Evelyn Waugh, Catholic Optimist
Evelyn Waugh: Fictions, Faith and Family, by Michael G. Brennan (Bloomsbury, 192 pp., $34.95)


Following a deeply unsatisfying year teaching school, Waugh wrote a couple of short stories and traveled to Greece (to visit Graham) before determining, in January 1927, “to set about being a man of letters.” His first book, a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was published in 1928 by his father’s firm, followed by Decline and Fall later that same year. The novel was a modest success, and it was followed by Waugh’s commercial breakthrough, Vile Bodies.

Waugh converted to Catholicism on September 29, 1930, shortly after the publication of Vile Bodies. Two of the immediate causes of his conversion were his divorce from his first wife (also Evelyn, though always referred to as “She-Evelyn”) and the beauty and “glory” of the church architecture Waugh encountered on a trip to Spain, Italy, and the Holy Land. But, as Brennan shows, Waugh had been preoccupied with the Church for some years. Waugh ultimately sided with “anarchic vigour” in Decline and Fall, for example, but that novel nevertheless shows, Brennan remarks, how English society had reduced God “to the level of a mere fashionable commodity.” The depiction of one character’s taste in church architecture emphasizes “how the barbarians have irrevocably breached the traditional values of English society.”

In his 1930 newspaper article “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me,” Waugh noted two discoveries that were part and parcel of his conversion. The first was that “Christianity is essential to civilization,” the second “that Christianity exists in its most complete and vital form in the Roman Catholic Church.” From here on, Brennan writes, Waugh’s satirical novels would condemn those “superficially glittering worlds in which the essential values of the Church and family life were ignored,” while Brideshead Revisited (1945) would reassert “the potency of Divine Grace over the secular splendors” even of a great estate such as Brideshead.

A key insight of Brennan’s reading of Waugh’s “Catholic” novels is that they express a hope that is subtle but nonetheless firm. Waugh’s curmudgeonly, acerbic wit can obscure this aspect of his work, but, as Brennan points out, both Brideshead and the Sword of Honour trilogy end with the central characters’ accepting both the fallen state of the world and the immutability of grace. “They realize,” moreover, “that they are no longer alone in a hostile and unforgiving world but, instead, may rely on the protective and nurturing support of their spiritual family.” Yet even here the ultimate value of the Gospel is not found in its therapeutic benefits — a conclusion Waugh was keen to avoid — but in its truth. There is, Waugh remarks, “an historical fact behind the Gospel” without which it would possess none of its power.

Brennan’s otherwise admirable book does fall somewhat short in fleshing out the importance of family in Waugh’s novels. While Brennan states that “the interdependent concepts of family life and dynastic inheritance — with all their joys, vicissitudes, and disappointments — lay deeply embedded within [Waugh’s] creative impulses,” he devotes far less space to this than to the author’s Catholicism and never explains in detail how Waugh understood “dynastic inheritance” to be rooted in that Catholicism or central to Western civilization.

After 1945, Waugh slowly disengaged from public life. He was constantly concerned about money (he was notoriously bad about paying his taxes) and was dismayed at the changes to the Mass following the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Waugh’s health continued to decline. He asked Dom Hubert Van Zeller to celebrate Mass in Latin at the Waugh estate of Combe Florey. Van Zeller refused but Father Philip Caraman, who had just returned from Norway, said the Latin Mass at the nearby village of Wiveliscombe one Sunday with Waugh in attendance, apparently in excellent humor. Later that morning, Waugh suffered a coronary thrombosis. When he didn’t show up for lunch with Father Caraman, who had been invited back to the house after Mass, the family searched and found him dead in the downstairs lavatory.

In a 1962 interview with The Paris Review, Waugh remarked: “I have done all I could. I have done my best.” In his last published piece — a review of Van Zeller’s autobiography — he wrote that death is “a means to a more significant emancipation.” This was neither pessimistic nor morbid, but an expression of his deep-seated belief in the reality of a heavenly kingdom in which goodness, truth, and beauty reigned.

– Mr. Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.

April 22, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 7

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