Defender of the Faith
- The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh edited by Donat Gallagher
Methuen, 662 pp, £20.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 413 50370 4
‘Very occasionally it is worth noticing a bad book at some length’ – we have it on Evelyn Waugh’s own authority – ‘if only to give reputable publishers a reminder that they must not be insolent in what they try and put over on a public already stupefied by literary overproduction.’ The present case is not quite of the kind Waugh had in mind. After all, his own production ended nearly twenty years ago, and included some quite readable if not profoundly illuminating novels, and what we have here is a reprint of his journalism, a collection which is ‘complete’, the editor says, ‘in the sense that it is as comprehensive as the realities of publishing allow, and in that it seeks to include within one set of covers everything that any serious reader of Waugh might hope to find ... everything notably funny, elegant, beautiful, profound or self-revealing, and everything that seems to define Waugh’s own aims.’ The ‘overproduction’ could in the nature of the case not be stopped, at this time of day, even by the least ‘insolent’ publisher; if there is a charge against Methuen it could only be of over-publication. For surely nobody really needs 650 pages of this stuff?
There is room to dispute this, and it is in fact disputed by the editor of this volume. Donat Gallagher teaches English at the James Cook University of North Queensland; his case for a ‘complete’ collection of Waugh’s essays and articles rests on his subject’s ‘exceptional talent as a writer, and vigour and independence as a thinker’. These qualities Waugh certainly had in some kind or degree. Gallagher’s characterisation of the prose is just up to a point. ‘Waugh did not aspire to naturalness,’ he says, ‘in the sense in which naturalness was prized from the turn of the century until the 1960s, and he always sought to complete a structure ... Every piece was, to some extent, a performance.’ As in life, so in art – or in artifice. It is when Gallagher goes on to speak of the ‘tough habits of mind of an active, penetrating thinker’ that the reader may begin to dissent. For ‘tough’, in any serious sense, Waugh was not; the impression is rather of a weak and wounded personality trying to outstare the world, to make up by the emphasis of his talk for what he lacks in inner coherence. No doubt the best writing is natural, in some sense of that difficult expression; at least the surface of it corresponds in some profound way to what is going on in the less accessible reaches of the author’s mind; what Waugh gives us is something more superficial. A ‘penetrating thinker’? Penetrating what, exactly? ‘By being able to “think”,’ his editor says,
Waugh meant being able to think consistently ... his standard of rationality was moderate. He expected no one to share his views, or even to be fair and unprejudiced. He merely expected writers’ opinions to be consistent with their own principles or prejudices, and their statements consistent with one another.
A moderate standard of rationality indeed! It is true that a lot of discussion which claims to be rational gets no further than that, but the facts ought to get a look-in. Without that, all human discourse is indeed a vain and self-centred exercise. We are in the world of mere opinion, of one assertion shouted against another, something of which enough is heard, in our media-soaked climate.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 6 No. 5 · 15 March 1984
SIR:I must ask space for a reply to C.H. Sisson’s review of my Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (LRB, 16 February), because Sisson goes altogether too far in falsifying my words. Explaining why Waugh was virtually silent about the Spanish Civil War, when most conservative Catholics were stridently pro-Franco, I wrote: ‘It would be reasonable to suppose that Waugh was restrained by prudent consideration for his sales, for, having made himself unpopular over Abyssinia, he had taken care … in 1937 to promise “No more Fascist propaganda.” But the truth is that he genuinely disliked Franco and Fascism, a dislike vividly expressed in the sour picture of Spanish government in Scott-King’s Modern Europe and by his diary covering the visit on which the novel is based.’ This passage is, quite obviously, a single statement. The first part of it cannot be read on its own without reversing my meaning. But Sisson quotes the preliminary supposition as though it were my view. He does not even refer to my main statement: that Waugh was silent about Franco because he did not like him. And I am thus made responsible for his ill-natured claim that ‘prudential considerations’ determined Waugh’s silence. Argument such as this falls to the level of the hack who rips a convenient phrase out of its context, uses it to make the author say the opposite of what he intended, and then pleads: ‘I was only using his own words.’
