The view of society we get from the novels of Evelyn Waugh
"I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me." 1
Waugh’s novels concentrate on the fortunes of the English landed gentry at home and abroad. His protagonists tend to be stoical and passive. Paul Pennyfeather, in Decline and Fall, Guy Crouchback, in the Sword of Honour Trilogy, William Boot, in Scoop, Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, appear to be swept along by events. They respond with well- bred geniality to the procession of Wodehousian grotesques with whom they find themselves embroiled.
One notable exception is Basil Seal in Black Mischief and although he starts off as an idle buffoon in the mould of a John Beaver, he turns out to be a thoroughly venal bad egg. But in every case the best laid plans go farcically awry, usually with tragic consequences.
English society in the thirties is portrayed in a state of flux. Waugh’s savage use of irony and pathos take every opportunity to show the collapse of the old order. If his personal sympathies lie with Roman Catholic aristocracy he spares them no humiliation and he deals equitably with many of the lower orders.
Business and Economics
The landed gentry prided themselves on being ‘old money’ and looked down on 'trade'. You were not quite a gentleman if you paid your tailor on time. In this Waugh-world there is no such thing as an honest tradesman. Class transcends nationality, and even race, in this respect. In Scoop:
"William hesitating between polo sticks and hockey sticks, chose six of each; they were removed to the workshop. Then Miss Barton led him through the departments of the enormous store. By the time she had finished with him, William had acquired a well-, perhaps rather over-, furnished tent, three months’ rations, a collapsible canoe, a jointed flagstaff and Union Jack, a hand-pump and sterilizing plant, an astrolabe, six suits of tropical linen and a sou’wester, a camp operating table and set of surgical instruments, a portable humidor, guaranteed to preserve cigars in condition in the Red Sea, and a Christmas hamper with Santa Claus costume and a tripod mistletoe stand, and a cane for whacking snakes. Only anxiety about time brought an end to his marketing. At the last moment he added a coil of rope and a sheet of tin; then he left under the baleful stare of General Cruttwell."2
General Cruttwell is a roguish old colonial cut from the same cloth as The Goon Show’s Major Dennis Bloodnok (Pay Corps ret’d).
The appropriately named Mrs Beaver is busily networking throughout A Handful of Dust finding more and more ways to profitably serve her social superiors. She runs a shop, she converts houses to flatlets in which the rich can conveniently commit adultery. Although her builders are dismissed before they can finish the chromium panelling in Tony Last's beloved gothic house at Hetton, when Last is missing, presumed dead in the Brazilian rain forest, she finagles to sell his heirs a monument to his memory.
The Armenian, Mr Youkoumian, in Black Mischief does no worse. He starts out as a bar owner who abuses his wife. He outwits Ali by bribing the palace guards. He goes into business with Basil Seal using the Ministry of Modernization to legitimise his selling of whatever he can get hold of to whomsoever he can fob off with it. He supplies boots to an army that will only fight barefoot. He changes tourists' sterling into dodgy fivers but will not accept them back in payment for their hotel bill. And when the Azanian royal family is ultimately liquidated and colonial rule is imposed he is the only character remaining.
"'Jolly good tinned fruit salad, if you don’t mind my saying so, Mrs Lepperidge.’
It is entirely consistent that, in A Handful of Dust, Brenda Last tells her husband she is studying Economics when she needs an alibi to cover for her affair with John Beaver.
The novels depict a colonial world which the English upper classes could duck into and live well even if primogeniture denied them spectacular privilege at home.
"He took his younger son's share of the diminished family fortune, and settled in Kenya, living, it seemed to him afterwards, in unruffled good-humour beside a mountain lake where the air was always brilliant and keen and the flamingos rose at dawn first white, then pink, then a whirl of shadow passing across the glowing sky. He farmed assiduously and nearly made it pay." 4
For a generation whose nannies read aloud the novels of G. A. Henty in the nursery every bedtime, those parts of the world populated by darker-skinned peoples provided a vast playground for profitable adventure.
'You see I’m fed up with London and English politics. I want to get away. Azania is the obvious place. I had the Emperor to lunch once at Oxford. Amusing chap. The thing is this,' said Basil, scratching in his pipe with a delicate pair of gold manicure scissors from the dressing-table. 'Every year or so there’s one place in the globe worth going to where things are happening. The secret is to find out where and be on the spot in time.' 5
Or, in Tony Last’s case: "He was going away because it seemed to be the conduct expected of a husband in his circumstances, because the associations of Hetton were for the time poisoned for him, because he wanted to live for a few months away from people who would know him or Brenda, in places where there was no expectation of meeting her or Beaver or Reggie St Cloud at every corner he frequented, and, with this feeling of evasion dominant in his mind, he took the prospectuses to read at the Greville Club." 6
John Boot merely wants to avoid a difficult girlfriend.
