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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek

Evelyn Waugh

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  • 1 Aldous HUXLEY, Antic Hay, p. 133.

Order has been turned into a disgusting chaos. We need
no barbarians from outside; they’re on the premises, all
the time.1

  • 2 Evelyn Waugh, quoted by Frederick STOPP in Evelyn Waugh, Portrait of an Artist, London, 1958, pp. (...)

1Like Orwell, with whom he has more in common than first appears, Waugh denounces the deterioration of the English way of life and of English civilization, though he does so exclusively from a conservative point of view and is mainly concerned with the decline of the upper classes. His tone is also very different from that of Orwell’s mostly humourless criticism. As I have already suggested in my essay on Firbank, Waugh owes much to the latter as a satirist: he not only imitates his audacity and his detachment from the cruelty of life, he exploits brilliantly the form of dialogue initiated by Firbank and makes it the main instrument of his satire. Waugh himself wrote that satire could only flourish in a stable society: “It presupposes homogeneous moral standards – the early Roman Empire and eighteenth-century Europe.”2 The world he portrays is indeed without foundation, “a polished floor that revolves quickly” and from which people keep getting flung off. The African jungle is his favourite image to describe modern society, in his eyes a treacherous playground for savages and fools.

  • 3 Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, Penguin Books, 1962, p. 18.

2In Decline and Fall (1928) comic nonsense and fantasy bring to light the insanity which prevails in post-war society. The plot is presented with a maximum of economy and a studied will to shock. The hero, a product of the public-school and academic systems, is an innocent marked as a victim of the corrupt world into which he is unwillingly thrust. Paul Penny feather lets things happen to him; he “would never have made a hero, the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness.” (p. 123) Returning from a meeting of the League of Nations Union, he is “debagged” by members of the Bollinger Club, who are having their annual dinner and greatly enjoy being riotous and destructive, and as a consequence he is sent down for indecent behaviour. He becomes a schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle, where Dr. Fagan, a cynical but not too exacting headmaster, assures him that “he has been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal.”3 Paul falls in love with Margot Best-Chetwynde, the mother of one of his pupils, a millionairess who runs a chain of brothels euphemistically called “The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd.” She introduces him into Mayfair society and involves him in the white-slave trade without his knowledge. He is arrested on the morning of their marriage and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. He spends a few months in prison and is rescued by Margot, who arranges to have him sent to a nursing home headed by Dr. Fagan, M.D. After a mock-operation he is alleged to be dead and allowed to disappear from the social scene. He returns to Oxford and resumes his studies in theology.

3Paul’s incursions into various spheres of English society are so many encounters with the irresponsibility, amoralism, corruption or sheer madness discernible in many aspects of English life. Whether at Oxford, in an employment agency in London, in a public school in Wales, in a country house, a prison, or a nursing home, people act with the same carelessness and unawareness of the real implications of their actions. Paul’s experience with the Bollingers is only a rehearsal for his experience in the world: he is ill-treated under the eyes of the Junior Dean, who does not intervene because Paul is not important enough. Actually, the representatives of authority implicitly encourage the destructiveness of the Bollingers because of the highly prized port that is only brought up from the cellars when the college fines reach fifty pounds. Similarly, Paul is unjustly condemned and sent to prison, while Margot Metroland escapes punishment. Paul’s innocence and naivete contrast with, and emphasize, the outrageous behaviour of the other characters. On the other hand, his passivity and lack of insight into human character not only reveal the inadequacy of his education but also his incapacity to discriminate between good and evil. In a way, Waugh is more contemptuous of the people who, like Paul, stick to the rules without understanding them than of the rogues who deliberately defy society or disturb its order and get away with it.

4Though none of Waugh’s early characters is capable of a responsible, mature, or simply humane, attitude, some appear to have in his eyes a kind of saving grace which is not unrelated to the superb aplomb with which they take their pleasure in complete defiance of all moral judgment. Margot Metroland belongs to this category: beautiful, attractive, and rich, she makes the most of what life has to offer without troubling in the least about right or wrong. Very skilfully, Waugh provokes at once indignation and tolerance for the people of her kind. Yet she is an impostor like Grimes, Philbrick and Dr. Fagan. These characters’ success in life is proportionate to their impudence; no representative of traditional institutions, whether in justice, education, or religion, performs his task with integrity and a sense of responsibility. Grimes, an unscrupulous rogue, is “always in the soup”; yet he is never “let down” because he is an ex-public-school man. Philbrick is a swindler and a criminal who ends up as opulent as he has always pretended to be. Fagan, a cynical impostor on a grand scale, will do anything provided it is remunerative. He is twice an agent in Paul’s change of personality, once when Paul becomes a schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle and a second time when he presides over Paul’s mock-death. For both he and Paul this event is the beginning of “a new phase in life,” i.e., of another round of swindling for the one, of another period of dull and unrealistic initiation into life for the other.

5After his departure from Oxford Paul meets the same characters playing the same parts in different spheres of society: Llanabba Castle, Mayfair, Egdon Prison. Wherever he goes, inefficiency, madness and dishonesty prevail. Prendergast, the unhappy and unauthoritative schoolmaster, who left the Church because he had “doubts,” is seen at Egdon as the prison chaplain. His doubts are a source of disorder even in prison, where his incapacity to impose discipline lands him into trouble with prisoners as it did with pupils. By a cruel irony, his head is sawn off by a visionary maniac, a man who has appointed himself “the sword of Israel: the lion of the Lord’s Elect.” Philbrick imparts the news to Paul in chapel:

‘O God, our help in ages past,’ sang Paul.
‘Where’s Prendergast to-day?’
‘What, ain’t you ‘eard?’ e’s been done in.’
‘And our eternal home.’
‘Damned lucky it was Prendergast,
Might ‘ave been you or me!
The warder says – and I agree –
It serves the Governor right.’
Amen’ (pp. 183-4)

6The gruesome humour of the song leaves no doubt as to the way in which this piece of savagery should be interpreted. Prendergast’s weakness marks him as a victim. He had left the Church then gone back to it after discovering “that there is a species of person called ‘Modern Churchman’ who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.” (p. 141) Sir Lucas-Dockery, the governor of the prison, is a caricature of the modern reformist who applies literally and without understanding them the new methods of psycho-analysis. He is more concerned with the success of his method than with the welfare of the prisoners under his care and will blindly go to any length to prove his optimistic conviction that “almost any crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression.” (p. 177) He gives carpenter tools to the mystic criminal who kills Prendergast. The episode is turned into an inhuman farce which derides the lunacy, not of the inmates, but of those who are chosen to ensure the working of institutions. Clearly, it is a mad world which trusts a Fagan to educate its children, a Lucas-Dockery to see to it that criminals are fit to return to society, and a Prendergast to officiate as a representative of the Church. Yet each episode is treated with apparent levity and a non-committal fake-seriousness which demystify society as well as the people who take themselves seriously or distort the ideals they pretend to be serving. Society is a sham, which Waugh exposes with insolent gusto, bringing to light the disorder created by well-meaning incompetent fools. Scoundrels are not more harmful because they at least know what they are up to.

7The heartless and barbarous world of Decline and Fall is pictured with a disconcerting but calculated detachment which makes it all the more shocking. For instance, little Lord Tangent’s death is imparted without comment in four sentences:

Tangent was sitting on the grass crying because he had been wounded in the foot by Mr. Prendergast’s bullet, (p. 71)
‘Tangent’s foot has swollen up and turned black,’ said Best-Chetwynde with relish, (p. 94)
Everybody was there except little Lord Tangent, whose foot was being amputated at a local nursing-home. (p. 105)
‘It’s maddenin’ Tangent having died just at this time, ‘[Lady Circumference] said.’ People may think that that’s my reason for refusin’. (p. 149)

8These statements are a merciless comment on the negligence, the foolishness and the lack of compassion of those involved. Tangent’s death and Prendergast’s unheroic martyrdom are extreme consequences of a general unconcern. The Junior Dean who witnesses Paul’s “debagging” does not protest when he is sent down. Neither Margot nor Peter can be bothered about Paul’s unjust condemnation. Potts, Paul’s best friend, is the main witness for the prosecution at his trial and is even commended by the court for his unshakeable attitude. Paul takes this general callousness for granted. Apart from his youthful infatuation for Margot, he himself seems hardly capable of genuine feeling. He is not unattractive as a character because he is a victim who never retaliates, a convenient scapegoat. In the end he accepts Silenus’ definition of life as a game for a few privileged people:

‘You pay five francs and go into a room with tiers of seats all round, and in the centre the floor is made of a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly. At first you sit down and watch the others. They are all trying to sit in the wheel, and they keep getting flung off, and that makes them laugh, and you laugh too. It’s great fun.’ … But the whole point about the wheel is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to. People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they’ve got to join in the game, even if they don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t suit everyone….
‘Now you’re a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel, and you got thrown off again at once with a hard bump. It’s all right for Margot, who can cling on, and for me, at the centre, but you’re static. Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic. There’s a real distinction there, though I can’t tell you how it comes. I think we’re probably two quite different species spiritually. (pp. 208-9)

9Paul is also static in a different sense, for his experience in the world leaves him almost unchanged. He acquires a sense of humour, which is perhaps an indication that he understands a little better what goes on around him, but he behaves much as he did during his first stay at Oxford. He joins again the League of Nations Union and acquires a new friend called Stubbs, with whom he develops the same kind of relationship as with Potts. The only lesson Paul has learned as a future clergyman is to avoid Prendergast’s mistake. Order in the Church must be preserved at all costs, which suggests that social order should also be enforced if necessary:

There was a Bishop of Bithynia, Paul learned, who had denied the divinity of Christ, the immortality of the soul, the existence of good, the legality of marriage, and the validity of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. How right they had been to condemn him! (p. 212)

10Paul even condones intolerance for the sake of the established order:

So the ascetic Ebionites used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed. Paul made a note of it. Quite right to suppress them. (p. 216)

11Paul’s failure to achieve maturity is typical of Waugh’s pre-war heroes and no doubt implies that maturity and real understanding of traditional institutions are non-existent in contemporary society. The academic world is not more reliable than fashionable London. Lady Circumference’s moral code is a mere set of conventions and prejudices: though a representative of the landed aristocracy, she is not more aware of the values traditionally connected with her class than the newly-made peer Maltravers, who was born in a slum. Left to themselves the young drift into debauchery. Society is only a gathering of unattached individuals easily adaptable to any situation because nothing really matters. The reckless and shameless pursuit of excitement has become the only recognizable law, but it doesn’t lead to happiness; apart from Philbrick and Fagan all the characters are disenchanted, even Grimes, the “life force.” Margot regains respectability by marrying Maltravers, and takes Alastair Trumpington as a lover to shake off the boredom of her new married life. Her son, Peter, Waugh’s first Bright Young Thing, is disappointed in Paul and in his mother, who shows him the way to irresponsibility.

