Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 84 (June/July 1998): 43-48.
The Life of Evelyn Waugh. By Douglas Lane Patey. Blackwell. 448 pp. $44.95.
Reviewed by Kenneth R. Craycraft Jr.
When St. Augustine wrote his Confessions, he was, in a strong sense, "inventing" a life. To the raw data of his remarkable and varied experiences, he attempted to apply his freshly invented idea of history in order to tell a story. Of course he had lived these experiences, but they did not become a story until he reflected upon their meaning and relatedness. What then emerged is a delicately painted narrative portrait, in which the artist supplies interpretive gloss, showing us nearly as much in the telling as in the events he recalls and describes.
While never explicitly invoking Augustine in this context, Douglas Lane Patey employs just such an idea in his aptly titled final chapter of The Life of Evelyn Waugh: "Retrospective: Shaping a Life." For Patey, it is no surprise that Waugh’s late fiction (the War Trilogy, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold) was so confessional. "Waugh’s first sustained use of fiction," an early, unsuccessful short story, was already "the vehicle for exploring the shape of his own life." Indeed, Patey convinces the reader that the narrative structure of human life—life as a novel—was a constant preoccupation of Waugh; his fiction was the means of communicating that truth.
Patey’s sympathetic and acute portrait of Waugh narrates Waugh’s narration of his own life, combining thorough research with an exhaustive knowledge of Waugh’s fiction and nonfiction and the insight of a highly skilled literary critic. The result is the finest biography by far of Evelyn Waugh to date, and a welcome corrective of the regnant record.
In recent years, two noteworthy biographies of Waugh have been produced: Martin Stannard’s two-volume work (1986 and 1992), and a 1994 study by Selena Hastings. Hastings’ book was rightly received by many as a delicate and sensitive book; but while very good of its kind, it was not a literary biography. She showed more interest in Waugh’s correspondence (which is well worth a great deal of attention) than in his published work.
Stannard’s work has been harshly criticized, even by some who have no particular sympathy for Waugh, for its caustic—indeed malevolent—treatment of Waugh, especially his religion after World War II. (For a gentler judgment, see George Weigel’s review essay, "St. Evelyn Waugh," FT, May 1993.) Stannard grew to loathe his subject to such a degree that the second volume is less critical biography than bitter screed, telling us a great deal about the dark prejudices of the biographer, but very little about the life and thought of the subject.
Patey consciously writes his book in the wake of these earlier works. He provides the kind of sympathetic, but never uncritical, treatment of Hastings’ book (along with detailed exposition of the fiction lacking in Hastings), and deliberately responds to the grotesquely distorted portrait of Stannard’s Waugh. Along the way, Patey also engages in some persuasive literary revisionism, claiming that in a few key areas, Waugh’s life and writing have been consistently misunderstood and misinterpreted.
The most important early revisionist thesis of the biography is that even before his conversion to Catholicism (at the age of twenty-seven, in 1930) Waugh’s concerns were primarily religious, and they are represented in his serious and weighty—as Patey contends—early satiric novels Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. Critics have often failed to note either the theology or the satire of these books, both because they have not understood the modernist crisis as primarily a religious crisis and because they have failed to note the chief elements of satire.
In Patey’s reading, the modernist crisis reflected in the early novels is at heart a crisis of the rootlessness, alienation, and disorientation of British youth coming of age in the 1920s, in the aftermath of World War I. The institutions and conventions that gave direction to the manners of Edwardian England had been discarded, leaving nothing to fill the void but the vertiginous excesses of Waugh’s Bright Young People. But even in these pre-conversion novels, Waugh sees the jettisoning of traditional Christianity as the immediate cause of the crisis.
This theme, while less explicit than in later novels, is thickly woven through Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. While Waugh does not exonerate the Bright Young People of his generation for their vacuousness, he indicts their parents for failing to tell a true story about human identity, purpose, and order—a story that, as Waugh was later to say explicitly, cannot be told without God. "Outside the whole of which he is properly part," argues Patey, "the individual can be only a meaningless, unfulfilled (though perhaps colorful) fragment." The Bright Young People "readily shift identities because they lack the tools with which to achieve any coherent, stable self."
