January 28th 2017

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COVER STORY Company tax proposal just made for Trump

EDITORIAL Trump installed but the left refuses to accept it

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens' footprints all over travel claims

U.S. POLITICS Team Trump to implement new President's agenda

INTELLIGENCE Lame report on Russian interference in U.S. poll

ENVIRONMENT The scientific myth within the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

EUTHANASIA Case for assisted suicide "not made": Daniel Mulino

OPINION Submission is the fit word, Tim, not humility

OBITUARY WA loses NCC founding member, Frank Malone

GENDER POLITICS Safe Schools Coalition versus child safe schools

RURAL LIFE Sandalwood a balm for forgotten farmers

MUSIC Swing low and deep: it don't mean a thing if it don't have that

BOOK REVIEW The tyranny of the offended

BOOK REVIEW Not quite perfect but worth a revisit

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Not quite perfect but worth a revisit

News Weekly, January 28, 2017


EVELYN WAUGH: A Life Revisited

by Philip Eade


Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London
Paperback: 432 pages
ISBN: 9780297609483
Price: AUD $35.00

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb


Reading this fine biography reveals Evelyn Waugh as a brilliant and learned prose stylist whose work has outlasted his age, comparable only perhaps to that of Evelyn Waugh’s friend and contemporary Graham Greene. Both were converts to Catholicism, but feeling pious about either of them is difficult, particularly for Waugh.

This biography, written with the cooperation of the Waugh family, marks the 50th year since the passing of Evelyn Waugh. Although it does not intentionally seek to do so, it throws light on some of the mysteries surrounding the great man’s life. The book is not a literary biography; those expecting a critical account of his works will be disappointed.

Great men are not always good men; or, to be more specific, good all the time. That is too much to expect of any man, especially one as fallible as Waugh. Waugh, notably, never was the recipient of a royal honour. It is said that he was offered a relatively minor honour but refused it as beneath his dignity. As is the convention in such cases, he was never offered any subsequent honour.

To put him in Australian terms, Waugh was a bit of a ratbag. That is to say, he was not really a bad man, but frequently disagreeable and something of a troublemaker. Besides his amorous adventures, he would quite often become so inebriated that it would take him the best part of a week to recover from his hangover.

Evelyn Waugh was born in 1903 in Hampstead, then an outer suburb of London. He was hardly bred to the purple. On his father’s side, Waugh had few ancestors of distinction. His mother had aristocratic connections, which do not seem to do Waugh much good apart from giving him an elevated conception of his status in life.

Waugh’s older brother Alec was a writer of some distinction but not on the same plane as Evelyn. Alec was the apple of his father’s eye; Evelyn was an also ran who craved the affection lavished on his elder brother. Evelyn was hardly even regarded as a member of the family by his father. This neglect hurt the young Evelyn badly.

Boarding school commenced at a young age and was mostly horrible. Evelyn did, though, win a scholarship to read history at Oxford. He rewarded that august institution by doing virtually no study. He graduated with a lower Third; a polite fail, in other words.

Waugh spent most of his time at Oxford drinking and partying. The major controversy of his Oxford days involves his relationships with other male students. Waugh, like most English males of his social strata, had virtually no connection with females. Relations with women were not natural. His relationships to other men seem to have been a series of what we today would call “bromances”.

Despite his laxness as a student, Waugh was a man of obvious talent for whom perceptive critics predicted great things – they were correct.

He had a great depth of talent. His Essay on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (privately printed in 1926) and Rossetti: His Life and Works (Duckworth, 1928) demonstrated a breadth of learning that belied his lack of application at Oxford. Decline and Fall (Chapman and Hall, 1928) and Vile Bodies (Chapman and Hall, 1930), the first two of his satires, lampooned the Bright Young Things of the Jazz Age.

However, his satires were not always welcome. Waugh both loved and loathed America. His satire on the American way of death in The Loved One (Chapman and Hall, 1948), ridiculed the attempt to remove mortality from the mortuary process in Southern California.

Although Arthur Waugh was by no means an aristocrat, his son Evelyn aspired to be a member of the English Upper Crust. Arthur had worked for a publishing house and derived a large proportion of his income from reviewing books. He earned a good income, but he was by no means well off in any meaningful sense of the word.

If Evelyn Waugh was a member of the Upper Crust, it was the doughy underside. He was one of the Bright Young Things who danced – or drank – the Roaring Twenties away.

