Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Masterly Performance

The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh

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The forbears whom Evelyn Waugh affectionately described in his unfinished autobiography A Little Leaning were professional men as far back as the eye could see: clergymen (mostly Scotch divines in the earlier reaches of the pedigree), lawyers, doctors, soldiers. His own father, Arthur Waugh, was a publisher and a man of letters of a kind now extinct; his elder brother Alec became a popular novelist. They had to work to keep alive. So did Evelyn Waugh. After his comical adventures as a private schoolmaster he lived all his life by his pen.

He enjoyed precocious success with his first novel Decline and Fall (‘welcomed and over-rewarded early’ was Mr Pinfold) but although his five pre-war novels were admired and widely read they did not keep him in the style to which he was becoming accustomed, and they were inadequate to support a large family living in a large house. In 1945 he hit the jackpot with Brideshead Revisited. His subsequent books were what’s called well received (not highly praised enough in the case of the war trilogy, the greatest English fiction of the last generation) but they were surprisingly, as Mr Gallagher tells us in one of his linking introductions, a declining asset.

Meanwhile Waugh’s life had become still more expensive. There is a hair-raising passage in the Diaries which suggests that he was spending £18,000 a year in the mid-Fifties. Maybe that was in an aberrant year but it represents – what? – the best part of £200,000 in today’s money. That is the economic background to this fascinating and desirable book. For much of his life Waugh was continually looking for journalistic work to supplement his income. Mr Gallagher mentions fees paid, but could have given more detail still: money is the neglected but ever-interesting side of any writer’s life.

In the 1930s Waugh might expect to receive £20 or 30 guineas for a 2000-word piece in a glossy magazine, as they then weren’t called, which was handsome pay. On the other hand, reviewing books for the Spectator or the Tablet can scarcely have paid many bills. After the success of Brideshead he could command any sum he liked from American magazines but by a bitter irony penal taxation then made it barely worth his while. He was eager only for pieces which allowed him the luxury – privilege indeed under the Attlee Terror – of foreign travel. A decade or more later and he was once more looking for work, as money became scarcer.

This collection is not in fact ‘collected’ in the usual sense of being complete. Mr Gallagher describes it as being ‘“complete” in the sense that it is as comprehensive as the realities of publishing allow’, which is one way of putting it. He includes as an appendix a list of unpublished occasional writings which have not been included and while some of these were doubtless not worth reprinting, others whet the appetite: reviews in the lamented Night and Day (to have been the New Yorker of 1930s London until it was closed by an action brought against its film critic, Mr Graham Greene, under our infamous libel laws, by of all people the infant Shirley Temple) of Letters from Iceland or the ’George Sherston’ trilogy; post-war reviews of The Quiet American or of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Besides, those who buy this book, having already bought a short selection of Waugh’s occasional writings also edited by Mr Gallagher (Waugh would have been amused to find his posthumous literary reputation in the hands of an Australian don), might feel cause for complaint.

Enough. Here we have six hundred pages of the supreme English prose writer of his age, on subjects literary, religious, political, social, oenophilic. He did not become a great writer without effort. Despite the fireworks of Decline and Fall he found his feet slowly; some of the early pieces are stilted and mannered, especially since the role he had cast himself in was not so much enfant terrible as young fogey. But when he distorted his voice, the performance was masterly and masterful. ‘Mr Waugh is not a critic’, Mr John Wain once fatuously said in the course of a literary argument. What a marvellous critic he was, the reader will think, especially between his mid-thirties and his late fifties when the steam began to run out.

Some of the reviews are hatchet jobs, and brilliant ones: ‘At his christening the fairy godparents showered Mr Spender with all the fashionable neuroses but they quite forgot the gift of literary skill … to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.’ That has been reprinted before; I was delighted to find between hard covers for the first time the Court report which begins immortally: ‘No one who knows Mr Randolph Churchill and wishes to express distaste for him should ever be at a loss for words which would be both opprobrious and apt’; by describing him as a hack, the People had attacked him in ‘one of the rather few places in which he was entirely invulnerable’.

But although Waugh had a ferocious pen when he detected cant or overrated talent, the lasting impression is one of generosity. The image of a cantankerous old curmudgeon in his last two decades, largely of his own making, was quite untrue. Judge for yourself. Sir Angus Wilson’s first novel is ‘a singularly rich, compact and intricate artifact … a thing to rejoice over’; Mrs Sparks’s The Comforters is ‘an intensely interesting first novel’; Miss Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy appears from ‘a new writer of remarkable accomplishment’; Mr V S Naipaul has arrived from Trinidad ‘with an exquisite mastery of the English language which should put to shame his British contemporaries’. Almost as striking, he is kindly and chivalrous to the later Hemingway, as the poor old mangy lion – from whom Waugh when young had learned much – lay gnawed by the critical jackals.

He is always worth reading on political or religious subjects, more in a sense than he wished to be. Mr Gallagher perceptively quotes Swift as an epigraph: ‘Some people take more care to hide their wisdom than their folly’. Perceptively also, he points out that in certain telling respects Waugh was as much a ‘liberal’ as a ‘conservative’ Catholic. To be sure, he had no exaggerated personal respect for the clergy, as opposed to reverence for their sacred office. Part of that may be put down to – let’s call it ethnic disdain. It is possible to acquit Waugh, without excessive casuistry, of most of the usual charges of racial prejudice. But not of another. There is a bravura passage in his long essay ’The American Epoch in the Catholic Church’.

In contrast to the meek and insecure American Catholics of Latin or Slav descent, the Irish

present a precisely contrasting problem … to guard them from the huge presumption of treating the Universal Church as a friendly association of their own … In New York on St Patrick’s Day, among the green carnations first invented by the Irishman, Oscar Wilde, for quite another significance; in Boston on any day of the year; the stranger might well suppose that Catholicism was a tribal cult.

Instead of finding their destiny as the Catholic kingdom of the British Isles the Irish have crossed the Atlantic

where they have settled in their millions bringing with them all their grudges and the melancholy of the bogs … They have learnt some of the superficial habits of ‘good citizenship’ but at heart remain the same adroit and joyless race that broke the heart of all who ever tried to help them … It is one of the functions of an upper class to see that the clergy do not get above themselves … one can understand why there is a distinct whiff of anti-clericalism where Irish priests are in power … they have lost their peasant simplicity without acquiring a modest carriage of their modest learning.

The last sentences were altered in the originally published form and here seen as Waugh first wrote them; it would be interesting to see this book reviewed in the Irish Press or the Maynooth Review.

Assuming Waugh to be an exact social observer, I was surprised to read in ‘The New Rustics’ (July 1939) that the countryside was emptying of gentry to be replaced by writers, because ‘no one can live on the rent of a thousand acres. Nor, so far as I know, has any gentleman ever succeeded in farming his own estate at a profit.’ That has certainly changed. Elsewhere in the same essay he says that the weekly review is dying because ‘Editors and contributors must know one another well, meet constantly, share the same jokes and the same opinions. In the great days of weekly journalism they were in constant association, in public houses, clubs and in their homes. The paper grew out of their conversation.’ His shade may rest assured that the tradition is alive and drinking at the Duke of York.

In one youthful notice Waugh in effect admits to having read less than ten pages of a book he was damning; I have read all of this book with unflagging pleasure. Elsewhere he said that he reviewed books in order to praise those who need praise and to acquire books which he wanted to possess; that is one reason why I have reviewed this book, but the highest compliment is to say that I should have bought it anyway. 

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