‘Anovelist is condemned to produce a succession of novelties, new names for characters, new incidents for his plots, new scenery,’ reflects the beleaguered hero of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh’s portrait of the artist as a middle-aged car crash. But really, as Pinfold goes on to say, ‘most men harbour the germs of one or two books only; all else is professional trickery of which the most daemonic of the masters – Dickens and Balzac even – were flagrantly guilty.’ Pinfold is by admission a self-portrait, so Waugh must have expected readers to speculate on how this observation applied to his own career, and whether he was a one or a two-book man himself. In 1958, a Cambridge don called Frederick J. Stopp produced a study of Waugh – uniquely, Waugh himself gave ‘generous assistance’ – which warmly endorsed the idea that he had basically ‘two books in his armoury’, the first featuring the ‘contrast between sanity and insanity’ and the second ‘sanity venturing out into the surrounding sphere of insanity, and defeating it at its own game’. Whether this particular dualism had Waugh’s approval is unclear, but either way it doesn’t seem entirely satisfactory since the two alternatives look like variants of the same thing. Less well-disposed readers have thought that Waugh’s books divided on much more rudimentary lines: the good ones, which are funny, and the bad ones, which are pious. There is the string of brilliant, brittle social comedies in the 1930s, and then there is whatever started happening with the publication in 1945 of Brideshead Revisited. Stopp reported, presumably with his master’s sanction, that ‘Mr Waugh’s reputation among the critics has hardly yet recovered from the blow.’ Brigid Brophy had the best joke: ‘In literary calendars, 1945 is marked as the year Waugh ended.’
But maybe Dr Stopp was on to something when he implied that the two Waughs are really dual aspects of a single cast of mind. No doubt one side of his writerly nature, the devout and romantic, exerted itself more completely as he aged – so that what Brophy took to be the authentic Waugh, the brilliantly sardonic farceur, was ‘conclusively eaten by his successor, Mr Evelyn Waugh, English novelist, officer (ret.) and gentleman’. But the co-existence of startlingly different elements was there from the off. His first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), established at once the distinctive atmosphere of Waugh’s 1930s books: ‘the world’, as Malcolm Bradbury summarised it, ‘of comic absurdity and anarchy, in all its animalism and madness’. But only shortly before the novel appeared Waugh had published a life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti that inhabited a different world altogether. The book conveys the deep romanticism of Rossetti’s best paintings with quite unfeigned reverence: Beata Beatrix, a rapt portrait of Elizabeth Siddall, is acclaimed as ‘the most purely spiritual and devotional work of European art since the fall of the Byzantine Empire’. More remarkable still, Waugh found in Rossetti a dark predicament which sounded rather close to home: ‘the baffled and very tragic figure of an artist born into an age devoid of artistic standards’.
Given that ‘very tragic’ plight, it may not be surprising that Waugh began his study with the observation that ‘there is singularly little fun to be got out of Rossetti.’ But Decline and Fall manages to get a great deal of fun out of much the same baffled predicament of an age without standards. ‘IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY,’ Waugh helpfully explained in a preface, as though conscious that the raw material of the book could just as well have formed the basis of a very different sort of work. John Betjeman picked up on this odd and wholly characteristic ambivalence when he wrote to congratulate him: ‘When I read the book it seemed to me so rockingly funny that nothing else would seem funny again.’
Decline and Fall is one of a number of Waugh’s books to have been reissued recently by Penguin, in hardback and with new introductions. It follows the hapless Paul Pennyfeather, who, expelled from Oxford for a misdemeanour he did not commit, wanders through an unsuccessful career as a schoolmaster before becoming engaged to the grand and wealthy Margot Beste-Chetwynde. As it happens, her riches derive principally from the white slave trade, in which Pennyfeather becomes unwittingly implicated, and for which he uncomplainingly takes the rap. After some strings are pulled, however, he is released from prison and goes back to Oxford to pursue his theology degree. So anonymous a character is he that merely growing a moustache is enough to ensure that no one recognises him, and he happily resumes his study of long-forgotten Christian heresies. ‘Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero,’ Waugh says in his best deadpan, and indeed he is barely present in his own novel. He remains entirely unfazed by extreme vicissitude and undismayed by the moral imbeciles he encounters, not through anything admirable in his character but thanks to a sort of blithe existential indifference.
