Evelyn Waugh & ‘The Bright Young Things’
Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939
By Martin Stannard
Pages: 537 pages
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
F. Scott Fitzgerald receives only fleeting mention in the first volume of Martin Stannard’s biography of Evelyn Waugh. That does not detract from Stannard’s splendid achievement, for he had no reason to figure the other author into the story. Fitzgerald and Waugh never met, and Waugh maintained that the American novelist exercised no influence upon his own art. Yet the parallels between the two writers — in both their lives and writings — are striking.
Although born an ocean apart — Waugh in London, Fitzgerald in St. Paul — they belonged to the same generation, though Waugh’s birth in 1903 made him the younger by seven years. Born into what Henry Seidel Canby called “the age of confidence,” Fitzgerald, Waugh, and their peers saw their world split apart by the conflagration that ravaged Europe from 1914 to 1918.
Few events have more dreadfully interrupted the flow of history than World War I. Before the war Western society anticipated a continuing exfoliation of the Enlightenment’s beneficent legacy: material abundance, educational advance, cultural refinement, scientific discovery, technological innovation. Even if the Utopian visions that had teased men’s minds since Plato were not on the verge of translation into fact, it was obvious to all but the incurably reactionary that mankind’s lot was steadily improving. The catchword “progress” easily and readily formed on men’s lips. The war that broke out in August 1914 devastated this sense of well-being, security, and enlightenment. What could not happen, happened: the West plunged into a cauldron of savagery and destruction. Given the sequence of events triggered by the war — the Russian Revolution and the German hunger for vengeance, to name only two — it does not exaggerate to suggest that the West has never recovered from the disaster.
Much nonsense has been written about the young men and women who came of age during and just after World War I. They have been both praised and damned by subsequent observers who have used this generation as a whetstone upon which to sharpen various ideological weapons. Fitzgerald and Waugh helped to fashion the popular image of the postwar decade. Fitzgerald holds primacy, if for no other reason than that he preceded Waugh. Beginning with This Side of Paradise in 1920 and continuing through the novels and short stories published over the next 10 years, he limned the portrait of the “Jazz Age,” an era that catapulted the youth-culture to imaginative supremacy. Disillusioned by wartime carnage, repelled by the stuffiness of their elders, seized by an urgency to live for the nonce, Fitzgerald’s characters drink, dance, pet, and frolic through his pages in a loud and hedonistic rebellion against pre-war Victorianism. For Fitzgerald, life and art imitated one another: he wrote what he lived and lived what he wrote. He and the beauteous Zelda became avatars of the age.
Waugh was still a schoolboy when the war ended, and not yet an adult when This Side of Paradise appeared. But as Stannard shows, even before going up to Oxford in 1922, Waugh had mounted his own revolt against the tired old men, mores, and morals of prewar England. His Oxford years could have furnished Fitzgerald with raw material for a short story, for Waugh’s curriculum consisted mainly of concentrated studies in debauchery and dissipation. Soon after his arrival among the spires of learning, he wrote to a friend that “the greatest thing Oxford has to teach” was how to get drunk without suffering the misery of a hangover. At Oxford and after, Waugh racketed about with a rich (often titled) and free-spirited crowd that formed the English equivalent of Fitzgerald’s prodigal sons and daughters; England knew them as the “Bright Young Things.” Unlike Fitzgerald, Waugh did not initially itch to write about his contemporaries. His first loves were painting and design, but after dabbling in these for a spell he turned to writing. He later remarked, only half-facetiously, that “I was driven to writing because I found it was the only way a lazy and ill-educated man could make a decent living…”
He chose wisely, for his first novel, Decline and Fall, published in 1928, accomplished for him what This Side of Paradise had done earlier for Fitzgerald: it marked him as a young man to be watched. Waugh found his Zelda, too — Evelyn Gardner (known as “She-Evelyn” to their friends), the beautiful daughter of Lord Burghclere. The marriage provided hot copy for gossip columnists: scintillating author weds comely aristocrat with intention to pursue the high and fast life. Waugh triumphed again with his next novel, Vile Bodies (1930), a best-seller that, writes Stannard, “was an instant success and secured Waugh’s position as a prominent young writer….” The Bright Young Things were agog, and they scampered to copy the mannerisms, sparkling ripostes, and titillating misbehavior of Waugh’s smart-set. Waugh had become the English Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1930 such a comparison would not have sprung to mind automatically, for by then Fitzgerald was stale news. The Jazz Age had guttered out in America, and Fitzgerald, well past the desolating milestone of his 30th birthday, no longer spoke for the young. Zelda was sinking deeper into madness, Scott commanded scant attention as a writer, and the good, gay times were over. Fitzgerald struggled on through the decade, fighting booze and grappling with a recalcitrant muse. By 1940 he was dead, leaving behind an unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, that might, if completed, have restored his vanished popularity.
