1066 and All That? History in Evelyn Waugh's Edmund Campion

Article excerpt

Reviewing the American Edition of Edmund Campion for the New Yorker in 1946, Edmund Wilson, the eminent novelist and critic, wrote: "Waugh's version of history is in its main lines more or less in the vein of 1066 And All That. Catholicism was a Good Thing and Protestantism was a Bad Thing, and that is all that needs to be said about it." [2] Strangely, Wilson went on to accuse Edmund Campion of making "no attempt to create historical atmosphere"; and this of a biography that offends, where it offends, by locating its central biographical narrative within a boldly tendentious--and atmospheric--version of Elizabethan history. Despite this opening, which seems to promise a discussion of Waugh's history in the broad, the following modest essay will concern itself mainly with slips and blunders, primarily because one noted Campion scholar virtually defines Waugh's Edmund Campion by its "irritating historical errors." [3] But it is fair to ask how numerous, and how significant, such errors really are, and why they have been given such notoriety. Is Waugh's history really "in the vein of 1066 And All That"?

At the outset it must be said that Waugh went to extraordinary lengths to disclaim any pretensions to scholarship for his "short, popular life." He emphasized his heavy dependence on Richard Simpson's biography of Campion, [4] and in the Preface to the Second [British] Edition declares: "All I have done is select the incidents which struck a novelist as important, and relate them in a single narrative." But Waugh was being modest, for close reading shows that he drew extensively on the scholarly works listed in his bibliography and that he used a collection of "notes and documents" made available to him by Father Leo Hicks, S.J., an historian of note. Waugh writes like a student of his subject, and he cannot, and should not, be excused for making mistakes on the ground that he has merely written "a short, popular life."

To the best of this writer's knowledge, the core account of Campion's life in the biography is widely accepted to be reliable. Excellent recent studies, such as J. V. Holleran's A Jesuit Challenge: Edmund Campion's Debates at the Tower of London in 1581, [5] Gerard Kilroy's Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription [6] and Father Thomas McCoog's collection of essays, The Reckoned Expense: Edmund Campion and the Early English Jesuits: Essays in celebration of the first centenary of Campion Hall, [7] greatly expand knowledge of Campion's activities and writings, and of the environments in which he operated. But these newer studies do not call into question Waugh's basic narrative.

On the other hand, as indicated earlier, Waugh surrounds the biographical narrative with a highly controversial "Bellocian" or "revisionist" historical framework. In the early1930s, Catholics on one side and most conventionally educated Britons on the other were still deeply divided about Tudor religious history. No one then imagined the flood of objective studies of the transition from a Catholic to a Protestant England (and even re-evaluations of Bloody Mary) that would be respectfully reviewed in the press around the turn of the century. [8] Drawing on historical research reaching back to Dr. John Lingard (1771-1851), Catholic scholars argued, with varying modulations of stridency, that the true history of the period (in the words of Waugh's mentor, Father Hicks) lay "buried deep in many layers of falsehood." [9] Catholic historians rejected the popular belief that the Reformation was a spontaneous revolt by a "free people" against a tyrannous Papacy (the "Whore of Babylon"). They argued, and some mainstream historians agreed, that the Reformation in England was an "act of State." [10] The more combative Catholics, some of whom strongly influenced Waugh, went further. They described the Reformation as a "revolution" purposefully directed by William Cecil (Lord Burlegh), Sir Francis Walsingham and others (who they believed duped the Queen) to advance Protestantism and keep in power the "gang" of rich men who had profited from confiscated Church property. …