Groundhog Day Roundup

The American Spectator has posted a story that analogizes an American political phenomenon to an Evelyn Waugh novel. Here are the opening paragraphs of the story entitled “The Heartbreak of the Brideshead Republicans” by Karl Pfefferkorn:

If you are a novelist, you may abandon inconvenient reality for richly imagined fiction. Consider Evelyn Waugh, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930. Rather than embrace the low-born majority of his new fellow congregants, he wove the richly tragic Flyte family and their Brideshead Castle out of the thin threads of the surviving Catholic aristocracy in England. It must have been a great comfort to Waugh to spend his spiritual life among his creations rather than what Anthony Burgess called  “Maynooth priests with brogues.”

Unfortunately, political hacks cannot conjure up their preferred adherents with the ease of a great writer. When Donald Trump won the 2016 election and delivered to the Republicans the working class in the industrial heartlands, the response of the Republican brain trust in DC was abject panic. Rather than celebrate the fact that the GOP had seized the traditional core constituency of the Democratic Party, self-anointed party intellectuals like Bill Kristol and Max Boot, along with the entire staff of National Review recoiled in horror at the boorishness of the new champion of rust belt voters…

The story goes on to describe how the hopes of these so-called “neocons” to convert the Republican party into something more appealing to their Washington-dwelling colleagues have been thwarted:

…The decades of intellectual labor devoted to the transformation of the Republican Party into something one could claim open allegiance to at the Sidwell Friends PTA turned to dust in the hands of the neoconservatives. Their fondest dream, that the tax-paying Babbits of middle America would be led by conservative elites as brilliant and charming as any Democrat simply collapsed, trampled by an electoral stampede of Walmart shoppers.

Rather than continue the hard polemical graft of their predecessors, and attempt to tutor these recent arrivals on GOP shores in the ways of Washington and the importance of American leadership, the likes of Kristol and Boot indulged in an epic hissy fit that rendered their criticisms of the Trump Administration indistinguishable from a Rachel Maddow opening monologue. They were now stuck in a party with the American equivalent of the Irish laborers and Maynooth priests disdained by Evelyn Waugh but unlike him, they couldn’t simply invent an alternative…

To be fair, I think the author may overstate the importance his “neocons” had ever achieved within the pre-Trump Republican establishment or the likelihood of its ever remaking the party into something more acceptable to the Washington elite. To the same extent, it seems unlikely that Waugh’s description of the miserable lives of the Flyte family (or at least most of them) ever converted large numbers of his readers into Roman Catholics. Although unlike the neocons, such conversions may well have not been Waugh’s intent.

The Economist has posted its list of eight of the funniest novels ever written (not necessarily the eight funniest). Here’s is the top of their list:

The Loved One. By Evelyn Waugh. Back Bay Books; 176 pages; $16.99. Penguin; £9.99

The greatest comic novelist in English is Evelyn Waugh. But which is his funniest book? Many people favour his first, “Decline and Fall”; others tout “Scoop”, a satire of mid-20th-century journalism. But for sustained comic brilliance our vote goes to “The Loved One”, published in 1948. During the previous year Waugh had visited California, at the invitation of Hollywood studios. Tiring of agents and producers, he became fascinated by the local mortuary and embalming business. “The Loved One”, set in the Whispering Glades Memorial Park, was the result. The story concerns a doomed love affair between a failed poet, Dennis Barlow, and a prim funerary cosmetician, Aimée Thanatogenos. It’s a hilarious dissection of the English in Hollywood, of American business ethics and of Hollywood itself.

Snippet. The first description of Aimée:

“Her full face was oval, her profile pure and classical and light. Her eyes greenish and remote, with a rich glint of lunacy.”

–The website of St Edmunds Hall Oxford has posted a profile of one of its “Old Aularians” as its alumni are known. This is John Theodore Waterman Greenidge. After a discussion of his career, the author of the article comes around to this:

Contact with the University Archives drew my attention to John’s brother, Terence Lucy Greenidge; one of the Assistant Keepers there suggested that I google him, and I found that he was a friend of Evelyn Waugh from their time together at Hertford College. The brothers, Waugh and a Rugby friend called John Sutro made a silent film called The Scarlet Woman: an ecclesiastical melodrama, in which a scheming Cardinal tries to use the Dean of Balliol to convert Britain back to Roman Catholicism by seducing the Prince of Wales, who is saved by falling in love with a stoutly Protestant cabaret actress. The real-life Dean of Balliol was the man who closed down the Hypocrites Club of which Waugh and Terence Greenidge were members. (Waugh seems to have been fond of this sort of literary revenge. He fell out with his Dean at Hertford, Charles Cruttwell, and his novels are peppered with appalling men with the surname Cruttwell. One of Waugh’s biographers felt that this bullying caused Cruttwell’s mental health to break down, and he died in a neurological hospital in Bristol).

In The Scarlet Woman our man John Greenidge played the Prince and Elsa Lanchester played the actress. She went on later to find fame in Hollywood as The Bride of Frankenstein. The Waugh film is perhaps not top quality, splicing in what looks like tourist footage from Rome (which John had visited as an architectural student) with scenes shot in Hampstead. If you are interested in British silent films with slightly amateurish production values and performances of a naïve (aka hammy) nature, the film can be found on the BFI Player from the British Film Institute. (Thanks to the staff of the BFI Player for their help in accessing this). [UK internet connection required]

I am not sure which is the bigger surprise, the fact that the film has survived or the fact that John Sutro went on to a successful career in films as a producer and production manager. And I wonder what did Waugh, who converted to Catholicism in 1930, make of his youthful, very anti-Catholic folly?

Waugh prominently mentioned the Greenidge film in his autobiography, A Little Learning (London, 1964, pp. 209-10) and included a full page of stills from the film (facing p. 214). Thanks to Dave Lull for sending a link.

–A 30 minute podcast discussion of Evelyn Waugh’s life and work has been posted by Roman Catholic convert and journalist Joseph Pearce. Here is a description:

Delve into the life of 20th century novelist Evelyn Waugh, his loss and rediscovery of faith, and the profound influence of Catholicism on his greatest work, Brideshead Revisited. This episode weaves through Waugh’s tumultuous experiences, his conversion, and concludes with his poignant death on Easter Sunday after a traditional Latin Mass, mirroring the themes of divine grace prevalent in his novels.

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