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The Cruel Wit of Evelyn Waugh
April 11, 2003
harity requires that one
forgive Waugh," argues Christopher Hitchens in "The Permanent
Adolescent," his essay on the author in the May Atlantic, "precisely because it was his innate—as
well as his adopted—vices that made him a king of comedy and of tragedy for
almost three decades."
Waugh was, in Hitchens's words, a
"celebrated misanthrope and an obvious misogynist" who was
"capable of alarming and hateful bouts of anger and cruelty toward
friends, children, and colleagues." Aside from his cruelty, Waugh was known for his biting wit, his snobbery, and his disdain for the modern
world. Yet, as several writers for The
Atlantic have attested, it was precisely
these unpleasant characteristics that made Waugh a great writer. Articles over
the past half-century reflect an attempt to reconcile his bitter character with
his brilliant writing.
In "Evelyn Waugh Faces Life and Vice Versa" (December 1966), John Osborne described his
experience with the ornery Waugh two decades before, when he'd been called on
to smooth the author's seemingly permanently ruffled feathers.
In the mid-1940s Life magazine had proposed a series of photographic
essays, to be composed of Waugh novel excerpts accompanied by pictures. It
wasn't until several months into the project, however, that it occurred to the
magazine to contact the author. The task of gaining Waugh's permission fell to
a researcher in London. In a letter seeking Waugh's cooperation, she described
the project's scope as "monumental," but Waugh didn't see it quite
the same way.
Editors then assigned the challenge
to Osborne, the chief correspondent in London for Life and Time.
In response to Osborne's opening letter (Waugh preferred to communicate by post),
the novelist wrote,
I have read your
letter of yesterday with curiosity and re-read it with compassion. I am afraid
you are unfamiliar with the laws of my country. The situation is not that my
cooperation is desirable, but that my permission is necessary, before you
publish a series of photographs illustrating my books. I cannot find any phrase
in your letter that can be construed as seeking permission.
You say: "without
consulting you the project will be like blind flying." I assure you that
it will be far more hazardous. I shall send a big blue incorruptible policeman
to lock you up and the only "monumental" work [your staff] is likely
to perform is breaking stones at Dartmoor (our Zing Zing).
I am sure it is not your
fault & that you are being bothered by some boss in the United States. Take
heart; he has forgotten about it already. I was once a journalist for seven
weeks & I know about bosses. They are volatile creatures.
accepted Waugh's rather half-hearted offer and spent a delightful weekend at
the author's home in Gloucestershire, England, where he recalled having a
"handsome lunch" and "productive conversation." Most
memorable about the visit, perhaps, was Waugh's pet pig, Glory, which Waugh
spoke of with great pride and, in Osborne's words, "a fondness which, so
far as I could discern, the pig did not requite."
But if this preposterous
project has become a fixed idea with the man & you would like to see me, by
all means come....
The photography project
was dropped, but the contact did lead to the publication in Life of an essay in which Waugh proposed to cage and
maintain the English aristocracy, as animals in a zoo, for the edification of
the republic. Osborne sent Waugh a copy of the article with a selection of
letters written in response. "Thank you for 'Life' and the extracts from
correspondence," Waugh wrote. "It is a sad thing that these simple
illiterate immigrants should have been taught to read. They clearly do not
understand a word of the language."
Waugh's disdain was not reserved
for strangers. Writing a memorial to Evelyn's son Auberon, a well-known
columnist in England until his death in January 2001, Geoffrey Wheatcroft
studied the father-son relationship and observed that Evelyn—though talented
and funny—was a cruel father with a complex, heartbreaking influence on
Evelyn once described a day-long London excursion with Bron as a "day
of supreme self-sacrifice," during which the exhausted author endured
"vast quantities of toys" bought at Harrods. Hearing Bron call
the day in London "a bit dull," Evelyn exploded to his wife,
"That is the last time for some years I inconvenience myself
for my children. You might rub that in to him." A year later, when Bron was six years old, Evelyn deemed
Bron's behavior good and sent him to boarding school as a reward. Evelyn told a
magazine that he saw his children "Once a day for ten, I hope, awe-inspiring
Even when Auberon was an adult and
had become an acclaimed author in his own right, Evelyn had little kind to say.