If there is a hero in Decline and Fall he comes in the unlikely form of Captain Grimes, whom Paul first encounters during his spell as a schoolmaster. Grimes is a habitual drunk and general cad who is always ‘in the soup’, repeatedly sacked from teaching posts for crimes that dare not speak their name, yet nevertheless able to move from job to job thanks to the support network naturally available to ‘a public school man’. It would be an obtuse reading to see in this some sort of criticism on Waugh’s part of a corrupt social order: the precondition of the comedy is an ostentatious refusal to engage in such humdrum ethical judgment. Grimes is scandalous but he has an indefatigableness which, in the absence of any other value, wins Waugh’s heart. Our final glimpse of Grimes is his forsaken hat, floating on a treacherous bog in which everyone presumes he has drowned; but Paul, who has not learned very much, has acquired enough wisdom to know that this cannot be. ‘Grimes, Paul at last realised, was of the immortals,’ a thought which inspires a paragraph of Paterite rapture: ‘Surely he had followed in the Bacchic train of distant Arcady, and played on the reeds of myth by forgotten streams … Had he not moved unseen when darkness covered the waters?’ The passage is wonderfully facetious, but at the same time it manages momentarily to smuggle into this remorseless world, by the duplicity of a joke, just the sort of transcendent feelings evoked by Rossetti’s pictures.
Reviewers were not slow to allocate Waugh’s novels a place within what his friend Rebecca West called ‘the contemporary literature of disillusion’, a modern tradition supposedly inaugurated by The Waste Land – the poem from which Waugh took the title of one of his best novels, A Handful of Dust (1934). Waugh certainly shared with Eliot a sense of ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history’, and he was ready to produce semi-serious ‘think’ pieces that identified the malaise as a contemporary phenomenon. The lingering effects of the First World War had worked to undermine ‘the standards of civilisation’ and ‘the restraint of a traditional culture’, he told the readers of the Spectator in 1929, and the present ‘crazy and sterile generation’ was the result. His anatomy of that generation, Vile Bodies (1930), is populated by a cast who, like Pennyfeather, possess only the most approximate acquaintance with their own existences: ‘It was about now that Adam remembered that he was engaged to be married’ is a representative gag. Waugh described the book as ‘rather like P.G. Wodehouse’, but the running joke is much more scarifying than that, involving the real possibility of harm and what should properly be hair-raising emotional carelessness: ‘Anyway, we aren’t engaged any more, are we – or are we?’; ‘I’ve known her all my life. As a matter of fact, she’s my mother.’
None of Waugh’s characters seems to have any interests – not literature or art or politics or themselves. They are, as Rose Macaulay astutely noted, ‘amiable nitwits’, and some of them aren’t that amiable. You can see the force in Bradbury’s remark that Waugh’s novels of this period are in a way ‘anti-novels’, their mode defined by a deliberate refusal to undertake scrupulous psychological and ethical deliberation. The closest the nitwits come to moral response is finding something ‘a bore’ or ‘amusing’ or ‘bogus’. The exception to the misrule in Vile Bodies is Father Rothschild: he is what Decline and Fall conspicuously lacks, a commentator on the novel in which he appears, and although one character dismisses him as ‘that charlatan of a Jesuit’, Waugh’s own attitude seems a good deal more respectful. At any rate, Rothschild is permitted to offer assessments of the zeitgeist such as ‘there is a radical instability in our whole world-order,’ and to speak with foresight of ‘this war that’s coming’.
Waugh shared with his modernist coevals a fascination with the atavistic savagery which they saw lying beneath the pseudo-civilisation of modern times, and there is a good deal of violence and misery in the 1930s novels. Paul’s harmless friend Mr Prendergast gets his head sawn off by a prisoner who has successfully resisted his institution’s enlightened regime; the ditzy party girl Agatha in Vile Bodies descends into mania thanks to her traumatic experience racing fast cars, and lies dying unnoticed while her chums drink cocktails; and in Black Mischief Basil Seal unwittingly eats his fiancée, Prudence, who has been cooked up into a stew.
