Evelyn Waugh and the Notre Dame Fire

References to Evelyn Waugh have appeared in two stories relating to the destructive fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Posted in the Spectator, an article by Douglas Murray opens with this:

Civilization only ever hangs by a thread. On Monday one of those threads seems to have frayed, perhaps snapped. It is impossible to watch the footage coming out of Paris, all that can be done is to groan and turn away. It is not possible to watch the spire of Notre-Dame collapse. It is not possible to watch the great cathedral consumed by fire.

Evelyn Waugh once said that in the event of a fire in his house, if he was able only to save his children or his library, he would save his library because books were irreplaceable. Only at a moment such as this is it possible to concede the slightest truth in that remark. Almost anything could be borne rather than the loss of this building.

The reference to Evelyn Waugh is largely correct in restating Waugh’s priorities but is taken a bit out of context and somewhat overstated.  In a diary entry for 13 November 1943, he refers to announcements that the Germans are setting up “rocket guns” in France that will carry “vast explosive charges into London.” These are no doubt the V-1 and V-2 rockets the first of which were launched in June 1944, shortly after the Normandy landings. In anticipation of these attacks, Waugh had ordered the books he had been keeping at the Hyde Park Hotel to be returned to his library at Piers Court for safekeeping. His entry continues:

At the same time I have advocated my son coming to London. It would seem from this that I prefer my books to my son. I can argue that firemen rescue children and destroy books, but the truth is that a child is easily replaced while a book destroyed is utterly lost; also a child is eternal; but most that I have a sense of absolute possession over my library and not over my nursery. (Diaries, p. 555)

The Catholic World Report has an article about the fire in its “Dispatch” section. After restating the profound sense of loss caused by the fire, the article also sees some signs of hope:

One can readily see in the fire a metaphor for the state of the Faith in Europe in this increasingly secular age. But after the Cross comes Resurrection—and yesterday provided signs of hope.

The first sign came in the immediate concern expressed for the Blessed Sacrament. That the tabernacle was emptied and Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist was saved from harm is a consolation. The priests and firefighters who facilitated this reminded the world that the whole purpose for the construction of Notre-Dame in the first place was to be a worthy dwelling place for God. I am reminded of Cordelia’s conversation with Charles in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. She tells him about the closing of the chapel at their family estate after the funeral of her mother and explains having to watch the priest empty the tabernacle, leaving its golden [sic] door ajar. “I suppose none of this makes sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic.” she said. “I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel any more, just an oddly decorated room.”

The article by Fr Seán Connolly goes on to see other signs of hope in the rescue of the Crown of Thorns relic and the preservation of the cruciform stone walls of the structure. Having just read yesterday Ann Pasternak Slater’s essay on Brideshead in her insightful and entertaining book Evelyn Waugh: Writers and their Work, I was struck by one slight misstatement in the CWR article. Pasternak Slater makes a point, for various reasons, of the fact that the door of the tabernacle at Brideshead is bronze, not gold (1960, pp. 47-8). Indeed, she made this seemingly minor point so well, that I was immediately reminded of it when I read the CWR article.

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