Defender of the Faith

C.H. Sisson

  • 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 matter of this volume is divided into six sections, on a chronological basis, each with a descriptive title and an introduction in which the editor attempts to indicate the character of the period and its significance in Waugh’s development. The first – ‘First Steps’ – takes our author from the age of 14 to 25. We can believe that he ‘lifted the Lancing College Magazine to an entirely different level’ without being unduly impressed. At the age of 18 he wrote an editorial exhibiting no great maturity even for his years, rhetorically proclaiming the virtues of his generation. ‘The men of Rupert Brooke’s generation are broken. Narcissus-like, they stood for an instant amazedly aware of their own beauty; the war, which the old men made, has left them tired and embittered. What will the young men of 1922 be?’ I suppose such stuff might indicate a rising journalist; the answer to the question certainly does; we learn that the new generation ‘will be, above all things, clear-sighted, they will have no use for phrases or shadows.’ In short, here we have a young man all of phrases and shadows, who would surely have headed straight for the television industry had this been flourishing at the time. The next stop was Cherwell, where his contributions included an unsigned review of his brother Alec’s book, Myself When Young. Evelyn’s foot was on the journalistic ladder now! We also learn, from a contribution to Isis, that Waugh planned to go to a fancy-dress party dressed as ‘the Conservative Working Man’, complete with pick-axe. What fun! It is very much as a conventional and silly public-school and Oxford man that Waugh emerges in these early pages. The section ends with an article in the Fortnightly Review on Rossetti, which at least shows him nearer his own tastes in 1928 than he was when as a 14-year-old he wrote what purported to be an article on Cubism. Thus far there had been progress; there is also confirmation of a mind singularly closed to the intelligence and artistic inventions of his immediate seniors.

It is with some surprise, therefore, that one finds that the next section (1928-1930) is entitled ‘Ultra-Modern?’ and it is by no means clear what the editor means the answer to the query to be. Or perhaps it is clear, and Gallagher has no more in mind than a newspaper fashionableness. Waugh’s first newspaper article was a piece in the Daily Express in October 1928 and the Express, the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail, among other dailies, and such papers as the Passing Show and Vogue all provided homes for his work. He was soon in full production as a journalist, and in 1930 he recorded that his ‘regular income was temporarily up to £2,500 per year’ – not bad for a man of 27 in 1930. ‘In the gossip columns,’ we are told, ‘Vile Bodies was known simply as “the ultra-modern novel”.’ Waugh had made sure that he appeared in the gossip columns, and we find him writing to his agent, A.D. Peters, towards the end of 1928, saying: ‘I think it would be convenient if the editors could be persuaded that I embodied the Youth Movement so that they would refer to me whenever they were collecting opinions.’ Gallagher himself sizes up the newspaper pieces of 1928 to 1930 as ‘what the trade called “challenging” and what Waugh called “forceful” ’. One might say, the usual rubbish. There was ‘a quiet divorce’ in January 1930 followed after a few months’ gestation by ‘the much publicised conversion to Catholicism’. The Roman Church thereafter became one of the principal properties of Waugh’s literary clowning, whatever else it may have meant to him.

In October 1930 Waugh left London, where he had ‘made many friends among the most fashionable – and the rowdiest – young set, the Bright Young People’, to report Haile Selassie’s coronation in Addis Ababa, and section three of the book (1930-35) is entitled ‘Rough Life. Abyssinia to the Arctic’. The journalism did not amount to much, and its low quality was admitted by Waugh himself, at least to his agent. Neither the Passing Show nor Vogue was happy with what they got at this period. There are more serious pieces – the Times despatch from Addis Ababa in 1930 – but anything like a sober appreciation of facts cannot hold Waugh for very long. No doubt he was performing a service in attempting to shatter some liberal illusions about Abyssinia. Perhaps there was something to be said, on the occasion of William Wilberforce’s centenary, for desimplifying some popular notions about slavery. But Waugh simply cannot look at things soberly: he does not offer a fuller view but replaces one stupid prejudice by a stupider one, preferably in a manner which he hopes will cause some offence and excitement. Gallagher says that Waugh ‘was an intellectual, in the sense that in his make-up intellect predominated.’ Whatever this is supposed to mean, it can hardly mean that he tried patiently to get at the underlying meaning of things or had any gift for objectivity. In Nash’s Pall Mall Gazette a year or two later, Waugh described himself as ‘lazy and ill-educated’ – a description too near the truth to be funny.

