Evelyn Waugh's Neglected Masterpiece

By Rossi, John | Contemporary Review, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Evelyn Waugh's Neglected Masterpiece


Rossi, John, Contemporary Review


THIS year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of one of the last century's most underrated novels, Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags. Written in June 1941 while Waugh was returning home after Britain's disastrous defeat at the Battle of Crete, the novel brilliantly captures the mood of the opening months of World War II, what the English called 'the Bore War', known in America as 'the Phoney War'. To Waugh the novel was 'a minor work dashed off to occupy a tedious voyage' home. It was anything but.

Today Put Out More Flags has a special relevance. The insight that inspired Waugh, a nation discovering its inner strengths at a time of unprecedented crisis, in many ways resembles the mood of the United States in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. Like Britain in 1940, the United States has been swept by a tide of patriotism unmatched since World War II. The American flag, often reviled as a symbol of oppression, has resurfaced as one of the defining features of American pride. The American public has 'put out' its flag as never before.

Put Out More Flags was the first serious work of fiction written about World War II and remarkably enough appeared early in the war itself. Unlike most of the contemporary journalism and fiction of the early war years, Waugh's novel remains readable and relevant today. The message is an eternal one: how does a society confront a threat to its very existence. In America the threat is terrorism both internal and external. The England of Put Out More Flags faced the greatest crisis in its history because if Hitler had invaded the country 900 years of independence could have come to an end.

Put Out More Flags has a message for America today. A society and a people challenged can grow and change. Just as Waugh's naifs and innocents matured in the face of the threat to England in 1940 so may America find a deeper meaning in its present crisis.

Waugh's novel is divided into four parts starting in Autumn 1939 as the war begins and ending in Summer 1940 as it enters its most dangerous period for England - the fall of France and the beginning of the Battle of Britain. The novel follows the comic adventures (and gradual serious transformation) of characters hat Waugh had created in earlier books: the definitive cad, Basil Seal, his mistress Angela Lyne, the archtypical intellectual Ambrose Silk, worthless fops and ne'er do wells like Peter Pastmaster and Alastair-Digby-Vane-Trumpington. Put Out More Flags also foreshadows a transformation in Waugh himself from savage comic novelist to the more serious chronicler of Britain found in Brideshead Revisited and especially in his last and greatest masterpiece, the military trilogy The Sword of Honour.

Waugh's career falls into two phases. The first - beginning with the appearance of Decline and Fall in 1928 and including Vile Bodies, Scoop and Black Mischief -- traces the antics and misadventures of the 'Bright Young Things'. This class of well-bred, well-fed and partly educated men and women were the by-products of the disillusioned post-World War I England, the 'Land Fit For Heroes' gone sour. Rich, restless, silly, alternately malicious and desperate, this generation of brittle youth found its spokesman in Waugh.

After leaving Oxford and failing at a number of jobs, Waugh turned to writing to earn a living as his father, a sometime journalist and publisher, and his better known older brother Alec, had done. It was the only thing Waugh believed he had any talent for although he later admitted that writing never gave him the satisfaction he gained from producing woodcuts. His first book, a serious study of the pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was not successful. With Decline and Fall Waugh found his niche in English letters as a society satirist without peer.

Waugh's comic imagination was unlike that of any other novelist of his generation. …

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