Evelyn Waugh never wanted to be a writer, still less a novelist. That may explain both the weakness of his books and their remarkable and continuing popularity. Readers love an amateur with no intellectual pretensions – one of themselves, in fact – who is also an expert craftsman: and Waugh’s novels are as solidly made as the best furniture. Among his most genuinely enthusiastic recollections was the ‘brilliant and completely speechless little cabinet-maker who could explain nothing and demonstrate everything. To see him cutting concealed dovetails gave me the thrill which, I suppose, others get from seeing their favourite batsman at the wicket or bullfighter in the ring.’ In the same magazine article of 1937 he remarked that Dickens never forgave his parents for trying ‘to force him into a blacking factory instead of letting him write’ and claims that he had made desperate efforts to get a job with a firm which, among other things, manufactured blacking. ‘But the manager was relentless. It was no use my thinking of blacking. That was not for the likes of me.’
This kidding on the level conceals a true awareness. Waugh was a craftsman adventurer, with none of the slowly maturing instincts and sensibility of the novelist. When he was not playing his role in society, it was cutting concealed dovetails that gave him his greatest satisfaction. And sometimes the dovetails remained flagrantly unconcealed. Henry Green, a born novelist, objected strongly to the technique employed in A Handful of Dust:
I don’t think the Demerara trip is real at all, or rather I feel the end is so fantastic that it throws the rest out of proportion. Aren’t you mixing two things together? The first part of the book is convincing, a real picture of people one has met and may at any time meet again ... But then to let Tony be detained by some madman introduced an entirely fresh note ... it seemed manufactured and not real.
It would be easy to reply that every novelist has to combine the manufactured with the ‘real’, but Green’s criticism goes deeper than that, as is shown by the disingenuousness of Waugh’s reply to it. He describes Mr Todd’s imprisonment of Tony Last at the end of the novel as ‘a conceit in the Webster manner’, and goes on to call his ‘scheme’ that of ‘a Gothic man in the hands of savages – first Mrs Beaver etc, then the real ones, finally the silver foxes at Hetton’. The quest for a lost city he dovetails into the man-without-God atmosphere of the book, calling it ‘justifiable symbolism’.
So it was, no doubt, but in this kind of way almost any bad novel can be made to sound like a good one. Waugh’s is too obviously a well-carpentered object, with his original story ‘The Man Who liked Dickens’ having the rest of the novel dovetailed onto it. Martin Stannard is surely right to point out here that ‘so skilful was Waugh’s literary carpentry that he managed to join the tale to the novel almost without alteration,’ the story’s original typescript being incorporated into the chapter ‘Du côté de chez Todd’: but that does not meet Green’s point that this is no way to write a novel. The original story bears a striking resemblance to a very early effort of Waugh’s, a story called ‘Anthony, Who sought Things that were Lost’, written as an undergraduate for Harold Acton’s avant-garde student magazine Oxford Broom, and never afterwards republished. ‘Anthony’ is a typical undergraduate effort, silly, sadistic, and modish only in one respect: it exploits the revival of interest in Elizabethan macabre made fashionable by Rupert Brooke’s pre-war study of Webster.
Count Anthony is imprisoned during a revolt of his subjects, and his betrothed, the ‘fair and gentle’ Lady Elizabeth, elects to share his captivity. After an idyllic period, singing, as it were, like birds in the cage, they become weakened and disillusioned by hardship. Bargaining for release, Lady Elizabeth does her best to seduce the pock-marked turnkey. Anthony is too weak to intervene, but with a last access of strength he strangles her with his chain, whereupon the turnkey locks the door, never to return. With a few changes in decoration and style this is very much the atmosphere of A Handful of Dust, and it is surprising that the novel’s manufactured elegance should have seemed to readers then – and indeed still today – like a piece of harsh contemporary realism. Waugh’s cast is like that of an Elizabethan play, dovetailed onto telling sketches of friends and contemporary types; he has none of the novelist’s interest in them as human beings. A moment in the novel which particularly strikes the reader is when Brenda Last hears the news of her little boy’s death and thinks for an awful moment it is her lover who has been killed – their names both being John. A moment’s reflection will show the utter absurdity of this, in terms of ordinary human emotion, but it is an effective and traditional dramatic stroke, dovetailed into a modern setting in such a way that it seems to reveal the ‘truth’ about modern psychology in a contemporary world of fashion. Waugh’s animus against his ex-wife and her lover supplies the energy which makes the carpentry job a real tour de force, exactly fitted to its job and no more.
