Evelyn Waugh's Lost Rabbit

The late writer’s cousin and close friend offers a bittersweet recollection of a man whose powers of acid insight were at odds with his need to wall himself off from reality. Beneath the snobbery and satire lay “the sense of inexplicable doom.”

THE Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857

When the London Observer recently started to publish extracts from the Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, a television producer had a flashy idea. The first installments, relating mainly to Evelyn’s contemporaries at Oxford in the 1920s, had already achieved a succès de scandale. They conveyed to many readers the impression that the lives of those young men had been dominated by alcoholism and homosexual excesses. And who were those people? Some were titled. Many had become figures of national repute or notoriety. Others, identified only by initials and asterisks, were assumed, in some cases rightly, to be wellknown public men, with respectable characters to defend and hair-trigger libel lawyers to do the defending.

So why not, the television man thought, approach as many as possible of the survivors of Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford, bring them together, fifty years on, in a suitably Waugh-world setting such as a private dining room at the Savoy Hotel where, overlooking the Thames, they would lunch luxuriously and chat reminiscently for the enlightenment of viewers?

There were times when the producer must have recalled George Jean Nathan’s warning to playwrights that a great idea for a play is not necessarily an idea for a great play. Two or three of those invited regretted they had to be in Ischia, Barbados, or the Hebrides on the suggested date. Others made cautiously elaborate stipulations about the guest list and the themes to be discussed. One, a former member of the government, repeatedly referred to by initial and asterisks, blatantly denied that he had ever had more than the most casual acquaintance with Evelyn, and would sue for slander anyone who said otherwise. Another, who at first had been willing, cried off when I chanced to mention that I understood the program was to be entitled Vile Buddies.

What with one thing and another, only five of us sat down to talk—“intimately and informally,” we were urged—as the television lights probed our faces hopefully for whatever traces of dissolute living might still mark them and thus make more real to the viewers the Oxford of the Diaries. In his volume of autobiography, A Little Learning, published in 1964, Evelyn wrote. “It seems that now, after the second war, my contemporaries [at Oxford] are regarded with a mixture of envy and reprobation, as libertines and wastrels.” All present at the Savoy lunch were conscious that publication of the Diaries had reinforced that opinion. Several postures of self-defense were visible. And some were clearly trying to recall whether life had really been so uninhibitedly libertine as that.

I have forgotten most of what we all said, but I recall that Tom Driberg, a Labour M.P. and prominent character in the Diaries, interrupted some statement I was making to remark, “Of course you know that Evelyn always spoke of you as ‘my mad cousin Claud.’ ” This probably lowered my credibility with the viewers, but it was true, and agreeably illuminating of Evelyn’s attitudes.

He dubbed me “mad” because I lived, except during Oxford terms, in Budapest. This, as an awkward incident of life, seemed to him explicable, given that my father was in the foreign service. My madness consisted in taking the politics of Central Europe seriously. At our first meeting he said to me, puzzled: “You talk as though all that were quite real to you.” His attitude toward what he unaffectedly referred to as “abroad” was only slightly caricatured by Mr. Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall. Mr. Pennyfeather thought that Love was like Abroad inasmuch as if people had not happened to read about them both they would have no interest in either. Since in Evelyn’s view England, a partially imaginary England, was the center of the world, all un-Englishness, such as finding Abroad real, was, in the literal sense of the word, eccentric: slightly, in fact, mad.

But mad or not, a cousin was a cousin, and he took family relationships and obligations seriously. Just how seriously I realized for the first time one morning as we sat in his rooms in Hertford College, looking at the rain, drinking whiskey against the enervating climate of Oxford, and listening to intrusive sounds of patter and thump from the rooms above. The rooms, Evelyn explained, were those of his enemy, the dean of the college, whom Evelyn, as a blow in the feud, accused of having sexual relations with his dog. “Now he’s raping the poor brute. And at this hour in the morning.”

“No hope,” I said, “of it being just a faulty vacuum cleaner?”

“No, no. You don’t know that man as I do. It’s him, no doubt of it. How I pity that unhappy dog.”

