Cocktails with a Curmudgeon: On His Centenary, English Novelist Evelyn Waugh Deserves Remembrance for His Service to American Catholics

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Cocktails with a Curmudgeon: On His Centenary, English Novelist Evelyn Waugh Deserves Remembrance for His Service to American Catholics


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


For a brief period in the early 1980s, Manhattan hostesses cancelled their Thursday evening dinners. Fundraisers 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 expose 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.

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