A Maverick Historian

Rarely has comedy of manners been so artfully infused with pathos as in Evelyn Waugh's recently reissued Sword of Honour trilogy: "the finest work of fiction in English," our author argues, "to emerge from World War II"  

On October 6, 1940, Evelyn Waugh made an entry in his diary that will puzzle and dismay readers accustomed to the celebratory view of World War II presented in, say, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation: "The most valuable thing is to stop the fighting and working part of the nation from thinking." The tone is of course ironic, and indeed, this passage is at odds with the bulk of Waugh's wartime diaries, which are stylistically immediate and purposeful, a narrative of what happened to Waugh—when, where, and how. But at this point he paused for some acid comment: "War will go on until it is clear to thinking observers that neither side can hope for victory in any terms approximating to the hopes with which they started. Fighting troops are not thinking observers." Hence the need, according to Waugh, for those in command to make sure that subordinates had neither the time nor the inclination to ponder their circumstances.

Waugh's war diaries are a cynical, sometimes gleeful chronicle of muddle. They are also the raw material from which would spring his most powerful and telling fiction. The recently reissued Sword of Honour trilogy, consisting of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and The End of the Battle, was originally published from 1952 to 1961. Waugh was by then an established novelist, known for such stringent satires as Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and his other work of the 1930s, and for Brideshead Revisited—all of which are far better known in the United States than Sword of Honour, his masterpiece. As they were published, the works making up this new opus struck a different chord: the satire was there, the irony, the caustic wit, but laced now with an elegiac melancholy. Waugh recognized that World War II was the great watershed for twentieth-century Britain. He was profoundly mistrustful of the society emerging after the war, and lamented what he saw as the passing of the aristocracy's traditional values and the ascendance of what would come to be called the meritocracy. Sword of Honour is an extended fictional discussion of morality and incipient social change expressed through a gallery of vivid characters who reflect the chaos of war.

The central figure is Guy Crouchback, the son of one of those ancient English Catholic families for whom the sixteenth century has only just happened. The three novels follow his wartime career and adventures from West Africa to Yugoslavia to Crete to London's clubland—a progression that almost precisely mirrors Waugh's own. But the ascetic, troubled Guy is hardly Waugh, who was using his own experiences as inspiration for an opinionated and savagely satiric meditation.

The war calls the tune throughout the trilogy. Its convolutions move the main characters around like pieces on a chessboard and enable Waugh to manipulate a large cast with marvelous dexterity, whisking satellite figures out of sight and then producing them with a flourish when the reader has almost forgotten their existence. The picture of army life is one of anarchy and opportunism, the daily triumph of expedient behavior. A central thread is the career of the dreadful Trimmer, an arriviste hairdresser who first appears as Guy's fellow trainee and subsequently turns up having engineered his own promotion to high rank through a combination of luck and chutzpah. Personal negotiation and the fortunes of war are inextricably intertwined. In Crete the chaotic and catastrophic evacuation of British forces is an occasion for the miserable disintegration of a seemingly noble officer to be set against the sinister progress of a soldier intent on saving his own skin at all costs.

The war episodes have their own rhythm, as does the common wartime experience: long spells of boredom punctuated by passages of terror. Waugh varies the broader rhythm within the novels as well, alternating periods of hectic military activity with dips into civilian life to expand his commentary on the society of the day—primarily that of his own world, the masonic enclave of the upper middle class spilling over into the chic bohemia of the literary scene. A lurid event in West Africa, in which the one-eyed Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, one of Waugh's most enduring creations, returns from a reconnaissance patrol clutching the dripping head of an African sentry, contrasts with interludes in which Guy consorts with old friends and tries to persuade his ex-wife, Virginia, to sleep with him at Claridge's.

Guy's is a cloistered world of privilege, based on the certainties of the pre-war British class system and fortified by economic circumstances. The army into which he is flung mimics that society, but with the rug pulled from under its feet. The hierarchies are still there, the pecking orders, the assumptions about rank and entitlement. But the vagaries of war mean that all this can be undermined and eroded. The proletarian Trimmer owes his advancement in part to a public-relations exercise with the United States, which makes it expedient to field him as "the new officer which is emerging from the old hidebound British Army." Though deeply satiric, Waugh's earlier novels were nonetheless sympathetic toward the hedonistic world he knew. Sword of Honour continues in this vein somewhat, with characters suited to previously established themes. (Mrs. Stitch, who was famously based on the society beauty Lady Diana Cooper, first appeared in Scoop [1938] and trips in and out of the wartime series as well.) But here Waugh trained his lens primarily on a doomed system—those charmed lives and that unquestioned privilege in the cataclysm of war and the social upheaval it generated.

Waugh was not, of course, without partis pris. His particular pieties, and his fierce adherence to that world of privilege, may seem archaic or even incredible today, but his intent was to bear witness to a time and to a society. Other novelists might have put a different spin on that scene, but Waugh was the master of the very English kind of fiction—practiced by Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis, William Cooper, and, in a subsequent generation, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge—that discusses serious matters with a light touch.