The depression of the climate having momentarily counteracted the cheer of the whiskey, I fell to lamenting my financial condition. Evelyn, a year senior to myself, lectured me gently on my improvidence. I had, he pointed out, made the mistake of not buying enough, on account, from tailors, wine merchants, booksellers, and others. He suspected that when they sent in bills which were beyond my means to pay I had panicked, sought to economize, stopped buying. His own debts were greater than mine: but he kept the creditors quiet in the traditional Oxonian manner of the day by simply ordering more and more goods.

“Naturally,” he said, “living abroad you couldn’t know about that. And how much do you urgently need?”

I said I thought I could make do with two hundred pounds—a small sum today, but worth in those times at least four times its present value.

Evelyn suddenly brightened.

“If that’s all it is,” he said, “stop worrying. You must get it from my brother, your cousin Alec.”

I said, “But.” I reminded him that I scarcely knew Alec; had met him briefly when I was a schoolboy and he a young soldier on his way to the Western Front of World War I. How, five or six years later, could I suddenly write to him asking for a loan of two hundred pounds?

Evelyn stiffened with an air of surprise and shock such as might be provoked in a priest by a seminarian disclosing ignorance of an article of faith.

“But my dear Claud, he’s your cousin. Of course he must lend you what you need.”

“How, if it comes to that, do I know he has two hundred pounds ready to lend me?”

“Of course he has two hundred pounds. He writes for the papers—magazines. People publish his books. He makes money out of writing.”

In the Oxford of the day, that last was a serious charge indeed. It implied vile philistinism, betrayal of all artistic principle. Evelyn, who had feelings of warm affection for his brother, regarded him in this respect the way a delicately nurtured girl might have regarded an elder sister who made good money as a whore. One still was as fond of her as ever. Probably she had done the best she could. But the least she could do was to use the money for the benefit of worthier, finer members of the family.

It has from time to time occurred to me that some assessors of the works and career of Evelyn Waugh are inadequately aware of how potent, how absolute that way of thinking was when he was nineteen or twenty and at Oxford.

Resuming his lecture, Evelyn soon convinced me that it was not only my right as a cousin but my literary duty to get these two hundred pounds from Alec. I would be doing him a good turn by giving him a chance to act in a cousinly way and simultaneously devote to a good cause money got by sordid means.

“You must write immediately.”

I did so. And. under the influence of Evelyn’s eloquence, my tone was peremptory.

Alec’s reply was a brief, courteous, and complete refusal. Reading it calmly by myself I found it natural enough. Why should Alec lend such a sum to a person whose existence he had certainly forgotten in the years since he trained as a soldier at Berkhampstead?

But at the disappointing news Evelyn became first rigid in incredulity, then vehement in outrage. He had a need and a capacity—later vividly displayed in his novels—to see the details of life and human behavior exemplifying the clash of general beliefs and tendencies, virtues and vices, as in a morality play. He felt now, and so stated, that his own brother had monstrously identified himself with Evil. He had not only callously spurned the obligations of family relationship. He had not only for years betrayed the cause of literature by making money with his writings. He had even refused to mitigate this offense by handing over a small part of his gains to a more deserving and scrupulous person. For although neither I nor Evelyn had at that time published anything other than a couple of small contributions to school or university magazines, it was Evelyn’s conviction that we were writers, artists, in the true sense of the word, which could by no means be said of Alec. We had offered that hardened hack a chance to pay out conscience money. He had neglected the opportunity.

“That bald-headed lecher.” said Evelyn sternly, “needs a lesson in how a gentleman should comport himself.”

Alec in his mid-twenties was, in fact, prematurely bald. Evelyn had picked up somewhere, and pretended to believe, the theory that excessive sexual activity caused a man’s hair to fall out. Alec, living the normal life of a reasonably successful young writer in London, had, I suppose, the normal number of love affairs. Evelyn, whose attitude to women was at that time ambiguous, often veering between romantic passion and alarmed contempt, chose to regard his brother’s way of life as vulgar, at the best crudely bourgeois. This estimate seemed confirmed by the fact that Alec had a cozy apartment in, I think, Kensington or some equally bourgeois district. In any case, no garret.