12In scene after scene madness, greed, irresponsibility and selfishness are displayed as normal behaviour in Church, in prison, at school, or among London fashionables. There is no room for reason or humaneness in this savage world. The opening scene at Scone is fairly typical of what happens in Waugh’s novels: the social élite destroy the symbols of culture and civilization, breaking a grand piano, smashing China, throwing a Matisse in a water-jug or destroying the manuscript of a poem. The novel ends, as it began, on the evening of the Bollingers’ annual dinner; they play their game of destruction with the same gusto as their predecessors. Yet, obviously, Waugh feels more sympathy for them than for the social outsiders who occasionally cross their path and whom he slightly despises for their tediousness, their lack of style and of charm. He combines satire of an unprincipled social élite with a hardly concealed admiration for them, which adds to the ambiguity created in his early novels by the absence of implicit standards.

  • 4 Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies, Penguin Books, 1955, p. 131.

13In Vile Bodies (1930) Waugh brings together three representatives of the country’s leading institutions, the State, the Church and the Aristocracy: they are Outrage, off and on Prime Minister, Father Rotschild, a Jesuit, and Lord Metroland, formerly Maltravers. They attend a party at Anchorage House and discuss the younger generation. All three show the same lack of concern and symbolize the stupidity, cowardice and deceit with which the old elude their obligation to guide the young. Outrage, an inefficient and inane politician, thinks that the young “had a chance after the war that no generation ever had. There was a whole civilization to be saved and remade – and all they seem to do is to play the fool.”4 Metroland approves of the younger generation for shirking responsibility and says that “If those young people can find a way to get on without it, good luck to them.” (p. 131) Only Father Rotschild understands the young; he rightly remarks that “they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence.” (p. 132) But he watches their antics tolerantly because he cannot be bothered and is more interested in political intrigue than in offering them guidance. As a matter of fact, the older generation set the worst example of unprincipled behaviour and viciousness. Mrs. Panrast, a Lesbian, is indifferent to the fate of her son. Lady Throbbing takes drugs; her son, Miles Malpractice, is a notorious homosexual, and her daughter works in South America for Margot Metroland’s “Entertainment Company.” The Duchess of Stayle marries off her daughter without the latter’s assent to a man she doesn’t love. Colonel Blount is a more attractive but not more reliable type. He refuses to help his daughter Nina and her fiancé, Adam Fenwick-Symes, to get married, but he lends his old country-house to a cinema company and gives them the major part of his fortune to make a very bad film. He very much enjoys tricking the young and leaving them to take care of themselves.

14These are the respectable people, whom the Bright Young Things try to shock into recognizing their own importance and to emulate socially. The young sometimes appeal to their elders for support, but they never get any help, for “the fine phalanx of the passing order,” who meet at Lady Anchorage’s with traditional pomp and a dignity which masks their corruption, do not take the young seriously enough to admit that they need help. While the old are at Anchorage House, the younger set attend a party given by Archie Schwertz in a captive dirigible. The party is the nucleus of the young people’s life, the symbol of their merry-making and escapism and the best means of soothing their fears. Indeed, fear is the underlying motive of their behaviour: the fear of solitude, of having to acknowledge one’s purposelessness or to face one’s inner confusion, the fear of being left out of the crazy round of pleasures and excluded from the happy few. The extravagant activities of the Bright Young Things is their way of seeking notoriety. The Honourable Agatha Runcible leaves 10 Downing Street in the morning in a Hawaiian dress and causes the Cabinet to fall. She telephones to all the newspapers to protest against customs officers who have mistaken her for a spy and searched her thoroughly. These officers act with the utmost lack of efficiency and intelligence. Margot Metroland, still a high-class procuress, is the only fashionable hostess who manages to entertain both the older generation and the Bright Young Things. She holds a reception for Mrs. Ape – the American revivalist Aimée McPherson – and sends some of her “Angels” to South America. Mr. Chatter-box, himself a Bright Young Thing, records the doings of these fashionables in the popular press; they make front-page news and reflect the public’s lack of discrimination between what is important and what is not.

15Vile Bodies is made up of disconnected episodes very much in the Firbank manner. There is a slender intrigue based on the attempts of a young writer, Adam Fenwick-Symes, to get enough money to marry Nina Blount. On his return from Paris, his autobiography is burnt by customs officers. He takes lodgings at the Shepheard’s Hotel and wins a thousand pounds from a young man simply by performing a trick. He gives the thousand pounds to a drunken major to be placed on a horse which is sure to win. For the rest of the novel Adam plays a sort of hide-and-seek game with the major but fails to recover his money. His unrealistic hopes that Nina’s father will help him are simply laughed off by the old man. So Nina marries a rich man, whom she immediately deceives with Adam. At the end of the novel Adam is seen on “the biggest battlefield in the history of the world.” He has lost his platoon and meets the drunken major, who pays him the 35.000 pounds he owes him in devaluated money. The major, now a general, has lost his division; with the sounds of battle far away, he seeks comfort in his car with one of Mrs. Ape’s “fallen” angels and a case of whisky “salvaged” from an officers’ mess.

16Like Paul Pennyfeather, Adam is an innocent who becomes a victim of his own helplessness and of other people’s stupidity and callousness. But he is not a mere shadow of whom the author is slightly contemptuous; rather, he is a slightly pathetic figure, a melancholy and incompetent young man. Moreover, he not only belongs to the fashionable set which the author satirizes yet at bottom sympathizes with, he is also the embodiment of that mixture of irresponsibility and anxiety which deters the people of his generation from action. He longs to marry Nina and believes that marriage must last, but he himself creates the obstacles to his marriage. He enjoys roaming about with the Bright Young Things and at the same time longs to escape from their inhuman world:

‘Adam, darling, what’s the matter?’‘I don’t know. … Nina, do you ever feel that things simply can’t go on much longer?’
‘What do you mean by things – us or everything?’ ‘Everything.’
Later he said: ‘I’d give anything in the world for something different.’
‘Different from me or different from everything?’
‘Different from everything. … Only I’ve got nothing …
what’s the good of talking?’ (p. 192)

17The only way is to go on attending more parties:

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’
(… Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties. Wild West parties, Russian parties. Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. … Those vile bodies …) (p. 123)

18This well-known passage is an eloquent comment on the feelings of the young about their endless search for pleasure. It expresses a resigned acceptance of things as they are as well as self-disgust at the acceptance and a hopeless conviction that nothing will change. The experiences of the Bright Young Things are either “sick-making” or “too shaming,” and their judgment on everything is “too bogus.” But life sometimes takes them at their own word and proves more cruel than they had expected. Flossie Duncan swings on a chandelier and kills herself. Agatha Runcible, irresponsible to the last and drunk with brandy and excitement, gets as spare-driver into a racing-car and crashes. Her nightmares convey a fairly realistic vision of the life of the Bright Young Things:

‘I thought we were all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop, and there was an enormous audience composed entirely of gossip writers and gate crashers and Archie Schwertz and people like that, all shouting at us at once to go faster, and car after car kept crashing until I was left all alone driving and driving – and then I used to crash and wake up.’ (pp. 187-8)

19Her friends organize a party in her hospital room and help to kill her off. Simon Balcairn, the descendant of a great English house, commits suicide because he is on the point of losing his job as a gossip writer and is humiliated at being told to leave Margot Metroland’s house. He puts his head in the gas-oven and in this undignified manner joins his forefathers “who had died at Acre and Agincourt, in Egypt and America.” These deaths are taken casually; whoever leaves the coterie is soon forgotten. Yet, however futile their association, it rests at least on a common feeling of insecurity and restlessness. In the end they are all dispersed: “‘How people are disappearing,’” Agatha exclaims shortly before her own death, and Nina tells Adam:

‘You know there seems to be none of us left now except you and me’
‘And Ginger’
‘Yes, and Ginger.’ (p. 206)

20Like Paul Penny feather, Adam hardly changes. His disappointment merely makes him slightly cynical. He sells Nina to Ginger in order to pay for his hotel bill. When Ginger is called up, Adam spends Christmas with Nina at her father’s as if he were her husband. He is on his way to becoming a Basil Seal.

21Vile Bodies recreates the atmosphere of Mayfair in the Twenties: The Bright Young People with their frantic “fureur de vivre” and their wish to establish their inconsequent behaviour as the normal standard of conduct are in fact “rebels without a cause.” They resent the leniency of their elders because it makes their provocative misbehaviour the more pointless, but they do not see what is wrong with their parents and have no positive values to oppose to the latter’s degenerate standards. This is a world of Firbankian frivolity and extravagance, in which lesbians, homosexuals and procuresses are accepted as the norm. Lady Throbbing and Mrs. Blackwater owe much to the corrupt centenarians of Valmouth, and the party given for Mrs. Ape recalls the party in honour of Sappho in Vainglory. However, Waugh does not giggle like Firbank at the eccentricities of his characters. He may some-times betray a partiality for them, but he is aware that their antics lead to catastrophe. “‘There is a radical instability in our whole world order,’” says Father Rotschild, “‘and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions.’” (p. 133) As a cynical warning against this possibility, the last chapter, entitled “Happy Ending,” takes place during a fictive total war. The world presented here is corrupt, dislocated and doomed to destruction: no moral or spiritual value, no culture, no tradition can survive the devastating action of stupidity, mock religiousness and cynicism.

22In Black Mischief (1932) the irresponsible follies of the Bright Young Things are becoming somewhat stale. The post-war generation are no longer so young, and many are dispersed; those who stayed and kept the game going for want of anything better to do have to go to a great deal of trouble to get some kind of excitement. They are bored with themselves, and the public is bored with them. Alastair Trumpington, who makes an appearance in most of Waugh’s pre-war novels, is married but not “settled.” He and his wife Sonia stay in bed while their friends hang around. The heyday of the party is over:

  • 5 Evelyn Waugh, Black Mischief, Penguin Books, 1961, p. 95.