That last novel bears its modernist credentials most clearly: it is a rewriting of Heart of Darkness, done the second time as farce. Basil is Waugh’s version of Marlow, a man possessed of the indomitable urge to survive – Edmund Wilson called it ‘perverse, unregenerate self-will’ – that characterises his greatest shits. A cadge and a waster who has grown bored of his desultory life in London (‘Isn’t London hell?’), Basil travels to the remote land of Azania. There he establishes himself in the good books of Seth, the emperor, as innocent a figure as Pennyfeather but filled with a vague reforming zeal, having returned from a miseducation at Oxford bearing enlightenment. (‘I have seen the great tattoo of Aldershot, the Paris Exhibition, the Oxford Union,’ he explains.)
While Seth indulges himself with utopian fantasies of a new capital – the plans for which include renaming the site of the Anglican cathedral as ‘Place Marie Stopes’ – Basil insinuates himself as high commissioner in charge of the Ministry of Modernisation. It is a portfolio that he pursues with brazen cynicism, for, of course, he believes in the value of the ‘modern’ no more than Waugh does. The progressive language of improvement is deployed with the driest irony, just as in Conrad. ‘Reluctantly, step by step, barbarism retreated,’ Waugh comments in the brief history of Azania with which the book begins: ‘The seeds of progress took root and, after years of slow growth, burst finally into flower in the single, narrow-gauge track of the Grand Chemin de Fer Impérial d’Azanie.’ And there are passages of spoof jungle-Conrad no less funny: ‘Beyond the hills on the low Wanda coast where no liners called and the jungle stretched unbroken to the sea … the drums of the Wanda throbbing in sunless, forbidden places.’ Meanwhile, with the atavistic drums continuing in the background, ‘Seth in his Citroën drove to lay the foundation stone of the Imperial Institutes of Hygiene.’
Waugh never used bathos to better effect than in Black Mischief, which turns on a recurrent anticlimax: where you expect to find a clash of cultures you find moral equivalence, a point which Waugh makes in all sorts of deft and self-ironising ways. The savage practice of cannibalism, say, is just the sort of thing the primitives do over there; but, as Brophy cannily recognised, auto-anthropophagy had a special place in his own heart. Certainly, eating people is wrong, as Flanders and Swann pointed out; but several pages before consuming his fiancée, Basil has already given away his deep cannibalistic instincts: ‘You’re a grand girl, Prudence, and I’d like to eat you.’ She seems pretty keen on the idea.
Black Mischief draws on Waugh’s time as a foreign correspondent sent to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie, after which he went on to visit Kenya, Uganda and other places – experiences he wrote up in Remote People, one of several good travel books of this period. (Indeed, along with Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure, Waugh has some claim to have invented the modern travel book.) He took to Addis Ababa during the celebrations, its ‘tangle of modernism and barbarity’ giving it a ‘crazy enchantment’ that he likened to Alice in Wonderland. Waugh is very good at being fed up and always evokes the wretchedness and exasperation of travel with relish – one of his reviewers singled out for praise his ‘disgusto’. He is bracingly disabused of the clichés of the seasoned traveller: it is nonsense to say ‘that one eats with a gay appetite and sleeps with the imperturbable ease of infancy’ when in fact you can’t get a good night’s sleep and the food is heinous.
The comic mixture of deep strangeness and secret familiarity, the spirit of Black Mischief, is the keynote of the travel books too: ‘the borderline of jungle and civilisation, never stable’, as Stopp put it. When, for example, he arrives in the Belgian Congo, Waugh comes across an abandoned old paddle steamer, ‘rusted all over, which was like a flooded Thames bungalow more than a ship’: that pulls off in miniature precisely the trick that animates Heart of Darkness. In an earlier volume, Labels, an account of a Mediterranean voyage, he did not write much about Port Said because, he said, his experiences there ‘approximate too nearly to English life’, but almost everything feels like a version of home. The cathedral at Málaga reminds him of the chapel at Hertford, his old Oxford college, while the landscape approaching Nazareth resembles ‘some grouse-laden corner of the Scottish highlands’. Gibraltar is ‘Shoreham, with a touch of Aldershot, transplanted to the east coast of Scotland or the north coast of Wales’; while ‘Paris lying in a pool of stagnant smoke’, viewed from the air, is said rather wonderfully to look ‘except for the Eiffel Tower, very much like High Wycombe indefinitely extended’. Provincialism becomes funny once it becomes self-conscious: ‘What does he know of England who only England knows?’ Waugh sardonically (mis)quotes Kipling at one point, strongly implying that that insular gentleman may actually know more than enough without venturing anywhere. ‘Why go abroad?’ Waugh asks at the end of Remote People, trapped in an infernal subterranean restaurant on his return to London: his advice is ‘See England first’ – that will give you all the hell you could want.
