Magazine article Modern Age

Two Irascible Englishmen: Mr. Waugh and Mr. Orwell

Magazine article Modern Age

Two Irascible Englishmen: Mr. Waugh and Mr. Orwell

Article excerpt

2003 MARKED THE CENTENARY of two of the most influential English authors of the middle years of the twentieth century: Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell (1903-1950), and Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966). Although the themes and topics they treated now seem dated (the fast, but dim social set of the late 1920s and early 1930s for Waugh; the travails of the working classes during the great slump for Orwell), both authors continue to be widely read today. Orwell remains popular for Animal Farm (1945), Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), and to a lesser extent for his essays; Waugh is acclaimed for Brideshead Revisited (1945) and his World War II trilogy, Sword of Honor (1965).

What made these two different individuals so influential when so many of their contemporaries have been forgotten? Who, for instance, other than academics, reads J.P. Priestley, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, or C. Day Lewis today? Waugh and Orwell continue to be popular because they were brilliant imaginative writers who enriched English literature, either with unforgettable characters (Waugh) or with the most frightening dystopia in English letters (Orwell).

Waugh and Orwell came from the same background, the educated upper middle class. Orwell, who took a deep interest in such matters, was more precise: his family, he said, was lower upper middle class. In their lifetimes both men played class roles: Waugh the quintessential country gentleman, Orwell the angry proletarian. In reality, neither lost their middle-class roots.

Waugh's father was a publisher and part-time author; Orwell's was a member of the Indian Civil Service in Burma. Both writers received excellent educations which they largely wasted--Waugh at Lancing and Oxford, Orwell at St. Cyprian's and Eton. Bookish and determined to be writers, each went through a difficult apprenticeship.

Waugh tried his hand at journalism and teaching, both with disastrous results, and he seriously thought of producing woodcuts for a living before turning to writing full time. His first book, a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite author, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1928), was politely received but he did not find his metier until he turned to social satire in the 1930s. Interestingly Orwell thought highly of the Rossetti book, singling it out among Waugh's early work as "quite good." Waugh's first two comic novels, Decline and Fall (1928) and especially Vile Bodies two years later secured his reputation as a popular and critical success, the voice of that slightly batty, brittle generation known as the "'Bright Young Things.'"

Orwell, after a ghastly experience at his prep school St. Cyprian's (which he wrote about with devastating effect in his essay, "Such, Such Were the Joys"), left Eton without a scholarship and thus could not afford Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, like his father he opted for the Indian Civil Service in Burma, where he spent five years as a policeman. He returned to England disgusted with his role as an Imperial bureaucrat oppressing the Burmese in their quest for independence. He was determined to write but had to endure a long period of part-time jobs--teacher, bookstore manager, small town shopkeeper--before he achieved literary success.

His first publication, the semi-autobiographic memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London, appeared in 1933, a couple of years after Waugh's great breakthrough with Vile Bodies. Down and Out was moderately successful and remains in print today, remembered largely for Orwell's unforgettable portrait of the chaos in a kitchen in one of Paris' leading hotels.

Orwell published a book a year, including four novels, for the next six years. He gradually became convinced that he lacked the imagination for traditional fiction, and in particular for creating well-rounded characters and convincing dialogue. His female characters, especially, tended to be mere caricatures and reflected a certain misogyny on his part. …

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