National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

Evelyn Waugh at Boston College on Nov. 15, 1948
-- University Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College
Cocktails with a curmudgeon

On his centenary, English novelist Evelyn Waugh deserves remembrance for his service to American Catholics


For a brief period in the early 1980s, Manhattan hostesses cancelled their Thursday evening dinners. Fund-raisers halted their cocktail parties and silent auctions on those same nights.

It was because on Thursday evenings a certain class and clan of Americans in New York City and across America were glued to the television set for the latest episode of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre.

Brideshead had not received that cordial a U.S. reception 36 years earlier.

Reviewing it in 1945, the American literary critic Edmund Wilson thundered, “This is a Catholic tract,” yet correctly predicted it would be a bestseller.

Waugh considered the book’s impact and remarked, “It cost me such esteem as I once enjoyed among my peers.” He was, to a great extent, correct, for Wilson had previously described Waugh as “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw.”

Few, beyond Waugh addicts, know the traumas or career damage the novel occasioned for the English writer, a convert to Catholicism from lapsed Anglicanism. Brideshead signaled Waugh’s decision to place his pen at the service of the Roman Catholic church, to write novels about being Catholic aimed at readers who were not.

After Brideshead Revisited, he was only marginally successful in his goal. Never after was he able to command the same attention from publishers, secular reviewers or his earlier readership.

But to vindicate himself as a writer and to indicate to Wilson and others who carped along similar lines that he had lost his ironist’s touch writing Brideshead, in 1947 he followed up with The Loved One, a bitterly funny novella. Wilson didn’t like it. Others did.

The Loved One was a send-up of the practices surrounding internment at Hollywood’s Whispering Glades, a mythical take-off on Forest Lawn Cemetery. It is one of a half-dozen Waugh books still in U.S. print.

Not bad for a man who died 41 years ago and whose centenary is this October, a writer with a reputation -- not entirely borne out -- of being anti-American.

Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh did not want to be a writer -- that was the family trade. Both his father, Arthur, and his older brother, Alec, were writers. His father was also managing director of publishers Chapman and Hall, and nepotism worked early in Evelyn’s favor as a novelist.

Alec, author of more than 40 books, most of them worse than the one before, achieved literary fame at 17 with an exposé of homosexual behavior at his public school after he was dismissed for the same.

Evelyn, by contrast, wanted to be an artist, illustrator and calligrapher. He did excellent work for the Oxford Broom, a start-up magazine established by his friend, the aesthete Harold Acton, who wanted to sweep Oxford University clean of its old-fashioned ideas about art. But Waugh believed that while he was good as an artist, he was not good enough. After Oxford he began a furniture-maker apprenticeship, which ended almost as soon as it started.

Waugh’s mother believed, even at the height of his success as a novelist, that “Evelyn would have been happier making furniture.” She may well have been correct, for Evelyn Waugh was never a happy man. Even periods of contentment seemed to elude him.

After Oxford, which he left without a degree, Waugh did what his generation of jobless or degree-less Oxonians did, taught at an obscure private school. He’d declared himself an atheist at public school, the year before arriving at Oxford, and arrived at Roman Catholic following a failed suicide attempt by drowning -- he was driven back to shore by stinging jellyfish -- a chaste night in an all-male Paris brothel, and a failed marriage.

Again jobless, writing was all he had left to fall back on.

Published by a firm not his father’s, Evelyn flexed his wit in print with an excellent biography of the artist Rossetti, written from secondary sources. Given Waugh’s addictive personality, he assumed a little of the persona of the boozy (Evelyn was already that) and chloral-and-barbiturate ridden Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a fallen-away Catholic. In Rossetti (1928), Waugh wrote almost poetically about Rossetti’s separation from his church.

At Oxford he wrote and directed a homemade movie, “The Scarlet Woman” (the Roman Catholic church), a movie financed by an Oxford contemporary. A decaying copy still exists in the University of Texas Waugh archives.