"‘Ishmaelia seems to be the place. I was wondering if Algy would send me there as a spy.’
In 1962, as a telling afterthought, Waugh added a preface to Black Mischief saying: "Thirty years ago it seemed an anachronism that any part of Africa should be independent of European administration. History has not followed what then seemed its natural course."
"It was nearly three years since they last met and Seth recalled the light drizzle of rain in the Oxford quadrangle, a scout carrying a tray of dirty plates, a group of undergraduates in tweeds lounging about among bicycles in the porch. He had been an undergraduate of no account in his College, amiably classed among Bengali babus, Siamese, and grammar school scholars as one of the remote and praiseworthy people who had come a long way to the University. Basil had enjoyed a reputation of peculiar brilliance among his contemporaries..." 8
Almost all of Waugh’s male protagonists were at Oxford together. Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall was sent down from Scone. A possible exception to this being William Boot in Scoop.
Guy Crouchback was at Balliol (1921-24) with Joe Cattermole 9 - who went on to become a don at All Souls.
Public school and Oxford are the source of education which formed Waugh, his view of society, and the views of his key characters. There is a consensus which alleges that Waugh immersed himself the more vigorously into that demimonde because of a chip he had on his shoulder - his publisher father being regarded as ‘trade’. In any event it was Waugh’s exposure to the house party circuit of the Sitwells, the Mitfords etc which enabled him to send up the country house week-end from Hell in the characters John Beaver 10, and Salter 11.
Lawyers may pride themselves in being part of the 'professional class' but to Waugh’s toffs they are scarcely better than tradesmen. Lady Seal perceives a career at the bar as a possible career of last resort for her ne’er-do-well, if brilliant, son Basil. 12
Divorce settlements and death duties were two scourges which drove fear into the hearts of the landed gentry. Solicitors were therefore regarded as sordid schemers to be avoided as much as possible. "Tony did not employ the family solicitors in the matter but another less reputable firm who specialized in divorce." 13
Prior to the 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act, The English legal system required couples to go through an absurd pantomime in order to get a divorce. The law required ‘a guilty party’. A gentleman cuckold compounds his dishonour if he permits his wife to be a guilty party. This is why Tony Last has to enlist the services of a tart and two private detectives at an hotel in order to fabricate evidence of his own adultery to support his wife’s petition for divorce.
The practice was so commonplace that in Men at Arms Guy Crouchback recalls the 'dear John letter' from his wife Virginia which ends: "And, please, there’s to be no chivalrous nonsense of your going to Brighton and playing 'the guilty party'. That would mean six months separation from Tommy and I won’t trust him out of my sight for six months, the beast. 14"
And so it does not take much tweaking from Waugh, in A Handful of Dust to send up the whole Brighton episode as an elaborate farce in which the tart insists on bringing along her eight-year-old child, Winnie, Last offends the professional sensibilities of the detectives by openly drinking with them in the hotel bar, and then he forgets himself by going down to breakfast with the little girl when he is supposed to be witnessed having breakfast in bed with Millie.
"‘You are greedy,’ said Winnie, ‘eating two breakfasts.’
A recurring theme in Waugh’s novels is the decadence of the old social order allowing the status quo to be thrown into chaos by the lower classes, be they malevolent, self-serving or well-intentioned. In the resulting fog of war he finds his sharpest ironies and his strongest pathos. No wonder his first-hand experience of World War II warrants three volumes.
Military society adds a further matrix of social strata and adds khaki to Waugh’s canvas. Along with some of the usual suspects, like Communism, Fascism, ...Mrs Stitch, we get Trimmer - a hairdresser who becomes a war hero and gets Guy Crouchback’s wife pregnant, and the sinister Ludovic - a social climber who rises through the ranks to publish a best-selling novel. Crouchback is overtaken in rank by Frank de Souza - a Cambridge man and a Jew.
