When Put out More Flags was published in March 1942, Alan Pryce-Jones reviewed it in the New Statesman, praising the writer’s ‘dead-accurate’ social sense and his vituperative use of ‘the unpopular weapons of economy and proportion’, and yet concluding that the book and its author were ‘fundamentally without humour’. A surprising charge: but, on reflection, surprisingly accurate. Waugh, in his black style, had no more humour than P.G. Wodehouse in his rosy style. Waugh deeply admired Wodehouse, and read and re-read him all his working life.
But humour in fiction is about an interest in real people, and Waugh had no such interest. Neither, probably, had Wodehouse. Both knew what they could do, and did it to perfection. ‘I shall have to go on hoeing the old butler row,’ remarked Wodehouse in a letter, with his usual sunny equability. Waugh, as his last stories reveal, could not do without his Ambrose Silks and Agatha Runcibles and Peter Pastmasters. But one must not press the analogy too far. Waugh did become interested in himself as a literary model – very much so – and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is a masterpiece of self-portraiture, one of the very best in English fiction. Even so it might never have been created had it not been for the remarkable things that happened to its author and his consciousness, as a result of a cocktail of alcohol and assorted drugs, and of the true events which are graphically examined in its story.
Up to middle age, Waugh had all the adventurer’s disdain for self-scrutiny; and his vision of the Catholic faith and of high society – the world, the flesh and the devil – came to have an inflexible and objective conviction about it. He thought he saw what was, and what should be; and his fascination with the idea of high society was closely connected with a contempt for the way it actually was. The Church of Rome was the model of rational and historical perfection, and an aristocracy, or at least an upper class, worthy of the name should live up to it. His satires batten on the discrepancy; but he has no real interest in the individuals who actually have to make up such a society, even at the highest level.
It is here that his achievement as a novelist is so different from that of his contemporary Anthony Powell. Both were influenced by cinema, but while the early Waugh film is run at manic speed the Powell is reduced to slow motion. Powell’s narrator spends a lot of time ‘reflecting’ on the people he meets, their differences and their resemblances. He is fascinated by them, and his fascination is communicated to the reader. Waugh, for example in the persona of Guy Crouchback in the Men at Arms series, is only seduced by a vision of what should be: wife, Church, family, class – all in their proper places. Such idealism is hardly appropriate for a novelist, no matter how he may feed on the negative consequences of its failure.
Yet people evidently entered Waugh’s emotional life from time to time (at least up to the time of his second marriage) about whom his novels could not, and could never have had, anything to say. In the bleak period after his divorce, before he knew from the officials of his Church whether he would ever be allowed to re-marry, he seems to have forced himself to fall in love with, or at least to pursue, any congenial girl who came his way. Such sins were perfectly acceptable to a Church with all the apparatus of penance and atonement. But Waugh’s heart was not in it, and he seems also to have lacked sexual confidence and drive. The result was a certain amount of harm done to other people, the sort of people for whose individuality he could have had no feeling or interest. What must he have thought, for instance, of this letter that he received from one of his brief lovers of the period? There is no way in which it or its sender could have been used in a novel: it has nothing to do with stage figures like Brenda and Tony Last.
It is too difficult not to write to you now, Evelyn, because things have not been going well – because it’s nearly March 13th which was the day you jokingly suggested we might meet – each year till I am 70. And so I suppose that day will be for me a kind of lovely agony for ever and ever ... I think of you all the time when I am making love, until the word and Evelyn are almost synonymous! And in the darkness each night & the greyness of each morning when I wake I remember your face – & your voice and your body and everything about you so earnestly and intensely that you become almost tangibly beside me. And after that I can forget you for the day (except when I am alone) ... It is only for the next few years. After I am forty I won’t want to see you ... Then even the impossible possibility of having your child will be gone.
The letter was from Joyce Gill, whom Evelyn had known as Joyce Fagan when he was an undergraduate. Selina Hastings quotes it in her biography without any particular comment, but something in her style and approach shows how much she is aware of its import.
