–Will Lloyd, commissioning editor of the New Statesman, has written an interesting and enjoyable article in that journal summarizing why Evelyn Waugh’s works have outlived those of his contemporaries. This is entitled: “Evelyn Waugh is laughing at you: His lethally coherent worldview turns reality into a farce.” Here are the opening paragraphs:
Art is not fair. If they knew what his reputation was now that is the lesson Evelyn Waugh’s contemporaries would surely learn.
His literary generation was pacifistic, left-wing, irreligious, and righteously believed that justice existed to be rendered in this world, not the next. Hardly anyone reads Stephen Spender or Sylvia Townsend Warner any more. They wrote the right things; they believed the right things; they took up the earth’s wretched as their cause.
Evelyn Waugh never did. He did not hope to reform the species. Today his peers are not much more than inter-war curiosities. Read their poetry and prose, then feel the aeons open up between you and them. Waugh remains utterly modern. Such a state of affairs is a joke as icy as any found in his writing. Why the passing decades cannot diminish him ought to trouble our creaking, secular, liberal age…
After a brief and entertaining discussion of Waugh’s unhappy childhood, unpromising university career, unsuccessful first marriage and religious conversion, Lloyd focuses on how these influenced his works, with particular reference to Decline and Fall, Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour. The contemporary writer to whom Lloyd most frequently compares him is Orwell, the other literary survivor of that generation. Here’s the conclusion:
…Unlike Orwell, he never had a reputation for prophecy, yet Waugh saw far more clearly than he. Orwell’s darkest forebodings were fantasies. The world turned out nothing like Ninety Eighty-Four (1948). It turned out nothing like Waugh’s generation hoped it would either; they often looked fondly on Stalin, or, like Orwell, believed a socialist revolution was coming. “The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors,” Waugh wrote. “It is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish.” He knew that human happiness would never be achieved through politics.
Instead of theory there is his lethally coherent worldview, expressed in novel after novel. A consistent and horrible vision, made much the worse for being persuasive. The meek will not inherit the earth. Collective endeavours always come to grief. Cheats and scoundrels will be lavishly rewarded. Falling in love is the first step to having your heart eaten. Pity is a less powerful force than contempt. “I believe that man is, by nature, an exile,” he wrote, “and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth.”
As Margot [Metroland] says: this is just how things are going to happen. Oh dear! Knowing all this, Waugh, who was never lazy and rarely a bore, responded in the only sane way. He clowned, and invited us to join him in laughter.
The article can be read in is entirety and is available on the New Statesman without a subscription under its limited access policy. It is highly recommended.
–Simon Heffer in a recent Sunday Telegraph reviews George Orwell’s 1935 novel A Clergyman’s Daughter. He notes the general consensus that this may be Orwell’s weakest novel but thinks it is nevertheless worth reading if only because it is written by Orwell. Here’s his conclusion:
…Each reader must judge how effective his satire is: he lays it on thickly and without the deftness of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh. The other weakness is that the appearance of the helpful cousin is a little like too many plot devices in Dickens, where a saviour turns up and it usually provides a happy ending. In fact, it takes a second saviour to pluck Dorothy out of the near-slavery of her private school, and back to the near-slavery of Knype Hill. This troubling book has another interesting feature that was pointed out by DJ Taylor, Orwell’s biographer: that, like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dorothy ends up having to make an accommodation with her tormentors. To understand that work of genius better, we need to read A Clergyman’s Daughter.
Although he does not specifically mention Waugh’s description of public school life in Decline and Fall, that is presumably among Waugh’s satirical passages Heffer must have had in mind as having influenced Orwell.
–In a recent issue of the Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse describes a late painting of Goya called “The Last Communion of St Joseph Calasanz” who was at one time the head of the Piarist order. Like Heffer, Howse also invokes Waugh’s satirical description of public school life in the course of his discussion. Here is an extract:
…Goya is certainly a great painter, but I am not sure what part the mysteries of religion played in his vision of humanity. He would have applauded Calasanz’s humane approach to learning: his insistence that the vernacular as well as Latin should gure in classes, his preference for avoiding punishment. From 1591, when he was 34, Calasanz worked in Rome. In 1598 the Tiber flooded and he manfully tried to help the thousands of homeless poor whose houses had been destroyed. From 1600 the project of Pious Schools occupied him. Soon he had 1,000 poor children to look after. Calasanz’s positive attitude brought him enemies. He had admitted Jewish children to his schools. He sympathised with Galileo, and later provided him with a secretary when he lost his sight. At one stage, Calasanz had to help the Inquisition with their inquiries.
Calasanz’s own career ended in failure. A priest called Stefano Cherubini, in charge of a Piarist school in Naples, was appointed canonical visitor to the congregation. He was also said to have been guilty of sexual crimes with schoolboys. In Catholic Spanish society of the 17th century, this was strongly disapproved of, unlike, say, in the inter-war years in England when the middle classes seemed to take for granted some schoolmasters being pederasts, as Evelyn Waugh described in Decline and Fall (1928), written as a comedy, if a black one. Anyway, through family and institutional influence Cherubini managed to take over the whole Piarist congregation, and Calasanz, in his 80s, was pushed aside. The congregation was left divided and the Pope settled things in 1646 by suppressing it…
As explained by Howse in his conclusion, the order was later restored and survives to this day.
—The New Criterion in its latest issue has a review of the book Hellfire:Evelyn Waugh and the Hypocrites Club. The reviewer is David Pryce-Jones. Here is the opening paragraph:
Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) is a writer who will be read as long as there is anyone interested in English literature. His early novels have a comic spirit all their own. In contrast, Brideshead Revisited (1945) and Sword of Honour (1952–61) capture England at a time in her history when peace was giving way to war and the old social order was vanishing. Waugh was a voice speaking for the past, going against the grain of modernity, and this brought into question what kind of a man could he be…
The book is mentioned in several recent posts and was reviewed in EWS 53.2 (Autumn 2022).
–The NE Ohio news website cleveland.com has published a detailed and interesting review of the life and works of Dawn Powell. She wrote satirical novels about small town Ohio and big city New York during the 1920s-60s. These were well received by the critics but have been largely forgotten since her death in 1965 despite two attempts to revive interest (late 1980s and again in abt 2000). Another of those may be in the offing as a result of the article by John S. Matuszek. Here is an excerpt:
…Her reputation experienced a resurgence when longtime friend Gore Vidal praised the then-forgotten Powell in a 1981 article as a “comic writer as good as Evelyn Waugh and better than Clemens.” An article Vidal wrote for the New York Times Review of Books in 1987 led to the reissuing of several of her novels in paperback.In 1991, [Tim] Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic for the Washington Post, came across Edmund Wilson’s essay on “The Golden Spur,” and launched into a years-long effort to further restore Powell’s place in the literary canon. His efforts resulted in the publication of her diaries, along with anthologies of her work by the Library of America and Page’s 1998 biography. In 1996, Case Western Reserve University celebrated the “Centennial of Dawn Powell,” with Page as a guest speaker. Page was featured in a Plain Dealer Sunday magazine article by John Stark Bellamy in 1996 headlined “The Resurrection of Dawn Powell.” […] As Page told the Plain Dealer, “She is one of our national treasures, and especially an Ohio treasure.”