The Hundred Years of Waugh: As We Celebrate His Centenary, Evelyn Waugh Is Still Synonymous with Snobbery. He Was No Snob, but His Popularity Continues to Rest on His Readers' Admiration for the World He Mocked

By Slater, Ann Pasternak | New Statesman (1996), November 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Hundred Years of Waugh: As We Celebrate His Centenary, Evelyn Waugh Is Still Synonymous with Snobbery. He Was No Snob, but His Popularity Continues to Rest on His Readers' Admiration for the World He Mocked


Slater, Ann Pasternak, New Statesman (1996)


There are two kinds of snob. One form is hobs despising people who aren't nobs. The other is people who aren't nobs sucking up to people who are. Snobbery is ignoble. And in the popular imagination, Evelyn Waugh is a byword for snobbery of both sorts. The truth is more complicated than the malicious caricature. Waugh had flaws, but the harsh light of gossip casts a grotesque, simplified shadow.

Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: "There we spent one night, unfortunately with baboon Conolly [sic] and his gollywog slug wife Jean to bring in the roar of the Chelsea omnibus." That was snobbery. Cyril Conholly wrote in his journal: "it amused me to hear Peter laughing at Evelyn's 'provincial little Arnold Bennett appearance'." That, too, was snobbery. And it was snobbery when Cruttwell, Waugh's history tutor at Hertford College, Oxford, called Waugh "a silly little suburban sod with an inferiority complex and no palate--drinks Pernod after meals!"

Contrast this with Waugh when he attended the Sixth Eucharistic Congress in Budapest in 1938. He rejoiced in a common faith and common humanity. "To my great good fortune I got lost in the crowd and spent the evening standing on the embankment among the people of the town. I shall always be grateful for the confusion of tongues that landed me there." This was not snobbery. "It was just these crowds, so diverse and so unified, which formed one of the most inspiring spectacles. One longed for them to be greater, to include all one's friends and relations and acquaintances and strangers ..." When he called the Eighth Earl of Antrim "Lavatory Chain" (because he was always flushing), that was not snobbery, either. A title couldn't save you from Waugh's irreverent, instinctive humour.

Nor was it snobbery when Waugh took Mr Grother for the day on a cruise up the Bristol Channel. Grother was a Durham coal miner, and the father of Waugh's housemaid, Vera. She never for got his kindness: "Mr Waugh tells me afterwards, he just wanted to get to know my father, and he was so kind. He said, you realise your father with opportunities would have gone to Oxford like me ..." Vera and Jean Gabb, the other maid, remembered Waugh's butler with more awe than they did Waugh himself "He was, he was absolutely decked out ...", "He was the major domo ...", "He would equal Mr Waugh any day ..."

The memories of Waugh's servants are uniformly warm and positive. Waugh clearly did not behave as a snob to them. Conversely, his behaviour to those in authority over him was suicidally unscrvile. When he was serving in wartime Yugoslavia, the British--and Fitzroy Maclean, Waugh's commanding officer--were busy courting Tito. Waugh's sympathies lay with the Catholic and (surprisingly to some) Jewish minorities. A toady would have sustained official policy. It did Waugh no good at all to sustain publicly the fantastical fiction that "Tit-o" was a woman. A silly joke, certainly, but not self-serving, as Waugh's snobbery is commonly perceived to be.

Waugh's wartime experiences raise other revealing instances that counter the caricature. When he was serving in Egypt in 1941, Waugh engineered an introduction to the Cairo Museum's curator for his barman, who had an interest in archaeology. This was typical of him. Waugh's batman at this time, Ralph Tanner, is in fact a crucial and neglected witness for the defence. He served Waugh from 1940-41. They lived through the Battle of Crete together, and Tanner's evidence draws on a close working relationship with Waugh under intensely difficult circumstances.

Tanner was interviewed by Punch in 1975. The interviewer, Peter Buckman, clearly buys into Waugh's posthumous reputation for bad-tempered snobbery. But be is thwarted at every turn:

"There was a rumour, wasn't there, that [Waugh] was so unpopular he had to be protected from the other soldiers?"

"Absolute rubbish. He fitted in very well. He was everything you'd expect air officer to be, if you were an ordinary soldier. …

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