Following the refusal of the loan, the lesson in gentlemanly comportment was quickly organized. Evelyn and a couple of friends took to making trips to London for a purpose described as “mocking Alec.” They spied on Alec and dogged him. Sometimes they would be lying in wait just as Alec and some young woman got out of their taxi. They would then rush forward shouting, “Boo to Alec the bald-headed lecher!” Once, according to Evelyn, they hid just outside the windows of the apartment, waited until the girl was reclining on a couch while Alec lowered the lights, and then burst in with their offensive slogan.

“Alec’s women,” Evelyn said, “are the kind apt to be rendered frigid by anything unconventional.”

Much later, he wrote of Oxford in his day that “it was a male community. Except during Eights Week girls were very rarely to be seen in the men’s colleges. The late train from Paddington was by tradition known as The Fornicator, but it was not much frequented for that purpose. Most men were well content to live in a society as confined as it had been before the coming of the railway, and to indulge in light flirtations during the vacations and deep friendships during the term.”

This situation, particularly the deep friendships, naturally caused a lot of loose talk among outside observers. Learning that this kind of talk was harming the interests of a club we belonged to, Evelyn characteristically exerted himself to rebut it. The club was the New Reform. It had been financially founded by Lloyd George, who desired to mobilize the youth of Oxford in the interests of his own wing of the Liberal Party and wreck the old Liberal Club, which supported the Asquithian wing.

Lloyd George, so astute in all other matters, had a strange belief that young men, particularly upper-class young men, were ingenuous and naïve. On letting it be known that he was thinking of releasing substantial sums of money from his secret funds for the purpose of founding a club in Oxford, he was pleased to note the simpleminded, idealistic enthusiasm for his brand of Liberalism displayed by several of the undergraduates who at once hurried to see him. The young men said they felt that such a club was what was needed to regenerate the political life not only of Oxford but of England. They indicated their readiness to dedicate themselves unstintingly to such a cause.

They did not have to ask the indelicate question, “How much?” because, unknown to Lloyd George, they had already found out approximately how much he was ready to put up. It was a lot. Some of these ingenuous and naïve young men immediately started to spend it on obtaining and fitting out commodious club rooms in the center of Oxford, hiring a good chef, and buying the most expensive champagne, this being then sold to members at half price. “To encourage the old boy,” as one of the founders put it, a part of Lloyd George’s money was secretly used to bribe members of other political clubs to join the New Reform. “No political obligations, of course. Just a question of showing L.G. that the club’s a worthwhile investment.”

With all these inducements, the club soon became a lively social center, frequented mainly by people who, even if they chanced to be aware of the difference between Lloyd Georgian and Asquithian Liberals, were certainly not going to be of much political use to either.

There were, inevitably, nasty moments when some sneak would report to Lloyd George that he was wasting his money: membership of the club, such reports said, was largely composed of men who had no intention at all of furthering his interests and were a pretty raffish lot anyway. Coincidentally with one of these nasty moments, two elder statesmen of the Lloyd George faction happened to be in Oxford—I think in connection with some University business. One of them was a former Cabinet minister, the other a grim leader of Lloyd George’s still large Welsh nonconformist following. Naturally enough they lunched at the New Reform. Someone suggested to Evelyn that their real business in Oxford was to spy upon the club and estimate the worthiness of its members to enjoy Lloyd George’s subsidies.

On being introduced to them after lunch, during which his indignation at their supposed objective had been fueled by at least a bottle of that excellent champagne, Evelyn addressed them sternly.

“I hope,” he said, “that you and your leader have not been listening to any slanders brought to you by prurient talebearers concerning the club at which you are at present being entertained.” He went on to refute, at some length, any allegations that might have been made regarding frivolity, lack of serious purpose, or excessively high living among its members.

