White Mischief - Evelyn Waugh

When the final reviews—that is, the obituaries—came in, Evelyn Waugh’s were mixed. His literary accomplishments were noted, so too his Catholic apologetics, but heavy emphasis was put upon his reactionary views and his snobbery. Waugh’s son Auberon, responding to these notices, countered that they were wrong about his father’s snobbery (he scarcely cared about pedigree) and his politics (“politics bored him”), and missed the main point about him: “[i]t is simply that he was the funniest man of his generation.”

Quite so, though it needs to be added that in the case of Evelyn Waugh funny was not always the same as amusing. Amusing suggests light, whimsical, charming. P.G. Wodehouse is amusing. Waugh’s humor tended to the dark, and, given his often gratuitous pugnacity, usually had a victim, or at least an edge. When the favorite of his seven children, his daughter Margaret, wished to live on her own, he told her “you are no more ready for independence than the Congo.” After Randolph Churchill had what turned out to be a benign tumor removed through surgery, Waugh remarked that it was the only thing about Randolph that wasn’t malignant and they removed it. When someone called his attention to a typographical error in one of his books, he replied that one cannot get any decent proofreading now “that they no longer defrock priests for sodomy.” Waugh’s humor was also strong in the line of mischief. While serving in the British army in Yugoslavia during World War II, he spread the rumor that Marshal Tito was a woman—and a lesbian into the bargain. Of his teaching at a boys school in Wales he claimed to take “a certain perverse pleasure in making all I teach as dreary to the boys as it is to myself.” When his friend and fellow convert Ronald Knox asked him if he, Knox, seemed to nod off while giving a lecture, Waugh replied that indeed he did, but only for “twenty minutes.” He described travel to Mexico as “like sitting in a cinema, seeing the travel film of a country one has no intention of visiting.” Of the reception in America of his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), he wrote: “My book has been a great success in the United States which is upsetting because I thought it in good taste before and now I know it can’t be.”

Waugh soon enough acquired a reputation for social ruthlessness, a ruthlessness nicely abetted by his heavy drinking. “Even his close friends were not spared,” Nancy Mitford wrote, “he criticized everyone fiercely and was a terrible tease, but he set about it in such an amusing way that his teasing was easily forgiven.” Not by everyone. Martha Gellhorn, a friend of Waugh’s friend Diana Cooper, called him “a small and very ugly turd.” Duff Cooper, Diana’s husband, reacting to a malicious comment Waugh made about Lord Mountbatten at a dinner party, lashed out: “How dare a common little man like you, who happens to have written one or two moderately amusing novels, criticize that great patriot and gentleman. Leave my house at once!” On his own social combativeness, Waugh has Gilbert Pinfold, his autobiographically based, eponymous character in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) ask, “Why does everyone except me find it so easy to be nice?”

Philip Eade’s new biography of Waugh goes a fair way to answering that question. Eade’s book is subtitled, with some precision, A Life Revisited, for it is Evelyn Waugh’s life and only glancingly his work to which Eade devotes his attention. His is a chronicle of Waugh’s recent ancestry and early childhood, his education, two marriages, and career on to his death in 1966 at the age of 62. Waugh’s books and their reception are mentioned in due course, but it is his career and the formation of his character that hold chief interest.

Rightly so, I should say, for Evelyn Waugh’s novels, travel writings, and biographies (of the painter and poet Dante Rossetti, the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion, and Monsignor Knox) do not really require elaborate critical exploration. All his writing requires is attentive readers, alive to his elegant prose, his craftsmanship at plotting, and the manifold comical touches that bedizen his pages. “Germans,” a character in Brideshead Revisited remarks, “sometimes seem to discover a sense of decency when they get to a classical country.” In A Handful of Dust (1934) a secondary character, Mrs. Rattery, reveals that she has children, two sons:
I don’t see them often. They’re at school somewhere. I took them to the cinema last summer. They’re getting quite big. One’s going to be good-looking, I think. His father is. Rather a different angle on parenting, this, one might say.
Eade recounts Waugh’s life in an admirably economic, straightforward manner, with a nice sense of measure and in a prose style free of jargon and cliché. He neither Freudianizes Waugh nor condemns his lapses into social savagery. Without a trace of tendentiousness, free of all doctrine, the biographer seeks to understand the strange behavior of his subject through telling the story of his life without commenting censoriously on it. The task is far from a simple one. Waugh’s friend Freddy Smith, the second Earl of Birkenhead, in a memoir of his war days with him, wrote:
Evelyn, like Max Beerbohm, but probably for different reasons, had decided to drop an iron visor over all his intimate feelings and serious beliefs and by doing so excluded one from any understanding of his true character…. This deep reticence detracted in a sense from his conversation, which was of the highest order, because however brilliant and witty, one always felt that he was playing some elaborate charade which demanded from him constant vigilance and wariness.
Early in the pages of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, a novel recounting the nervous breakdown of its hero, Waugh stages an interview for Pinfold with a journalist from the BBC. (Waugh himself underwent such a breakdown owing to his overdosing on bromide and chloral combined with his heavy alochol intake, a potion he hoped would help him attain sleep.) Of this interview Pinfold notes that the interviewer “seemed to believe that anyone sufficiently eminent to be interviewed by him must have something to hide, must be an impostor whom it was his business to trap and expose, and to direct his questions from some basic, previous knowledge of something discreditable.” When during an actual interview by John Freeman of the BBC, Waugh was asked why he lived in the country, he answered that it was not because of a love of sport or rural life, but “to get away from people like you.” From behind the screen of Pinfold, Waugh describes his own menacing social profile with a nice exactitude. The novel’s narrator observes that “his habits of life were self-indulgent and his utterances lacked prudence.” As for his tastes, the strongest of them were negative. “[H]e looked at the world sub species aeternitatis and he found it flat as a map; except when, rather often, personal annoyance intruded.” The part he decided to play “was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel…it came to dominate his whole outward personality” as “he offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion that was as hard, bright and antiquated as a cuirass.”

Soon after he came to consciousness Evelyn Waugh was made aware that he was not his father’s favorite child. His older brother, Alec—later a popular, now a largely forgotten, novelist—was. A five-year difference in age separated the two brothers, just the right distance to prevent closeness and make intimacy difficult. Evelyn did not so much hate his father as hold him in contempt. His father was a reviewer (of more than 6,000 books), essayist, publisher (with the firm of Chapman & Hall). Evelyn would later say that he “did everything at deleterious speed.” He also early noted his father’s pomposity, which, combined with his gross sentimentality, precluded all possibility for admiration on the part of his younger son. The older he grew the more dismissive, not to say derisive, of his father he became. Waugh found succor as a child with his mother and his nanny. He would always find intimacy easier with women—Diana Cooper, Nancy Mitford, Ann Fleming, among them—than with men.

“Golden Boy” is the title that Alexander Waugh, grandson of Evelyn and son of Aubernon, in Fathers and Sons (2007), his family history, gives to the chapter on Alec Waugh. Golden he may have seemed to his father but rather a zinc dud he must have seemed to his younger brother. While at Sherbourne, the public school of choice for the men in the Waugh family, Alec was caught in a homosexual scandal that made it impossible for Evelyn to attend the same school, and so he had to attend Lancing, a public school a step down on the status ladder.

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