‘Horror starts, like charity, at home,’ as Donald Davie put it, and the phrase could stand as epigraph to much of Waugh, especially his masterpiece of tangled modernism and barbarity, A Handful of Dust (1934). This time the protagonist is Basil’s anti-type, someone who is doomed from the start: Tony Last’s surname tells you he is destined to be the end of his line. His rude exposure to the underlying brutality of things comes in the shape of his wife, Brenda, of whom he is very fond in a habitual sort of way. In her frivolity and complete lack of moral self-acquaintance she resembles the ninnies of the earlier novels, but the mood has grown nastier. Brenda hooks up with Beaver, an indifferent and snobbish young man who is universally deplored and whom even Brenda recognises as second-rate, and demands a divorce. The beau monde is charmed by so fantastic a romance, and a broken Tony seeks to be obliging; but after various humiliations he puts his foot down and refuses all her demands. Never one to resist convention, Tony then goes on an expedition, ‘going away because it seemed to be the conduct expected of a husband in his circumstance’. He falls in with a dotty explorer who is intent on finding a lost city in the Amazonian jungle, but the expedition quickly proves catastrophic; and, after various mishaps, Tony ends the novel in the impenetrable heart of the rainforest, where he has been imprisoned by a sinister character called Mr Todd, to whom he is condemned to read aloud the works of Dickens in perpetuity. Waugh told Henry Green that the novel was about ‘a Gothic man in the hands of savages’ – savages both at home and abroad – ‘and the civilised man’s helpless plight among them’. It is the Black Mischief parallel effect again: the latter pages of the novel switch to and fro, like cuts in a movie, between Tony’s delirious ruin in the jungle and Brenda’s differently disastrous life in London, as though to insinuate that they are in some way correspondent.
Unlike in Black Mischief, though, there is something that you might risk calling a moral positive in the novel and it comes in the unexpected form of a house. What makes Tony the Gothic man finally snap is not the realisation that Brenda is awful, but that the settlement she demands might involve giving up the ugly Victorian pile in the country to which he is truly devoted: one of the first things we learn about him is that ‘there was not a glazed brick or encaustic tile that was not dear to Tony’s heart.’ (Brenda loathes it, of course, and can’t wait to escape to her London flat.) Waugh refers to this aspect of the story as ‘English Gothic’. There is much fun to be had from a house with rooms named after Arthurian characters (‘The ceiling of Morgan le Fay was not in perfect repair’); but there is genuine reverence here, too, as ‘Gothic’ comes to stand, as it did for Ruskin, for everything that gets destroyed by modernity. Tony likes attending church on Sunday and chatting in a paternalistic way with the villagers, for which Brenda teases him: ‘Tony saw the joke, but this did not at all diminish the pleasure he derived from his weekly routine.’ When the collapse of their marriage threatens the persistence of this corner of England, it is as much the end of an era as it was for Burke when Marie Antoinette was seized by the sans-culottes: ‘A whole Gothic world had come to grief … there was now no armour glittering through the forest glades, no embroidered feet in the green sward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled.’ Of course the dappled unicorns are ironic; but then, as William Empson observed, irony only has a point if it is true in some degree in both the senses on offer: here, poor old Tony’s Gothic world is both an object of disenchanted modern mockery and at the same time a system of defunct values that is regarded most tenderly.