The reliance on Elizabethan dramatic pattern which is a feature of the pre-war black comedies can still be seen in Brideshead Revisited, with its reworking of the name and nature of Cordelia, its emphasis on loyalty and betrayal, and its equally arbitrary use of other ingredients, Catholic, sentimental and romantic. As always with Waugh’s fictions, the most compelling point for the reader, and the secret of their continuing popularity, is the suggestion of a more complex, more fashionably fascinating, more exotic world just outside the novel, which the novelist himself is a member of, and of which he is giving the reader offhand telegraphic glimpses in dazzling black and white. Anything about Waugh is still news, and this must explain the demand which Martin Stannard’s biography sets out to satisfy, which it does very well.
Waugh certainly belongs to that category of personalities, of whom Byron is the most obvious example, which both create themselves, and are created as an image of the time, an index of its social and ideological geography. If the man, or rather his elected personae, is more real than his books – an unusual state of affairs for an important novelist – it could also be said that he is real, like Hamlet, in many different ways, and as seen by different and contrasting viewpoints and eyewitnesses. Inevitably, for Martin Stannard he has become the Great Writer, and is treated as if everything about him had a potential significance for that historic role, and for future scholarship (Anthony ‘seemed always to be seeking in the future for what had gone before’). But in terms of the life of a writer who never wanted to be one this can be misleading. Anthony Powell has given in his memoirs a brief but in some respects more convincing idea of Waugh than any that could be deduced from a comprehensive biography like this one, or indeed from Waugh’s own self-projections, whether in his own life or in the heroes of his novels. Powell perceived, for instance, that Waugh was perfectly at home in his father’s house, that the pair were for the most part on affectionate terms and understood each other very well. Equally normal were Waugh’s social ambitions and responses, which again, in a stylised sense, were not unlike those of a minor Elizabethan character – say, Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi – who has a flamboyant animus against what is rich, grand, corrupt and fashionable, but is none the less anxious to receive chic invitations and to get to know all the grandees he can. Thackeray and other Victorians were not so very different. Powell also gives us the key to Waugh’s literary method:
Waugh was, in his way, an extraordinarily uncomplicated man; so uncomplicated that even in those days – far more so later in life – it was often hard to accept that some of his views and attitudes were serious. That was mistaken. They were perfectly serious to himself; within the limits that, possessing his father’s powerful taste for self-dramatisation, all Waugh’s energies were concentrated on any role he was playing, however grotesque or absurd.
This simplicity of approach was particularly true in Waugh’s manner of looking at social life. He really did believe in entities like ‘a great nobleman’, ‘poor scholar’, ‘literary man of modest means’ ... In one sense, such stylised conceptions may certainly exist, but at close range they usually require a good deal of modification ... The ‘high-life’ of Decline and Fall is mostly depicted from imagination, hearsay, newspaper gossip-columns. Later, when Waugh himself had enjoyed a certain amount of firsthand experience of such circles, he was not on the whole much interested in their contradictions and paradoxes. He wished the beau monde to remain in the image he had formed, usually showing himself unwilling to listen, if facts were offered that militated against that image.
That is probably the most accurate summing-up of the Waugh phenomenon, coming as it does from an acute observer who knew him well over a long period. Stannard’s qualifications as critic and biographer can in this area be a hindrance as well as a help, for they depend on taking his subject, in a sense, too seriously. ‘Ultimately, we can only guess at the real reasons for Waugh’s inability to conclude Work Suspended,’ he writes, after an acute and detailed discussion of the book’s inception and progress. But surely the reasons are obvious. Apart from the war, which had interrupted everything, the novel failed to get on because Waugh could not dramatise the characters in his habitual way, the way Powell indicates, and which he says can be ‘by no means a disadvantage to the novelist’. Waugh had strayed outside his field, which he promptly returned to in Put out more flags, Brideshead, The Loved One, the Sword of Honour sequence. Stannard prefers the tempting but I think misleading hypothesis that Waugh had reached a climacteric, like his hero John Plant in Work Suspended, and that his later fiction explores new ground in a new way, working ‘through analysis rather than implication’. But, as Stannard admits, ‘he did not quite know how to go about it ... He wanted for once to write about love and about himself’ – and this for Waugh was not a feasible project. Although Work Suspended in its unfinished state is a delight to read, it could only have been a failure, and probably a sentimental one, if it had been completed. The only way Waugh could work was through a self-dramatised persona – Pennyfeather, Adam, Tony Last, Crouchback, even Gilbert Pinfold: in his relations with the pregnant Lucy, the expression of Waugh’s own deep and rather complex affection for Diana Guinness and for his own new wife, Plant becomes quite inadequate as an instrument for getting Waugh’s views fixed up, dovetailed into place.
