Even as George Orwell was dying, in 1949, he continued to wrestle with the last book review to which the life of the freelance hack had condemned him. Dogged to the final deadline, he also made some more-general notes about that novel's author. The book was Brideshead Revisited, and the author was Orwell's exact contemporary, whose centennial is also being observed this year. We now have Orwell's fragmented, unfinished comments on Evelyn Waugh, and they certainly infuse me with a strong wish to have been able to read the completed essay.
Within the last few decades, in countries like Britain or the United States, the literary intelligentsia has grown large enough to constitute a world in itself. One important result of this is that the opinions which a writer feels frightened of expressing are not those which are disapproved of by society as a whole. To a great extent, what is still loosely thought of as heterodoxy has become orthodoxy. It is nonsense to pretend, for instance, that at this date there is something daring and original in proclaiming yourself an anarchist, an atheist, a pacifist, etc. The daring thing, or at any rate the unfashionable thing, is to believe in God or to approve of the capitalist system. In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was jailed, it must have needed very considerable moral courage to defend homosexuality. Today it would need no courage at all: today the equivalent action would be, perhaps, to defend antisemitism. But this example that I have chosen immediately reminds one of something else—namely, that one cannot judge the value of an opinion simply by the amount of courage that is required in holding it.
This manuscript peters out after a few more shrewd paragraphs, and is succeeded by some cryptic notes on Brideshead:
Analyse "Brideshead Revisited." (Note faults due to being written in first person.) Studiously detached attitude. Not puritanical. Priests not superhuman ... But. Last scene, where the unconscious man makes the sign of the Cross. Note that after all the veneer is bound to crack sooner or later. One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up.
Conclude. Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.
Tantalizing as this may be, in conceding that moral courage may be shown by reactionaries or good prose produced by snobs, it does not make the leap of imagination that is required to state the obvious: that Waugh wrote as brilliantly as he did precisely because he loathed the modern world. Orwell identified "snobbery" and "Catholicism" as Waugh's "driving forces," and so they were. But the first of his miniature masterpieces, Decline and Fall, was composed before Waugh joined Holy Mother Church. It contains a piece of absolutely hilarious rudeness and bad taste, directed at one of the world's most innocuous minorities—the Welsh.
"The Welsh character is an interesting study," said Dr Fagan. "I have often considered writing a little monograph on the subject, but I was afraid it might make me unpopular in the village. The ignorant speak of them as Celts, which is of course wholly erroneous. They are of pure Iberian stock—the aboriginal inhabitants of Europe who survive only in Portugal and the Basque district. Celts readily intermarry with their neighbors and absorb them. From the earliest times the Welsh have been looked upon as an unclean people. It is thus that they have preserved their racial integrity. Their sons and daughters rarely mate with humankind except their own blood relations. In Wales there was no need for legislation to prevent the conquering people intermarrying with the conquered ..."
Much of the remainder of Waugh's iridescent first novel is imbued with the same breezy, heartless spirit, which recurs memorably in Black Mischief, Scoop, and The Loved One. And most of the delicious elements that were his hallmarks are present from the beginning. There is an innocent abroad; one might call him Candide if the Voltairean association were not obtuse. There are many ancillary characters who act without conscience and don't mind admitting it, and who don't seem to suffer in consequence. (The awful subtexts of Decline and Fall are pederasty and prostitution, and I remember being quite astounded when I was first introduced to the novel, at the age of twelve, by a boarding-school master who later had to be hastily taken away.) There is a fine English country house that is threatened with decay or demolition—in this instance the Tudor mansion King's Thursday, to be ravaged by a Bauhaus barbarian.
That last observation prompts another—namely, Waugh's familiarity with the outlines of the emerging modernity that he came to detest. Aesthetically he was one of the earliest to register the effect of T. S. Eliot and The Waste Land. In Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Blanche reads the Tiresias section of that poem through a megaphone; the title of A Handful of Dust is annexed directly from one of Eliot's more ominous stanzas (the whole stanza appears on Waugh's title page).
This brings us eventually to the matter of Roman Catholicism. In Decline and Fall, Waugh treated all devotional matters as the raw material of farce. But the concept of a capricious cosmos was already jostling in his mind with the notion of original sin. Thus, in that book a little boy named Lord Tangent (the son of Lord and Lady Circumference: Waugh both ridiculed and revered the nomenclature of English nobility) is grazed by a bullet during a sporting event, is reported as having had his foot turn black, and is subsequently said to have suffered first amputation and then death. All this is deadpan, callous humor, most of it offstage, as if Waugh half believed in those Fates that animated Greek drama and did not stop to explain themselves. As his work progresses, however, dreadful outcomes seem to be connected to a warped idea of divine justice. Basil Seal, in Black Mischief, doesn't actually know that he is eating his old girlfriend at a cannibal repast, but it's in the ironic nature of things that he should be dining in this way. In Brideshead, Sebastian Flyte squanders his beauty and charm on alcohol and indigence, and eventually in masochistic self-sacrifice, because he has been rashly fleeing the vocation for the priesthood that his elder brother would have so humbly welcomed.
Waugh was not a mere propagandist, and we would not still be reading him if he had been. The ends that he reserves for the meek and the worthy and the innocent are condemnations of the worldly and the vain, as surely as in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, but they are also highly diverting for their own sake. William Boot, in Scoop, is given a thorough drubbing by reality the moment he risks leaving the shelter of Boot Magna Hall, his bucolic den. Tony Last, in A Handful of Dust, is a doomed man once he agrees to give up his country seat of Hetton and embark on a venture of overseas exploration. The element of what we glibly call noir is a fluctuating one: both Boot and Last (cobbler's names) are treated with extraordinary cruelty by the women they love, but the outcomes are arranged along the spectrum between pity and terror. Waugh's mastery is most often shown by the light flick with which he could switch between the funny and the sinister. And the delicacy of this touch is shown by the breathtaking deftness with which he handled profane subjects. I have already mentioned that the gross pedophilia of Decline and Fall is so artfully suggested that an adolescent might read it unawares. And many adult reviewers of Brideshead have somehow managed to describe it as a languorous evocation of the "platonic" nature of English undergraduate affection.