In one of his travel books, Waugh remarks in passing, as he gazes at Venice, ‘that unlike most men of letters, Ruskin would have led a much more valuable life if he had been a Roman Catholic.’ It is a puzzling thing to say but I suppose the point is that Ruskin could have made a much better fist of explaining the Gothic in The Stones of Venice if his religion had been properly in tune with the subject: like Waugh’s Rossetti, he was ‘a Catholic without the discipline or consolation of the Church’. By the time of A Handful of Dust, Waugh himself had been a Roman Catholic for four years, and he regarded his reception into the Church as the most important event of his life. His conversion was apparently not a matter of high spiritual drama: his instructor, the celebrity Jesuit Martin D’Arcy, was struck by how very ‘matter of fact’ Waugh’s approach was. For someone who missed ‘the restraint of a traditional culture’, the unmitigated authority of the universal Church naturally had a salutary appeal. Part of Waugh’s religion came from a sense of desperation: it was, he wrote in the Daily Express on the occasion of his conversion, only Christianity that could resist the ‘materialistic, mechanised state’ that was spreading across Europe from Russia. The world faced a stark choice between ‘Christianity and Chaos’; but to say so is really to express a distaste for Chaos rather than make a case for the truth of Christianity.
Waugh could indeed make religion sound comically ‘matter of fact’ – as his favourite theologian, Ronald Knox, did when he described the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima as ‘not cricket’. In Helena, Waugh’s mildly bizarre historical novel published in 1950, he cheerfully adopted the medieval fabrication that the saint, almost certainly Greek, was actually the daughter of the British king Coel. The book features the sort of young woman you might find in Angela Brazil, given to saying such things as ‘What a lark! What a sell!’ Converted as an old lady to the new religion, she conceives the duty of her piety to be the discovery and excavation of the True Cross. She is impatient with the theologians who are meanwhile busy inventing Christian metaphysics: ‘There’s a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against.’ And, once discovered, the mere existence of the crucifix in all its solidity somehow comes to be an adequate proof for the whole Christian system. ‘It states a fact,’ Waugh says on the last page, manifesting the same no-nonsense spirit that has animated Helena throughout: ‘Only a Briton could have solved the problem as Helena did.’ He is probably right there.
But while offering a compelling structure of dogma which, if properly attended to, would sort out the mayhem, Wavian Catholicism also provided something almost entirely opposite: an account, no less compelling, of ubiquitous human discontent and depravity. ‘I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth,’ Waugh announced, ‘that his chances of happiness and virtue, here, remain more or less constant through the centuries and, generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives’ – not an uncontentious proposition in 1939, you might think. Summarising Waugh’s worldview after conversion, his biographer Martin Stannard says: ‘Life on earth could now quite happily be reviewed as an empty charade.’ Stannard knows more about Waugh than anyone and what he says rings true, though it doesn’t sound very much like the things Christians usually say about life on earth: it certainly seems a bit short on the Pauline virtue of hope, say.
Nancy Mitford remembered reproaching Waugh for behaving with quite unprompted unkindness to a young admirer at dinner: ‘You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic,’ he replied. ‘Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.’ It is an odd kind of defence to invoke your innate awfulness as a mitigating factor, but it is one which, according to Christopher Sykes, Waugh’s friends would often hear. Perhaps the most chilling story, because its cruelty is so frivolous, is one told by his son Auberon. After long war years of rationing and scarcity, three bananas arrived at the Waugh household: they were taken to the dinner table, where his young children sat incredulously watching Waugh consume them, one after another, topped with cream and sugar. ‘From that moment,’ Auberon Waugh recalled, ‘I never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.’
The combination of heartless mirth and deep sentimentality that features in Waugh’s early novels persisted in the religious vision that came increasingly to dominate his work. The moral absurdity that had always drawn him to write now acquired some theological heft, while the flourishes of sentimentality took shape as a misty-eyed pastoral myth of Catholic England. The young Waugh had speculated about the impact of the First World War on the national character, but it turns out that such a historical perspective was far too confined: the real disaster occurred long before, under the Tudors, as he explained in his biography of Edmund Campion. The ‘freebooters’ who flourished under Edward VI were destined in time to become ‘the conspirators of 1688’, and then morphed into ‘the sceptical cultured oligarchs of the 18th century’ – and from that point the future was all too predictable: ‘competitive nationalism, competitive industrialism, competitive imperialism, the looms and coal mines and counting houses, the joint-stock companies’. These are the familiar bugbears of the Victorian moralists, but now involved in a melancholy tale of Catholic dispossession. Waugh’s imagination was always stirred by the thought of things going wrong and getting worse; the idea of a lost Catholic England gave him that on the scale of historical myth. As Conor Cruise O’Brien argued in a fine essay, Waugh was made for Jacobitism: the rightful king had always already taken to the hills.
