Magazine | December 19, 2016, Issue

Enfant Terrible

Evelyn Waugh (Kurt Hutton/Getty)
Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, by Philip Eade (Holt, 432 pp., $32)

First, a confession. When Evelyn Waugh published Sword of Honour, as fine a post-war novel as any in the English language, I wrote a crass review of it. It was 1965; I was then in my late twenties and should have known better. Accusing Waugh of being “a social Philistine” unable to imagine the lives of those outside his own class, I was enlisting in the chorus of fashionable leftists making it their business to dismiss him as a preposterous reactionary. Waugh liked to tease my father, Alan Pryce-Jones, a writer and a Catholic convert like him, as “the man Jones.” When my piece appeared, he let it be known that “the boy Jones” had given offense. Mea culpa.

My first meeting with Waugh had been at a lunch party in the highly respectable Randolph Hotel in Oxford. Teresa Waugh, his eldest daughter, had invited a dozen of her university contemporaries. In the course of the meal, someone said that the person we were speaking about had children and therefore wasn’t homosexual. “Nonsense, buggers have babies,” said Waugh in a voice that stopped conversation throughout the dining room. “Lord Beauchamp had six, Oscar had two, and even little Loulou Harcourt managed one.” (I could place Lord Beauchamp and Oscar Wilde but little Loulou was an unknown quantity to me.) That same term, Teresa further invited me for the weekend at Combe Florey, the Waugh house in Somerset. As we drove up to the door after three hours on the road, Waugh leaned out of a first-floor window shouting, “Go away!” There seemed to be nothing for it. We duly turned around and left. A year or two later, I received a letter in his handwriting but oddly signed in the name of Laura, his wife, inviting me to a white-tie dance. A military band played “The Post Horn Gallop,” music for brass to which it is impossible to dance. The moment midnight struck, Waugh clapped his hands and dismissed everybody.

His son Auberon, the name usually shortened to Bron, was making his way in literary London as I was. Doing military service, he had been shot and almost killed in an accident, and was in a hospital near our house. We felt sorry for him, and while my father was visiting one day, Evelyn arrived, glared at Bron, and said, “It is a soldier’s duty to die for his country.” Bron’s wedding reception was in the House of Lords. Waugh was standing apart in a courtyard and wielding an antique ear trumpet as though to dissociate himself from the proceedings. “Who are you?” he asked me, and when I identified myself, he said in tones of commiseration, “I used to know your poor dear father.”

In word and deed, then, I had seen enough of Evelyn Waugh to believe the worst of him. No novelist since Dickens had been quite so much in the news. No Conservative, no high Tory in the England of that day, was anything like so defiant. In a television interview that left a permanent image, John Freeman, a typical socialist grandee, extracted from Waugh the admission that he hated the medium of television. Freeman then asked Waugh why he had accepted appearing for this interview. “For the same reason that you do. I need the money,” Waugh said, celebrating victory in this battle of wits by puffing clouds of cigar smoke into Freeman’s face. Hilaire Belloc, a fellow Catholic, had a Biblical explanation for Waugh’s rage and disappointment: “He has the devil in him.”

Praise for his writing and huge sales of his books made no apparent difference. Graham Greene, another fellow Catholic and his obvious rival, paid tribute to him as the best novelist of their generation. Anthony Powell measured his reputation against Waugh’s. But the Century of the Common Man had destroyed the traditional aristocratic order whose memorial is Brideshead Revisited. Waugh was evidently speaking for himself when Pinfold, one of his fictional alter egos, singled out “plastics, Picasso, sun bathing, and jazz” as distressing details of a time out of joint.

Christopher Sykes, a member of a traditional Catholic family, was a longstanding friend of Waugh’s and his first non-academic biographer. Taking Waugh at face value, he was surprisingly sanctimonious for a man of the world, sometimes so disapproving that he came close to breaking off his friendship with him. By the time two subsequent biographers, Martin Stannard and Selina Hastings, had finished with him, the caricature of Waugh was well and truly established: unloving son, indifferent husband, brutal father for whom children were “defective adults,” snobbish social climber, rabid misanthropist, bilious conservative — in every which way a monster.

