Apart from his own willingness to classify himself as an entertainer, one of the major reasons for the general view of Evelyn Waugh's early novels as frivolous is that they betray little in the way of overt philosophical content. While it is true that the didactic novel has fallen into disfavor and we tire of the Rupert Birkins more easily than we used to, we still demand a message from fiction, and Waugh seems to deny us one. The problem raised here is one of subject matter. If Waugh's subject is merely the foibles of English society between the wars, then he is a sort of humorous chronicler of the period, and of limited interest to later generations, who will find him funny but will not perhaps understand allusions to the Oxford aesthetes. But English society is not Waugh's only subject. In his first six novels, in fact, he was writing to a considerable extent about fiction, particularly its limited ability either to imitate "reality" in the sense that conventional realistic and naturalistic narratives attempt to do, or to present the ideal suggested by Dr. Johnson's "just representations of general nature." Nor, in spite of his fascination with fantasy, did he aspire to Sidney's poetic world, which offers not an insight into reality, but a superior alternative to it: Nature's world is "brazen, the poets only deliver a golden." Although he contradicts himself on the matter in his statements on fiction, Waugh clearly rejects escape and mere entertainment in his own novels; as D. H. Lawrence said, trust the tale, not the teller.
Further, while he did not anticipate the alternatives to traditional novel form offered by later writers, Waugh shared post-modern ideas about the novel's limitations, especially the objections to the conventions of the realistic novel raised by Alain Robbe-Grillet and the other proponents of the nouveau roman in France and their followers in England and America.(1) The majority of these writers would agree, I think, that a message on the limits of fiction, on what art cannot do, is not trifling with the novel or with art, but bears its own importance as a subject. It is here that Waugh's permanent value as a novelist (as opposed to his value as a satirist) lies.
Waugh's attitude toward realism in fiction is clear. He avoided both Victorian attempts at verisimilitude through causal plot structures and modern experiments in realistic character representation, particularly stream of consciousness techniques: he did not believe the novel should be an attempt to represent life directly. Waugh admired writers like Ivy Compton-Burnett, creators, as he says, of "a timeless wonderland directed by its own interior logic, not distorting, because not reflecting, the material world" (Davis 248). He insisted on the separation between the artistically created and the actual world. Thus in his first novel, Decline and Fall, he presents us with Paul Pennyfeather, a fictional character based on another fictional character. The whole book, the narrator explains, "is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather," and we have actually been reading about the adventures of his shadow, for, "as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness" (332). Waugh is not merely defining the picaresque hero, who is, indeed, less important than his surroundings; he is making a statement about fiction as mimesis, and he puts the artist's imitation in much the same position Plato did--at two removes from reality.
Far from the position of Henry James, then, who wrote that at times his characters seemed to have lives of their own, or, to take a more recent example, of John Fowles, whose double ending in The French Lieutenant's Woman is supposedly caused by a character's decision to do something other than what the author had planned, Waugh insisted that his characters remain fictional. …