Roundup: “The Death of a Modern Churchman”

–A literary website that encourages new writers ( has posted a list of the 10 most absurd deaths in classic fiction. Among those selected is the death of Mr Prendergast in Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall:


Evelyn Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall treats murder with cruel humour.

The homicide occurs while Paul Pennyfeather, the protagonist, is serving a prison sentence for traffic in prostitution (of which he isn’t guilty). Mr Prendergast, also known as Prendy, a previous acquaintance, acts as prison chaplain. He is the ‘modern churchman’, a species of clergy for whom religious belief is optional. Doubts are the scourge of his ineffectual existence.

One day Paul gets to know a fellow prisoner, a burly man with twitchy red hands. He’s a carpenter by profession and believes God has appointed him killer of sinners. Doubts never plague him. Divine visions have guided his murderous hand, hence his present abode. In his own words, he is the ‘the sword of Israel’ and the ‘lion of the Lord’s elect’. He describes a vision in which the prison is at first carved as if of ruby and then drips with blood.

When the elect insults a warder in colourful biblical language, the reform-mad Prison Governor diagnoses a case of frustrated creative urge. He prescribes self-expression. So the elect receives a work bench and carpenter’s tools. The way he gives way to his creativity is by sawing off poor Prendy’s head.

The prisoners sing the information to each other during the hymn in chapel. The warders approve of the choice of victim, rejoicing that it wasn’t one of them. The event leaves a minimal mark on the life of the prison. The killer is sent to Broadmoor, and the Governor softens his urge for reform.

Among others deaths listed are Leonard Bast’s death by bookcase in EM Forster’s Howards End and Mr Krook’s by spontaneous combustion in Dickens’ Bleak House.

–Two podcasts discussing Waugh’s works have recently been posted on PlayerFM. These are both by Joseph Pearce, editor of St Austin Review and author of several books about Christian writers:

The Catholic Literary Revival: The Waste Land Generation (Eliot, Waugh and Greene) 

St. Augustine and Evelyn Waugh’s “Confessions”

The second podcast also includes the participation of Elizabeth Klein.

–Gary Wills reviews Mary Gordon’s recent book On Thomas Merton in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine. The review is also an occasion for Wills to write an extended and interesting essay on Merton in the course of which he includes this discussion of Evelyn Waugh’s relations with Merton:

An early fan and promoter of The Seven Storey Mountain was Evelyn Waugh. Waugh’s favor made his British publisher ask Waugh to be an additional cutter and corrector of the book (Robert Giroux had edited the American edition thoroughly), which Waugh retitled Elected Silence for the En­glish market. The best-known aspect of Gethsemani was the fact that Cistercians of the Strict Observance (as the Trappists are formally named) maintain a prayerful silence with one another. Waugh, who admired this dedication to silence, was critical later on when he saw how publicly voluble Merton became with his flood of books. In his twenty-seven years at Gethsemani, he often published two or three books a year, while also writing articles, public statements, an expansive journal, ancillary diaries, and fifteen thousand letters (many to celebrities). In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton said that his writing was just doing the Lord’s work, like that of his brother monks milking cows or making cheese. When Waugh said that contemplative orders should stick to making cheese and liqueurs, Merton responded by telling Waugh to say the rosary every day (especially if he did not like doing it). Their warm mutual admiration coolly evanesced.

See earlier posts for other reviews of Gordon’s book.




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