Evelyn Waugh: predictor of the culture of death

The late John Muggeridge once told me of the time he met Evelyn Waugh. “I was sitting with my father and celebrating the fact that I’d just received my commission in the army. I was rather proud. He immediately deflated me with some rude comment about the status of my regiment. But I didn’t mind. He was so gifted, so clever and I so admired his brand of Catholicism.”

Which is as appropriate an encapsulation as any of the great British author, who wrote, amongst others, Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall, Scoop, A Handful of Dust, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, Put Out More Flags and biographies of Ronald Know and Edmund Campion.

Born in 1903, Waugh was arguably the finest novelist of the 20th century and a man who recorded and predicted moral decay and the culture of death with more skill, humour and foresight than any of his literary contemporaries.

He was born into a wealthy, if not prestigious, middle-class family and educated privately and at Oxford University. He did little work and when asked in an interview what he did for his college, he replied, “I drank for it.”

He became a teacher after university, but a reluctant and cynical one. He had always written, and in 1928, after dabbling in journalism, he published Decline and Fall, a biting satire about social climbing, the upper classes and the fortune and misfortune of an innocent young teacher.

Two years later came Vile Bodies, a hilarious account of bright young things and their dark old sins, establishing Waugh as one of Britain’s foremost young writers. In the same year, he became a Roman Catholic. Some years later, he was behaving badly at a fashionable dinner party and was asked how he could be so rude and call himself a Catholic. Imagine how insufferable I would be, he replied, if I were not a Catholic!

Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945 and was Waugh’s most forthright exploration of his faith. His characters are the personification of charm, style and grace, but the author shows us the spiritual longings behind the obvious glamour. Once again, there is a theme of decline, replicated in his Sword of Honour trilogy, published between 1952 and 1961. The books are based on Waugh’s own wartime service in an elite combat unit and chronicle the disillusionment of its hero, who saw at first hand the moral and political corruption of all man-made ideology. Waugh was one of the few writers of the era willing to condemn communism; in this case, that of the Yugoslavian partisans. The final book of the three shows the quintessential inhumanity of collectivism and how a society without godly absolutes is destined to destroy itself and, unless stopped, those around it.

Waugh’s life of Monsignor Ronald Knox, one of the finest minds of his generation, was a tender study of a great friend and a great Catholic. As with his biography of Elizabethan saint Edmund Campion, it is relatively uncritical but relentlessly reliable and moving.

Waugh died in 1966 after returning home from a Latin Mass on Easter Sunday, with his wife and children in the next room. Forty years his later, his writing is more popular than ever. But it is his approach to the world’s squabbles and quarrels, rather than his specific work, that is so timeless. He saw his Christian faith as being the only rock of sanity in a sea of modernist screaming and hateful philosophies. Critics have argued that he retreated from the world; the truth is that he advanced into faith.

His comments and observations are as penetrating and accurate today as they were during his lifetime. “Pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom,” and, “There is a species of person called a ‘modern churchman,’ who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.” This, of course, was more than half a century before the liberal lunacies of the modern Christianity we now know so well. Or, on the glorious simplicity of sainthood, “Saints are simply men and women who have fulfilled their natural obligation, which is to approach God.”

I knew and worked for Waugh’s son, Auberon. He was an extraordinarily generous and likeable man who possessed much of his father’s wit but, sadly, little of his religiosity. Bron’s son Alexander has moved even further away from Christianity, which is something that would have caused Evelyn great pain. But his books and his personality live on and continue to provoke, amuse and inspire. He was a Waugh to start war rather than end it – and that would have pleased him no end.

Michael Coren is a Toronto-based writer and broadcaster.

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