Waugh’s Politics Surveyed in “The Critic”

The Critic magazine has published another article on Evelyn Waugh following hard on the short article by Eleanor Doughty dealing with Brideshead Revisited, discussed in two previous posts. The latest posting is a feature length article by Bruce Newsome who is lecturer in international relations at the University of San Diego. Given his academic speciality, it is perhaps not too surprising that his topic is Waugh’s politics.

The article opens with this observation: “From the start, Waugh’s writings were political, but since he was on the wrong side of trends, his politics are usually caricatured or ignored.” He then goes through Waugh’s novels one by one, spending most of his time on Vile Bodies, Decline and Fall and (as a group) the war novels and concludes that discussion with this:

Waugh wrote many political critiques but few prescriptions. He is often categorised as a religious conservative, given his conversion to Catholicism, his opposition to the Church’s later reforms, and his offering of Catholicism as a binary solution to modern decline.

Ultimately, the charge of religious conservatism is dissatisfying. Waugh was conservative but not partisan. His novels feature politicians who are equally flawed whatever their party. In fact, parties are rarely clear, although most of his characters are privileged or titled to suggest Conservatives. His second novel (Vile Bodies) satirised the tumultuous politics of the 1920s with a character described as “this week’s prime minister.”

He then takes up Waugh’s non-fiction and considers two books. The first is Waugh in Abyssinia:

The book that most corrupted his reputation was Waugh in Abyssinia (1936), based on a three-week tour, with Italian support, of newly conquered Abyssinia. He had reported from Abyssinia on the Emperor’s coronation in 1930 and from the Abyssinian side during the first months of Italian invasion in 1935. His contempt for its Emperor, ethnic minority rule, slavery, and corrupt clerics was a consistent feature of his commentary.

It should be noted that he made two trips to Abyssinia which are reflected in the book. The first was about 5 months at the end of 1935. He began work on the book in April 1936 but returned to Abyssinia for about 6 weeks in August and September. He finished the book a few days after his return. It is not his best book, as he was well aware. But based on those same trips he wrote Scoop during 1937.  It was certainly one of his best, and Newsome concludes is “known for lampooning the virtue-signalling and fake news in journalism, but also satirised the idealism and false promises of international institutionalists.”

The final book he analyses is Robbery Under Law which is probably Waugh’s most overtly political book and the one that is least read. According to Newsome, the book is:

an erudite history of the [oil] industry and the politics [of Mexico]. He also used the book to set up both communism and fascism as antagonistic to a preferred ideology that he called “individualism.” Waugh’s individualism mixed Christianity, humanism, and classical liberalism, akin to libertarianism.

Unfortunately, his best polemic is the least known. He deferred writing the book until December 1938, and did not finish until April 1939, so it was published too late to capture public attention from the crises in Europe. It sold little and was never reprinted.

It was reprinted by British book club in 1940 but was not otherwise reprinted in his lifetime. There was an American paperback at some point and Penguin finally got around to reprinting it in hard back in 2011 when they reissued all of his books in a uniform edition.

The article concludes:

In popular culture he became a caricature of the unfashionable establishment, which Waugh consciously provoked by keeping servants, wearing garish tweed clothes, and sneering at change. […] Today, Waugh is one of those novelists who is too white, male, English, conservative, and counter-consensus to be admitted in English literature classes. Upper classness alone would prevent his novels from being debuted today (although publishers reprint his past successes). Yet Waugh offers more political insight into how Britain has developed since the 1920s than most of the political fiction published today.

The article is a good survey of the subject, focussing on politics in novels like Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust where you would least expect it as well as those such as the war novels where it is more relevant. Mr Newsome is obviously well acquainted with Waugh’s writings, and his article is on the whole quite well researched. I am not sure he would receive universal agreement that Waugh was a “a confidant of Duff Cooper [in seeing through] Winston Churchill’s chaotic leadership.”   They were barely able to speak to each other without shouting, but I suppose they may have been able to conspire on a point where they knew in advance they were in agreement. It might have been an idea to include what may be Waugh’s ultimate dismissal of party politics in his 1959 response to a Spectator symposium on an upcoming election: “I do not aspire to advise my Sovereign in her choice of servants.”

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