I regret to have to say, and do so only after reflection, that the misquotation I have cited is not an isolated slip. It is part of a pattern in which every reference to my editorial material, and almost every reference to Waugh, is disingenuous. Sisson’s final point is that Waugh’s journalism was all a matter of business, not conviction: ‘This volume shows him as a performer in the trade of emitting opinions for money’ etc. Sisson has read quite enough to know that, while much of the journalism was frankly written for money, much, and the most interesting part, was given free to the Tablet and the Month, or written for the low-paying Spectator; and that when he had something he particularly wanted to say, money did not enter into calculation at all. A reasonable criticism would be that he held his convictions too passionately and expressed them too recklessly. But Sisson conceals these facts – an understandable precaution when inventing a monstrosity as improbable as a conviction-less Waugh. I must again say that this instance of concealment is typical of Sisson’s method of argument.
Sisson calls me an ‘apologist’ for Waugh. And yet he repeatedly takes information from my work to use against Waugh. Fair-minded readers will gather from this that I have presented the facts as I knew them, whether favourable to my subject or not. If I am an ‘apologist’, what is a reviewer who tortures every quotation out of its natural meaning and conceals evidence?
Please allow me to deal with at least one point of substance in this necessarily long letter. Sisson asserts that Waugh’s opinions about the Italo-Abyssinia conflict were ‘simply pro-Italian, by identification of Italy with the Roman Catholic cause’; and that he merely ‘set one prejudice against another, not developing what could be called a serious line of thought’. Anyone who bothers to read only Waugh’s letter to the Times of 19 May 1936 and his review ‘Through European Eyes’ will find Waugh arguing, against immensely powerful public opinion to the contrary, that diplomatic and economic sanctions against Italy, not backed by force, would 1. strengthen the war party in Italy, 2. lead the Abyssinians into the appalling sufferings of military defeat, 3. drive Mussolini into alliance with Hitler, and 4. thus upset the balance of power in Central Europe, allowing Hitler to annexe Austria. ‘Simply pro-Italian’ writers, of whom there were a number in England, were concerned with the success of Italy. Waugh was concerned with the consequences for Abyssinia, Europe and England of the British Government’s muddled policies. The ‘Roman Catholic cause’ does not enter his argument (except in so far as Austria was threatened with an anti-Catholic Nazi regime). Both Archbishop Bourne’s Tablet and the Jesuits’ Month opposed Italian aggression and supported the League, and the Tablet twice attacked Waugh personally over Abyssinia. Waugh wrote as a political conservative, not as a Catholic.
As for ‘no serious line of thought’, I can only present Waugh’s analysis, remarking that each of his predictions was tragically fulfilled, and ask readers to judge whether or not his case (however little they might agree with it) amounts to mere ‘prejudice’.
Because Sisson is absolutely wrong about Waugh’s policy and attitude, and equally wrong about his motives, it is not surprising that he finds him totally incapable of thought. But the fault is Sisson’s, not Waugh’s. My simple point is that the exaggeration, bias and malice that we instinctively associate with the publicist side of Waugh were generally balanced by gravity and intelligence in his basic position. If this is true of the Abyssinia writings, it is very much more true of areas of discussion better suited to Waugh’s talents. Literature and art, and some aspect of Catholicism, brought out his best work. I compared Waugh to his greater predecessor Swift because the bitterness and self-destructive follies of both drew attention from their underlying common sense and basic good will.
James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland
C.H. Sisson writes: I am sorry if I offended Dr Gallagher. Certainly I intended no innuendo against his editorial attitudes. I was concerned with Waugh, whom he evidently finds more sympathetic than I do. As to Waugh’s silence over the Spanish Civil War, the conclusion that ‘the prudential considerations were indeed the determining ones’ was meant as my own – a different emphasis, as I realised, from Dr Gallagher’s.