Tag Archives: Evelyn Waugh

‘Sword of Honor,’ by Evelyn Waugh

Sword of Honor

Some of Mr. Churchill’s broadcasts had been played on the mess wireless-set. Guy had found them painfully boastful and they had, most of them, been immediately followed by the news of some disaster, as though in retribution from the God of Kipling’s Recessional.

For Evelyn Waugh, World War II was not a great crusade, or the triumph of western democracies over tyranny. It was the moment (subsequent to the alliance with Stalin) when the West gave up its purpose entirely, and submitted to the whims of totalitarianism.

The hero of Sword of Honor is Guy Crouchback, scion of an ancient, noble Catholic family in England. As the last of his line, he has failed in his duties of succession through marrying a frivolous Protestant who divorced him and has since moved on to a couple other marriages. Now he can’t marry again under church law. World-weary, he is living in a villa in Italy when the war begins, and he goes home to England to volunteer for service. Eventually he finds a commission in the (fictional) Royal Halbardiers, and later transfers to a Commando unit. An official misapprehension of his status as a security risk generally keeps him out of action, and when he gets into it he gets involved in disasters. Gradually he grows disillusioned with the Great Cause, but he persists in quietly attempting to do his duty, in the midst of increasing absurdity.

I was reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in the sense that this is a darkly comic book about the insanity of war. Only Waugh’s presuppositions are very different from Heller’s. His hero longs for a reason to fight – even to die – but is denied it. There were also similarities to Graham Greene, another Catholic writer. But Greene admired the Communists and hated Americans, while Waugh loathes the Communists, and find Americans merely vulgar.

Sword of Honor can be very funny, but it’s also rather depressing. The writing, needless to say, is top drawer, with many memorable passages and a full cast of farcical characters.

Recommended, if you’re looking for this sort of thing.

‘Scoop,’ by Evelyn Waugh

Scoop

It was a morning of ethereal splendor – such a morning as Noah knew as he gazed from his pitchy bulwarks over limitless, sunlit waters while the dove circled and mounted and became lost in the shining heavens; such a morning as only the angels saw on the first day of that rash cosmic experiment that had resulted, at the moment, in landing Corker and Pigge here in the mud, stiff and unshaven and disconsolate.

I mentioned Evelyn Waugh on Facebook, and in the ensuing discussion was forced to admit the shameful fact that I hadn’t actually ever read any of his novels. Someone suggested Scoop, his treatment of foreign newspaper correspondence. Thus this review.

William Boot is a member of a large but declining “country” family in England. He writes a column on rural nature for a London paper, The Daily Beast. Due to a series of misunderstandings on the part of Lord Copper, owner of the paper, and his editors and sub-editors, William finds himself dispatched, much against his inclination, to report on a civil war in Ishmaelia, an African republic.

Along the way he gets acquainted with members of the real foreign press corps, all serious drinkers and savage exploiters of expense accounts, who vie with one another (mostly within the confines of the hotel bar) to discover the merest hint of news of the war (which does not exist; it was all a misunderstanding from the start) and then build those hints into fanciful news stories which they all crib from one another and send back to London by radiogram. He has to deal with the cheerfully venal family that runs the country, he rubs shoulders with foreign agents, and he gets romantically involved with a semi-German gold-digger.

The whole story is a ridiculous construction of misinformation, misperception, prejudice, lazy thinking, and cutthroat but genial competition. It could have been called “Much Ado About Nothing.” There are some elements reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse here (there’s even passing mention of a fellow named Bertie Wodehouse-Bonner), but the humor is more acerbic than “Plum’s.” It might be judged closer to Saki’s humor – but I think Saki would have taken the opportunity of a story like this to kill off a lot of people.

Scoop is a highly amusing novel that will give you a whole new (and lower) view of journalism. No problems with language or subject matter here, except for dated racial slurs. There are contemporary 1930s references that will confuse a lot of modern readers (including me sometimes).

