Waugh's Gift

Novelist, travel writer, essayist, and biographer Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), the 50th anniversary of whose death rolled around this year, celebrated by those survivors who had the misfortune of knowing him at all well, was as wretched and ornery a human being as anyone could be who was not actually moved to suicide or murder.

He also happened to be funny as hell when the mood struck him, or when he was writing his classic comic novels. Cruelty was an ever-flowing font of amusement. He started young and refined his methods into old age—which in his case began around 40. As a schoolboy at Lancing College he delivered a regular verbal flaying to classmates he called Dungy and Buttocks. His last year at Lancing he founded the Corpse Club, "for people who are bored stiff." Boredom would be a perennial affliction for Waugh, and a source of lethal animadversions against all who contributed to his unhappiness: "I am certainly making myself hateful," the Lancing sixth-former wrote in his diary.

At Oxford, eschewing all work, he ran afoul of his tutor and college dean, the historian C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, and avenged himself with rhymes about this ogre's unseemly love of animals that he sang (drunkenly) under the offender's window at night: Cruttwell dog, Cruttwell dog, where have you been? / I've been to Hertford to lie with the Dean. Miscreants, morons, and malefactors in Waugh's novels and stories would share the Cruttwell name. During a dreary spell as a schoolmaster, Waugh diverted himself by categorizing his pupils as either "mad" or "diseased," which is to say stupid or pimply. Having married, at 25, a young woman who reputedly had been engaged to nine different men, and having been divorced 15 months later when she fell in love with someone else, Waugh wrote to his friend Harold Acton: "I did not know it was possible to be so miserable & live but I am told that this is a common experience."

In his emotional and moral breakdown he surrendered his soul to the Roman Catholic church and would infect his faith with the snobbery and general loathing for humanity that had bedeviled him before his conversion. To his friend Diana Cooper he would write, "How to reconcile this indifference to human beings with the obligations of Charity. That is my problem." When asked by Nancy Mitford how he could be a Christian yet "so horrible," he replied that, if not for his faith, he would be "even more horrible" and, in any case, would have killed himself long ago.

He could also be a raging horror to friends who violated the tenets of faith. When Clarissa Churchill broke with the church to marry Anthony Eden, who had been divorced, Waugh placed the Christ-killing hammer and nails in her hands: "Did you never think how you were contributing to the loneliness of Calvary by your desertion?" (Waugh himself remarried after securing an annulment on the grounds that his first marriage had not been entered into with all due spiritual gravity—which was, of course, true.) He regaled his old friend John Betjeman, an Anglican whose wife was converting to Catholicism, with the everlasting prospect awaiting him if he didn't wise up and join her in the only legitimate worship there is: "Awful about your obduracy in schism and heresy. Hell hell hell. Eternal damnation."

Lesser missteps on his old friends' part could trigger fury amounting to insanity. Henry Yorke (who wrote novels under the pen name of Henry Green) and his wife committed the faux pas of lighting up cigarettes at lunch, after having asked Mrs. Waugh if that would be acceptable. Waugh sent the china crashing to the floor, declaring that smoking at meals was unforgivably vulgar and that his guests must have been consorting with Jews in New York. Then he left the room.

Henry Yorke had offended already by writing novels about the working class, a subject Waugh vividly despised. The jumped-up lower breeds were overrunning one of the last preserves of civilization: literature as it had been practiced by writers who appreciated every nuance of class distinction, "the ramifications of the social order which have obsessed some of the acutest minds of the last 150 years." And the rot was everywhere, starting in the great universities. In a 1955 open letter to Nancy Mitford in Encounter, Waugh skewered Home Secretary R. A. B. Butler's Education Act, which "provided for the free distribution of university degrees to the deserving poor. .  .  . L'École de Butler are the primal men and women of the classless society." To Waugh, the classless society was no society at all.

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