Pilgrim’s Progress

Michael Davie

  • The Letters of Evelyn Waugh edited by Mark Amory
    Weidenfeld, 664 pp, £14.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77657 6

The external paraphernalia of Evelyn Waugh included check suits, an ear-trumpet, a watch-chain, cigars, unfashionable Victorian paintings, a large family and a West Country manor house. To those interested by what lay behind these characteristically English defences, this selection of his letters may come as a disappointment. When Waugh died in 1966, the outside world possessed little reliable information about the nature of the beast inside the baroque carapace. Only occasionally would the monster come out of his lair: sometimes in print to deride Picasso or Auden, sometimes in person to insult his friends. For all the outside world could tell, though the evidence of his books seemed to argue against the conclusion, he truly was a snob, a religious bigot, an anti-semite, an anti-foreigner, a near-fascist.

Since his death, a Waugh industry has sprung up, encouraged by his family. His brother has written about him. His diaries have been published. Mr Christopher Sykes has produced an ultimately unsatisfactory but absorbing biography, Mr Don Gallagher has edited an anthology of his journalism, full of biographical clues. For fanatics, a regular Waugh newsletter is published in the United States, dealing with the most obscure details of his life and works, and at the University of Texas a procession of ‘Waugh scholars’ pores over the Waugh archive – this one preparing a book on Waugh’s aesthetics, that one in search of evidence that Waugh was a lifelong homosexual. Now we have the letters. As a result of this flood, the old monster is slowly coming into focus, and slowly, too, becoming more likeable. Most of the popular ideas about him were wrong.

His nature is coming into focus, but the reasons for his turning out the way he did remain profoundly mysterious. He was a formidable man. As time goes by, his writings and his character and his beliefs seem to contain more bone and gristle than those of many of his contemporaries. His earliest novels have not dated, and his beliefs about the subjects that interested him – the conflict of civilisations, the march of barbarism, class, aesthetics, Roman Catholicism – still possess bite and pertinence. His despair at the condition of 20th-century man, much ridiculed at the time, now seems merely prescient.

But he did not arrive at these beliefs by contemplation. Pious he may have been, but no one could accuse him of innocence or of unworldliness. He led an erratic youth, experienced a bizarre and dangerous war and, outward appearances and his own assertions to the contrary, never became a recluse. Two of the main puzzles about his life are why he turned against his perfectly respectable family background, and what effect the collapse of his first marriage had on him.

His father was an esteemed and literate publisher who in the early years of the century proudly built himself a pebble-dash villa between Hampstead and Golders Green, where Evelyn was brought up. Evelyn’s older brother, Alec, the indefatigable popular novelist, now 82 and living in Tangier, has always regarded his background with pride, and his parents with affection – as may be learned from his numerous autobiographies. But Evelyn, who enjoyed a happy, normal childhood, took against not only his parents, their friends and the whole man-of-letters world that they, and particularly his father, inhabited, but also against his brother and his brother’s friends – despite the fact that it had been Alec who introduced him to the bohemian literary world, and Alec who was always lending him money. (We learn from the letters that Evelyn was drawing money from the same source as late as 1937, for the Joan who stood him his second honeymoon must be Joan Chirnside, Alec’s second wife, a rich Australian.) One of the disagreeable sides of Waugh is shown in a letter of 1958 to his son Auberon, who had written home from hospital to say that he had been visited by his Uncle Alec. Evelyn wrote back mocking Alec. How did Auberon know it was his uncle? Was it not an impostor? ‘Did he wear a little silk scarf round his neck? Was he tipsy? These are the tests.’ Evelyn was then aged 54 and Alec 60. The exasperation that his family caused him all his life, and the way his own values appear to have germinated in that exasperation (aged 16, he alarmed his father by his defence of Cubism), are not fully explained by clichés about adolescent revolt. The first girl with whom Evelyn fell in love, Olivia Plunket Greene, was a Catholic, and it was a Waugh family theory that it was she who first turned him against his parents – as it was certainly she who first gave Alec the unkind nickname of ‘Baldhead’. The Plunket Greenes had links with a very different world from that of North End Road, Hampstead. Mrs Plunket Greene was a niece of Baron Von Hugel, the theologian.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in