The benefit to Waugh was that the cinematic technique marks his novels just as they mark Graham Greene’s.

The quick-cut techniques were revealed when, desperate to wed, he skillfully wove together the finely ironic Decline and Fall in 1928. It was a hit in England, but attracted little notice in America. He wed. His wife was Evelyn, too, and they were known as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. She cuckolded him and divorced him, a bold stance for a woman in England in those days.

Even measured by the highest standards of male chauvinism, Waugh was a selfish, self-centered prig. After an active homosexual life at Oxford, he was not -- She-Evelyn later hinted -- at ease in the marital bed. His brother Alec had the same problem and his first marriage was annulled because it was never consummated. Alec was later tutored by a married woman. Evelyn had no problems, either, by the second time around in marriage.

Vile Bodies (1930), written during and in the aftermath of his failed marriage, was an immediate success in both Britain and the United States. The 1934 A Handful of Dust, regarded by many as his finest novel, secured his reputation.

Devastated by the failure of his marriage, alone and miserable, he traveled and wrote travel books; some turned promptly into novels. Scoop, his 1938 satire on war correspondents, is the best example.

He entered the Catholic church in 1930, instructed by a bewildered Jesuit Fr. Martin D’Arcy, who’d never met a candidate less interested in the details involved. Waugh said it was an intellectual, not an emotional, decision and conversion. Many of Waugh’s Oxford friends, including his homosexual lover, Alastair Graham, had moved over to Rome.

Waugh had also read, or at least looked at, Baron Friedrich Von Huegel’s Letters to a Niece, which the niece, Gwen Plunkett-Green, loaned him. Waugh was friends with the Plunkett-Greens and in love with their unpredictable daughter Olivia, who rejected him.

In the mid-1930s he met and fell in love with 18-year-old Laura Herbert, which occasioned him more problems than even unpleasant people deserve. She-Evelyn was a Herbert, too, and the Herberts did not want “that man” back in the family. To win over the Catholic side of the Herberts (Laura’s branch), Waugh wrote a fine biography of the English Jesuit and martyr, Edmund Campion, which deservedly won high praise and softened the Catholic Herbert opposition.

Meantime he’d had his first marriage annulled -- and may have persuaded the non-Catholic She-Evelyn to perjure herself at the hearing. She testified, inaccurately she later suggested, that they’d entered their marriage agreeing never to have children.

He-Evelyn was free to marry, and marry he did. He and Laura had seven children, six of whom survived childhood. He served in World War II, and in a set of cameos that could only happen in the England of the time, was, at the height of the war, given time off from the Army to finish Brideshead. The proofs (which he gave to Loyola College, Maryland) were dropped by parachute to him in Yugoslavia and, once corrected, smuggled back out by diplomatic pouch.

Brideshead Revisited is a book about Catholicism rather than war. And in a major irony Waugh undoubtedly loved, three of the more memorable characters, the quintessential Englishmen Sebastian Flyte, Anthony Blanche and Lord Marchmain, were modeled in part on his Oxford friends Graham, Acton and Hubert Duggan, who were all, in fact, half-American.

The novel is about the need for faith, and that faith is the Roman Catholic faith. Waugh’s early novels were ironies on the emptiness of the hedonism of his times. He dwelt, in a sense, on the competitive pas-de-deux between Good and Evil in the otherwise empty dance hall of most people’s lives. His answer to the emptiness was Roman Catholicism.

Sir John Mortimer (the barrister and playwright of “Voyage Around My Father” and “Rumpole of the Bailey”), who wrote the “Brideshead Revisited” screenplay that Americans watched, is “not a believer.” Even so, Mortimer told me that in reading and re-reading Brideshead he was deeply impressed by Waugh’s sincerity of faith.

In the 21st century, do we really care about a snotty Englishman born three years after the close of the 19th century? Well, for three reasons, perhaps.