The success of Bron's first novel, Evelyn wrote, was "gratifying" but
"undeserved." And things did not improve as Evelyn aged. Wheatcroft
explained, "Waugh was choleric and unstable for
most of his life, and ... the ten years before his death, at sixty-two, were a
At the beginning of Waugh's final
decade, Charles J. Rolo observed in "Evelyn Waugh: The Best and Worst"
(October 1954), that Waugh's antipathy for the world seemed to provide
inspiration for his satirical writing—writing that worked best when tempered
by humor. Rolo conducted an inquiry into the Waugh mystique, considering how
the author could hate modern society so thoroughly yet capture it so perfectly.
Rolo surveyed Waugh's close
friends, and discovered one who commented that Waugh grew more old-fashioned
every day, and that the secluded author confined himself to a lonely
"oasis." Waugh himself said he was 200 years behind the times. The
author, Rolo noted, refused to drive a car, and insisted on using an ancient
pen that required continual dipping into a jar of ink.
But Waugh converted his distaste
and detachment into trenchant farce. He was able to observe "manners and
social types," Rolo explained, "with a dazzling accuracy." But
there was always the danger that his wit could become too harsh and his satire
too bitter. Waugh, he advised, should not forget to balance his critique with
The artist who
repudiates the realities of his time must of necessity either work in the
ironic key, as Waugh did in his earlier novels which transmute repudiation into
blandly destructive laughter; or, if dissatisfied with a negative criticism, he
must offer alternatives to the status quo which can be taken seriously. But
when Waugh abandons the detached stance, when he seriously articulates his
opinions and attitudes, the results are often distressing, and sometimes
later, in "Evelyn Waugh: The Height of His Powers" (March 1972), L. E. Sissman considered World War II's effect on
Waugh's ability to balance the comedic and tragic. Sissman's essay suggested
that the awesome historical forces at play during the conflict created the
perfect milieu for Waugh's eccentric, critical viewpoint, which came to its
fruition in the novel Put Out More Flags.
The paradox, in fact, is
that when Waugh is being comic, he makes luminous the failures of his age,
confronts us vividly with the desolating realities; and when he is being
serious, he is liable to become trashy. For without the restraints of the
ironic stance, his critical viewpoint reveals itself as bigoted and rancorous;
his snobbery emerges as obsessive and disgusting; and his archaism involves him
in all kinds of silliness.
In it, at the very height of his powers, Waugh somehow
fuses the savage, deadly comedy of his earlier books with the ominous
seriousness of his later ones. The abrupt and arbitrary rises and falls
in his earlier characters' fortunes recur in Put Out More Flags, but here they are seen not as the operation of the
author's whims but as a logical—or illogical—consequence of the war,
itself a consequence of Waugh's upperclass characters' failure to deal
effectively with Hitler in the thirties. In other words, this is the first of
Waugh's novels to relate his people directly to history, to the worldwide
consequences of their actions and omissions.
the article "A Maverick Historian" (February 2001), Penelope Lively
suggested that as Waugh wrestled with war and its effects his wit remained
sharp but was bolstered by a more serious sensibility. Waugh's Sword of
Honour trilogy, she argued, reflects an
author profoundly shaped by the war. "The satire was there, the irony,
the caustic wit, but laced now with an elegiac melancholy," she wrote.
"Waugh recognized that World War II was the great watershed for twentieth-century Britain."
change in the political and social circumstances set in motion by war forced Waugh
to recalibrate his writing. "He was profoundly mistrustful of the society
emerging after the war," Lively wrote, "and lamented what he saw as
the passing of the aristocracy's traditional values." Waugh's genius lay
in his ability to observe how the world was changing and capture its passing,
even as he mourned it.
Fifty years ago British
society was polarized in a way that is hard to conceive of now: there were two
nations, in terms of how people lived and of how they perceived one another.
Waugh evoked that vanishing world and nailed its assumptions, its prejudices,
its mysterious fault lines, with everything that his characters say and do.
fought in the war and set down his experiences in a series of diaries, from
which he drew many of the details in the Sword of Honour trilogy. Yet for the novels Waugh removed himself—and the "tetchy and combative" personality that his wartime
companions complained about—from the story.
He stood aside, the grand manipulator conjuring order out
of disorder and finding significance in apparent chaos. It is an
approach that interestingly reflects that of an odd kind of historian—defiantly biased, unashamedly selective of evidence.... There is a sense in
which fiction with as grand a sweep and as idiosyncratic a voice as Waugh's has
to be seen as a maverick aspect of historical writing. When I want to hear
Britain of the 1940s, I go to these novels—the finest work of fiction in
English to emerge from World War II.
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Nathan Deuel is a new media intern for The Atlantic. He
is the co-founder of Six
Billion, an online magazine of narrative journalism.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.