Evelyn Waugh and the “Catholic Novel”

A blogger writing as Tychy has posted an article billed as a review of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock but is really an essay on Greene’s writing as a Roman Catholic novelist. The blogger (a non-catholic) begins by comparing Greene’s novel with a 1953 story by Flannery O’Connor entitled “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and goes on to consider Orwell’s criticism of the religious content Greene’s novels (and anyone else’s for that matter). He also notes that 

Greene himself regretted in his autobiography Ways of Escape (1980) that Brighton Rock was a “simple detective story” that had contracted the cancer of a theological discussion “too obvious and open for a novel.”

At one point toward the end of the essay the blogger cites Waugh’s assessment of the novel, focusing on its chief character, the youthful but violent hoodlum, Pinkie. This comes from Waugh’s 1948 review of Greene’s later, even more bleakly religious novel The Heart of the Matter:

 Evelyn Waugh, a Catholic novelist who Greene’s biographer Jeremy Lewis has wittily described as being “more Catholic than the Pope,” does not hold out any hope for Pinkie at all. He regards Pinkie as “the ideal examinee for entry to Hell. He gets a pure alpha on every paper.” Indeed, Waugh worries that Greene has made evil too remote with Pinkie’s character: “We leave our seats edified but smug. However vile we are, we are better than Pinkie.” 

The article by Waugh from which the quote is taken (“Felix Culpa”) may be found at Essays, Articles and Reviews, pp. 360-61. Although the weblog article is filed under “Literary Review”, this apparently does not refer to the magazine of that name but to the subject matter of the article. 

Another writer who considered himself a Catholic novelist is Anthony Burgess, currently in the news because this is his centenary year. The Tablet has published an article marking this occasion. Burgess considered himself a Catholic novelist “in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark” even though his religious career was the mirror image of those convert writers. He was born a Roman Catholic; his father was from a Lancashire Catholic family. Waugh once compared these Lancashire old Catholic families to the early English Catholics settling in Maryland: “the same tradition of Jesuit missionaries moving in disguise from family to family, celebrating mass in remote plantations, inculcating the same austere devotional habits, the same tenacious, unobtrusive fidelity” (EAR, p. 383). According to The Tablet, Burgess’s father “accepted no English king or queen after James II and asserted that the true capital for English Catholics was not London but Rome or Dublin.” After attending Roman Catholic schools in Manchester, Burgess left the Church at 15, influenced by Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man given him by his history teacher.

The Tablet article (by Andrew Biswell, English Literature professor at Manchester Metropolitan University) explains that Burgess’s religion is expressed in several of his books:

This is nowhere more evident than in his magnificent 1980 novel Earthly Powers, an exploration of good and evil in the twentieth century. … Burgess drew on Catholicism again in 1993 in A Dead Man in Deptford, a novel about Christopher Marlowe and the religious politics of Elizabethan England. …. Burgess evokes a landscape of paranoia and subterfuge that resembles Waugh’s Edmund Campion and Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Asked to identify his target audience, Burgess once wrote: “The ideal reader of my novels is a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, colour-blind … who has read the books that I have read. He should also be about my age.” This seems too narrow as an estimation of what his readership might be. A hundred years after his birth, and with sales of his novels steadily rising in places such as Mexico, China and Russia, it is clear that the work of Anthony Burgess continues to resonate with the generation that has come to maturity since he died.

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