An essay by Washington-based writer Eve Tushnet has been posted on the website of the conservative think tank Russell Kirk Center. This is entitled: “Champagne Flute with an Iron Spine: Dystopia and Providence in Five Novels.” Her topic is five “reactionary” novels through which she explains how
the collapse of the previous order was not merely an economic and political transformation but an existential cataclysm which shattered men’s understanding of their place in the world. For these novels the death rattle of premodernity meant not merely revolution, but apocalypse.
Four of these novels are classics of revolt against the times: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Russian Civil War novel White Guard, and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. The fifth, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, is an experimental science-fiction collage novel which at first seems to sit oddly among works otherwise set in some version of a real, historical world. Yet to read these books not in order of publication but in the order I’ve just named them—slotting Hesse in right before Waugh—is to watch the apocalypse in slow motion. The post-apocalyptic world is recognizably our own, as the vanished world is recognizably alien. By exploring these novels’ common ground, we can see what we’ve lost—and what we’ve forgotten.
After applying her interpretation to the four other novels she arrives at Waugh’s war trilogy. Following a brief summary of the novel in the same context in which she considered the other four, she encapsulates her analysis in this description of Virginia Troy:
[Guy Crouchback’s] divorcée Virginia Troy, once Virginia Crouchback, dies in the role she spent the whole trilogy fleeing: a Catholic wife and the mother of the Crouchback heir. She was ferocious to Guy once (“Darling, don’t pretend your heart was broken for life”) and she somehow manages to surrender without ever collapsing. She makes her first confession “fully, accurately, calmly, without extenuation or elaboration”; she calls her child “it” and there’s something perversely appealing in her honest, shocking distaste for her own baby. She’s like a champagne flute with an iron spine. Virginia is shameless and sans-souci: God’s own gossip, the meretrix turned mediatrix. In this novel, which slowly reveals how totally the premodern world has been lost even before the book begins, there is one last link with that lost world, forged on God’s terms and not our own: God the comedian continues the line of the Blessed Gervase through the child of a con man and an adulteress.
The essay then concludes with this:
If there is a lineage of reactionary novels, it tells the transition from premodern to modern not as the triumph of humanism, but as the loss of the human. Like the A-bomb, these novels demonstrate that where human power abounds, human powerlessness abounds still more. And the hope Waugh’s trilogy offers, which is not found in Roth or Hesse and flashes like lightning at the edges of Bulgakov’s work, is that we are not in our own hands.
Thanks to Dave Lull for sending a link to this essay.
In an essay on Waugh’s religious conversion, Joseph Pearce, editor of the St Austin Review, offers his view of Virginia Troy. This is posted on the National Catholic Register website. Pearce considers Virginia one of
Waugh’s […] hollow men. We think of Ted [sic] and Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust, of Hooper and Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, or of Guy Crouchback’s ex-wife Virginia in Sword of Honour, to name but a representative few. And yet Waugh’s works do not derive their depth of applicable meaning from the shallows and the shadows of the hollow men he satirizes but in the presence of grace working in the lives of those whose consciences are alive to its power. […] In Sword of Honour it is Guy Crouchback’s decision to remarry his ex-wife, the ironically named Virginia, who is pregnant with another man’s child, which constitutes the act of self-sacrificial love, wedded to suffering, to which grace has called him. In laying down his own life for the unborn child, Guy accepts and embraces the gift of grace which is all the more beautiful because it is crowned with thorns.