Evelyn Waugh defies easy categorization. He was simultaneously a defender of social hierarchy and an anarchist (“He liked life,” his longtime friend Christopher Hollis once remarked, “to be full of disturbance”); a Catholic convert who had a gift for being a misanthropic ass; and a father whose defining paternal characteristic was, as his son Auberon wryly (and perhaps unfairly) put it, “his lack of interest in his children.” He was also a political conservative and an unapologetic aesthete.
His first two novels — Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930) — show how a barbaric “modernism” displaced traditional English values, rendering life an absurd crapshoot in which only the lucky or witty survive. After his conversion in 1930, his work, which had always contained numerous references to the Church and religious belief, explored faith more seriously if somewhat idiosyncratically. “To anyone brought up as a Catholic,” critic Bernard Bergonzi remarked in a 1961 article for the Guardian, “Mr. Waugh’s image of Catholicism is, to say the least, peculiar.” Among other things, his Catholic characters often lack piety, and the hope offered in Catholicism in the novels, while real, is muted. In a 1960 episode of BBC TV’s Face to Face, host John Freeman said to Waugh: “You don’t seem to find very much which is good in the modern world. . . . Are you trying to scourge us into reform?” To which Waugh responded, with his wide, charming, and rarely used smile: “No, I’m just trying to write books.”
Of course, Freeman was right. Waugh’s work does try to “scourge us into reform,” but the reform required is not one merely of habits and manners. It is nothing less than a complete inner transformation in which we admit, along with Waugh, that “everything in the world that’s good depends on [God].” Faith, Waugh continues, “isn’t a sort of added amenity of the Welfare State that you say, ‘Well, to all this, having made a good income, now I’ll have a little icing on top of religion.’ It’s the essence of the whole thing.”
In this new book, Michael G. Brennan, a professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Leeds, reminds us of the centrality of religious belief to Waugh’s writing, even if Waugh the man often fell short of the piety to which he aspired (as he himself was quick to admit). Catholicism, Brennan argues, provided Waugh’s post-conversion work with its “three key dualities — faith and doubt, hope and despair, and loyalty and betrayal.” Waugh shows us how a life devoted to animalistic self-gratification dehumanizes us, while, at the same time, it offers, in Brennan’s words, “the Augustinian consolation that no form of personal weakness can overwhelm the infinite compassion and mercy of a Divine Father who seeks from his children only the heartfelt words: ‘peccavi’ (‘I have sinned’) and ‘credo in Unum Deum’ (‘I believe in One God’).”
Brennan begins, helpfully, with a concise summary of Waugh’s early life — of his family’s literary heritage, of his father’s preference for his older brother, and of Waugh’s early religiosity: He organized daily communal prayers when he was a boy and frequently compiled devotional poems for his family and local congregations.
In secondary school, however, Waugh would become an agnostic. At first, he would continue his odd “theatrical piety, kneeling at chapel during the Creed while others stood and at night kneeling deep in prayer in the dormitory.” But, as he became more involved in other aspects of school life, he dropped these pious poses and, as a result of his discussions with his sometimes contentious divinity teacher, rejected Christianity in a June 13, 1921, journal entry: “In the last few weeks I have ceased to be a Christian. . . . I have realized that for the last two terms at least I have been an atheist in all except the courage to admit it to myself.” In a letter to his friend Dudley Carew, Brennan reports, Waugh explained that he was open to the idea of God as a force but did not believe in the personal God of Christianity.
Waugh entered Oxford in January 1922. He was relatively studious that first year, but he was a heavy-drinking aesthete during his second and third years, taking part in the Bullingdon Dining Club, drunkenly taunting his history tutor, and most likely becoming involved sexually with two fellow (male) students. Yet, as Brennan points out, Oxford was also the beginning of Waugh’s interest in Catholicism. Francis Urquhart was the first Catholic dean of Balliol College since the Reformation, and many of Waugh’s contemporaries and friends became Catholic, including Alistair Graham (the model for the Catholic Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited), with whom Waugh visited various Catholic churches in Ireland on a walking tour in August 1924.