‘No one asks us to parties now except Margot. Perhaps there aren’t any others.’
‘The boring thing about parties is that it’s far too much effort to meet new people, and if it’s just all the ordinary people one knows already one might as well stay at home and ring them up instead of having all the business of remembering the right day.’5

23The main scene of the novel is not London but Azania, an imaginary island off the East African coast. The two main characters, Basil and Seth, represent two different forms of barbarism, the one English, the other African. Basil is a cynical and unscrupulous adventurer for whom things have come to a crisis. With Alastair and Peter Pastmaster he has gone on a racket in the very constituency for which he was going to stand at the next election; naturally, he is asked to stand down. Like Trumpington and Pastmaster, Basil Seal belongs to a prominent English family: his late father was Chief Conservative Whip for twenty-five years; his mother is still a well-known and most respectable hostess. She is forever disappointed in her son, forever appealing to family friends to find some position for him, which he doesn’t even bother to take up. While he tells her that he is going to Azania and steals her emerald bracelet under her very eyes, she dreams of him as a respectable barrister. Basil treats everybody and everything in the same off-hand manner; actually, he is a gifted man capable of being as brilliant as he is dissipated; in the eyes of Seth, Emperor of Azania, he stands as “the personification of all that glittering, intangible Western culture to which he [Seth] aspire[s].” (p. 105) As soon as Basil comes to Azania, Seth makes him minister of information.

24Seth, “Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University,” has come back to his country firmly determined to modernize it. His grandfather, a famous cannibal warrior, had conquered the country from the Arabs and kept enough authority to avoid disorder and the establishment of a European protectorate. Seth must now assert his authority over the inland tribes; General Connolly is winning the war for him with the old weapons, “lies and the spear.” For the Emperor, however,

‘This is not a war of Seth against Seyid but of progress against Barbarism. And Progress must prevail. I have seen the great tattoo of Aldershot, the Paris Exhibition, the Oxford Union. I have read modern books – Shaw, Arlen, Priestley. What do the gossips in the bazaars know of all this? The whole might of Evolution rides behind him; at my stirrups run woman’s suffrage, vaccination and vivisection. I am the New Age. I am the Future.’ (p. 16)

25When Connolly comes back from the war with the news that the warriors have eaten Seth’s father, the latter dreams of educating them by the Montessori method. He is himself a product of an incongruous association of primitivism with civilization, at once subject to “the inherited terror of the jungle” and “desperate with the acquired loneliness of civilization.” He has a naive and stubborn faith in progress but does not understand its nature or even its purpose. With Basil’s help he launches a one-year plan of modernization and decrees the most extraordinary and self-contradictory measures, none of which can be constructive: “… ideas bubbled up withim him, bearing to the surface a confused sediment of phrase and theory, scraps of learning half understood and fantastically translated.” (p. 137) One of his decrees runs as follows:

For your information and necessary action; I have decided to abolish the following:
Death penalty. Marriage.
The Sakuyu language and all native dialects.
Infant mortality.
Inhuman butchery.
Please see to this. Also organize system of reservoirs for city’s water supply and draft syllabus for competitive examination for public services. Suggest compulsory Esperanto. Seth (pp. 136-7)

26He plans a city with big avenues and has the Anglican cathedral pulled down in order to realize his scheme. Just before the arrival of two English women representing the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, he orders the creation of a museum with specimens of the fauna of Azania and confiscates the house of a powerful warrior for this purpose. At a dinner in honour of Dame Mildred and her companion a dignitary of the court assures “the two ladies renowned through the famous country of Europe for their great cruelty to animals [that] the Azanians too, in [their] own small way, are cruel to [their] animals. … it is to the great nations of the West and North, especially to their worthy representatives that are with us to-night, that we look as our natural leaders on the road to progress. Ladies and gentlemen, we must be modern, we must be refined in our Cruelty to Animals.” (p. 138) Still, Azanians are apparently not more savage than their well-intentioned visitors. Dame Mildred’s diary contains the following entries: “Disembarked Matodi. … Condition of mules and dogs appalling, also children… Fed doggies in the market-place. Children tried to take food from doggies. Greedy little wretches.” (p. 146)

27In spite of some opposition, the majority of Seth’s reforms go down wonderfully well with the natives, who adopt them enthusiastically without understanding them. When Seth orders boots for the Imperial Guard, they organize a feast at which they eat them. When he decrees birth-control and the resourceful Youkoumian imports birth-control devices from Cairo, these are glorified as magical instruments of virility and fertility. The comic effect of the novel derives from the natives’ happy misinterpretation of any kind of reform or planning. Soon, however, Seth loses through his misapplication of the benefits of civilization the peace which Connolly had secured thanks to traditional barbarism. The Emperor antagonizes Connolly by trying to force the army to wear boots; he loses the support of the Nestorian Church when he advocates birth-control and that of the Anglican Church when he destroys their cathedral. The Earl of Ngomo does not forgive him the confiscation of his palace. Finally, the whole population loses faith in the government when the Emperor issues worthless banknotes with “a large medallion portrait of Seth in top hat and European tail coat.” (p. 141) The Emperor’s opponents set up a revolt with the help of the intriguing French envoy: on the day appointed for a pageant to celebrate sterility the festivities are interrupted by a riot stirred up by young men of the Nestorian Catholic Action, “muscular Christians who for many weeks now had been impatiently biding their time to have a whack at the modernists and Jews who were behind the new movement.” (p. 177) The ensuing confusion is given additional emphasis as it is described by Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Tin, who, naturally, do not understand what is going on.

28The members of the British Legation in Azania vie with the natives in irresponsibility and inefficiency. Sir Samson Courteney, a diplomatic failure delighted to be relegated in Azania, is utterly ignorant of what goes on in the country. He spends the best part of the morning playing in his bath with an inflated india-rubber sea-serpent; he plays a game of bagatelle in the afternoon and knits in the evening. Lady Courteney spends her days trying without success to grow an English garden; their daughter Prudence kills boredom by playing erotic games with William, the first attaché, until Basil comes along and gives her more substantial matter for her “panorama of life.” While the company at the British Legation are at their innocent games,

Sixty miles southward in the Ukaka pass bloody bands of Sakuyu warriors played hide-and-seek among the rocks, chivvying the last fugitives of the army of Seyid, while behind them down the gorge, from cave villages of incalculable antiquity, the women crept out to rob the dead. (p. 54)

29The natives are at least consistent in their primitivism, whereas those who wish to impose modernity on Azanians toy cynically or unconsciously with the now meaningless symbols of Western civilization. Basil explains to Seth:

‘We’ve got a much easier job now than we should have had fifty years ago. If we’d had to modernize a country then it would have meant constitutional monarchy, bi-cameral legislature, proportional representation, women’s suffrage, independent judicature, freedom of the press, referendums….’
‘What is all that? ‘asked the Emperor.
‘Just a few ideas that have ceased to be modern.’ (p. 118)

30Cut off from the ancestral traditions of his people, yet unable to grasp the meaning of progress, Seth provokes a conflict which he cannot resolve. In Azania as in England political intriguers and mischief-makers scheme against the government. Seth takes refuge inland with the Wanda warriors, but he is killed by the minister of interior. Basil, who had followed him, attends his funeral; during the ensuing banquet held in his honour by his cannibal hosts, he unknowingly eats Prudence, who had been on her way to England, “an English girl returning home to claim her natural heritage.” (p. 202) She is a victim of the carelessness and incompetence of the civilized as much as of native savagery. After so much confusion Azania is made a joint protectorate. Order is restored, though it is only apparent. The natives relapse into barbarism and are prevented from causing trouble by the British police. Efficient but dull and conventional civil servants replace the happy and inconsequent child-adults. Only the Arabs in the low quarters of Matodi go on as if nothing had happened. The Armenian, Mr. Youkoumian, another “life force,” is the only one to survive all crises. His adaptability and his slogan “I want no bust-up” have served him well, and he is now “a useful little fellow” for the English officials, whom he supplies with boots for the barefooted levy. Even poor General Connolly, one time duke of Ukaka, is driven out of the country and separated from “Black Bitch,” his picturesque wife.

31It would be absurd to see in Black Mischief a satire of African primitivism. Waugh is less concerned with the natives’ incomprehension of modernity than with the misapplication of it by the English. Through the former’s ignorance and the latter’s stupidity he explodes the myth of progress and shows the futility of attempting to impose it in complete defiance of human nature and ancestral customs. The failure of the English to recognize the power of barbarism and its underlying violence is a devastating comment on their own want of a scale of values. Chaos in Azania only emphasizes by comparison the disorder in London; obviously, English savages are not so very different from African primitives. Basil is perfectly aware of the irrelevance of Seth’s plan of modernization, and he greatly enjoys the natives’ resistance to civilization. This is crazy inconsequence on a larger scale than in the London jungle! When the second revolution breaks out, he positively relishes the mischief and delights in frightening everyone at the British Legation. His attitude is one of cynical amusement at the fact that he alone understands what Seth, Youkoumian and himself are really up to. Yet, as Seth’s minister of information, he displays a seriousness and capacities that would probably work wonders if better employed. Basil is a cad, but an intelligent one, and is therefore less harmful in Waugh’s eyes than the stupid and the incapable that are everywhere to be seen in places of authority. “‘Do you know,’” says Sonia after Basil’s return to London, “‘deep down in my heart I’ve got a tiny fear that Basil is going to turn serious on us too?’” (p. 217) She rightly senses that Basil is seeking for an opportunity to gratify his need for action. In spite of the latter’s roguishness, Waugh sympathizes with him and makes him the only lucid character, who with false innocence adds to the general confusion.

32Scoop (1938) was written after A Handful of Dust, but, like Black Mischief, it is inspired by Waugh’s experience in Abyssinia, which he visited at the time of the Emperor’s Coronation and as a war correspondent in 1935. Moreover, it belongs in spirit with the earlier novels; it relates the farcical adventures of war correspondents and satirizes the purpose and methods of modern journalism. It is not another Black Mischief, rather a complement to it: it presents the same problem the other way round. Civilized people are confronted with a situation they do not understand and do not behave more rationally than natives in the face of civilization. Even more than in his previous novels Waugh reduces organized activity to absurdity, because it is conducted without discernment and leads to chaos.

  • 6 Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, Penguin Books, 1961, p. 66.

33Lord Copper, a newspaper magnate, owner of the Daily Beast, is asked by Mrs. Algernon Stitch to send a Mr. Boot as a war correspondent to Ishmaelia. Through an error of the foreign editor of The Beast, William Boot from Boot Magna Hall, who writes a weekly article on Lush Places for the paper, is sent out instead of the writer John Boot. William is unfit for the job, though he can hardly be distinguished from the other journalists since none of them understands what is happening in Ishmaelia. They are solely interested in getting a “scoop”: “News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.”6 William is incompetent, but he refuses to be imposed upon by the Ishmaelite authorities. When Dr. Benito, who has momentarily the upper hand in Ishmaelia, sends all the journalists on an inland expedition to make sure that they are out of town when the real trouble starts, William remains obstinately in the capital and comes by chance across important news. Mr. Baldwin, whom he had obliged earlier, enables him to exploit the news and makes the situation clear to him. William is hailed in England as one of the greatest war correspondents and Lord Copper gets him a knight-hood, though by another error it is awarded to John Boot, the writer. William refuses to have anything more to do with active journalism; he keeps his small job as a commentator on Lush Places. His uncle Theodore takes his place at the banquet given in his honour and secures the advantageous contract which had been proposed to William.