Waugh might have traipsed a similar course toward disintegration and early death. After Oxford he enrolled in postgraduate studies in drunken revelry, and by the 1930s he could claim noteworthy expertise in the discipline. He also suffered, like Fitzgerald, a crushing blow from marriage: scarcely had the glamorous youngsters settled into domesticity, than She-Evelyn departed for another man’s bed. Unlike most scholars and memoirists who have written about the debacle, Stannard does not cast Evelyn Gardner as the villainess. But wherever the fault lay, Waugh was devastated by the betrayal.
The recuperative powers of the young are awesome: Waugh poured his energies into a dizzying social life and an equally hectic scribbling of novels, short stories, travel books, reviews, and articles for the popular press. By 1939, with an obscure Fitzgerald approaching his rendezvous with death, Waugh was one of England’s most talked-about novelists — famous, critically acclaimed, and beneficiary of a substantial income (which he spent as fast as he made).
The lives of Waugh and Fitzgerald diverged in another way. Scott Fitzgerald was born and raised a Catholic. Somewhere along the line he lost his faith and never regained it. He did not “need” it in the 1920s: he was young, handsome, famous, and rich. The dance seemed as if it would last forever, as he and Zelda glided from party to party — admired, emulated, and envied by those trapped in the drabness of quotidian existence. But a somber note could be heard at times, sounding ominously behind the syncopated rhythms of the jazz fest. It surfaces in that exquisite novel, The Great Gatsby, a tale of lost dreams and blasted hopes. By the 1930s the melancholy strain had pushed to the fore. The glamor and febrile happiness had evanesced, and Fitzgerald was left alone to wrestle with his demons.
The Church could have provided refuge from the terrors of the night, but he refused its consolation. He died a sad and lonely figure, struggling at the end to recapture the magic grace of his earlier writings. His body was brought home to Maryland for burial — “home,” because he had always been proudest of the Maryland ancestry bequeathed him by his father. In the late 1970s, through the persistent efforts of his daughter, his remains were disinterred from the public cemetery where he had been buried in 1940, and removed to the burial ground of a nearby Catholic church. In a roundabout way Scott Fitzgerald finally returned to the Church.
Waugh had to find the Church on his own, but once he took hold, he never let go. Raised in a tepid Anglicanism, he underwent a boyhood infatuation with the fragrances and tintinnabulations of Anglo-Catholicism and then lost his faith. At Oxford he announced himself an agnostic; Stannard observes: “Agnosticism became just another facet of his lack of faith in everything.” A friend, Christopher Hollis, converted to Catholicism during their Oxford days, and Hollis recalled that of all his circle, only Waugh “vigorously” protested his conversion. Waugh was more nihilist than genteel Victorian agnostic, and when he welded this to a flagrant hedonism the result was a feverish debauchery that skated the edge of bottomless despair.
Art rescued him. Stannard contends that “in the end Waugh only escaped suicidal dypsomania by the narrowest of margins because, much to his surprise and even annoyance, he discovered a prodigious literary talent.” He elevated art into a “surrogate religion,” a practice not uncommon ever since the Romantics first transformed art into “spilt religion,” to quote T.E. Hulme’s felicitous term. But this would not suffice, for it failed, says Stannard, to “satisfy those longings for ultimate order.”
Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism in 1930 and its subsequent influence upon his life and art form a major part of Stannard’s book. Stannard’s own religious predilections are not evident, but whatever they may be, he handles Waugh’s Catholicism with sensitivity, percipience, and fairness. It is difficult for an outsider to determine exactly what motivates a person to switch to Rome. (By “outsider,” I mean not just an unbeliever or a non-Catholic, but anyone other than the convert himself.) Assiduously scrutinize all the pertinent evidence and you still come up short, for the convert’s motives remain elusive. Even his conscious testimony is suspect, especially when he testifies from within his newfound refuge. He tends to impose a too-neat pattern upon the disorder of experience; he discerns a logic that is apparent only retrospectively. This business of conversion, seemingly transparent, is really a deep mystery.
Certainly the despair that lurked in the shadows of Waugh’s life in the 1920s played a role in prodding him toward Rome. Before Rome, though, came a failed suicide attempt in 1925, an act that, despite its comic air (swimming out to sea, Waugh plunged into a school of jellyfish that literally stung him back to his senses), was no less a howl of protest against the barrenness of existence. By the late 1920s the disastrous results of his friends’ self-destructiveness confronted him; their wasted lives belied the seemingly carefree frivolity of the younger set. The excruciating pain caused by his wife’s desertion further depleted his purely human resources. The world, he came to realize, was “unintelligible and unendurable without God.”
How to find God? “Cautiously” in 1930 he began to delve into Catholic apologetics. “It became apparent to Waugh,” Stannard comments, “that religion need not necessarily represent the abnegation of intellect or submission to bourgeois compromise.” The Catholic Church’s version of smells and bells did not seduce him; after all, the Anglo-Catholics, purveyors of immaculate taste, could always best the Romans in aesthetics. Nor was he drawn toward a mystical assault on God; he distrusted the idea of ecstatic submersion in the sea of divinity.
Fr. Martin D’Arcy, the Jesuit who instructed him, later remarked that few converts “can have been so matter of fact as Evelyn Waugh.” Waugh’s characterization of one of his fictional protagonists expresses his own experience perfectly: “‘conversion’ suggests an event more sudden and emotional than his calm acceptance of the propositions of his faith.” Does this reveal a certain casualness or lack of profound belief? Not at all; as D’Arcy also observed, for Waugh it came down to a matter of God-given reason. Or, as Stannard avers, “the validity of Catholic doctrine he saw as based on historical facts.” Only a born-again Protestant would condemn this as an inadequate ground for conversion. The Catholic knows better; as Chesterton pointed out, the Church has a multitude of doors through which a convert may enter: a door locked to one man, swings open to another with the barest nudge. Evelyn Waugh’s door swung open, and he stepped across the threshold on September 29, 1930.
The beginning is the end, the end the beginning: life without the Church ends, life within the Church begins; unfortunately, the latter is not always easier than the former. The Church promises salvation; it cannot guarantee peace. Waugh found such peace elusive. Conversion imposed a strenuous sacrifice on the 26-year-old convert: though divorced, he faced a future without hope of remarriage, for he had no reason to believe his marriage to Evelyn Gardner was invalid. Waugh accepted this; he needed the Bride of Christ more than he needed a wife. The absence of a stable Catholic marriage took its toll, however. For the next several years, Waugh lived, as he described it, with “no possessions, no home, sometimes extravagant & luxurious, sometimes lying low & working hard.” He indulged in a good deal of hard drinking, a moderate amount of fornication, acrimonious feuds with a variety of people, and a relentless campaign of self-promotion.
Stannard records Waugh’s less admirable qualities with quizzical bemusement. Is this any way for a newly converted Catholic to behave? “Throughout his life there seemed no contradiction to him between the assertion of faith and personal failure perfectly to emulate Christian principles. The two were quite separate issues; there was no question, he thought, of hypocrisy.” Stannard fails to comprehend one thing: this is precisely what fallen human nature is all about. Recognizing the good and acting upon it do not always coincide; if we could all “perfectly emulate Christian principles” we would need no Church. “Hypocrisy”? No, sin. Waugh discovered a badly needed stability in 1937 when he finally obtained an annulment of his first marriage and married Laura Herbert. At last he had what had been missing: “the community of Faith in an ordinary domestic sense,” to quote Stannard.
