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Evelyn Waugh & ‘The Bright Young Things’

Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939

By Martin Stannard

Publisher: Norton

Pages: 537 pages

Price: $24.95

Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.

James J. Thompson Jr. is a Nashville-area writer and Book Review Editor of the NOR. His latest book (co-edited with George M. Curtis III) is The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver.

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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