The first is if we care about an almost perfect craftsman of the English language. Waugh, like the English playwright and songwriter Noel Coward, never uses the incorrect word and never wrote one word too many. Like most (though not all) of Coward’s plays, Waugh’s early novels are period pieces.

Next, Waugh is worth exploring because he paid the Catholic price: He put church first, and sacrificed his secular career in so doing.

Finally, American Catholicism owes him a debt of gratitude. He rendered a great service -- to the ghetto Catholic church in the United States as he found it in 1948 and 1949 -- for the most selfish reasons.

In a postwar, tightly rationed England, where everything was either nonexistent or in short supply, he wangled a plum LIFE magazine assignment to write about American Catholicism.

He combined it with a speaking tour of U.S. Catholic colleges, mainly Jesuit, plus the University of Notre Dame. Loyola, Baltimore, had given Waugh an honorary doctorate, and on his tour he intended to stop by to collect it.

He explained to Loyola’s president, Jesuit Fr. Francis X. Talbot, “I don’t seek to make any money. Nor do I want publicity. What I do want is to get to know American Catholics. I am coming to the United States to learn, not to teach. But I wish to pay my way by telling you something about us and our particular qualities. I explain also that by long and deplorable habit my ‘way’ is a luxurious one. I don’t want to take a penny out of America but I want to travel and live there in fat style. I think that defines the aim.”

Making the rounds of Catholic universities, Waugh did not travel unnoticed. At Notre Dame his lecture on three converts (Greene, Fr. Ronald Knox and G.K. Chesterton) was attended by a young priest, Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, who enjoyed Waugh’s talk, if not his superior manner.

Of his lecture at Loyola, New Orleans, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Clancy told me in 1999, “Waugh’s delivery was good, it was just that he had that snappish way of replying to questions.” Clancy was well aware of Waugh’s ways -- he’d stayed at the Jesuit church on Farm Street, London, while studying at the University of London. “We’d all heard that when you spoke to Waugh, he’d basically reply with an insult. A young American Jesuit asked him, ‘Who’s your favorite American writer?’ Replied Waugh, ‘P.G. Wodehouse.’ ” (The English Wodehouse was living on New York’s Long Island.)

In fact, Waugh’s favorite American writer in 1948-49 was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, whose The Seven-Storey Mountain he edited down by 20 percent into Elected Silence for British publication. Merton was the man Waugh most wanted to meet -- and did, twice. They remained correspondents.

Another American insight into Waugh came from the late Hugh Garvey, founder of Templegate Press, the Catholic publishing house in Springfield, Ill. Garvey told me he found Waugh, “unremittingly decent. My friendship with him was untroubled. I found him really a lot of fun -- absolutely the opposite of what others saw in him, and saw quite rightly.”

For his article, Waugh picked the brains of Catholic writers. Not only Merton, but well-known names like Clare Booth Luce -- the convert wife of the Time-Life founder got Waugh his LIFE assignment -- and Dorothy Day. There were others, not as known today, such as Harry Sylvester and Anne Freemantle.

The encounter between Waugh and Dorothy Day is fascinating and can be read in Day’s own Loaves and Fishes. It is sufficient here to note that periodically thereafter Waugh would send a check to the Catholic Worker. He had no time for its philosophy, he wrote to Catholic worker Ammon Hennecy, but said he admired its work feeding the poor.

To further the deftness of his writing on American Catholics, Waugh had built into the contract access to LIFE magazine’s researchers.

His 12 pages in LIFE, the premier American magazine of the day, probably caught off-guard ghetto Catholicism’s suspicious -- and frequently hostile -- anti-Catholic neighbors. Presciently, he saw the American Catholic “proletariat” being pushed by the Catholic education system he admired into the American mainstream.

There is a double irony to it all.

First, the U.S. church was later in the vanguard of carrying forward the reforms of Vatican II (1962-1965), which Waugh deplored.

Further, to an American audience, he made suspect American Catholics more American. It was a singular coup for those times. And all because he wanted a few good meals and some decent wine at someone else’s expense.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003

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