Colonial life has produced the ludicrous character of Apthorpe with his porpoises and his thunderbox. In the Halberdiers, Guy Crouchback finds himself disadvantaged by age and frustrated by the bloody-minded abuse of military procedure. He sets out in Men at Arms with the intention of finding honour as a crusader but his humiliation in Unconditional Surrender comes from his recognition that, not only can he do nothing for the Jews, but in several ways has worsened their plight.
The view of Yugoslavian society prior to Tito in Unconditional Surrender rings particularly true when reconsidered after the break-up of Yugoslavia following Tito’s death and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The contemporary reality of an independent Croatia under the old flag of the "quisling" Ustachi is another case in which "History has not followed what then seemed its natural course." 16
Politics and Government
"‘Tito’s in Italy. He’s a guest of honour at allied headquarters in Caserta and from what I picked up from Joe Cattermole I gather it’s on the cards he’s going to meet Winston. If he does, he’ll make rings round him.'
Here global society is affected by the toff being outwitted by the upstart Tito. British high society, as depicted by Waugh, had been too long accustomed to treating the Conservative Party as a dumping ground for dim sons like the "Protestant and plebeian" Arthur Box-Bender18 or Marjorie’s husband Allan, in A Handful of Dust. Of course the really dumb sons go into the clergy.
In A Handful of Dust Waugh makes a running gag of the attempts made by Jock Grant-Menzies to represent a constituency made up chiefly of pig breeders threatened by the adverse economic effects of Japanese pork-dumping. 19 When he finally gets to ask his question in the House, he is stymied by a point of parliamentary procedure - pork for pies is a different department.
In Scoop we are shown the internal workings of the Prime Minister’s office which honour’s the wrong Mr Boot rather than correct a bureaucratic error.
"No. 10 Downing Street was understaffed; the principal private secretary was in Scotland; the second secretary was on the Lido; Parliament was in vacation but there was no rest for the Prime Minister; he was obliged to muddle along, as best he could, with his third and fourth secretaries - unreliable young men related to his wife." 20
Fascism and communism are safely lampooned in Scoop. The communist consul-general for Ishmaelia berates William Boot with stereotypical slogans of pan- Africanism and proletarian internationalism but he has never been to Ishmaelia. "‘Who discovered America?’ demanded the consul-general to his retreating back, in tones that rang high above the sound of the wireless concert. ‘Who won the Great War?’" 21
At the fascist rival legation a black official tells Boot that Ishmaelites are not really black but sun-tanned Aryans. "There are many misconceptions. For instance, the Jews of Geneva, subsidized by Russian gold, have spread the story that we are a black race." 22
But in Men at Arms Mussolini has a grim reality. "As they drove they passed on every windowless wall the lowering, stencilled face of Mussolini and the legend ‘The Leader is always right’. 23 The blackshirt at the wheel of the taxi is certain that it won’t come to a war and that something will be worked out.
Reggie St. Cloud’s attempt to work something out with Tony Last in terms of a settlement for Brenda, is also doomed lead to a fatal confrontation. "There’s a lot in what these Labour fellows say, you know. Big houses are a thing of the past in England." 24
Scoop portrays newspaper reporters as monstrous scam-artists. Waugh gives us a superlative caricature of Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism.
"Many of Corker's anecdotes dealt with the fabulous Wenlock Jakes. '...syndicated all over America. Gets a thousand dollars a week. When he turns up in a place you can bet your life that as long as he’s there it'll be the news centre of the world.
'Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to an hotel, and cabled off a thousand word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window - you know.
'Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the press for you.'" 25
Typically Waugh plays this joke both ways so that when Boot finally does get the story, the hacks declare it a non-story because it goes against what they have already conspired to file.
In Scoop, and in Black Mischief there are times when Waugh refers to "niggers" and "Negroes". When black characters are attempting to emulate European sophistication he undermines them with references to "woolly hair" and the sort of gollywog imagery that his class and his generation felt comfortable with. Given the way he imagined history to be going, why should he forego the easy laughs? He was writing at a time when European magazines were still printing cartoons of black Africans cooking missionaries in big pots. This then is the fate of Prudence in Black Mischief but somehow it is Basil Seal who is responsible for this.
Waugh frequently plays fair by his black characters, in spite of himself. In the finest traditions of satire he looses his barbs in every direction and it is often the white diplomatic corps that is being lampooned in its complacent failure to take the indigenous people of Azania and Ishmaelia seriously. Azania, by the way, is the Xhosa word for South Africa.