For this is a biography of such exceptional perception and sympathy that it quite revived my own interest in Waugh, which recent overkill in the industry had definitely led to flag. Martin Stannard’s two big volumes were thoughtfully written and well researched, but they set out from a contemporary standpoint to portray Waugh as a monster and a grotesque, redeemed in part by a staunch belief and conviction of sin. That is no doubt true enough; but like all biographical puttings of people in their place, it avoided the homelier and more contradictory texture of the Waugh being. That love-letter, for instance, what did he feel about it, what unexpectedly endearing aspects of himself had inspired this cry of loving desolation? It was a far cry from the bright young people, and from the world of Waugh’s own aborted first marriage, about which Selina Hastings is a great deal more intelligently though unemphatically understanding than any previous commentator. How would Waugh actually deal with a person who might write a letter like that? How indeed had he already dealt with her? She could only be wholly excluded from his literary and creative imagination, the imagination that had transformed, in its wounded and brilliant malignancy, his own young wife and her lover into the Brenda Last and John Beaver of A Handful of Dust.
It had been essential for Waugh to transmute what had gone on and what had not gone on during that brief marriage into what John Cowper Powys would call his ‘Life Illusion’: the sense of things, that is, by which we all need to exist in our separate ways. In Waugh’s case such a ‘life illusion’ was unusually pugnacious and positive. Very fully, yet in what comes to seem almost in passing, Selina Hastings shows us the young couple – He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn – setting up house in Canonbury, among the bright little pieces of furniture Waugh had made, and pasted over with coloured cuttings and old postage stamps. An idyllic scene and almost a Pooterish one, not so distant from the ménage which his parents had once set off with together in the North End Road. Snobbishness does not seem to have been at all the problem, although She-Evelyn came from a much grander background than he did. For A Handful of Dust Waugh turned himself into the last of a line of doomed country gentry, cursed with a fickle Guinevere, but the diminutive, bright-eyed, squirrel-like couple their friends saw seemed perfectly suited to each other, and to their bijou North London residence.
And yet the worm was already in the bud. On their honeymoon She-Evelyn at once fell ill, and with such alarming symptoms that doctors and nurses had to be got, at great expense since they were by then in Port Said. Evelyn tried sitting at his wife’s bedside like a model young husband and reading her P.G. Wodehouse, but for relief he soon rushed away to stay with old friends in Athens. It turned out that she loathed having Wodehouse read to her in any case, though she did not say so; and she was also convinced he was really hating her for being ill. In reality, he does not seem to have had much idea of her at all, and when they got home again he was soon off to the old pub near Oxford where he was accustomed to write. He set about Vile Bodies. Left alone in London, She-Evelyn went to as many parties as she could – she adored parties and Waugh did not – and she met and went out with John Heygate, an amiable and talented young man about town who, like Waugh, worked on the newspapers. She also went to bed with him, and then confessed to her husband. Heygate was having a leisurely motoring holiday in Germany with Anthony Powell, to whom the husband despatched an Aeschylean telegram. ‘Instruct Heygate return immediately Waugh.’
The fateful episode is worth dwelling on at some length, not only because it became so central to Waugh’s subsequent life and outlook but because his biographer has so admirably contrived to fill in the cracks in what is now an almost legendary story with the ordinary humdrum matter of daily existence. Waugh’s real life, like everybody else’s, was of course full of the ordinariness which biography and legend have ignored, without necessarily seeking to avoid. There are people and events, like the woman of the love-letter, which have no part in the story others told about him, and the ‘illusion’ on which he based his own personality. All such matters come crowding in here, although the book is not over-long by modern standards of biography, and its spare and elegant presentation is commendably uncluttered by the kind of tales with which devotees of Waugh and his circle are already too familiar. The picture of him that emerges is thus in the subtlest and best sense an unusual one.
Not only could Waugh never have digested in his art the kind of real people with whom he necessarily came in daily contact, but he could never admit the crushing banality of ordinary life and its motivations. ‘What shall I do?’ She-Evelyn asked her flat-mate Nancy Mitford when things began to come out.
To Nancy, the problem was not serious: it was the sort of mischance at a party which could happen to anyone. ‘Tell Evelyn it wasn’t your fault,’ she said, ‘and that you love him.’ ‘But I don’t love him,’ She-Evelyn replied, going on to confess that she had never loved her husband, had married only to get away from home.
