According to an often-repeated tale, British novelist Evelyn Waugh was once accosted at a party by a matronly lady who had taken offense at his manners; Waugh, it may be supposed, was feeling little pain at this point in the evening. In any case, the matron demanded to know how he, Evelyn Waugh, a prominent Catholic convert, could behave so badly, and in public. “Madame,” Waugh is said to have responded, “were it not for the faith, I should scarcely be human.”
As a comeback, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of brilliant brevity frequently displayed by Winston Churchill (e.g., Lady Astor: “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d poison your soup.” Churchill: “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”). But remembering Waugh’s legendary riposte to his accuser does get us to the core of the man, as we mark his centenary on October 28, thirty-seven years after his death. For whatever else he was – brilliant novelist and travel writer, difficult husband and father, brave but anarchic soldier – Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh was an utterly convinced Catholic.
On this centenary, some literary critics will doubtless, and rightly, remember Waugh’s comic genius. No one has ever written a better satire on media pretentiousness and the manufacture of news than Scoop; no one has ever skewered political correctness and airy-fairy progressive politics as thoroughly as Waugh did in Black Mischief. Still, I think it would be a mistake to remember Waugh primarily for his ability to make us laugh. The Loved One is laugh-out-loud funny; but it’s also a sober and telling examination of two great truths: that death is unavoidable, and that those who try to avoid it make a nonsense of their humanity. Put Out More Flags is a terrific send-up of literary vapidness in wartime Britain; it’s also a serious study of people spiritually unprepared for the blood, toil, tears and sweat Churchill promised.
Then there is Bridehead Revisited. Often take as another example of Waugh’s social satire, this great novel is in fact an elegant meditation on the ladder of love – the human ascent from less worthy loves, and indeed through less worthy loves, to nobler, truer loves. Helena, dismissed by most critics as a piece of religious propaganda, is at one and the same time a bold experiment in literary form and a defense of the grittiness of the incarnation and redemption. Waugh’s masterpiece, the three-volume Sword of Honor trilogy, draws extensively on the author’s experiences in the Royal Marines and the Britain’s commando forces; but while it deftly captures many of the foibles and idiocies of modern war, it is also a thoughtful, searching meditation on the crisis of modern civilization and a profound reflection on vocation as the great dynamic of every human life.
In a letter to his friend, John Betjeman, Waugh once explained how Catholics think of saints. Betjeman had complained that the Empress Helena, finder of the true cross, didn’t “seem to be like a saint” in the novel Waugh named after her. Waugh’s reply can stand as a fine epitaph as we pray for the repose of his turbulent soul on his centenary:
“Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the [liturgical] calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own peculiar form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good my saying, ‘I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.’ I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh – after God knows what experiences in purgatory.
“I liked Helen’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as saints. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial [agnostic] fog by going straight to the essential physical historic fact of the redemption.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.