Waugh and Two Catholic Novelists

Recent articles in the Roman Catholic literary press have linked Waugh to two largely neglected (in the English speaking world at least) Roman Catholic novelists. The first is an essay by Luca Fumagalli in the Italian-language online journal Radio Spada in which he argues that Waugh’s writing was influenced by the early 20th Century works of convert Robert Hugh Benson. He begins with a consideration of Waugh’s preface to a 1956 reprint of Benson’s 1905 novel Richard Raynal, Solitary:

Before [considering Benson] the novelist, Waugh first showed himself an admirer of Benson as a man and a priest: […]  In his eyes Benson was  “superficially very much an aesthete, but the Catholic Church made little aesthetic appeal to him …. What he sought and found in the Church was authority and catholicity “. Again: “He worked without thought of posterity, as though Doomsday were imminent, using all his talents lavishly to draw as many souls as possible among his immediate neighbors to their true end in God.”

The quotes are from Waugh’s preface, pp. ix, xii. The article leaves out Waugh’s recognition that Benson cared little about the style and quality of his writing. Fumagalli goes on to the heart of his essay, comparing Benson’s writings to those of Waugh:

From a purely literary point of view, influences and contaminations [cross-fertilization ?] abound. If, for example, Valentine Medd’s nanny in The Sentimentalists (1906) closely resembles Sebastian’s nurse  in Brideshead Revisited (1945), the dark novel A Winnowing (1910), anticipates in many respects the black humor of The Loved One (1948). Also in The Sentimentalists, with the figure of Mr. Rolls and the great residence of Oxburgh Hall – where former priests, failed actresses and all those who have made serious mistakes in finding a meaning in their existence are helped – Benson prepared the ground for Waugh , who would use such enthusiasm for the Catholic aristocracy and their homes as an inspiration for Brideshead Revisited. Also with regard to the eschatological, dystopic or utopian current, Waugh’s stories  “Love Among the Ruins” (1953) and “Out of Depth” (1933) boast several similarities, respectively, with The Lord of the World (1907) and The Dawn of All (1911) – in the latter case especially in the expedient of time travel. Finally, it seems that Waugh also returned to Benson’s historical novels before writing his own book on the English saint and martyr Edmund Campion (1935), and that the works of Benson’s Edwardian settings had the merit of reviving [Waugh’s] satirical flame.

Translation by Google with edits. Waugh’s links to Benson’s dystopias and time travel in his own stories have been noted elsewhere, but some of these other connections may be original and worth further consideration.

The other comparison comes from an article in the National Catholic Register about a 1950 novel by Henry Morton Robinson entitled The Cardinal.  This:

tells the story of Stephen Fermoyle, a Catholic priest from Boston, between the years 1915 and 1939, when he, as a new cardinal, voted in the election of Pius XII. An immediate best-seller, the novel was translated into more than a dozen languages and turned into an award-winning 1963 film by Otto Preminger. Were it to be offered publishers today, I doubt the book would find a buyer in the secular press. It’s just too Catholic.

The novel inspired the author of the NCR article, K E Colombini, to seek out other writings about the Roman Catholic church in the period during which the novel’s fictional Cardinal thrived. Among the findings was an essay by Waugh:

The postwar period in which Robinson was writing his novel was a time when the Catholic Church was seeing great growth, and here I found myself reaching not for another book, but an essay by the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. This work, titled “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church” was published in Life magazine in September 1949. At the same time Robinson was crafting The Cardinal, Waugh was traveling around our country, talking to people and writing this report where he recognized, as did Robinson throughout the novel, that America was seen as a beacon of hope for the future of the Church.[…]

In his Life magazine essay, Waugh expresses this sort of optimism in a more complete way, setting a theme that one could say helps define Robinson’s novel. As Waugh put it, many of his contemporary Catholics are “turning their regard with hope and curiosity to the New World, where, it seems, Providence is schooling and strengthening a people for the historic destiny long borne by Europe.”

A copy of Waugh’s article as it appears in Life magazine can be seen at the link above or in a slightly different form in the Tablet as reprinted in A Little Order and Essays, Articles and Reviews.

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