This was not the sort of humdrum situation to which even Nina and Adam in Vile Bodies could afford to be subject; nor would a Waugh persona sit smoking his pipe and reading Wodehouse to his wife, when she longed to be showered with anxiety and endearments. Oddly enough, too, Waugh seems to have been as cool about sex as it can be inferred that Wodehouse also was. Art, in both their cases, has to sustain itself at a remarkably artificial level above existence, although Waugh’s great skill consists in part of appearing to demonstrate starkly to his reader that this is not so.
His friend Henry Green, quite a different sort of performer as a novelist, got a cold reception when he made the same point in a letter about A Handful of Dust. Yet he was the first to see that Waugh’s brand of realism in fact depends on a rather cosy kind of fantasy, verging on self-parody in Scoop, where William Boot of Boot Magna Hall, and his column ‘Lush Places’ in the Daily Beast, bear an odd resemblance to the goings-on in another of Waugh’s lifelong favourites, The Wind in the Willows. Waugh’s Catholic and hierarchic nostalgia for the Great Good Place blends with deceptive ease into a more conventional Edwardian nostalgia; while Boot Magna, as Selina Hastings points out, is Waugh’s idealised version of a place he actually detested: his in-laws’, the Herberts’ house at Pixton. It becomes in the book ‘the ultimate haven, where there is no pressure to do anything, and one day, one year, is exactly like the last ... William’s mother and his three uncles sat round the table. They had finished eating, and were sitting there, as they often sat for an hour or so, doing nothing at all. Priscilla alone was occupied, killing wasps in the honey on her plate.’ Killing wasps ‘with a teaspoon’ is not only one of the few incongruously bloodthirsty activities indulged in by Wodehouse’s heroes and heroines, but has an odd status in the Waugh family archive. In his unfinished memoir, A Little Learning, Waugh blandly records that his paternal grandfather killed a wasp that was buzzing round his wife by pressing it against her forehead with the knob of his cane.
Selina Hastings brings out very well this deceptive Waugh formula for achieving widespread popularity. He knew how to combine sentiment of a very English sort with the new cynicism, a bracing heartlessness appropriate to the modern age. But when the formula failed, as with the character of Julia in Brideshead, we are virtually in the world of Ouida and the Sheiks. The enormous middlebrow success of Brideshead was ironical, for Waugh’s grand friends all thought it rubbish. Waugh told Ronnie Knox that Katherine Asquith ‘had detested the book to the end and beyond, and said the characters did not exist either in real life or faery,’ adding sadly that he had after all ‘grown up in Metroland, and didn’t know any other world except at secondhand or at a great distance’. Perhaps the real trouble was that he had never shown any true curiosity about the nature of that world, or examined its denizens with absorbed and conscientious relish, as Ted Jeavons does in the Music of Time series of Anthony Powell.
Waugh’s second wife, with whom he lived in great harmony, was the perfect example of an aristocrat who gently declined to play the game that Waugh expected of the class as a whole. He expected polished silver and white tablecloths, and ‘Laura, shouldn’t there be two salt cellars when there are more than four people?’ But, as his biographer observes, she preferred to live her own way, ‘anxious only to keep the peace and her husband in a good mood’, though ‘if necessary she could be scathing. “When Evelyn is in one of his bad moods,” she said with feeling to a surprised Ann Rothermere, “we send him to a witch in Somerset who spits at him.” ’
His army career probably did as much as anything to show Waugh the difference between his view of things and what really went on in life: he was certainly brave, and he assumed he was being a good soldier even when he involuntarily escaped all the slog of the war by making himself so intolerable that no officer would trust or employ him. The upshot genuinely saddened him. The Don Quixote or Mr Toad that lurks in all of us was with him ever rampant; and the dyer’s hand could never have been subdued to the service it worked in. But it made him sadder and wiser, and disillusion with himself and his role in the Army is the most telling aspect of Brideshead, as it is the origin of the masterpiece he produced in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.
This excellent biography not only humanises him, by playing down his more outrageous aspects, but by understanding the true nature of the world he aspired to live in it shows how so idiosyncratically good a writer actually needs, in his own way, to get things wrong. Not that he always did. About some things, such as the world of newspaper journalism, he was dead right, and is proved more right every day. Who can forget the fairy-tale William Boot’s wholly down-to-earth associates, Corker, Shumble, Whelper and Pigge, ‘who had loitered together of old on many a doorstep, and forced an entry into many a stricken home’?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.