The Cruel Wit of Evelyn Waugh

"Charity 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.

Dear Madam,

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).

Yours faithfully,

Evelyn Waugh

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 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.

But if this preposterous project has become a fixed idea with the man & you would like to see me, by all means come....

Osborne 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."

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 "Bron."

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 minutes."

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 misery."

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 humor:

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 disastrous.

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.

Years 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.

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.

Finally, in 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."

This great 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.

Waugh 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.
—Nathan Deuel