“I have even,” he said, “been told that ill-wishers have sought to suggest that this club is a meeting place of homosexuals. Let me tell you gentlemen that there is hardly a man in this room who does not have a complete orgasm every time he passes a woman in the street,”

The former Cabinet minister took offense because he supposed this was some oblique, satirical jibe at Lloyd George’s own sex life. The nonconformist leader was shocked for more obvious reasons, and both walked out of the club, no doubt to report adversely on its tone.

In his unfinished autobiography, Evelyn describes and documents on several pages the political ignorance and indifference of himself and most of his contemporary friends. He was unaware, for instance, of the Greco-Turkish war, the advance of the Turks across Asia Minor, and the threat of a new world war. “So little did I follow the news that at the beginning of one term I blithely greeted a man in Balliol with what seemed a pleasantry: ‘I suppose all your sisters were raped during the vacation,’ to which the sad and candid answer was simply: ‘Yes.’ For he came from Smyrna.”

To Evelyn, Smyrna and Budapest, the Middle East and Central Europe, were about equally far from the natural center of things, equally difficult to consider as realities. To read or hear about them was to him like reading a review, or listening to some film fan’s account, of a picture one had no wish to see: not, certainly, a picture it could possibly be important to see or have seen. And this more or less contemptuous indifference to serious political events was almost equally evident when the events occurred not Abroad, but at Westminster or in the coalfields, cotton towns, and shipyards of Great Britain.

Older people, whether deploring or excusing such an attitude, agreed in attributing it simply and conveniently to what was called the “aftermath” of World War I. A lot of readers of the Diaries have offered the same explanation of the Oxford atmosphere of the period. Several guests at that Savoy lunch explained the frivolous goings-on of Evelyn and his contemporaries by depicting them as a natural reaction of young men brought up amid the horrors and austerities of the war years, a joyous acceptance of the blessings of peace together with a conviction that since it was the serious old politicians who had got the world into that mess, they and their policies were not worth bothering about.

It is an easy-to-serve piece of instant explanation, with some ingredients of truth. But it is a distortion, and one that could be bewildering to any person anxious to understand the lives and works not only of Evelyn Waugh but of a whole range of the young Oxford intelligentsia of his time. For it obscures the realities of that war’s traumatic effect upon that generation.

Nobody is surprised by evidence of that trauma in the writings and attitudes of those young intellectuals who fought in the war and survived it. It is to be seen in innumerable novels, memoirs, and poems published in England in the middle and late 1920s. And, as many comments on the Waugh Diaries show, there is a wide assumption that the characteristic central fact about young men of Evelyn’s age is that they escaped the war. Nobody born in England before 1912 escaped the war. Evelyn and his Oxford friends were not killed or maimed in it. And in that there was, naturally, cause of relief and even rejoicing. But you cannot grow up in a period during which nineteen thousand of your fellow countrymen are shot dead a few miles from your classroom on a single day and escape conscious or subconscious effects. That particular day was July 1. 1916, at the battle of the Somme. By the end of 1918 all the British dead numbered three-quarters of a million. Of his schooldays in 1917-1918 Evelyn recalls, “The boys in authority were too young, the masters too old. Everything was of necessity a makeshift—the clothes we wore, the food we ate, the books we worked with, the masters who should have taught us. We were cold, shabby and hungry in the ethos not of free Sparta but of some beleaguered, enervated and forgotten garrison.” And those direct, material impacts of the war were less deeply traumatic than the intangible, pervasive smog of gloom, frustration, reiterated horror shot through with lunatic hopes, which seeps into the lungs of everyone living through a war like that.

The effects remain in the aftermath.

There were certainly loutish types who, unaware of their own conditioning in their childish war years, really did proclaim that the thing to do was to forget the bloody war and have fun. They too suffered, without knowing it, from the trauma of the war. And they were responsible for the coarseness, triviality, and insensitivity which were such marked features of the British upper and middle classes during the 1920s.