34The political crisis in Ishmaelia is a prophetic parody of the conflicts that arise in developing countries which are a prey to powerful foreign interests. The farcical character of the plot is heightened by the Jackson family, American negroes from Alabama, who rule over the country with a good-humoured, though somewhat despotic, inefficiency. In spite of periodical rows in the Jackson family, the Ishmaelites are perfectly satisfied with the régime. One of these rows is exploited by fascists:

The Jacksons were effete, tyrannical, and alien; the Ishmaelites were a white race who, led by Smiles, must purge themselves of the negro taint; the Jacksons had kept Ishmaelia out of the Great War and thus deprived her of the great fruits of victory. (pp. 77-78)

35The Jacksons don’t worry much about this, but Left-wing politicians all over the world do, and Left-wing organizations collect funds which the Jacksons are glad to accept without attempting to understand this sudden generosity. Everybody outside Ishmaelia is convinced that there is going to be a war; the Ishmaelites simply rejoice that the rumour brings many foreigners to their country, which is a good thing for business. Actually, the Germans and the Russians support rival parties because they covet the gold concession owned by Mr. Baldwin. When things come to a crisis, the fascist leader takes to the mountains, while Dr. Benito proclaims the Soviet Union of Ishmaelia. His defenestration by the giant Swede Olafsen, made drunk by Mr. Baldwin, restores the Jacksons to power to the satisfaction of the Ishmaelites, who “as long as something, good or ill, was happening to the Jacksons, felt an intelligent interest in politics.” (p. 177) Civil war has just been avoided, and Mr. Baldwin can keep his gold concession.

36Like the sequence of events which lead to Benito’s overthrow, the novel “unfold [s] itself with the happy inconsequence of an early comedy film.” (p. 176) Waugh presents the war as a farce in which the natives are involved only in so far as they profit by it. For Western journalists, Ishmaelia is a convenient place for foreign intrigue and an exotic country whose misfortunes are likely to impress the readers of sensational daily papers. Indeed, the main object of Waugh’s satire is the insane sensationalism of the press, whose purpose is not to inform but to impress an ignorant public and thus insure its own continuance and prosperity. When William leaves for Ishmaelia, Lord Copper tells him:

What the British public wants first, last, and all the time is News. Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands by them four-square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is The Beast Policy for the war. (p. 42)

37When William fails to send exciting news, the cables he receives from London become increasingly imperative:


38Neither journalists nor readers even attempt to understand the nature of the conflict: the latter merely want their daily share of excitement, and the former are prepared to give it to them by lying if necessary. An American journalist tells how he went unknowingly to the wrong Balkan country to report on a revolution and described imaginary riots which his paper printed, actually provoking a revolution in that country. Instead of enlightening readers, journalists bring about disorder in public life through their irresponsibility. In Western countries the press destroys the public’s peace of mind and adds to their confusion about world affairs. The host of journalists and concession-hunters who invade Africa aggravate an already confused situation and exploit it for their own purposes. The white men, who are supposed to bring the benefits of civilization to the African continent, are an element of trouble through their futile activity. Even the journalists’ language is barbaric and incomprehensible and contrasts comically with the carefully worded statements of Dr. Benito or the ornate language of Seth’s proclamations in Black Mischief.

39Waugh describes in Scoop three different worlds and their particular kind of insanity. When the foreign editor of The Beast comes to Boot Magna Hall, he feels “like a Roman legionary, heavily armed, weighted with the steel and cast brass of civilization, tramping through forests beyond the Roman pale, harassed by silent, elusive savages, the vanguard of an advance that had pushed too far and lost touch with the base.” (p. 210) In contrast with the city, Boot Magna Hall is indeed a barbaric outpost: its inhabitants are completely isolated from the bustle of civilized life and antagonistic to any outsider. Their aimless existence in the decaying old house testifies to the inefficiency and irresponsibility of their class. The social order itself is reversed, and nannies rule over the house. Though uncle Theodore sings his favourite line over and over again, “change and decay in all around I see,” they are all blissfully unaware of time. However, the easy-going and warm atmosphere of Boot Magna Hall makes it a human world, and for all its irony, Waugh’s description of it is not free of nostalgia. When William leaves the country for the City, he finds himself in “a cold and hostile world.” Copper House, the seat of The Beast, is a symbol of that world, in which private life, truth, and whatever remains of a humane civilization are sacrificed to the public’s unhealthy demand for sensational news. Considering the lack of understanding between English people living in different environments – Boot Magna Hall and London – the Western journalists’ attempt to understand the Ishmaelian situation is simply preposterous. They do not understand their own civilization, and by their futile and unintelligent practices they add to the existing confusion in Africa. Whether one turns to life in the country or in the hectic atmosphere of London, or to the adventurous existence of war correspondents in exotic places, one faces the same inconsequent and senseless game. During a visit to London Uncle Theodore quotes his favourite line; it is echoed by William in Ishmaelia: “change and decay in all around I see” is a universal leitmotive.

40The four novels analysed so far are entertaining social satires; Waugh exposes the chaos and the insanity of the modern world by presenting the more striking features of its surface life. The quality of the dialogue, the terseness of the narrative, the pointed-ness and detachment with which characteristic attitudes are emphasized make them self-revealing, the source of their own ridicule. The author’s sense of humour and the amusement he seems to derive from his own entertainments invest the early novels with a tolerance and good humour which counterbalance their pungency; they suggest that Waugh belongs to the world he describes and rather cynically enjoys the mischief, while making it clear that he is no dupe of what is going on. Waugh draws facts from his own experience; a parallel could easily be drawn between adventures told in his travel books and occurrences in his pre-war novels. Imagination mainly serves his comic purpose and his skill in bringing to light the funny side of things.

41A Handful of Dust (1934) differs in tone from Waugh’s previous novels. Critics have discerned in it a new seriousness and concern for English society. Actually, Waugh deals with the same aspects of modern life: deceptiveness, cruelty, amoralism; but he now emphasizes the tragic and frustrating side of things rather than the comic. His satire becomes more biting and full of grating irony. Also, without revealing more of his characters’ inner life, he exposes more conspicuously the moral and spiritual void of their existence.

42Tony Last is a misguided representative of the humanistic tradition. He is utterly unaware of the harsh facts of life and of evil in the world. He is romantically attached to his Gothic house, Hetton Abbey, the symbol in his eyes of all that is valuable in English life:

  • 7 Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust, Penguin Books, 1961, pp. 14-15.

There was not a glazed brick or encaustic tile that was not dear to Tony’s heart … the bedrooms with their brass bedsteads, each with a frieze of Gothic text, each named from Malory, Yseult, Elaine, Mordred and Merlin, Gawaine and Bedivere, Lancelot, Perceval, Tristram, Galahad, his own dressing-room, Morgan le Fay, and Brenda’s Guinevere, where the bed stood on a dais, the walls hung with tapestry, the fire-place was like a tomb of the thirteenth century, from whose bay window one could count, on days of exceptional clearness, the spires of six churches – all these things with which he had grown up were a source of constant delight and exultation to Tony; things of tender memory and proud possession.7

43The unity of the family, the “duty towards one’s employees,” towards the tenants, the poor relatives, the village, the church, these are part of an order whose stability Tony never questions. He is gentle, considerate and selfless, and, like Waugh’s earlier heroes, he is an innocent forced into a world of chaos. However, immaturity is more harmful at thirty than at twenty, the more so as Tony does not live among irresponsible young fools but among callous and merciless adults. When Brenda takes a flat in London, where she can more easily meet the colourless and mediocre Beaver, Tony postpones the improvements he meant to order for Hetton. He is increasingly at a loss in the face of Brenda’s growing coldness, but he never doubts her faithfulness. He patiently and loyally tolerates her interfering friends, all of them unscrupulous, ruthless and fashionable barbarians. When John Andrew, their son, is kicked by a horse and dies, Tony is primarily concerned for Brenda and even finds an excuse for her leaving him on the day after the funeral to spend the week-end with Beaver.

44The senseless and cruel death of his child brings to light the complete absence of genuine spiritual values in Tony and his incapacity even to acknowledge his suffering. John Andrew meant everything to him, not only because he was his son, but because he was his only descendant, a gentleman, who would own Hetton and perpetuate its traditions. When he is killed, Tony carefully avoids thinking about his loss and conceals what feelings he may experience behind an exaggerated thoughtfulness towards other people. He only betrays some emotion in the presence of Mrs. Rattery, because she is a perfect stranger to him. Nothing supports him in his trial. His regular attendance at church is not in any sense the expression of his faith. When the vicar comes to see him after John’s death, Tony merely wants to discuss arrangements with him: “‘He tried to be comforting. It was very painful… after all the last thing one wants to talk about at a time like this is religion.’” (p. 115) He later tells Mr. Todd that he has never considered whether he believes in God. When Brenda arrives from London after the accident, they behave like perfect strangers:

Brenda took off her hat and threw it down on a chair in the hall. ‘Nothing to say, is there?’ ‘There’s no need to talk.’
‘No. I suppose there’ll have to be a funeral.’
‘Well, of course.’
‘Yes: to-morrow?’
She looked into the morning-room. ‘They’ve done quite a lot, haven’t they?’ (p. 122)

45The reader’s sympathy for Tony combines with resentment against his careful avoidance of personal feelings. He suspects that Tony’s impassiveness not only conceals embarrassment but covers his incapacity to experience normal human feelings and to face such an ordeal with maturity. Brenda is strikingly composed and cold, but Tony is emotionally sterile and fails by his exaggerate considerateness to provoke in his wife the revulsion of feeling which might be expected after such a catastrophe. The heartless Polly Cockpurse proves right when she says: “‘That’s the end of Tony so far as Brenda is concerned.’” (p. 120)

46Brenda and John Beaver don’t love each other. She is simply bored, irresponsible and selfish. Moreover, in the Mayfair world with which she is still vaguely connected through her weekly visits to London adultery is as natural a pastime as gossip or shopping. That Beaver “is second-rate and a snob … and he’s got to be taught a whole lot of things” is part of his attractiveness. She is not deterred by his indifference or his acquisitiveness. When John Grant-Menzies comes to tell her that her son is dead, she is at Lady Cockpurse’s listening to a fortune-teller, and John Beaver is in France:

‘What is it, Jock? Tell me quickly, I’m scared. It’s nothing awful, is it?’
‘I’m afraid it is. There’s been a serious accident.’
He nodded.
She sat down on a little Empire chair against the wall, perfectly still with her hands folded on her lap, like a small well-brought up child introduced into a room full of grown-ups. She said, ‘Tell me what happened. Why do you know about it first?’
‘I’ve been down at Hetton since the week-end.’
‘Don’t you remember? John was going hunting to-day.’
She frowned, not at once taking what he was saying.
‘John … John Andrew … I … oh, thank God … Then she burst into tears. (p. 118)

47Brenda’s “thank God” shows how far she is alienated even from her son. Her attitude after the death of John Andrew suddenly makes significant the process of disintegration that has been taking place in the family. When she next sees Beaver, she tells him:

‘Until Wednesday, when I thought something had happened to you, I had no idea that I loved you.’
‘Well, you’ve said it often enough.’
‘I’m going to make you understand,’ … ‘You clod.’ (p. 125)

48It is to this cold, despicable affair that Tony is sacrificed.

