Colombo, at the height of the ‘madness’, he was taken to meet Ceylon’s most celebrated artist, George Keyt, who was astonished to discover afterwards that Waugh had been hearing the hostile voices throughout their genial and mutually enjoyable interview. When Waugh got back to England, he was met by his wife and by an ecclesiastic-cumhanger-on called Philip Caraman. The demonic voices dictated to Waugh some uncomplimentary remarks about Caraman which, of course, he repeated. ‘When Waugh left the table briefly, the priest asked Laura whether this behaviour was the sort of extended joke in which Waugh sometimes indulged.’

The borderline between the jokes and the madness seems paper-thin here, particularly when we read that Caraman had formed a rather tiresome crush on Waugh’s favourite daughter. The latter years, when Waugh had notionally recovered his sanity, make occasionally amusing reading, but they were chiefly sad. In youth, as a disciple of Firbank, he had wanted the world to be as described in The Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli. The eccentricities of Cardinal Montini – later Paul VI – were, however, beyond a joke, and Waugh could almost be said to have died of a broken heart after the Church of Rome changed its spots. You could, if you were rigorously empirical, suggest that it was mad to see Firbank’s novels as a true picture of reality. Waugh’s words to Betjeman seem more appropriate to himself: ‘If you try to base your life on logical absurdities YOU WILL GO MAD.’ But it is not the function of a great artist (as Waugh was) to be logical. One ends Stannard’s book with a renewed admiration for Waugh the artist and – which is something of a surprise – an affection for Waugh the man. There are more sorts of martyrdom than those meted out to the early Christians by the lions. Waugh’s struggle to impose his own view of things on the world and on his friends ended in inevitable failure: and that was a sort of martyrdom too. It would be unkind, in this context, to recall that when Hugh Trevor-Roper reviewed Waugh’s life of Campion, the headline was ‘Twice Martyred’, but, if there is a library in Purgatory, Stannard’s book, with its frequent grammatical solecisms, its plodding attempts at psychiatry and its crude view of the class system, will be required reading for its subject.

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