These weaknesses made him unable to play what might have been a useful role in enlightening public opinion – which certainly needed enlightenment – in connection with the Italian conquest of Abyssinia and the consequences for Europe, which was then facing a growing threat from Germany. No one who lived through the confusions of those times and had some acquaintance with French right and left-wing journalism of the period, as well as with the on the whole much too ingenuous ‘support for the League of Nations’ which characterised the most vocal British sentiment, can believe that there was no room for dissentient voices. But Waugh, as is shown in section four (‘The Political Decade, 1935-45’), did not have the steadiness of mind, nor perhaps the right loyalties, to do the job properly. He was neither an objective reporter nor one who was seeking patiently what was best for Britain in the threatening international atmosphere of the time. He was simply pro-Italian – no doubt by a sort of identification of Italy with the Roman Catholic cause. There was an intellectually more respectable movement in the Twenties, represented in this country by Christopher Dawson and having its roots in Henri Massis and the French Catholic reactionaries back to de Maistre, which sought to present Western civilisation in Roman terms – a view which, however repugnant in some of its manifestations, clearly cannot be dismissed without qualification. Whether he knew it or not, Waugh was in some sense an inept vulgariser of this movement. His oversimplified application of it to the Italian war in Abyssinia was grotesque, as indeed was his deformation of English history to give a central place to the Elizabethan recusants. What even his apologist Gallagher calls his ‘ineptly hostile reports’ from Abyssinia did harm to his standing as a journalist. ‘They gained him a reputation for mere unintelligent prejudice, which endured.’ His mind was certainly not more closed than that of many negligible journalists on the other side: but that is Waugh the journalist – setting one prejudice against another, not developing anything that could be called a serious line of thought. Whether in Abyssinia, Mexico (he was commissioned in 1938 by ‘an English company with oil and agricultural interests in Mexico to write a book attacking the Mexican Government’s expropriation of their holdings’) or Croatia, it was the interests of Rome and not of his own country or of the local populations which were uppermost in his mind. There was an odd silence about the Spanish Civil War. One would have expected him to be a vociferous apologist for Franco, as many Roman Catholics in this country were. ‘It would be reasonable,’ Gallagher says, ‘to suppose that he was restrained by prudent consideration of his sales for, having made himself unpopular over Abyssinia he had taken care, when promoting the forthcoming Scoop in 1937, to promise “No Fascist propaganda”.’ He thought Franco only ‘the lesser of two evils’ in Spain, but since that is after all always the choice in politics, one must assume that the prudential considerations were indeed the determining ones.

The reader might have thought Waugh was at his ‘Catholic epoch’ already, but it is on Gallagher’s classification with section five (1946-55) that we arrive at that period when he was ‘Catholic, stylist, celebrity and enemy of the “modern world” ’. When he had first explained in the Daily Express in 1930 why he had become a Roman Catholic he emphasised the point that Christianity was ‘in greater need of combative strength than it has been for centuries’. It is hardly too much to say that it is the feeling of belonging to a gang rather than of being a Christian which dominates his Catholic journalism. Gallagher compares Waugh’s feelings about what he calls ‘the ceding of large Roman Catholic populations in eastern and south-eastern Europe to Stalinist governments’ at the end of the war to what ‘American Jews might feel today if their country, to serve its own interest, were to connive at Israel’s being annexed by Syria’. The sort of political Romanism Waugh represents produces exactly the sort of international problems that Zionism does. No one in this country has reason to be happy about the way Europe was divided after the war: whether there was any practical alternative is another matter. And certainly it is not because these East Europeans – or many of them – were Roman Catholics that their passing under Russian domination was to be deplored, any more than it was because of Evelyn Waugh and his co-religionists in particular that we may be glad that we in this country emerged from the war with our freedom.

This brings us to another bee in Waugh’s bonnet. He disapproved strongly of the use post-war Britain made of her freedom. Gallagher speaks of the ‘defence of the upper classes and the offensive against the lower which characterised Waugh’s post-1945 career’. The campaign cannot have done a lot to endear what was left of the upper classes to the rest of the world. At its simplest, Waugh’s attitude was a grandiose version of the sort of disgruntlement which still leads some middle-class Frenchmen to denounce the horrors threatened by le Mitterrand. More profoundly, it represents a panic ignorance of his own country and the way it works and an imperviousness to ordinary social relationships. An inner panic is perhaps the key to most of Waugh’s follies. The last section of the book (1955-66) is entitled ‘Contra mundum’. What more appropriate diagnosis of his morbid psychological condition could there possibly be?

Waugh is a pathetic figure. Poor devil! He was always seeking defences, and seeking to misrepresent himself. In an article of 1937 he talks of having ‘dreams of shaking off the chains of creative endeavour’ and adds, ‘Rimbaud got away from it and became a gun runner’ – thus promoting himself at once in the creative hierarchy and in the hierarchy of practical men. He is nearer the truth when he says: ‘writing happens to be the family business.’ It was a business with him, and a successful one. This volume will do nothing for his reputation. It shows him as a performer in that great trade of emitting opinions for money which is one of the great scourges of our time. His editor was surely ill-advised to prefix to the book a quotation from Jonathan Swift, who cared for ordinary people and never took a penny for any of his writing except Gulliver’s Travels.