49Until Brenda actually writes to Tony that she loves John Beaver and wants a divorce, he refuses to acknowledge that their relation. ship has altered: her long stays in London, their growing estrangement, her comment after their son’s death, “‘It’s all over, don’t you see, our life down here,” (p. 123) even his misery at being left alone are unavailing. He is clearly unwilling to face the issue and to admit that his beautifully ordered world has collapsed. When Brenda makes the situation clear to him, he agrees to take on the blame in the divorce case as befits a gentleman. Private detectives follow him to a Brighton hotel, where he is supposed to spend the week-end with a hired girl and her terrible child. Tony becomes aware of the mixture of ignominy and farce in the occasion; only then does he realize to what extent his life has stumbled into chaos:

‘… for a month now he had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found him. self, no new, mad thing brought to his notice, could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears. (pp. 137-8)

50His disillusion is not complete until he hears that Brenda wants him to sell Hetton to provide her with a substantial alimony, which is the condition on which Beaver is willing to marry her. Tony refuses “to give up Hetton in order to buy Beaver for Brenda.” He at last perceives clearly the inadequacy of his code of honour and of his romantic conception of life:

A whole Gothic world had come to grief … there was now no armour glittering through the forest glades, no embroi. dered feet on the green sward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled. (p. 151)

51Nothing in Tony’s orderly life has resisted Brenda’s destructive negativeness. Characteristically, he postpones the solution to their conflict and runs away from it, hoping to recapture some of the romantic idealism of his earlier existence. He sets out for Brazil with a Dr. Messinger in search of a city, the symbol of his humanistic dream:

His mind was occupied with the City,… He had a clear picture of it in his mind. It was Gothic in character, all vanes and pinnacles, gargoyles, battlements, groining and tracery, pavilions and terraces, a transfigured Hetton, pennons and banners floating on the sweet breeze, every-thing luminous and translucent; a coral citadel crowning a green hill-top sown with daisies among groves and streams; a tapestry landscape filled with heraldic and fabulous animals and symmetrical, disproportionate blossom. (p. 160)

52Tony and Dr. Messinger show the same incompetence and immaturity in their expedition as in civilized life, and they soon get into trouble. Messinger frightens their Indian guides away with a mechanical mouse. Tony is terribly ill with fever, and Messinger leaves him to get some help but gets drowned in a ten feet fall. Alone in the Brazilian jungle, feverish and unable to take care of himself, Tony at last breaks down and cries. Meanwhile in London Brenda, abandoned by Beaver, who does not want her without money, also breaks down “in an agony of resentment and self-pity.” However, Brenda’s trial is of short duration and ends with her marriage to Jock Grant-Menzies, whereas Tony’s painful experience in the Brazilian jungle leads him to death-in-life. At the climax of his delirium he has a chaotic vision of his recent past and under this hallucination beholds the City as a transfigured Hetton:

Tony saw beyond the trees the ramparts and battlements of the City; it was quite near him. From the turret of the gatehouse a heraldic banner floated in the tropic breeze….
At last he came into the open. The gates were before him and trumpets were sounding along the walls, saluting his arrival; from bastion to bastion the message ran to the four points of the compass; petals of almond and apple blossom were in the air; they carpeted the way, as, after a summer storm, they lay in the orchards at Hetton. Gilded cupolas and spires of alabaster shone in the sunlight. Ambrose announced, ‘The City is served.’ (p. 203)

53The City is a cluster of huts which belong to Mr. Todd and his Indian family. He cures Tony but keeps him a prisoner in order to have someone who will read Dickens to him every afternoon. Ironically, Tony, who has at last recognized the inadequacy of his Victorian attitude to life, is condemned to spend the rest of his existence gratifying a lunatic’s whim for a Victorian imaginary world. Flying from London barbarians, he falls a prey to a real savage, who will not allow him to forget the sentimental and rather naive humanism of a Victorian writer. This is the final outcome of his childish romanticism and blindness to human nature. Again, the last words he utters in his delirium reflect the truth most accurately:

Let us kill in the gentlest manner. I will tell you what I have learned in the forest, where time is different. There is no City. Mrs. Beaver has covered it with chromium plating and converted it into flats. (p. 207)

  • 8 Richard Wasson, “A Handful of Dust: Critique of Victorianism,” Modern Fiction Studies, VII, 4 (Win (...)

54In an article entitled “A Handful of Dust: Critique of Victoria-nism,” Richard Wasson explains that the novel “is a critique of the whole tradition of English religious and social life. That tradition is bankrupt because its protestant and romantic nature has cut England away from the true source of ethical and religious behaviour which lies in Roman Catholicism.”8 Indeed, Waugh shows that the traditional religious and social life is bankrupt. The Vicar of Hetton preaches sermons composed in pre-war days in India:

‘… let us remember our Gracious Queen Empress in whose service we are here, and pray that she may long be spared to send us at her bidding to do our duty in the uttermost parts of the earth; and let us think of our dear ones far away and the homes we have left in her name, and remember that though miles of barren continent and leagues of ocean divide us, we are never so near to them as on these Sunday mornings, united with them across dune and mountain in our loyalty to our sovereign and thanksgiving for her welfare; one with them as proud subjects of her sceptre and crown.’ (pp. 32-33)

55The villagers are not at all surprised for “few of the things said in church seemed to have particular reference to themselves.” (p 32) The vicar tells them in his Christmas sermon: “Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered against the drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of an alien sun; … Instead of the placid ox and ass of Bethleem … we have for companions the ravening tiger and the exotic camel, the furtive jackal and the ponderous elephant. …” (p. 60) But this is an integral part of their Christmas festivities, “one with which they would find it hard to dispense.” This is a sharp blow at the conventional character of Tony’s Anglicanism. A religion which preserves the ritual but is careless of its meaning is a worthless institution. However, as it often happens, Waugh’s satirical image has a double meaning, for Tony does face an alien sun, and the companions Brenda brings to Hetton are, indeed, like the ravening tiger or the exotic camel. Similarly, by submitting to the hypocrisy and the shamefulness of the divorce procedure, Tony countenances Brenda’s violation of the sanctity of marriage and illustrates the moral bankruptcy of English life.

56Though Tony is a weak and pathetic victim, Waugh does not spare him either, because he is blind to the real significance of traditions and tolerant of the invasion of his house and the disintegration of his home by modern savages. Like Waugh’s earlier heroes, the characters in this novel are indifferent to moral values: just as his house is fake Gothic, so Tony’s rules of conduct are based on a conventional but unreliable moral code. He is as responsible as Brenda for the collapse of his world. Yet here as in his earlier novels, Waugh’s attitude is ambivalent. Tony is satirized for being romantically attached to a tradition cut off from its actual roots, but he is also the last representative of a civilized way of life destroyed by modern savagery. Waugh is hard on him because he allows that way of life to be destroyed through lack of faith and because he is not equal to his duty as a keeper of the values of Western civilization.

  • 9 Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Penguin Books, 1962, p. 215.
  • 10 Quoted by Frederik Stopp in op. cit., p. 108.

57In all Waugh’s pre-war novels old country houses are being pulled down in order to make place for apartment houses or factories. Their destruction symbolizes the disappearance of the way of life and traditions they stood for. In Decline and Fall Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde’s house, “the finest place of domestic Tudor in England,” is being rebuilt into “something clean and square” from which the human element has been eliminated. Nor is the transformation so contrary to the spirit of the last holders of “King’s Thursday”: Margot’s brother-in-law, who sold her the house, “could never quite see what all the fuss was about.” (p. 117) In Vile Bodies Colonel Blount’s house “Doubting Hall,” called “Doubting ‘All” by the servants, is invaded by cameramen and made the setting of a third-rate film. In Scoop Boot Magna Hall is falling into decay, and its inhabitants are mostly old dotards. This process of destruction is not new: violation of the old houses started in the nineteenth century when many were “rebuilt” in Gothic style to suit the tastes of prosperous industrialists as it was the case with Llanabba Castle. Another damaged house is Hetton Abbey first rebuilt in extravagant Gothic style then turned into a silver-fox farm. Like Charles Ryder, the narrator and “archi-tectural painter” in Brideshead Revisited (1945), Waugh catches a glimpse of these houses before they are finally deserted or debased. He also loves “buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation,”9 and he deplores that the aristocracy should abandon them together with the civilized and refined living for which they were built. In Brideshead Revisited Waugh describes such a house and recreates a life style which was bound to disappear. The theme of the novel is, in the author’s words, “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters,” its intention “to trace the workings of divine purpose in a pagan world, in the lives of an English Catholic family, half-paganized themselves, in the world of 1923-1939.”10 Though published at the end of the Second World War, this novel is complementary to Waugh’s pre-war work because it presents fairly similar material in a different light.

58Waugh describes a Catholic aristocratic family as the perpetuators of an uninterrupted English tradition and their house as the symbol of that tradition. When Lord Marchmain marries a Catholic and becomes one himself, he tells his wife: “You have brought back my family to the faith of their ancestors.” (p. 212) However, he apostatizes, and so do two of his children. Their religion does not make them better than other people either as human beings or as citizens; on the contrary, they are “far worse,” says Sebastian. Apart from the elder son, who remains faithful to the letter of Catholicism and of family traditions, the Marchmains are destroyed by the conflicting pressures of their nature and their religion. Even Lady Marchmain, at once a saint and a “femme fatale,” is destroyed, having contributed to the disintegration of her family and to the ruin of their happiness. Still, she has accomplished the one thing that matters: she has impressed her children with the essential spiritual truth and made it impossible for them to deny it in the end. This is an important aspect of the novel: by converting Charles Ryder to Catholicism the Marchmains become the instrument of his progress from a Pagan to a Christian set of values, which are man’s only hope in this uncivilized age. For the first time Waugh offers a way out of the confusion of the modern world, though he doesn’t proselytize but simply presents the Roman Catholic Church as the one stable institution in the modern wilderness and as a lasting and eventually inescapable reality in the lives of its members.