The reason, Patey says, that reviewers have missed this thesis in Waugh’s early fiction is because they have failed to read it as serious, high satire. A scholar of British Restorationist and Augustan literature, Patey has a keen eye for the Swiftian allusions and turns in these novels, the kind of satire so ingeniously constructed it can be seen as nothing more than frivolity or farce by the careless reader. This is because, Patey argues, "The satirist’s energies are occupied mainly in his elaborately crafted negations; his positive values—generally conventional, even dull—are usually only implied, by negation of their contraries. Absence of explicitly positive models is easily confused with absence of positive values." Missing this, reviewers and critics have missed the serious theses of Waugh’s early novels, of which the later novels are an elaboration, not contradiction.
Patey also argues that Waugh’s politics were much more thoughtful and refined than critics and biographers have credited. This, too, stems from a failure to understand the way Waugh’s (now explicit) Christian faith thoroughly flavored his political views. Here Patey reaches a depth that Hastings, Stannard (and even the sympathetic 1975 work of Christopher Sykes) could not. Patey’s own evident Catholic faith and theological sophistication help him to see, and to show the reader, that Waugh’s politics were always the politics of the Church—a building without walls, standing against the barbarisms of the age, whether in civil war-torn Ethiopia, faux-cultured Britain, or the Nazism and Stalinism of the pre- through post- World War II years.
Waugh’s seeming lack of interest in politics for a significant period before the War—indeed his dismissal of all politics as "pernicious diversion"—is, argues Patey, itself a deliberate, substantive political stand. The problems of Nazism and Communism are not political problems, thought Waugh: they are theological problems that can be addressed only in theological terms. For Waugh to attack the left in terms of the right, or the right in terms of the left—unthinkable, at any rate—would be to retreat from the fundamental perception that these are rival false solutions to rebuilding postwar British (indeed Western) civilization. Waugh would attack any politics that oppressed the Church; but he would not attack one politics in the terms of another.
By 1945, Patey argues, Waugh had become convinced that all literature is politics (or "propaganda"). But the politics advocated in his greatest novel, Brideshead Revisited, are the politics of Catholicism, not the politics of conservatism. This is something again, Patey argues, reviewers and critics have largely misunderstood.
It is impossible to pay sufficient tribute to the chapter Patey devotes to Brideshead Revisited. It is, simply, the very best interpretation of the novel of which I am aware. From his revisionist treatment of "the age of Hooper" (a parody of the "Century of the Common Man"), to his delicate and thoughtful discussion of Waugh on homosexuality, to his careful exegesis of Lord Marchmain’s deathbed conversion, to his brilliant analysis of Sebastian’s alcoholism and his relation to Lady Marchmain (and the resentment that the need to be forgiven can engender), to the complex religious faith of Lord Brideshead, Cordelia, Julia, and eventually Charles Ryder, the author betrays his great love for the novel, and deep appreciation for the richness of its themes.
Most importantly, Patey forcefully and successfully rebuts the too-common dismissal of Brideshead Revisited as a celebration of British upper class snobbery. Patey reads Brideshead Revisited as a searing indictment of the manners of smugness and snobbery. The Flyte family’s Catholicism is Waugh’s antidote to snobbery, not its celebration. The only ugly building in a novel full of grand and beautiful buildings is the deplorably designed and decorated chapel at Brideshead Castle. But as the grand Castle—a tribute to ancient British aristocracy—falls into disrepair and decay, the chapel "showed no ill-effects of its long neglect." British aristocratic snobbery (which Waugh delighted in mimicking and mocking) was as "bosh" as the stifling, egalitarian ideology emerging in the postwar era. Waugh’s religious faith was not connected to either; it stood alone as a witness against all attempts to tell the human story without the proper ending in view.
Brideshead Revisited reveals (as do the three War novels, and Helena and Love Among the Ruins) the mind of a theologically mature and gifted novelist, pursuing themes of grace and nature, repentance and reconciliation, fall and redemption, hope and despair as skillfully as any theological tract. Waugh was a comic novelist because his faith in the resurrection of Christ told him that tragedy was not the true story of human being. To be sure, this comedy of redemption is being acted on a stage set for tragedy; that’s what makes it look out of place. It is what made Evelyn Waugh feel and often seem out of place. The resurrection was the true story of Waugh’s very imperfect life, richly narrated in this extraordinary biography.
Douglas Lane Patey has combined the skill of a brilliant literary critic with sympathy for Waugh’s religious faith to produce a deeply satisfying book. It is the best biography of Waugh, and as good as biography gets.
Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr. teaches theology at St. Mary's University of San Antonio, Texas, and is author of The American Myth of Religious Liberty, forthcoming for Spence.