Thus Trimmer is essentially a ludicrous figure—brash, amoral, and impervious to the opinions of others. The scenes in which he appears are always tours de force of ironic exchange, as he pursues his own ends despite the amused contempt of Guy or Virginia, for whom Trimmer develops an unlikely passion. But there is a grim inevitability about Trimmer's rise; he is the symbol of that very victory of another order which Waugh feared and anticipated, the rise of the meritocracy that was taking place in postwar Britain as he wrote the trilogy. Trimmer enabled Waugh to have fictional fun and display his dazzling gifts for characterization, but he is also the embodiment of themes at the heart of the trilogy: change and decay, the victory of cleverness over integrity. In a final twist, Virginia and Guy remarry, but the son Virginia bears—the Crouchback heir—is Trimmer's child.

This use of social comedy to make succinct points about morality or about a particular climate of opinion gives Waugh's writing its edge. When Waugh served up a character like Ritchie-Hook, who has the mental outlook of an aggressive schoolboy, a penchant for practical jokes, and a single-minded devotion to violence ("I'd like to hear less about denying things to the enemy and more about biffing him"), he was also pointing up the way in which the artificial community that is an army allows such exaggerated figures to break cover.

The concept of honor is not labored but subtly wound into the apposition of characters and conduct. The sword in question is the Sword of Stalingrad, made by order of King George VI as a gift to "the steel-hearted people of Stalingrad" and solemnly displayed in Westminster Abbey in 1943; but Waugh, of course, presented this public celebration of "the triumphs of 'Joe' Stalin" with cynicism. For his purposes honor resided in moral integrity and was epitomized by Guy's elderly father, a deeply committed Catholic whose quiet decency serves as a foil to the self-serving opportunism displayed by others. The scheming of two hotel proprietors, a couple seizing on the money-making possibilities offered by the wartime shortage of accommodations, is contrasted with Mr. Crouchback's self-denial and generosity: "Somehow his mind seems to work different than yours and mine," the husband remarks, oblivious to the irony.

Mr. Crouchback's conservatism is the old-fashioned ethic of noblesse oblige. Guy's brother-in-law, Arthur Box Bender, symbolizes the new Tory: he is unlikely to oblige anyone unless it serves a useful purpose or is politically expedient. The subject of politics is not addressed, per se, in the trilogy, but the political changes of the day inform Waugh's story. Waugh wrote these novels after the Labour election victory of 1945. It was perhaps because the votes of ex-servicemen were instrumental in sweeping Labour into power that he focused on the socially upending nature of the army. To Waugh's jaundiced eye, a legion of Trimmers was on the move in postwar Britain. The opening up of British society—by way of educational opportunity, above all—meant that a cast-iron system of privilege was now dismayingly porous. Anyone could become anything, and soon would.

The practical effects of socialism, and the horrors thereof, were a favored middle-class topic of discussion in the late 1940s. I was growing up then, and as a child of the times, Iwondered why everyone behaved as though having to wash our own dishes were equivalent to a sentence of penal servitude. But Waugh's disgruntled perception of postwar Britain went beyond outrage at domestic inconvenience. The welfare state and equality of opportunity seem to have represented for Waugh the death blow to all that he considered sacred: the certainties of hierarchy, the entrenchment of certain standards. Waugh's was a perverse vision, and to anyone of liberal tendencies—indeed, to any democratically minded person—distinctly off-putting, but his genius lay in making this vision beguiling.

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. The coterie at Guy's London club subtly derides the air marshal who aspires to membership: he is not of proper birth. Fellow officers in Guy's training corps are elegantly defined by their speech and behavior: one knows immediately from which stratum of society they come. The circles of society were Waugh's stamping grounds; he knew that world intimately, he was in tune with it, he was sympathetic to it—but his close identification manifested itself in fictional treatments that were pungently ironic.

The pillaging of personal experience can give Waugh's fiction a flavor of the roman à clef. To read his wartime diaries alongside the trilogy is to find parallels again and again; whole episodes in the trilogy—for instance, a scene in which trainee officers are instructed in the purchase of meat and how to distinguish cat from rabbit by the number of ribs—were lifted from the diaries. Taken together, the diaries and the novels demonstrate how a novelist tweaks and grooms reality into something more structured and coherent than life as it is lived. Waugh selected, distilled, and enriched his raw material, trawling his wide acquaintance to furnish the cast but then refining and polishing to create the heightened mood and action of fiction. This strategic adjustment of reality is the process of inflation and conflation summed up by Ivy Compton-Burnett: "People in life hardly seem to be definite enough to appear in print. They are not good or bad enough, or clever or stupid enough, or comic or pitiful enough."

Waugh's tetchy and combative personality made him a difficult companion at arms. His reputation with fellow officers and superiors was shaky. A laconic editorial footnote in the diaries quotes a letter from a commanding officer: "Nobody wished to have him ... he was the cause of constant trouble." But what Waugh effectively did, when it came to the fictional translation of his experience, was to bleach himself out of the picture. The trilogy records what he saw and heard and did, but he himself is not here. 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. And choice of evidence is of course the perquisite of the novelist. Nevertheless, 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.