Those who know Waugh only through his novels might be surprised to learn that he entered the Church as early as 1930. Because his first overtly Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, did not appear until 1945, it would be reasonable to surmise that his conversion occurred later than it did. The early novels evince few obvious clues to Waugh’s change of heart. One of the most praiseworthy features of Stannard’s book lies in its examination of this apparent disjunction between Waugh’s religion and art from 1930 until the writing of Brideshead. He does not deny that a problem exists; rather he transforms it into a subtle and nuanced phenomenon.
When Waugh published Decline and Fall in 1928 he was serious about neither writing nor religion. By 1930 he had changed on both counts. Publication of the first novel initiated his emergence as spokesman for the Bright Young Things. He seized the opportunity mainly because it would elicit commissions from the popular press, which in turn would keep the money flowing to finance his indulgence in a costly social life. The gambit worked; with the publication of Vile Bodies in 1930, magazine editors began clamoring for his commentary on the art of burning one’s candle at both ends. Waugh had made it. Or had he?
Most readers hailed Vile Bodies, as a companion piece to Decline and Fall: a brash, witty chronicling of the fey, insouciant doings of the smart set. The book, as Stannard argues, “enhanced their image as an object of fashionable imitation….” The trouble for Waugh was that he no longer shared their puerile rebelliousness; “now, when he felt least in sympathy with the cause, he found himself elected their leader.” But remember: Waugh had sought that election; he had created a monster. Far from what the public thought, “the novel is,” Stannard contends, “more a manifesto of disillusionment, hilariously funny but bitter.” It is Eliot’s “Wasteland” in the guise of a novel.
When dubbed King of the Bright Young Things, Waugh found it difficult to evade that sobriquet. During the 1930s his following grew rapidly in England and he attracted a coterie in America as well. They loved his sardonic wit and black humor, his malicious chortling at the comic absurdity of life. A character in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, his later and most directly autobiographical novel, says to Pinfold: “That is what you are known for, yes, your peculiar sense of humour?” Peculiar, yes: the sick-room bacchanal in Vile Bodies, the episode of cannibalism in Black Mischief, the character in A Handful of Dust forced to read aloud to his captor the complete works of Dickens. Waugh’s fans did not so much misread these novels, as fail to probe deeply enough. Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust, the works that followed Vile Bodies, exhibit all the features that attracted his devotees, but more, they portray by design a world bereft of God, as Stannard so perceptively discerns.
Waugh’s novels evoked the displeasure of some Catholics, most vocal of whom was Ernest Oldmeadow, editor of the Tablet, a periodical issued under the official auspices of Cardinal Bourne, the Archbishop of Westminster. When Black Mischief appeared in 1932 the vigilant editor castigated it as a nasty piece of filth, unfit for Catholic eyes. Oldmeadow was a philistine of sublime proportions, and Waugh was justly enraged by the idiotic attack, but he was also stung by the charge that a good Catholic would not write such a book.
Waugh responded (although it is an oversimplification to see it as an unambiguous case of cause-and-effect) by writing a biography of Edmund Campion, the Jesuit martyred during the Elizabethan persecutions. “There can be no doubt that Campion was an extremely important book to Waugh — perhaps the first to which he was wholly committed,” Stannard avers. Not only did it confute the Tablet‘s aspersions, but it also indicated Waugh’s desire “to be accepted into the ranks of the popular apologists: Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.”
The question remained: How to write fiction that would, to use Stannard’s words, “include the dimension of ‘supernatural’ reality.” without debasing art into propaganda? Scoop, published in 1938, did not achieve this, for its mordant satire of the journalistic fraternity simply embellished Waugh’s reputation as a writer of “peculiar humour.” In 1939 he began work on a never-finished novel, later published in fragmentary form as Work Suspended. This, says Stannard, was the “first tentative step” toward Waugh’s ultimate goal. Save for two minor works, Scoop was “the last in the sequence of anarchic fantasies.” Although the novel of 1939 never reached fruition, Waugh discovered, though he did not recognize it immediately, the path that would lead to Brideshead and beyond. But that part of the story awaits Stannard’s second volume. This one ends on a note of melancholy and frustration for Waugh: “he seemed to be drying up, capable only of competent craftsmanship and the reiteration of old views….” The outbreak of World War II cut the Gordian knot. With a commission in the Marine Infantry, Waugh abandoned the stalemate at the writing desk and headed off for the untrammeled action of the soldier’s life. The desk would wait.
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