The Rake's Regress: Evelyn Waugh's Return to Satire in Basil Seal Rides Again
Milthorpe, Naomi, Papers on Language & Literature
"Basil Seal Rides Again" was English novelist Evelyn Waugh's last published work of fiction. The subtitle of this 1963 short story, "The Rake's Regress," indicates not only return but also re-entry into a place of origin, a regression to the satirical mode Waugh had seemingly laid to rest with the publication of the Sword of Honour trilogy and the beginnings of his autobiographical reminiscences in A Little Learning. In 1962 Waugh set aside his memoir (itself a return to youth) to "recapture," he writes in the dedicatory letter to Mrs. Ian Fleming, the satirical mode, and many of the characters, of his earlier writing ("Basil Seal"  485). Waugh's return to these characters, in particular Basil Seal and Ambrose Silk, reignites his ambivalent animation of the competing attractions of convention and iconoclasm, attractions which seem implicitly allied to motifs of age and youth. Rather than fading into twilight, Basil Seal "at 60" (Waugh, Letters 593) embarks on one last racket, stripping away the weight of "worldly-wise moralities" ("Basil Seal" 503) to once more rule in what Put Out More Flags described as an "obstreperous minority of one" (54). "Basil Seal Rides Again" is significant not merely because it is Waugh's last work of fiction and his last work of satire, but also because it enacts a satirical rejection of the soft, sad resignation of old age.
This short work has received little critical attention. Like 1957's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, the extant criticism of "Basil Seal Rides Again" centers on biographical coincidences with Waugh's own life. Douglas Lane Patey notes that publication of the story of Basil at sixty was delayed, "in an act of self-punishing irony," to coincide with Waugh's own sixtieth birthday, remarking that Basil is "transparently Waugh himself: prematurely aged at sixty, fat, deaf, short of breath" (359). Robert Murray Davis notes Waugh's "autobiographical impulse," seeing Waugh's "own feelings for his daughter Margaret" in the crypto-incestuous relationship between Basil and his daughter (122). Biographical parallels are enticing (especially given Kathleen Hale's frontispiece to the Chapman & Hall limited edition, featuring a Basil Seal visually reminiscent of Waugh at 60) (1.) and can in certain instances be discomfortingly revealing. It is crucial, however, that the story receives a more thorough critical evaluation of its aims, achievements, and complexities as Waugh's final work of satire.
The story opens on "two stout, rubicund, richly dressed old buffers" (490) disapprovingly discussing the theft of a set of shirts by a young man, Charles Albright, romantically involved with one of their daughters. The two "old buffers" are Basil Seal and Peter Pastmaster, two of Waugh's earliest creations. Basil--the rogue who stole his mother's emeralds in Black Mischief and exploited Ambrose Silk in Put Out More Flags--and Peter, the pretty young aristocrat of Decline and Fall, are now respected members of an aging generation. Basil and Peter are attending a dinner to celebrate Ambrose's birthday, along with the twinned poets Parsnip and Pimpernell and the aged publisher Mr Bentley, all characters previously seen in Put Out More Flags (and, in Parsnip's case, in the dystopian future of Love Among the Ruins, attempting to access state-funded suicide).
The world that Waugh returns to in "Basil Seal Rides Again" has changed utterly, as have its inhabitants. It is the early sixties, and Ambrose, exiled to Ireland for supposed fifth-column fascism in the wartime world of Put Out More Flags, is now the literary status quo, receiving the Order of Merit (Waugh himself refused the CBE2). Basil, following his marriage to Angela Lyne, has "settled into the orderly round of the rich," exchanging the raffish clubs of his youth, Bratt's and Bellamy's, for "that sombre club in Pall Mall that had been the scene of so many painful interviews with his self-appointed guardian, Sir Joseph Mannering" (493). …