But such was by no means the attitude of Evelyn and the majority of his friends, though, one must say, even among them there was a thickskinned lout here and there. But for sensitive young men of Evelyn’s generation—the generation that had, by the skin of its teeth, escaped the carnage of the Western Front—there was no sense of escape, of relief, or of painless return to the imaginary normalities of Edwardian and early Georgian days. Their emotional attitudes were better, and significantly, expressed by Father Rothschild in Vile Bodies when, in the midst of a hilarious party scene, he spoke to the ludicrous Prime Minister Outrage of the war to come and the shadow it cast upon the youth of the day. The whole comedy of Vile Bodies is played against a backcloth prophesying doom, and its climax pre-views the squalid catastrophe of a Second World War.

Vile Bodies was not written until several years after Evelyn’s time at Oxford, and the pre-viewed catastrophe was another few years ahead. But nobody who knew Evelyn at Oxford and in the years immediately following could be unaware of the sense of inexplicable doom to come which so oppressed and strained that sensitive young man, driving him to many extravagances very shocking to his father and some of the elders among his acquaintance.

I never kept a diary, but I did write occasional notes recording sharp impressions made upon me by events or personalities. After my first encounter with Evelyn, I wrote that my cousin, whom I found immediately attractive and stimulating, suggested, with his eager, challenging, yet bewildered stare, a boy who has just been told simultaneously that his pet rabbit has been lost, but that on the other hand it is known for sure that there is a pirate’s cave full of treasure somewhere in the garden if one can only find it.

I did not at the time understand the exact nature of the rabbit. Later, the shape and appeal of the creature emerged with increasing clarity from Evelyn’s novels and, in its most clear definition, from A Little Learning. Like all such largely imaginary creatures, it changed shape from time to time according to the moods and needs of its owner. In its simplest form it was the England in which Evelyn believed himself to have existed as a child. That cleaner, greener land of his exclusive recollection and compulsive imagination bore little resemblance to the England of unprecedented and as yet unparalleled StÜrm und Drang, in which, by 1914, syndicalist revolution and civil war were but narrowly averted by the outbreak of the international conflict.

Later, the rabbit grew in size and symmetry. During its struggle for preservation in the mind of its original owner, it grew finer fur, longer ears, and taught itself to roll and flash its eyes. That little patch of old England which Evelyn partly knew, and partly invented, became identified with religious and spiritual values: ultimately with civilization.

Any creative artist so vigorous, so dedicated to the techniques and purpose of his art, as Evelyn was, is impelled to seek to impose a pattern upon apparent chaos. It was a peculiarity of British education at that period, and of the general situation of Britain between the wars, that the patterns, the lines to be drawn against chaos, were, in the thinking of most young men, grotesquely limited. To my fellow students in Budapest, so unreal to Evelyn, it would have seemed incredible that there could exist a place such as Oxford where, for instance, Marxism had been barely heard of. That did indeed appear to them an unreal dream world. Whether Marxists or anti-Marxists, Catholics or Calvinists, they, after defeat and civil war, saw the world and the possible patterns of the world in quite other terms than those visible to the dominant intelligentsia of Oxford. They saw more possible locations for the pirates’ treasure than Evelyn could possibly envisage.

This sense of England, simultaneously sharp and even ludicrously undeveloped, produced that flamboyant snobisme which so often startled, amused, or offended observers. He grew to identify England with the British upper class, and the upper class {more and more rigidly restricted to the Roman Catholic section of the upper class) with civilization.

These fantasies may have been in part the result of a peculiar social insecurity from which he seems to have suffered at an early age. At the age of fifteen he would walk all the way across Hampstead Heath in a snowstorm to mail a letter in order that it should bear the Hampstead postmark rather than that of Golders Green. There was a mailbox a couple of hundred yards from his home in Golders Green. But, at least at that time, Golders Green was deemed grossly, laughably inferior, as an address, to Hampstead.