Wilson Weighs Wodehouse

Pastor and author Douglas Wilson recommends P.G. Wodehouse for two reasons:

“Wodehouse was merciless to pretentiousness, and aspiring writers are the most pretentious fellows on the planet. So there’s that spiritual benefit.”

The second reason? “Simply put, Wodehouse is a black belt metaphor ninja. Evelyn Waugh, himself a great writer, once said that Wodehouse was capable of two or three striking metaphors per page.

  • He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.
  • One young man was a great dancer, one who never let his left hip know what his right hip was doing.
  • She had just enough brains to make a jaybird fly crooked.
  • Her face was shining like the seat of a bus driver’s trousers.
  • He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.”

Let Christ Pay Your Sin: Brideshead Revisited

“Praise the grace whose threats alarmed thee,

Roused thee from thy fatal ease.”

These words from the old Key/Wilcox hymn adequately summarize the theme of Brideshead Revisited. Perhaps they even spoil the plot a bit, but this isn’t a plot-driven story. It’s relationship-driven—maybe faith-driven. Waugh draws out the fatal ease of his characters so that we can see what God’s grace does to them in the end.

Madresfield House

(Madresfield Court, the home of the Lygon family, Worcestershire.)

The narrator, Charles Ryder, is in the British army when the book opens. His unit relocates to the Bridehead estate, which provokes the sad memories of the rest of the novel. They don’t seem sad at first. When Charles begins his studies at Oxford, he meets Sebastian Flyte, a very friendly young man whose eccentricities seem only to endear him to almost everyone near him, especially Charles, who falls in love with him. Sebastian, a year ahead of Charles, has collected a handful of homosexually inclined friends, the worst of whom is Anthony Blanche.

While Blanche is brazenly queer (I can’t recall that he described himself with that term, but I’m confident he would have approved of it), the others are not, and Ryder suggests to his readers that we are sufficiently worldly enough to understand these relationships without delving into them. Much later in the book, he describes a monk as being naïve to not see the nature of companionship Sebastian held with a young German loaf, but all of this is subtle, perhaps because homosexuality was against the law. (Here’s a remarkable article on the autobiographical nature of Waugh’s novel, which mentions high society’s attitude on sexual matters.)

What isn’t subtle is the Catholicism of Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother. The entire Flyte/Brideshead family is at least nominally Catholic. Half the family hates it; the other half embraces it. Sebastian hates his mother apparently for her ardent faith. In fact, she seems to be a representation of the Catholic Church as a whole, certainly flawed but honest and devout. You might see each of the faithful Catholics of the Flyte family as different categories of the church: Lady Marchmain representing the institution, Brideshead, the elder brother, representing typical laity, and Cordelia, the younger sister, representing the missionary. Each of them is disliked to some degree. Cordelia gives us a reason on page 221 of my edition:

“[Lady Marchmain] was saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can’t really hate God either. When they want to hate Him, and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it’s God and hate that.”

So some of the characters distain God, regardless what they say of Him, and Waugh intends to show us how God responds. He shows us unmerited favor and lifelong mercy. Christ ignored the grief and insult of our sin, taking it to the cross for atonement once for all. Christ offers us grace, having paid for our hatred personally. Without Him, we live in sin. Waugh draws out a picture of this with one character (pg 287):

“Living with sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time…”

Without Christ, we have our sin, no matter how we dress it up. If we do not let Him pay for it, we will. If we do not end our lives as holy (“no one is ever holy without suffering”), we will end them in torment, having succumbed to life’s fatal ease.

Literature vs. Trash

Literature is the right use of language irrespective of the subject or reason of the utterance. A political speech may be, and sometimes is, literature; a sonnet to the moon may be, and often is, trash. Style is what distinguishes literature from trash,” writes Evelyn Waugh, and he backs it up too. This link is particularly relevant to our blog because I posted a G.M.Hopkins poem to the moon earlier this week.