Noël Annan places Evelyn Waugh among the deviants of mid-century England

It should now be generally agreed except possibly in the Fens that Evelyn Waugh was the greatest English novelist of his generation. Certainly Graham Greene, Henry Green and Angus Wilson thought so, although they and not he won the worldly honours Waugh would dearly have loved. On the other hand, that redoubtable holder of the Order of Merit, J.B. Priestley, did not think so. But then whom would he have nominated? Orwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Ivy Compton-Burnett? Or conceivably ... himself? Waugh has even proved exportable to America: Brides-head Revisited was the most popular series ever shown on American public-service television. Still, his former admirer Edmund Wilson was revolted by that book, and American intellectuals have never put him beside Faulkner, Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald. And on the Continent there is no translation of Waugh as audacious as Avanti Jeeves.

And yet even those who praise him nearly always begin by dissociating themselves from what they regard as his bigotry, his snobbery, his cruelty, his infatuation with the English aristocracy, his contempt for all other classes, and his pleasure in reaction. But then, so John Bayley observed, they move an amendment. In order to explain these aberrations, they explain that Waugh was a disillusioned romantic. Graham Greene wrote that ‘he is a romantic in the sense of having a dream which failed him’: his first marriage, the war, even in the end his Church, turn out to be illusions. So instead of becoming an English Montherlant he falls in love with the people he formerly satirised, thinks his country is being regenerated and then betrayed during the war, and is so reactionary a Catholic that an Irishman, Conor Cruise O’Brien, denounces him.

Indeed, the whole of his oeuvre has been read as an attempt to bolster his self-confidence. His critics declare that he wanted to be sure that he really was in with the upper classes and not, like Paul Pennyfeather at the end of Decline and Fall, once more drinking cocoa with Stubbs and listening to a paper on the Polish plebiscites; that everyone had stopped mocking him as a cuckold after his first wife had left him; that he was not, like so many of his fellow writers, an embusqué in some ministry or on some magazine, but an officer and a hero. Yet by the end of the war he knew it was not so. ‘It is pleasant,’ he wrote in 1945, ‘to end the war in plain clothes writing. I remember at the start of it writing to Frank Pakenham that its value to us would be to show us finally that we are not men of action. I took longer than him to learn it.’ Was this what led him to romanticise failure – the failure of Charles Ryder to get religion or to get Julia, the failure of Guy Crouchback to make his fellow officers see what the war was really about?

What is it, then, that makes Waugh a deviant in the history of our culture? Not, surely, that he was a man of the Right, an apologist for Mussolini and Franco. In the Thirties the majority of conservatives preferred them to Stalin; and recent events in Ethiopia make Waugh’s account of that country somewhat nearer the truth than the version of those who took what he said as an apology for Fascism. Nor even that he despised parliamentary politics. After all, the generation before his – Proust, Mann, Joyce, Lawrence, Yeats, Shaw and T.S. Eliot – despised democracy. Nor was Catholicism the mark of a deviant at a time when Belloc urged with some success that it was fashionable to convert to Rome. What made Waugh a deviant was not that he became a Catholic but that he became an Augustinian Catholic.

Orthodox Catholics by definition receive all the tenets of their faith, but even the saints betray their predilection for some part of it which each according to his temperament emphasises as supremely important. The clue to Waugh’s predilection is to be found in Decline and Fall, written before his conversion, where Mr Prendergast confesses to a very special doubt: ‘You see it wasn’t the ordinary sort of doubt about Cain’s wife, or the Old Testament miracles or the Consecration of Archbishop Parker ... No, it was something deeper than that. I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all.

Catholicism explained to Waugh why the world was as evil and horrible as it was. Catholicism explained the vile bodies in it. It also explained to him why he was evil and so often cruel and odious. Such questions still trouble us today. We have no difficulty in finding explanations why the world is so full of evil. We are less ready to find reasons why we ourselves are so disagreeable, so prone to rage, so full of conceit and self-gratification, so envious of other people’s success and happiness, so willing to cause unhappiness in order to give ourselves pleasure. Still, we manage to find reasons, and when things get bad the analyst is at hand. Most of us admit that, though we do not always act as we should, we have nevertheless a free will and by exercising it we can and should behave better, or, if that sounds too parsonical, live a more fulfilled or rewarding life.

Of course we know that there are limits to our powers. We are born with a certain temperament, and that temperament in turn is modified, by no means always for the better, by our upbringing and circumstances. If we try to change ourselves and bring our worse defects more under control, retribution follows. In so doing we lose some of our more attractive attributes such as spontaneity, gaiety, generosity. Indeed, the search for behavioural laws which explain the personality in terms of the unconscious, of instinctual drives and of social determinants comforts our generation because they eliminate personal responsibility, always a disagreeable and embarrassing attribute. And yet human behaviour cannot be described solely in terms of impulses, drives and delusions. There are those who believe that mankind is powerless and held in the remorseless grasp of the impersonal forces of history, economics and geography. But even such determinists accept some personal responsibility in day-to-day life. We know that we can to some extent control our actions. Infants learn to control the most primary actions of weeping, drinking and excretion, and in so doing the will plays its part. But why, if we are free, do we so often choose to do evil?

From earliest times men have tried to explain why this is so. One explanation is perennial. The Psalmist was among the first to use it. ‘It is he that hath made us and not we ourselves,’ runs part of a verse of the Old Hundredth (the name Waugh gave to one of his fictional night-clubs). Edward FitzGerald chose that verse for his tombstone, well-remembering the 12th-century verse he had translated from the Persian: ‘We are helpless: thou hast made us what we are.’ Henry VI wrote a prayer: Domine Jesu, qui me creasti, redimsti et preordinaste ad hoc quod sum: fac de me secundam voluntatem tuam ... Why, if God creates us and does with us what he wills – that is to say, predestines us to be what we are – why are we so evil?

No doctor of the Church gave a more authoritative and exhaustive answer to that question than St Augustine. In his great dispute with Pelagius he argued that the Pelagian doctrine of free will was just such as might be expected to have come from a monk ill-acquainted with the world. Pelagius put forward a liberal, common-sense view of free will. To Pelagius the world of nature was good because God had created it. Children were born good but generations of sinful parents made it very difficult for them not to sin. Yet anyone could, if only he made use of the free will God had given him, do good rather than evil.

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