59A striking feature in Brideshead Revisited is the marked contrast between the civilized and refined world of Lady Marchmain and the uncouth society which threatens it and is represented by Rex Mottram and Hooper. Rex, a successful politician, wants to marry Julia Marchmain because he hopes to acquire through her an aristocratic veneer which would help him in his career. Describing him years later, Julia says:

He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole, (p. 193)

60Father Mowbray says of Rex, who is being instructed to become a Catholic, that “he doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.” (p. 185) He represents the younger generation who “have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into the depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.” (p. 186) As in Waugh’s earlier work, modern man is presented as a confused barbarian, though Waugh does not laugh at his antics any longer; he has become impatient of the mediocrity which supplants refinement and the aesthetic enjoyment of life, a mediocrity which, according to him, is a consequence of moral relaxation among the upper classes.

61Much has been said about Waugh’s snobbish love of the English aristocracy. In Brideshead Revisited he appears to be fascinated by the accumulated beauty and the detached cultivation of aesthetic pleasure which only a long tradition of great wealth makes possible and enjoyable without reservation. The privileges of the aristocracy are obviously justified when they live up to the standards which were originally theirs. When they allow chaos and confusion to invade their lives and their houses, they are responsible for their own downfall and also for the decline of civilization. When Ryder, just back from South America, hears that Anchorage House is being pulled down, his only comment is: “It’s just another jungle closing in.” (p. 221) When he finds himself in the noisy confusion of a party organized by his wife, he thinks: “Here I am, back from the jungle, back from the ruins. Here, where wealth is no longer gorgeous and power has no dignity.” (p. 225) Regret for the past and a romantic idealization of his former association with the Marchmain family pervade the memories of Charles Ryder. The lyrical recollection of Ryder’s and Sebastian Flyte’s extra-vagances in Oxford has little in common with Waugh’s pungent satire of the Bright Young Things in his pre-war novels. Sebastian initiates Ryder in architecture and wine tasting; cosmopolitan Anthony Blanche initiates him in modern poetry by reciting The Waste Land. Both reveal to Ryder the beauty and richness of the world through the care-free but fruitful experiences of adolescence:

Looking back, now, after twenty years, there is little I would have left undone or done otherwise … all the wickedness of that time was like the spirit they mix with the pure grape of the Douro, heady stuff full of dark ingredients; it at once enriched and retarded the whole process of adolescence as the spirit checks the fermentation of the wine, renders it undrinkable, so that it must lie in the dark, year in, year out, until it is brought up at last fit for the table. (p. 46)

62The tone of this passage is fairly typical of the spirit in which Ryder remembers his youth; it denotes a sentimental attachment to the kind of life it promised. The promise was never fulfilled partly because of the dispersion of the Flytes and his estrangement from them, partly through his own failure in later years to marry Julia and become the holder of Brideshead, but ultimately because the beauty and refinement of civilized life have been destroyed by the Hoopers of this world.

63Hooper is a coming officer of lower-class origin. Waugh’s contempt for his mediocrity, which he believes to be characteristic of his class, intensifies his regret for the vanishing glories of the English aristocracy. That men born in families famous for their past achievement should make way for the beneficiaries of a potential Welfare State is utterly unacceptable to the author. This menace is felt throughout the narrative and acts as an incentive to Ryder’s recollection of a better world. The wish to recall and immortalize an ideal way of life before it was finally destroyed for the sake of Hooper is an important motive in the novel. A comparison between two passages, one which alludes to Ryder’s youth, the other to Hooper’s, makes clear Waugh’s excessive idealization on the one hand, his exaggerate contempt on the other. Here is Ryder remembering the idyllic time he spent at Brideshead as a young man:

The languor of Youth – how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the gene-rous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth – all save this – come and go with us through life. These things are a part of life itself; but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding – that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it. Perhaps in the mansions of Limbo the heroes enjoy some such compensation for their loss of the Beatific Vision; perhaps the Beatific Vision itself has some remote kinship with this lowly experience; I, at any rate, believed myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead. (p. 77)

64Twenty years later Ryder sees Hooper as the representative of a dull and unduly demanding generation:

In the weeks that we were together Hooper became a symbol to me of Young England, so that whenever I read some public utterance proclaiming what Youth demanded in the Future and what the world owed to Youth, I would test these general statements by substituting ‘Hooper’ and seeing if they still seemed as plausible. Thus in the dark hour before reveille I sometimes pondered: ‘Hooper Rallies’, ‘Hooper Hostels’, ‘International Hooper Cooperation’, and ‘The Religion of Hooper’. He was the acid test of all these alloys. (p. 15)

  • 11 Introduction to the revised edition of Brideshead Revisited, first published by Chapman and Hall i (...)

65Fortunately, says Waugh in a later edition of the novel, society hasn’t altered as quickly as he feared it would: “the English aristocracy has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible. The advance of Hooper has been held up at several points.”11 Hooper stands for the stupid, vulgar and ignorant masses who threaten the civilized world. Ryder would gladly ignore that common herd and retire to Brideshead “the rest of the world abandoned and forgotten.”

66The religious theme of the novel is not successfully worked out, mainly because the impact of religion is conveyed through the attitude of the characters towards two problems which can only be real to Roman Catholics: the sin of divorce and the urgency of extreme unction. However willing he may be to believe in the reality and importance of these questions, the non-Catholic reader is not made to understand them nor to accept the way in which they are solved by the characters. What Waugh does make clear is that the rejection of religion, of Catholicism in particular, is a source of confusion and corruption. The savagery of modern society has grown out of a return to Paganism. When Julia Flyte apostatizes in order to marry a barbarian like Rex Mottram, she allows disorder to set in her life. Waugh is not concerned with personal happiness; it seems, on the contrary, that the characters’ religion is a source of suffering. What matters is the preservation of an essential truth which is a condition to peace, order and the harmonious exercise of traditional values. His fear lest these values should be sacrificed to the welfare of barbarians pervades Brides-head Revisited. The occupation of Brideshead by the army, itself a nucleus of democratic forces, marks the end of England’s glorious period.

67Events of the Twenties and Thirties are a mere background to Ryder’s reminiscences, instances of the intrusion of barbarism upon his “Arcadia” and boring reminders of the outside world. Political events of the period are referred to in order to illustrate the stupidity and lack of insight of Rex and his political friends:

‘Of course, he can marry her and make her a queen to-morrow.’
‘We had our chance in October. Why didn’t we send the Italian fleet to the bottom of Mare Nostrum? Why didn’t we blow Spezia to blazes? Why didn’t we land on Pantelleria?’
‘Franco’s simply a German agent. They tried to put him in to prepare air bases to bomb France. That bluff has been called, anyway.’
‘It would make the monarchy stronger than it’s been since Tudor times. The people are with him.’ ‘The Press are with him.’ ‘I’m with him.’‘Who cares about divorce now except a few old maids who aren’t married, anyway?’
‘If he has a show-down with the old gang, they’ll just disappear like, like…’
‘Why didn’t we close the canal? Why didn’t we bomb Rome?’
‘It wouldn’t have been necessary. One firm note …’ ‘One firm speech.’ ‘One show-down.’
‘Anyway, Franco will soon be skipping back to Morocco. Chap I saw today just come from Barcelona …’
‘… Chap just come from Fort Belvedere …’
‘… Chap just come from the Palazzo Venezia …’
‘All we want is a show-down.’
‘A show-down with Baldwin.’
‘A show-down with Hitler.’
‘A shown-down with the Old Gang.’
‘… That I should live to see my country, the land of Clive and Nelson …’
‘… My country of Hawkins and Drake.’
‘… My country of Palmerston …’ (pp. 262-3)

68This pastiche in the Firbank manner also satirizes the senselessness of political arguments and the vain self-assertiveness of politicians. The futility of what they say is the more striking as these men become Cabinet Ministers at the beginning of the War. The only time when Ryder himself takes an interest in social and political events is when the General Strike breaks out. The spirit in which he comes back from Paris with a Belgian futurist who “claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes,” (p. 193) is typical of the immaturity with which all Waugh’s heroes answer the call to duty. Ryder and Mulcaster, rather drunk after a round of night clubs, decide to show their patriotism:

‘You and I, ‘he said,’ were too young to fight in the war. Other chaps fought, millions of them dead. Not us. We’ll show them. We’ll show the dead chaps we can fight, too.’
‘That’s why I’m here, ‘I said. ‘Come from overseas, rallying the old country in hour of need.’
‘Like Australians.’
‘Like the poor dead Australians.’
‘What you in?’
‘Nothing yet. War not ready.’
‘Only one thing to join – Bill Meadows’ show – Defence Corps. All good chaps. Being fixed in Bratt’s. ‘‘I’ll join.’
‘You remember Bratt’s?’
‘No. I’ll join that, too.’
‘That’s right. All good chaps like the dead chaps.’ (p. 198)

69Waugh is clever enough to turn this into a joke, presenting Ryder and Mulcaster as slightly irresponsible young men who take it as a rather good and unusual game, “looking for trouble and finding none”: “Next day the General Strike was called off and the country everywhere, except in the coal fields, returned to normal. It was as though a beast long fabled for its ferocity had emerged for an hour, scented danger, and slunk back to its lair.” (p. 199) The characters’ frustrated wish to make up for the strikers’ “unpatriotic” behaviour is one example among many in Waugh’s fiction of a puerile and ever disappointed longing for heroism. The First World War and the spirit of bravery it evoked haunt all his immature heroes; that spirit is the product of a class who courageously sacrificed its youth for the sake of insignificant commoners. In Brideshead Revisited it is illustrated by the story of Lady Marchmain’s brothers:

… men who were, in all the full flood of academic and athletic success, of popularity and the promise of great rewards ahead, seen somehow as set apart from their fellows, garlanded victims, devoted to the sacrifice. These men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines vermin by right of law, to be shot off at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat wet hand-shake, his grinning dentures. (p. 134)

  • 12 Scoop, p. 155.
  • 13 A Handful of Dust, p. 16.

70Few characters in Waugh’s novels approach life with maturity: well-bred young men like William Boot and Sebastian Flyte are afraid to lose the esteem of their nannies, who remain their moral guides even in adulthood. William compares his journalistic mission in Ishmaelia to that of “Bengal Lancers and kilted Highlanders rising chivalrously to arms.”12 Sebastian, “in love with his own childhood,” goes about with a teddy bear and tries to escape from reality; his inability to come to terms with it makes him an alcoholic and eventually a complete wreck. Tony Last, himself a father, keeps in his room “a gallery representative of every phase of his adolescence – the framed picture of a dreadnought (a coloured supplement from Chums), all its guns spouting flame and smoke.”13 When Dr. Messinger tells him in the Brazilian jungle: “From now onwards the map is valueless to us,” Tony compares their position with the adventures of a childhood hero:

  • 14 Ibid., p. 177.

