God’s Curmudgeon: The Irascible Evelyn Waugh

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We have a running joke in the offices of America that there are certain personalities whose every utterance or deed requires magazine coverage. Whether it’s Bruce Springsteen, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor or Thomas Merton, you can’t go more than a fortnight without mentioning at least one. Our poetry editor, Joseph Hoover, SJ, wrote a parody about it for April Fool’s Day a few years ago, then about a week later ran a story about Bruce’s Catholic imagination.

It was only recently that I discovered that our ancestors were no different; but their Bruce Springsteen was Evelyn Waugh. From the first mention in America in 1931 from the “brilliant young novelist” who had become a Catholic the year before until, well, I mentioned it in this space three weeks ago, the guy was never far from the spirit of Americathe contributors.

Since the first mention in 1931 of “the brilliant young novelist” who had become a Catholic the previous year, Evelyn Waugh has never been far from the minds of Americathe contributors.

Shortly after Waugh Brideshead revisited was published in 1945, Harold C. Gardiner, SJ, AmericaThe literary editor at the time hailed the novel as a “deeply Catholic work” despite the prominence of adultery, intellectual pride, and debauchery in the plot. In the same issue, Gardiner also published a lengthy essay attacking criticism of Waugh in the secular press. He came back to the theme a week later, then again a month later, and… you get the pattern.

It continues to this day, as many other authors – with frequent America contributors like Jon Sweeney, David Leigh and Joshua Hren among them – offered their take on the great novelist and satirist. Another dated but still relevant article appeared in America on April 10, 1993, entitled “Portrait of the artist as a Christian traveler”. Written by John W. Donohue, SJ, Associate Editor of America from 1972 to 2007 (yes, you read those dates correctly), the article mentioned Waugh’s short stories, travelogues, essays and biographies, but largely focused on his 14 novels.

“Taken together,” Donohue wrote, “these novels constitute a work of such perfection that Graham Greene, in a memorial notice after Waugh’s death, called him ‘the greatest novelist of my generation’.”

1946; 1993; 2020: How can the same author be praised over so many generations? Especially one who has never earned bonus points for being nice, or even decent? As Joshua Hren noted in his 2020 essay for America, Waugh “had a propensity for cruelty”, to say the least. When asked by his friend Nancy Mitford how he could be so terrible to others while claiming to be a Christian, Waugh replied that “if he weren’t a Christian, he would be even more horrible…and of anyway would have committed suicide years ago. ”

Graham Greene, in a memorial notice after Evelyn Waugh’s death, called him “the greatest novelist of my generation”.

Waugh, born in 1903, arrived on the English literary scene at the age of 25, with his first novel (after two non-fiction essays), the satirical Rise and falland became a commercial success with his second effort, vile bodies (1930). He was educated at Oxford, although, according to Waugh himself, his main interests at the time were parties and siestas. “I don’t work here,” Donohue quotes in a letter to a friend, “and I never go to Chapel.” In 1928 he was married to a woman also named Evelyn, causing his friends to call them “Evelyn and She-velyn”. The marriage fell apart within a year, as She-velyn began a romance with one of Waugh’s friends, and it was called off years later.

In 1930 Waugh became a Roman Catholic, writing to his friend (and longtime interlocutor) Martin D’Arcy, SJ that he had realized that “the Roman Catholic Church is the only authentic form of Christianity”. Waugh was a pretty big name after vile bodies was published that his decision made headlines in London newspapers. He later described his reception into the Catholic Church as “like walking through the chimney piece of a mirror world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world that God has created; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it without limits.

His novels from then on retained their satirical side (Waugh too), but also became more religious in theme; Waugh argued that his fellow modernist fiction writers sought “to depict the human mind and soul as a whole while omitting its defining character—that of being God’s creature.” He remarried in 1937, to Laura Herbert (she was a cousin of She-velyn; British aristocrats, amirite?), and they had seven children, one of whom died in infancy.

After serving in World War II, Waugh settled into life as a full-time writer. Although he traveled extensively, he never learned to drive and refused to use the phone. His landmark novel was Brideshead revisited, whose commercial and critical success ensured Waugh’s financial security and made him all the more famous, but he also achieved some fame (and notoriety) in the United States for several stays in the United States and the scathing reporting that he did afterwards. He had a particular antipathy towards “fuckin’ Yanks”, whom he considered “barbaric, vulgar and lacking in tradition”, noted Joshua Hren in America.

In The loved one, sending Waugh down the nose of Southern California’s absurd burial customs, the protagonist finds himself “exiled to the barbaric parts of the world.” The British protagonist finds one positive trait in Americans: they “don’t expect you to listen to them”. Better yet, “Nothing they say is meant to be heard.”

Evelyn Waugh was a pretty big name after vile bodies that his decision to become a Catholic made the headlines in London.

This anti-American streak has tempered over time; Waugh eventually wrote more positive articles about the American church and donated the proceeds from the paperback version of The loved one to the American bishops. “We also forget how he mentored a young Thomas Merton in the late 1940s as wise editor of the British editions of two of the young Trappist’s books, including The seven-storey mountainwhich has been renamed Chosen Silence in England,” Jon Sweeney wrote in America in 2013. Waugh even wrote in a letter to a friend at the time: “It seems likely to me that American monasticism can help save the world.

In 2017, David Leigh reviewed Philip Eade’s biography of Waugh for America. He noted that Waugh’s later years were troubled by depression and family strife (Waugh once said, “I am very contentedly married. I have many children whom I see once a day for 10 minutes, I hope, impressive. A heavy drinker, Waugh had also become dependent on sedatives for sleep. During a trip to Ceylon in 1954, he suffered from what appeared to be a nervous breakdown (probably brought on by his drug use), an experience later fictionalized in the novel. Gordon Pinfield’s ordeal.

Another unfortunate development for Waugh was the Second Vatican Council, as he denounced the changes the council wrought in the Catholic Church. Even before the council had been long underway, Waugh had written open letters in 1963 to the assembled bishops (published in The National Review and The London Spectator) lamenting the planned revival in the church; he was particularly appalled by the notion of a “lay priesthood” promulgated by the council. His experience of the post-conciliar Church was also not happy: Shortly before his death in 1966, he wrote: “I have not yet soaked myself in gasoline and I have not caught fire, but I now cling to the Faith stubbornly without joy.”

He died on April 10, 1966, a few hours after Easter Sunday mass. A decade earlier, he had written the following to the poet Elizabeth Sitwell, his goddaughter, on the occasion of her reception into the Catholic Church: “I always think to myself, ‘I know I am awful. But how much more awful would I be without the Faith. One of the joys of Catholic life is to recognize everywhere the little sparks of good, as well as the fire of the saints.

“I know I’m awful. But how much more awful would I be without the Faith.”

•••

Our selection of poetry for this week is “In Copenhagen”, by Lisa Mullenneaux. Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.

In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this gives us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.

Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

William Lynch, America’s Greatest Jesuit You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The Catholic Faith (and Pessimism) of JRR Tolkien

Curé, sociologist, novelist: the many imaginations of Father Andrew Greeley

Leonard Feeney, Americathe only excommunicated literary publisher (to date)

Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life

Good reading!

James T. Keane

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