Yet if Protestantism was disastrous it was also oddly superficial since, as Waugh thought, ‘the Catholic structure still lies lightly buried beneath every phase of English life,’ a proximity which only added to the poignancy of the occasional glimpses still to be had: ‘Everything one most loves in one’s own country seems only to be the survival of an age one has not oneself seen.’ These glimpses, as many commentators pointed out at the time, seemed to be located disproportionately among grand recusant families and big houses: Frank Kermode observed that ‘the operation of divine grace seems to be confined to those who say “chimney-piece”.’ Waugh wasn’t troubled by accusations of snobbery, claiming the right ‘to deal with the kind of people I know best’, but that doesn’t quite address the point – especially since, as Stannard points out, none of the aristocrats whom Waugh actually knew came very close to the ideal he nurtured in his fiction.
The plot of A Handful of Dust turns out to be, like those of Mansfield Park and Howards End, a version of that quintessentially aristocrat plot: the question of inheritance. Who is going to get the house? Which is a way of asking: who shall inherit England? With Tony lost in the jungle, his home goes to some cousins who, oblivious to the Gothic values, run wire fences across the cherished sward and set up a silver-fox farm. The novel doesn’t quite say so, but Tony’s failure is really a function of his Anglicanism, which Waugh thought an enfeebling disposition to believe nothing very much. ‘Do you believe in God?’ Mr Todd asks Tony, to which he flimsily replies: ‘I suppose so.’ (In her study on Waugh, Ann Pasternak Slater reports that the manuscript actually read, ‘I suppose no,’ which conveys an even more spineless sort of agnosticism.)
The inheritance plot is to be found as well in Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy, the major works of Waugh’s later period (Penguin has reissued the trilogy as one volume). The logic of these novels, however, is quite different: they are both, in one way or another, providential, with everything, as Julia Flyte says in Brideshead, ‘part of a plan’. Waugh saw Brideshead as a great advance on A Handful of Dust, ‘vastly more ambitious’: it was, he said, about ‘the operation of divine grace’, which makes it sound in the Paradise Lost class; but at first sight it seems to end in quite as pessimistic a spirit as its precursor. Brideshead Castle has been taken over by the British army and requisitioned for the duration, and the army is no more worthy of the great house than the silver-fox farmers are of theirs: the soldiers gaze cluelessly at its loveliness, clumsily smash fireplaces and throw fag-ends in the fountains. Everything about these interlopers that Waugh most despises is encapsulated in the figure of Hooper, Ryder’s junior officer, a young man about whom almost the first thing we are told is that he ‘was no romantic’. The same could not be said for Ryder, who is just as romantic as Tony Last. He is initially quite like Tony in his spiritual desuetude, too, but he is clearly far better equipped to receive the enchantments of the aristocratic Catholicism practised by the Flyte family, and his susceptibility is in good part due to his even greater fondness for English Gothic. As he wanders around Brideshead Castle he feels ‘a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring’.
