Waugh’s Politics in Fiction and Real Life

Writer and historian Minoo Dinshaw, author of the recently published biography of Steven Runciman, has written an article for Catholic Herald which traces Waugh’s political views through the characters in his novels. It is entitled “Forewaughned” and begins with this:

The last novel that Evelyn Waugh composed, as opposed to adjusted, is The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). It is unanimously acknowledged as a searing and candid self-portrait, and as such contains a lapidary summary of its author’s politics:

[Pinfold] had never voted in a parliamentary election, maintaining an idiosyncratic toryism which was quite unrepresented in the political parties of his time and was regarded by his neighbours as being almost as sinister as socialism […]

Dinshaw then goes back to the beginning. After briefly citing the first two novels, he comes to Black Mischief and Basil Seal

In Black Mischief, Basil is described – justifiably so –  as “a bore”. He inflicts information upon those he encounters as a bully inflicts pain. He has a high regard for his abilities. With superficial charisma his only true resource, he enters an unfamiliar landscape and imposes patronising, anachronistic schemes that leave it in chaos. In Black Mischief Waugh crystallised a British tradition that, if it certainly did not begin with, yet culminated in Sir Anthony Eden, Tony Blair and David Cameron. The later Basil, to whom we will return, incarnates a quite different apex predator of the political veldt. […]

Lord Copper and Rex Mottram represent elements of Waugh’s political view of cynical businessmen who use political power to forward their private interests. But then, it is back to Basil.

Brideshead […] is too often allowed to eclipse its predecessor of the phoney war, Put Out More Flags. It is in this novel and this Basil that the attentive reader will locate today our country, its plight, its chief minister and its bluffed, fashion and issues driven, fake-it-till-you-make-it culture. The mature Basil is far better company than his namesake in Black Mischief – a pure cynic, a conscious fraud, a satirist of genuinely gifted if usually criminal capacities. He has emerged from a family context of alarmingly emotional and competitive intensity. In his private life he can be simultaneously thoughtless and tender. His is the perfect eye’s view upon a landscape of state-run chaos, dystopic disaster and vapid pretension, and who can doubt that our own Prime Minister, his memoirs once emerged, will prove of similar calibre?


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