Few doubted that Waugh had talent, or even charm, but he exercised neither of them consistently. His writing was always good, even on unpromising assignments, as the Penguin commemorative pocket extract, The Coronation of Haile Selassie (Penguin, 2005), taken from Remote People (Duckworth, 1931), demonstrates. This special edition was intended to showcase the best authors Penguin has published over the years.

Moreover, Waugh was far from being a coward. Take, for instance, Waugh’s years of service during World War II. He was noted for his courage in the face of hostile fire. Contrary to popular belief, his men did not hate him and he was not removed from active command because the Army feared his men would kill him. Waugh treated his men fairly and they responded well. His fellow officers, on the other hand, had no time for Waugh’s drunkenness and insults.

Waugh did not have, as the British say, “a good war”. He did escape from Crete, one of the war’s great disasters in the Allied cause, with his reputation intact. His expedition to the Balkans, however, was spent mainly sparring with his old antagonist, Randolph Churchill, son of Winston. Waugh, to his everlasting credit, did warn against backing Tito’s partisans, who were executing clergy and their opponents rather than engaging the Nazis. Waugh, from all impressions, did really want to do dangerous and adventurous things, and indeed constantly sought them out, though with little success. He was by no means a coward, he just wasn’t a soldier.

Controversy rages over whether Waugh was intemperate and insulting. One cannot doubt that, especially when in his cups, he was extremely hurtful. As he was often drunk, he offended the sensibilities of many people, most commonly his friends. When it came to the lower classes, such as the domestic help he employed when he had the money, he treated them very well, indeed, even with some affection.

Waugh made his way in the world by dint of his own talent; although he could be charming, he often couldn’t be bothered with the effort. He didn’t like being part of the “county set” and usually avoided invitations from his neighbours to visit their stately homes. Yet, on the other hand, occasionally it was hinted that Waugh was a “castle creeper”, something of an up-market social climber – he did seem to have a talent for scoring invitations to stay for weeks at a time when he was working on a new book.

Houseguests at chez Waugh say that he was a considerate host, even if he did have a few tricks up his sleeve.

Waugh was a convert to Catholicism. He was sincere in his faith and his faith seemed to make him a better man. Protestant denominations often place great emphasis on traits such as temperance and sobriety, whereas Catholicism makes allowance for the fact that men are not perfect. Waugh was not always what one would call a nice man, but he was sincere in his beliefs. His faith seemed to offer him great solace. The Second Vatican Council perturbed him greatly and he retained his adherence to the Tridentine Mass.

If one broadly defines Waugh’s oeuvre into history, satire, travel, autobiography and novels, one must say that his novels seem likely to find a lasting place in the modern literary canon. The Sword of Honour trilogy, (Chapman and Hall, 1965) based on Waugh’s wartime experiences, is one of the best works of fiction set in the turmoil of World War II. The Sword of Honour trilogy has the ring of veracity. Few soldiers are great writers and few writers are great soldiers. Waugh was, by all accounts, a brave soldier, even if his war record was undistinguished.

One could not neglect Waugh’s magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (Chapman and Hall, 1945), in any discussion of his works. This is the most Catholic of all his novels. It is also the most concerned with the aristocracy and male bonding, and the operation of God’s grace in the world.

Brideshead Revisited has been dramatised many times, most notably in the 1981 British television series, which was very faithful to the book. Whether the central male relationship in the television miniseries between narrator Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) and Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) is homosexual in nature is not really relevant to the central themes of the novel. The novel was also brought to life in a 2005 film.

Brideshead Revisited has been hailed many times over the years as one of the most outstanding novels of the modern era. It was a bright light in the dreary post-war Atlee dictatorship.

The last words Waugh wrote were: “We live in a dark age. I cannot hope to see it lighter.” Evelyn Waugh died on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1966. Following his funeral, a full Requiem Mass was held at Westminster Cathedral, where special dispensation was obtained for the Mass to be said in Latin.

Obituaries paid tribute to “the precision of his prose, his wildly comic invention and unique satiric stance, while also recording his deep aversion to the modern world, his staunch Catholic apologetics and his reputation for misanthropy and snobbery”, Eade records.

However, his family felt the obituaries neglected the more humane side of his character, as demonstrated by the many letters of condolence. Graham Greene, for example, described him as “a loyal and patient friend” and said: “As a writer I admire him more than any other living novelist and as a man I loved him.”

Waugh is one of the few writers active in the first half of the 20th century whose work will endure. Waugh avoided the stolid diet of social realism that dominated the dreary landscape of post-war English literature.

Waugh looked to higher things: to a compassionate Deity who works in this world; and to a social system based on reliability and order.

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