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Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited


By James J. Thompson Jr. | March 1984

In noting the death of Evelyn Waugh in 1966, Malcolm Muggeridge called the novelist a “failed saint” and “a mystic in search of a beatific vision.” Muggeridge’s tribute must have provoked snorts of derision from Waugh’s enemies (of whom there were many) and chortles and quips from his friends.

Few people — whether friend or foe — ever accused Evelyn Waugh of having aspired to the saint’s aureole. He flourished in the England of country houses and London clubs, of dressing for dinner and port on the sideboard, of leather-bound books and exquisite objets d’art, of vintage wines and mellow Havana cigars. He lived up to (and sometimes beyond) the level of luxury he could af­ford; asceticism and self-denial ranked far down on his list of virtues to cultivate. Nor did Waugh exhi­bit much charity for those below him on the social ladder; he preferred to consort with the rich and well-born, especially if they were aristocrats, and to disdain the “riff-raff” and less kempt orders of society. His irascibility grew with the years and his love of the barbed witticism and the acerbic retort degenerated into a nastiness so malicious that at times it scathed even his closest friends.

If one denies Waugh the appellation saint-manqué, one must also concede that he was hardly the prince of sinners. From his conversion in 1930 until his death over 35 years later, he remained a steadfast Roman Catholic (though the desecrations perpetrated by innovating divines in the name of the Second Vatican Council harried him dangerous­ly close to despair in his last years).

Waugh never attempted to palliate his sins or weasel out of their consequences; he believed firm­ly in the fallen state of man because he so clearly discerned his own bent nature. His friend Nancy Mitford once asked him why his religion did not make him a kinder man; to which Waugh replied: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” This anecdote never fails to provoke laughter among those who have never heard it before; with good reason: it is funny. It also happens to be a perspicacious recognition of the relationship between nature and grace. That Evelyn Waugh was a sinner no one (least of all himself) would deny; that his culpabil­ity failed to vitiate the spiritual power of his art is equally true.

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