News of such procedures by my then unknown cousin naturally amazed me, and I asked questions. I was given a strange explanation. I was told that Evelyn, from sources unknown, had somehow acquired the notion that his mother, a connection of the Cockburn family, had, as the saying went, “married beneath” her when she wed Arthur Waugh, who, if one faced facts, was nothing more or less than a publisher: a man in trade. Even then I found it difficult to see how the Cockburn family, half of whom had for a hundred years been coining money out of the port business, could be regarded as so aristocratically superior to people who tried to make some money out of publishing.

Preposterous as the whole notion may today appear, I am inclined to think that this absurd report of some kind of mésalliance really did affect Evelyn as a boy and thus fueled the snobbery which was evident at Oxford and became obsessive in his later life. Evelyn was not attracted by money or power. Indeed, as parts of Brideshead Revisited indicated, the merely rich and the merely powerful increasingly repelled him. He saw them as barbarically inimical to truly civilized standards and values. He was continuously attracted and stimulated by people who, however lacking in other qualities, could be seen by the light of his eager imagination as embodiments of an aristocratic civilization and elegant traditions.

This snobbery was feverish. Like a fever, it could have contrary effects. It could heighten his satiric awareness of the nuances and the absurdities of the peculiarly English type of class-ridden society under his observation. It could also (see Brideshead, passim) lower his vitality and enfeeble his powers of observation to the point where his vision was clouded by a ludicrous sentimentality: the naked emperor appeared very smartly dressed.

His ostentatious, self-dramatizing rejection of reality required, in middle life, an equally ostentatious symbol. He found it in the form of an enormous ear trumpet. He must, I suppose, have had it specially custom-built. For although in shape and general design it resembled the ear trumpets depicted in Victorian cartoons, it seemed larger than any ear trumpet anyone had ever used before. Whether he was in fact slightly deaf, or even deaf at all, I never knew. If he was, he could have fitted himself out with some unobtrusive modern aid to hearing. But an instrument of that kind would not have suited his book. For the function of the ear trumpet was not simply to assist hearing. On the contrary, it was to emphasize and portray, in an unmistakable physical manner, the laborious difficulty its owner had in understanding any communication the modern world might be seeking to make to him.

It was both an advertisement of his personal attitude, a form of rebuke, and a weapon. I once saw it thus used, inflicting terrible wounds. My recollection of the occasion is one of the last memories I have of Evelyn, for I saw nothing of him during the latter part of his existence as the ghost of an eighteenth-century squire in the west of England. He had come to London to attend some very high-toned literary lunch or dinner. The guest of honor and principal speaker was some pompous statesman, a member, I think, of the Cabinet, with unjustified pretensions as a scholar and writer. It was understood that he was going to use this feast as the vehicle or sounding board for a major pronouncement on the future ol civilization or something of that kind. Evelyn, as we drank before lunch, had already spoken to me of “that fellow” with aversion and savage opprobrium.

The chairman’s table was richly garnished with celebrities, literary, artistic, and political. But as the meal progressed, the attention of the couple of hundred guests was increasingly concentrated upon Evelyn and his gigantic ear trumpet, which was by some means clamped to his head, leaving his hands free for the business of eating and drinking. The movements of the instrument, as Evelyn turned its gaping mouth this way and that to catch the words of whoever might be addressing him from one side or another, or from across the table, were fascinating and nearly hypnotic.

The chairman spoke briefly, and the trumpet seemed to be devouring his words. Then the guest of honor rose to speak, with all the confidence of a man who had won much acclaim for wit, Wisdom, and polished oratory. The receiving end of the trumpet was trained upon him. He had been speaking for perhaps a minute when Evelyn was seen to be unscrewing the thing from his head. He removed it from his ear, placed its great bulk on the tablecloth in front of him, and sat gazing intently at his plate. The guest of honor could have dealt easily with some rude heckler. But the gesture with the trumpet utterly dismayed and discomfited him. He stared at the contraption with incredulity. He paused and slightly stammered. Probably for the first time in decades of public speaking, he lost the thread of his discourse. His pronouncement to the nation rambled almost incoherently. The reporters present stopped taking notes. He sat down after speaking for less than half the time allotted to him. As he did so, Evelyn picked up the trumpet and began adjusting it once more to the listening position. □