A reader coming across such a sentence in 1945 might have been forgiven for not identifying its author as Evelyn Waugh. The same is true of many passages in Brideshead: the debutante Julia, for instance, is said to bring to those she meets ‘a moment of joy, such as strikes deep to the heart on the river’s bank when the kingfisher suddenly flames across dappled water’. Waugh toned down such purple patches in subsequent editions, but your main reaction is still: oh puh-lease. And especially since, as Rose Macaulay pointed out, this is just the kind of romanticism that the younger Waugh ‘pilloried in bland ridicule’: in Scoop, especially, which has much fun at the expense of William Boot’s fine writing in his ‘Lush Places’ column (‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole’). Still, once you’re attuned, you discover such lush passages elsewhere: ‘those wistful, half-romantic, half-aesthetic, peculiarly British longings which, in the past, used to find expression in so many slim lambskin volumes’. Take Tony’s unicorns, for example, or the ‘soft English weather’ of his estate, ‘mist in the hollows and pale sunshine on the hills’. The apogee of this Wavian pastoral comes in the dying speech of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead: he approaches his maker with thoughts of the chapel, ‘the tombs, cross-legged knight and doubleted earl’, and of the good old days, ‘the days of wool shearing and the wide corn lands, the days of growth and building, when the marshes were drained and the waste land brought under the plough’. This is splendid schmaltz, like the Albert Memorial or The Dream of Gerontius: you can see why a puzzled Edmund Wilson thought the passage ‘an absurdity which would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not – painful to say – meant quite seriously’.
None of that would mean anything to unromantic Hooper, who nevertheless seems all set to inherit the earth; but then on the last page Charles thinks of the light burning in the sanctuary of Brideshead chapel, ‘the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs’ and which remains ‘burning anew among the old stones’. So the closing note is hopeful if unaccompanied. The Sword of Honour trilogy tries to make a grand orchestration out of it. This time, finally, our protagonist is what we have long wanted, a proper Catholic squire: Guy Crouchback, resident in Italy when the war breaks out, enlists in the army to defeat what he identifies as ‘the Modern Age in arms’. He is another betrayed romantic, a frustrated crusader, hankering for the spiritual certitudes which he associates with the local tomb of one Sir Roger of Waybroke, an English knight who set out to liberate Jerusalem but never made it beyond Genoa. The book traces Guy’s own thwarted crusade as he grows increasingly disillusioned with the randomness and shambles of army life; but the important background idea is that such a life is just a concentrated version of life in general. ‘Army life, with its humour, surprises and loyalties,’ Waugh said elsewhere, ‘comprises the very essence of human intercourse.’
That essence is as bleak as ever: Guy experiences ‘the war of attrition which raged ceaselessly against the human spirit’. He views his career as a crusader with increasing jaundice, and loses it altogether as soon as Soviet Russia, for Waugh the embodiment of modernity, belatedly enters the war. Guy finds himself abruptly thrown back into ‘the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant friends proved traitors and his country was led blundering into dishonour’. The book has many brightly drawn recurrent characters full of the remorseless self-perpetuation that we have met before; the satirical account of the London wartime literary scene is very funny; and the errancies of military life are well depicted, interspersed with some vivid set pieces such as the chaotic evacuation from Crete and the experience of displaced Jews in Yugoslavia. But Guy, who had ‘dedicated himself on the sword of Roger of Waybroke’, has a mostly disappointing war and is himself rather disappointing company, an incomplete personality, a version of Pennyfeather though in a new, more sombre mode. Pennyfeather was born to drift, and Guy entertains heroic spiritual ambitions but ends up drifting all the same.
A rightful inheritance is accomplished, but only in a way: Guy’s son is set to inherit the grand house in England, with the twist that the boy’s biological father is actually a loathsome chancer called Trimmer. The wisdom of Providence is not enacted flamboyantly, as with Lord Marchmain crossing himself on his death bed, but it hangs around in the periphery of the novel, principally represented by the inner calm of Guy’s saintly father. Waugh told Stopp that Crouchback Senior functioned as ‘a steady undertone of the decencies and true purpose of life behind the chaos of events and fantastic characters’. God’s purpose also makes an appearance, secondarily, in the shape of Mr Goodall, the appropriately named genealogist of the Crouchbacks, who claims to spot the workings of Providence in the family tree. Guy asks him the million-dollar question: ‘Do you seriously believe that God’s Providence concerns itself with the perpetuation of the English Catholic aristocracy?’ ‘But of course,’ Mr Goodall replies. It is both a joke and somehow a truth. All the anarchy and absurdity in which Waugh found his truest inspiration becomes inexplicably folded into an encompassing scheme of God’s design: it is the very odd form of pessimism that Baudelaire once articulated as ‘all is for the best in the worst of all possible worlds,’ which is probably nonsense.
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