To fix them in that manner – even when it was a question of fixing his own bout of manic delusion in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold – was essential both to Waugh’s temperament and to his art. Nothing must be allowed to remain uncertain, questionable or ambiguous; ‘the enemy,’ as he puts it in Men at Arms, ‘must be plain in view,’ and so must be the only salvation – the Church, the City of God and an ordered society. Naturally enough, Waugh was a masochist as well as a sadist, and he clearly delights in heaping humiliations on himself in what was for him the ideal persona of Guy Crouchback, who is left with nothing but his gentlemanliness and his Catholicism, two attributes which his creator also – having arrogated them to himself – clung onto through thick and thin. It is significant that this wholly clearcut way of looking at things blends so well with Waugh’s brilliance at fantasy, is indeed an essential aspect of that fantasy, as in The Loved One, Helena, and the later part of the Sword of Honour sequence. Stannard is particularly good on the theoretical side of Waugh’s earlier fiction, showing that – unlike his hero carpenter – he was equally able to explain and to demonstrate when it came to talking about what was happening in fiction. Discussing a novel of W.R Burnett called Iron Man, in ‘The Books You Read’, a column he did for the Graphic newspaper, he spoke of ‘what is going to become more and more the manner’ for fiction, and described how ‘character, narrative and atmosphere are all built up and implicit in the dialogue.’ Firbank had showed the way, in spite of his ‘dead ninetyish fatuity’, and Hemingway had virtually perfected the technique. As a guide to the new novel, and its future, Waugh gave readers of the Graphic their money’s worth.
Towards the end of his life, in 1962, Waugh said to an interviewer who had asked about his professional methods: ‘Experiment? God forbid! Look at the results of experimentation in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.’ It was true that Waugh had found early on the way of writing which suited his ‘powerful taste for self-dramatisation’, and how to build up ‘the bodiless harlequinade’, so that all its ingredients ‘become implicit in the dialogue’. He never forsook that method, and it kept him sane, fictionally speaking, until the end of his career. It also played into the hands of his particular kind of certitude. He has a portrait in Put out more flags of an elderly gentleman, probably his father, who suddenly discovers the joys of reading light fiction and becomes wholly absorbed in the cheerful certainties and predictabilities it presents. Waugh’s uncheerful certainties are equally predictable; and though he would have been upset at the thought, most of his admirers read him, and still read him, as if he were a fashionably black version of P.G. Wodehouse. This was natural enough for an author who considered his books ‘quite external to himself’, and who wrote his letters in the tone appropriate to a successful adventurer (‘I am living like a swell in Albany, as it might be Lord Byron ... or any real slap-up writer’).
It is possible to wonder whether Waugh’s travel books may not, in the end, outlast his novels in their appeal to a judicious readership. In all of them, but in Ninety-Two Days especially, an agreeably sober account of a quite ordinary expedition in British Guiana, the writing seems to do exactly what his writing can do best: the humour and liveliness are not required to sustain the persona of the misanthrope, lover, warrior-explorer, Catholic gentleman. The sense of relaxation and comradeship with the natural Waugh is extremely pleasant: not the Waugh who invented Tony Last and his gruesome end with Mr Todd, but the Waugh who sat quietly soaking rum and lime with Todd’s original, the eccentric but amiable Mr Christie, who had refused a missionary’s gift of a medal representing the Virgin Mary on the grounds that he had no need of a picture of a woman he saw so often, and which was, besides, ‘an exceedingly poor likeness’. In such company and in such places, far away from his tedious aristocratic friends, Waugh must have felt that he had shed the fashionable burdens of being a novelist and had got back at last to the simple but satisfying craftsmanship of the blacking factory.