Philip Eade gives the impression of approaching Waugh on tiptoes, so cautious are his opinions. All the same, his new biography deconstructs the monster and reattaches the man to the human race. The central proposition is that Waugh was extracting from life the make-believe that he needed for literature. Artists create myths; great artists create great myths, and never mind who might get hurt in the process. He did not deceive himself; he recognized that “I am by nature a bully and a scold” and condemned “my own odious, if unromantic sins.” Proposing marriage to Laura, he warned that she would be taking on “an elderly buffoon” and be at the mercy of “the awfulness of my character.” His fusty middle-class background, his equally dim education, his travels to very foreign parts, his quarrelling, his tendency to boredom and depression, his satirical sense that most people are rather ridiculous when they take themselves seriously are essential components of his mythic way of coming to terms with the world.

Nobody before Eade has devoted so much attention to Waugh’s sex life. At Oxford, Waugh wrote in his diary, he had been “quite incredibly depraved morally.” Almost certainly, he was referring to several apparently happy homosexual affairs that preceded his very unhappy and short first marriage. Among women who refused his advances were Lady Diana Cooper, Lady Mosley, and the well-named Baby Jungmann, one of the Vile Bodies of the period. So subservient was Laura as a wife that he described her as “a white mouse.” His visits to Winnie in Mrs. Meyrick’s swanky brothel are a surprise to me.

The power of Sword of Honour lies in Waugh’s mythologizing of himself through the character of Guy Crouchback, the truest of his fictional alter egos. At the outbreak of the war, Hitler and Stalin had signed the pact that clarified the coming struggle for civilization: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful. . . . It was the Modern Age in arms.” The cowardice and abuse of privilege on the part of British soldiers with him on active service disillusion Guy. When Mrs. Stitch (modeled on the then virtually vice-regal Lady Diana Cooper) saves a favorite officer from disgrace by dropping the evidence that might incriminate him in her waste-paper basket, Waugh seals his artistry with the sentence, “Her eyes were one immense sea, full of flying galleys.”

Eade might have made more of Waugh’s wartime rows with such commanders as Lord Lovat and Fitzroy Maclean, who frustrated his wish for action, and with such colleagues as Randolph Churchill, the prime minister’s overbearing son: His reaction to such men was far from snobbish. Nor is justice done to Waugh’s heartfelt efforts to care for a group of displaced and persecuted Yugoslav Jews. On the other hand, Eade tracked down Waugh’s batman, who had good memories of him and thought he had looked after his men properly: hardly class-conscious on Waugh’s part.

Make-believe clouded over the final years. The fictional alter ego Pinfold suffered from delusions similar to Waugh’s own. Waugh’s real-life cure, “a cocktail of chloral and bromide,” as Eade calls it, was more harmful than the voices in his head, and left a reek around him as though the gas main were leaking. Whether out of fear of the consequences or recognition that none of them was able to exert any influence, the family humored him. It is a psychological curiosity that Bron was to adopt every one of his father’s views, pursing ancient feuds in identical prose. The phrase “the boy Jones” had a long run.

Early in 1966, I was at the wedding of friends in the quite small chapel of Wardour Castle, a Catholic stronghold since the English Civil War. Waugh made his entry. He was in a tailcoat. Supported by Christopher Sykes on one side and wielding the old ear trumpet on the other, he walked to one of the pews at the front. Not long before, the Second Vatican Council had decreed that Latin was redundant. The wedding ceremony accordingly was held in English. Up came the ear trumpet, and Waugh boomed and kept on booming with the same intention to be heard as once before in the dining room of the Randolph Hotel, “What’s going on?” and “What language is this?” and “I can’t understand a thing.” These were his epitaphs. A few weeks later, he had a stroke and died.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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