(Roll up the map – you will not need it again for how many years, said William Pitt … memories of Tony’s private school came back to him at Dr. Messinger’s words, of inky little desks and a coloured picture of a Viking raid).14

71Waugh’s young men are prepared to go to war with an equally immature enthusiasm. In his pre-war novels they are engaged in their irresponsible antics and seem to be unaware of time; then they suddenly become elated when they realize that they will have their 1914 and their share of glory! Waugh belongs to a generation who were too young to fight in the First World War and repeatedly expressed a wish to make up in some way for the opportunity they had missed of serving their country.

  • 15 Evelyn WAUGH and Randolph CHURCHILL, to whom the novel is dedicated.
  • 16 Evelyn WAUGH, Put Out More Flags, London, 1948, Introduction, p. 12.
  • 17 John McCormick, op. cit., p. 288.

72In Pur Our More Flags (1941) the characters who in Waugh’s pre-war novels fooled away their youth for lack of anything better to do remember the dreams of their adolecence and welcome the opportunity to go to war. The novel deals “with a race of ghosts, the survivors of the world we both 15 knew ten years ago,… where my imagination still fondly lingers.”16 Peter Pastmaster, Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington and Basil Seal are revived, and these upper-class rioters are shown to have the making of good citizens. At the beginning of the War when his sister imagines him as Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence, or Rupert Brooke, his mother as a gallant officer, and his mistress as the unknown soldier, Basil wants to be “one of those people one heard about in 1919; the hard-faced men who did well out of the war.” (p. 52) He exploits the presence of impossible refugee children in his sister’s village by billeting them on respectable citizens who fear for their orderly homes; he removes the children after a few days in return for a bribe. He betrays his friend Ambrose Silk, then sends him away to Ireland and settles in his apartment. He refuses to join the army as a subaltern, but when England starts fighting and Peter Pastmaster raises commandos of “suitable officers,” Basil joins them because “there’s only one serious occupation for a chap now, that’s killing Germans. I have an idea I shall rather enjoy it.” (p. 233) According to John McCormick, this shows that Waugh has given up: “The old Basil would have joined the Nazis and ended at Postdam running the General Staff.”17 But this is to ignore Waugh’s genuine belief in the readiness of the English upper classes to answer the call to duty, a belief implicit in his pre-war work.

73At the beginning of the novel the War is merely another racket. Peter Pastmaster and Alastair Trumpington take themselves seriously as soldiers; but Sonia rightly says of Alastair’s period of initiation as a private: “We always manage to have fun … wherever we are.” (p. 128) Basil, always in the know, still feels free to enjoy his mischief-making and is not more harmful than the incompetents and “boobies” with whom the Ministries are encumbered. The first part of the novel is fairly similar in manner and tone to Waugh’s pre-war work, though he occasionally alludes to the seriousness with which Basil wants to serve his country. In the last part of the narrative, however, the author’s point of view shifts to suit his description of the aristocracy’s patriotic zeal and wish for atonement. The follies of the inter-war period and the blindness and inefficiency of those in authority, before and at the beginning of the War, account for England’s unpreparedness in the first phase of the conflict. But with the “Churchillian Renaissance” the War enters into “a new and more glorious phase.” Peter Pastmaster, who emerges from his reckless youth more innocent than the débutante he is about to marry, arranges in Bratt’s Club to spend the War with his friends and shows some sense of responsibility in doing so.

“There’s a new spirit abroad,” said Sir Joseph Mainwaring.
“I see it on every side.”
And, poor booby, he was bang right, (p. 233)

74This change of spirit among Waugh’s former Bright Young Things is rather too sudden to be really convincing. Waugh fails to make real the revival of responsibility among the upper classes: having first presented his characters through his well-known economical and non-committal dialogue, he could hardly shift to the deeper treatment which their changed attitude demanded. Hence, the ambiguity of the novel and the impossibility to take Peter, Alastair or Basil seriously even at the end. Moreover, Basil’s ruffianism is less palatable than in Black Mischief because it is too easily redeemed by patriotic zeal.

75Alastair Trumpington illustrates Waugh’s failure to create a character susceptible of growth. In all the pre-war novels he is a prominent member of the Mayfair coterie; he betrays Paul Pennyfeather, becomes the lover of Margot Metroland, goes on rackets with Basil even after his marriage. He now reappears as an old acquaintance whom the author seems to have always loved. There is no sneer in Waugh’s description of Alastair’s “personal sense of schoolboy honour”; he treats him rather with affectionate approval: “England was at war; he, Alastair Trumpington, was at war. It was not the business of any politician to tell him when or how he should fight.” (p. 52) Alastair enlists in the ranks: “I believe a lot of people felt like that in the last war.” (p. 112) Later Sonia explains why he at first refused a commission and alludes to his wish to make amends for his past behaviour:

‘I believe I know what Alastair felt all that first winter of the war. It sounds awfully unlike him, but he was a much odder character than anyone knew. You remember that man who used to dress as an Arab and then went into the air force as a private because he thought the British Government had let the Arabs down. I forget his name but there were lots of books about him. Well, I believe Alastair felt like that. You see he’d never done anything for the country and though we were always broke we had lots of money really and lots of fun, I believe he thought that perhaps if we hadn’t had so much fun perhaps there wouldn’t have been any war. Though how he could blame himself for Hitler I never quite saw. … At least I do in a way. … He went into the ranks as a kind of penance or whatever it’s called that religious people are always supposed to do.’ (p. 114)

76Another reason for his refusing a commission is that he doesn’t want to meet the officers on social terms, but when all his friends enlist in the same regiment, Alastair becomes as excited as a school-boy. It is worth quoting the passage in which Sonia agrees to let him join them:

‘Sonia, would you think it bloody of me if I volunteered for special service?’
‘I don’t suppose so really. But very exciting. They’re getting up special parties for raiding. They go across to France and creep up behind Germans and cut their throats in the dark.’ He was very excited, turning a page in his life, as, more than twenty years ago lying on his stomach before the fire, with a bound volume of Chums, he used to turn over to the next instalment of the serial.
‘It doesn’t seem much of a time to leave a girl,’ said Sonia,
‘but I can see you want to.’
‘They have special knives and tommy-guns and knuckle dusters; they wear rope-soled shoes.’
‘Bless you,’ said Sonia.
‘I heard about it from Peter Pastmaster. A man in his regiment is raising one. Peter’s got a troop in it. He says I can be one of his section commanders; they can fix me up with a commission apparently. They carry rope ladders and files sewn in the seams of their coats to escape with. D’you mind very much if I accept?’
‘No, darling. I couldn’t keep you from the rope ladder. Not from the rope ladder I couldn’t. I see that!’ (p. 229)

77This is the spirit in which, at thirty-six, the former Bright Young People make up for their past follies.

  • 18 Evelyn Waugh, The Sword o{ Honour: Men at Arms (1952) and Officers and Gentlemen (1955), New York, (...)
  • 19 Men at Arms, p. 145.

78Put Out More Flags was a sort of prelude to the trilogy18 Waugh published after the Second World War and in which the school-boy honour theme is fully developed. These novels are written in the same style as Brideshead Revisited, though their sentimentality is tempered by a humorous portrayal of army life. Like Alastair and Basil, Guy Crouchback is thirty-six when the War breaks out; he has suffered and lived in solitude for eight years, but he is not more mature than they are. When he goes to war, he dedicates his life to the English saint and crusader Roger de Waybroke and starts his own “crusade” against an enemy who becomes clearly recognizable at the time of the Russo-German pact. At first he is exalted by the army; he is proud of the traditions of his regiment and enjoys at last what he missed as a boy: “a happy adolescence.” He compares his military experiences with the feats of his childhood hero. Captain Truslove. Soon, however, he is forced to realize that he is engaged in a war “in which courage and a just cause [are] quite irrelevant to the issue.”19

79It is interesting to compare Crouchback with Tietjens, the hero of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy, for they find themselves in a strikingly similar situation at an interval of twenty-five years. Both are unhappy because they are married to frivolous women who are bored with their gentlemanly behaviour. Both have a slow and unhappy career in the army because they bear the blame for mistakes which they have not committed and they stick to the rules and to their ideals even if it makes them unpopular; both allow themselves to be exploited by ambitious officers who receive all the honours, while their own position at the end of the War is hardly honourable. Guy is as chivalrous as Tietjens towards his former wife, and he remarries her when she is with child by a commoner. However, as early as 1914 Tietjens is fully aware that his public-school code of honour is outdated; though he does not approve of it, he sees the social evolution as inevitable, and his strength as a hero derives from his understanding of his predicament in a changing world. Guy simply blames the world for not being what he had imagined.

80The main source of Guy’s disillusionment is England’s “dishonourable” alliance with Russia after the invasion of this country by the Germans. To him, it is an alliance with democracy and therefore with the enemies of civilization; this tragic alliance will finally destroy what remains of the English cultural and social tradition. There is no doubt that these views were fully shared, and approved of, by Waugh. Like the sixteenth-century martyr Edmund Campion, Guy associates the will to serve England with the will to serve God through Catholicism since he believes the real English tradition to be Catholic. Like Alastair in Put Out More Flags, Guy thinks that the War will be a source of regeneration for the English upper classes. Unfortunately, he discovers that the only way out of the modern wilderness is to adhere faithfully to one’s sense of personal honour. England’s betrayal of the ideal of civilization is only to be expected since the aristocracy, who are supposedly the keepers of its values, have become as corrupt as the masses. Waugh makes this clear by describing the military careers of Ivor Claire and Trimmer.

81Guy has always looked upon Claire as the typical gentleman, “The Flower of the Nation”:

  • 20 Officers and Gentlemen, p. 366.

Guy remembered Claire as he first saw him in the Roman spring in the afternoon sunlight amid the embosoming cypresses of the Borghese Gardens, putting his horse faultlessly over the jumps, concentrated as a man in prayer. Ivor Claire, Guy thought, was the fine flower of them all. He was quintessential England, the man Hitler had not taken into account, Guy thought.20

82This gentleman, whose main qualification in peace time is perfect horsemanship, runs away during the Cretan campaign and abandons his men, who are taken prisoners by the Germans. This is the end of all illusions for Guy, who has just heard of the invasion of Russia:

  • 21 Ibid., p. 502.

It was just such a sunny, breezy Mediterranean day two years before when he read of the Russo-German alliance, when a decade of shame seemed to be ending in light and reason, when the Enemy was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off; the modern age in arms.
Now that hallucination was dissolved, like the whales and turtles on the voyage from Crete, and he was back after less than two years’ pilgrimage in a Holy Land of illusion in the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant friends proved traitors and his country was led blundering into dishonour.21

83The modern age in arms is personified by Trimmer, an ex-barber, who is even more representative than Hooper of the vulgar and ignorant mass. Trimmer is made a hero by the astute Ian Kilbannock:

  • 22 Ibid., p. 352.

‘Heroes are urgently required to boost civilian morale; You’ll see pages about the commandos in the papers soon. But not about your racket, Guy. They just won’t do, you know. Delightful fellows, heroes too, I daresay, but the Wrong Period. Last-war stuff, Guy. Went out with Rupert Brooke.’
‘This is a People’s war,’ said Ian prophetically, ‘and the People won’t have poetry and they won’t have flowers. Flowers stink. The upper classes are on the secret list. We want heroes of the people, to or for the people, by, with and from the people.’22

84A raid is simulated, similar to the one Guy has really launched and brought off without getting any credit for it, and Trimmer becomes a hero. He has an affair with Virginia, Guy’s former wife; when Guy remarries her, Trimmer’s child actually becomes his heir. He is called Gervase after Gervase Crouchback, the martyr. This might have been a piece of grim humour in one of Waugh’s pre-war novels; in the trilogy it is a symbol of the aristocracy’s “unconditional surrender,” itself a token of their failure to redeem themselves and their country through their war pilgrimage.

  • 23 Sean O’FAOLAIN, The Vanishing Hero, London, 1956, p. 68.

85Though Guy is quite right to consider the Russians as “his” true enemy, the author crudely simplifies the issue by making Trimmer a representative product of democracy. Similarly, to think that officers do not behave gallantly or gentlemen honourably because honour and courage are meaningless in a democratized society is preposterous. Waugh fails to make his position acceptable because the man who stands for the noble values of the aristocracy is Guy Crouchback, whose sole ambition at forty is to resemble a childhood hero! Though we sympathize with Guy, again because he is a victim, he hardly qualifies as the ideal gentleman; one expects more maturity and efficiency from the rulers of the world than he is capable of. Yet he is not satirized at any moment: “There is not a glimmer of humour in [Waugh’s] picture of Guy Crouchback, who, by a shift of angle, … must appear as a character with endless comic possibilities. It does not even seem to occur to him that from the point of view, and in the language of Crouchback’s fellow-officers and superiors, he must have often appeared as a pain-in-the-neck.”23 Again, what is one to make of Crouchback senior, the saintly old gentleman who

  • 24 Men at Arms, p. 35.

was quite without class consciousness because he saw the whole intricate social structure of his country divided neatly into two unequal and unmistakable parts. On one side stood the Crouchbacks and certain inconspicuous, anciently allied families; on the other side stood the rest of mankind, Box-Bender, the Butcher, the Duke of Omnium (whose onetime wealth derived from monastic spoils), Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain; – all of a piece together. Mr. Crouch-back acknowledged no monarch since James II.24

86He is terribly disappointed to hear that his grandson has not died gallantly on the battlefield but has surrendered with his regiment and been made a prisoner. However, for Guy, the War is not a fruitless experience: he realizes that it is the dreadful product of the evil and madness which prevail in the modern world and that his own wish to gratify his personal honour was part of the general insanity. A Jew, whose life he has saved, explains this to him:

  • 25 Unconditional Surrender, p. 53.

‘Is there any place that is free from evil? It is too simple to say that only the Nazis wanted war. These communists wanted it too. It was the only way in which they could come to power. Many of my people wanted it, to be revenged on the Germans, to hasten the creation of the national state. It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians – not very many perhaps – who felt this. Were there none in England? ‘God forgive me,’ said Guy, ‘I was one of them.’25

87Waugh’s pre-war novels are masterly parodies of modern life, clever and brilliant satires of the folly of an age. At once a detractor and an admirer of the English upper classes, he caricatures their behaviour with the same dash and insolence that he prizes in their younger members. Individual frivolity and social chaos are the object of his satire. Caught in a reckless round of pleasure-seeking, his unthinking and irresponsible Bright Young Things are quite a match for their stupid and grotesque elders. National, social and religious institutions are profaned with gusto or indiference, traditions violated, and the notions of service and duty ignored or misunderstood. The world of Waugh’s early novels is devoid of values; it is full of incomplete men and women who have lost the capacity to feel. Life is crude and uncivilized, seldom more than a senseless and cruel game. The innocent who enters it, whether willingly or not, is inevitably victimized, though his fate is not quite undeserved as it usually results from his simple-minded notions of right and wrong.

88From one novel to another Waugh’s young characters grow in cynicism and provocativeness, while their elders become increasingly muddle-headed and inefficient. Yet there is no denying Waugh’s affection for the legendary Peter Pastmaster, Alastair Trumpington and Basil Seal, nor for some of his beautiful and elegant hostesses. Waugh has achieved a remarkable feat by presenting bad or mad characters without making them unattractive. The ambivalence of his approach is just perceptible enough to be disturbing; the ambiguity of his early novels is a challenging element because his half-concealed sympathy for the Bright Young Things combines with perfect detachment in the description of their antics or of the more general insanity and cruelty of the world. This lack of an implicit set of values adds to the ferocity of Waugh’s satires. Moral justice is conspicuously absent from his novels but his point is precisely that there is no moral justice in actual life. His characters do typify current attitudes however fantastic these appear. Indeed, Waugh criticizes modern society by presenting slightly distorted and self-satirizing pictures of it. He scarcely emphasizes the eccentric behaviour of his models. Like Firbank, he presents them in disconnected conversation scenes which give his fiction a rapid and disjointed tempo suggestive of the hectic rhythm of modern life. William Gerhardie also comes to mind with regard to Waugh’s vision of a lunatic world. In his autobiography Waugh writes that he was introduced to Gerhardie’s novels by Claud Cockburn while still at Oxford. There is little doubt that he was influenced by him: Waugh’s humour is seldom compassionate, but some of his early novels are samples of a genre Gerhardie called “humorous tragedy.”

  • 26 Evelyn Waugh, .A Little Learning, London, 1964, p. 205.

89Though his early novels are void of moral indignation and his standpoint is hard to define, Waugh’s approach is not entirely negative. His early work seems paradoxical because he chastises a social class whom he otherwise considers as the rightful keepers of an order of which he wholly approves. As a political conservative, Waugh satirizes society in the name of the established order and of its traditions. As a Roman Catholic, he satirizes it in the name of faith. The barbarism which he derides so comically in his novels is the inevitable effect of a return to paganism and is as destructive in the so-called advanced countries as in the African jungle. The absence of a clearly defined purpose in life illustrates the confusion bred by agnosticism or religious indifference, while a simple-minded belief in man results in ignorance of evil. In these aspects of his criticism, Waugh achieves universality of a kind. Unfortunately, his satire is limited by his assumption that values, whether social, moral, or religious, are a matter of class. Just as the Catholic aristocracy in his later novels are saved by divine grace, so the upper-class trouble-makers of his early satires are redeemed by a social grace, which sometimes mars his humour and explains why Waugh is so much more tolerant of these trouble-makers than of social outsiders. He seems to have been fascinated by their “determination to treat with the world only on their own terms.”26

90Waugh’s infatuation with the charm of the English upper classes eventually drove him to give up satire as an art form. Except for The Loved One, his post-war work is often marred by the sentimentality with which he celebrates the aristocracy and deplores their decline. His vision of English life became very pessimistic when he realized that the civilization they stood for was doomed. In some of his early novels the careless gaiety of his characters together with their obvious longing for stability and purposive action implied that, given a chance, they might show themselves worthy of their ancestors. Few writers have expressed like Waugh the temper of youth, the mixture of assurance and anguish of those who still feel they can master life. As he shows in Put Out More Flags, their panache made him confident that they would yet prove they could be as noble as they had been frivolous. Paradoxically, however, Waugh, who had been so sensitive to the chaos and anxiety of a post-war world, welcomed the Second World War in the same spirit as that which had brought disillusion and bitterness to the protagonists of the First, i.e., with enthusiasm and as an ordeal that would purify the young of their past follies. Associating the real English tradition with the Catholic aristocracy, he showed the latter starting on a crusade to preserve the values of Western civilization and of their own authoritarian tradition. But their venture was anachronistic; the last battle of the aristocracy had been fought and lost in 1914. Waugh was finally disappointed with their incapacity to resist the destructive forces of democracy: his gallant nobles are out of fashion; they withdraw from the social scene and allow the uncouth savages of the Welfare State to come into their heritage. Waugh’s post-war fiction satirizes the decay of values which, in his eyes, inevitably follows democratization: the beauty, the dignity, the charm of English life make way for mediocrity and dullness; there is no way back to the delights of “Arcadia.”


1 Aldous HUXLEY, Antic Hay, p. 133.

2 Evelyn Waugh, quoted by Frederick STOPP in Evelyn Waugh, Portrait of an Artist, London, 1958, pp. 194-5.

3 Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, Penguin Books, 1962, p. 18.

4 Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies, Penguin Books, 1955, p. 131.

5 Evelyn Waugh, Black Mischief, Penguin Books, 1961, p. 95.

6 Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, Penguin Books, 1961, p. 66.

7 Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust, Penguin Books, 1961, pp. 14-15.

8 Richard Wasson, “A Handful of Dust: Critique of Victorianism,” Modern Fiction Studies, VII, 4 (Winter 1961-1962), 327.

9 Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Penguin Books, 1962, p. 215.

10 Quoted by Frederik Stopp in op. cit., p. 108.

11 Introduction to the revised edition of Brideshead Revisited, first published by Chapman and Hall in 1960.

12 Scoop, p. 155.

13 A Handful of Dust, p. 16.

14 Ibid., p. 177.

15 Evelyn WAUGH and Randolph CHURCHILL, to whom the novel is dedicated.

16 Evelyn WAUGH, Put Out More Flags, London, 1948, Introduction, p. 12.

17 John McCormick, op. cit., p. 288.

18 Evelyn Waugh, The Sword o{ Honour: Men at Arms (1952) and Officers and Gentlemen (1955), New York, 1961, Unconditional Surrender, London, 1961.

19 Men at Arms, p. 145.

20 Officers and Gentlemen, p. 366.

21 Ibid., p. 502.

22 Ibid., p. 352.

23 Sean O’FAOLAIN, The Vanishing Hero, London, 1956, p. 68.

24 Men at Arms, p. 35.

25 Unconditional Surrender, p. 53.

26 Evelyn Waugh, .A Little Learning, London, 1964, p. 205.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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