Waugh is as uncomfortable with racism as all the other "isms". You never see Guy Crouchback, William Boot, or Tony Last, speak of "wogs" or "niggers" - and they do not approve of people who do. Typically in Waugh novels it is the lower orders who reveal the most unpleasantly racist sentiments.
"'Ben says natives aren't humans at all really.'
"'Yids,' explained Milly superfluously. 'Still, it’s nice to get a change from the club once in a while.' " 27
"'This place stinks of Yids,' said Baby, 'I always think that’s the sign of a good hotel, don’t you?' said Tony.
By the time he has witnessed the holocaust, Waugh knows better than to joke about such things. Guy Crouchback is so incensed by the communists' treatment of the Jews that he very nearly loses control and strikes an officer. "The temptation was stronger now, but before he had done more than clench his fist, before he had raised it, the sense of futility intervened. He turned and left the office." 29
In the knockabout farce of Black Mischief Waugh sends up all religions, including a few that he made up specially. The Anglican Church is made fun of in A Handful of Dust when every Sunday the vicar delivers a sermon originally written for service with the colonial forces in the reign of Victoria.
As a convert to Catholicism, Waugh sees Protestantism as plebeian.
"Only God and Guy knew the massive and singular quality of Mr Crouchback’s family pride. He kept it to himself. That passion, which is often so thorny a growth, bore nothing save roses for Mr Crouchback. He was quite without class consciousness because he saw the whole intricate social structure of his country divided neatly into two unequal and unmistakable parts. On one side stood the Crouchbacks and certain inconspicuous, anciently allied families; on the other side stood the rest of mankind, Box-Bender, the butcher, the Duke of Omnium (whose onetime wealth derived from monastic spoils), Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain - all of a piece together." 30
Although Guy Crouchback comes from such a snobbishly Catholic family, his frustration and disillusionment cut so deeply that he becomes aware of "...the colloquial monologue he always employed while praying; like an old woman, he sometimes ruefully thought, talking to her cat." 31 Even he starts to wonder if there can be a God listening.
In Waugh’s world women tend to come in two varieties: clueless and unscrupulous. Along with communists, fascists, black people, and tradesmen, women are the vandals storming the ramparts of white English paternalism.
Prudence Courtenay, Virginia Crouchback and Brenda Last are faithless sensation-seekers prepared to destroy a man for no other reason than to pursue an ill- considered romance with another. All three come to bad ends - Prudence is eaten by Basil Seal and others in Black Mischief, Virginia is killed by a V2 missile in Unconditional Surrender, and, perhaps worst of all, Brenda remarries to Jock Grant-Menzies MP in A Handful of Dust.
On the side of the angels, however, Waugh gives us two meddlesome upper class fixers, Lady Cockpurse and Mrs Stitch 32. They both appear in Scoop and then reappear elsewhere - Cockpurse in A Handful of Dust, and Stitch, very much as a deus ex machina defending the interests of Ivor Clare in Officers and Gentlemen. This extension of ‘The Stitch Service’ seems particularly extreme when we recall from Scoop that her husband Algy (based on Duff Cooper) is the Minister for Imperial Defence.
In his book Evelyn Waugh Volume I The Early Years 1903-1939, Martin Stannard reports that Waugh recognised that such fixers belonged to an era that was coming to a close.
Tony Last develops an awareness of values beyond his immediate class in A Handful of Dust: "Presently Tony realized that it was not etiquette in Milly's world to express interest in women, other than the one you were with." 33 But he suffers a fate worse than death when he becomes enslaved to Mr Todd in the Amazonian rain forest.
Waugh was no more a simple misogynist than he was a crude racist. It is clear that he observed the absurd sexism, of Joe Cattermole praising the courage of the female partisans.
"I have seen them endure excruciating operations without flinching, sometimes breaking into song as the surgeon probed, in order to prove their manhood." 34
From the novels of Evelyn Waugh we get a first-hand account of the passing of Empire and the crisis of upper middle class English life as it tried to muddle through World War Two. Although his books are opinionated and they fall within the genre of light fiction, there is an honesty in his observations which becomes more evident from our extended hindsight, given that "History has not followed what then seemed its natural course." 35
Notes1 Evelyn Waugh Men at Arms, (Penguin, London, 1964) Publisher’s frontispiece
2 Evelyn Waugh Scoop, (Penguin, London, 1943) pp. 44-5
3 Evelyn Waugh, Black Mischief, (Penguin, London, 1943) p. 237
4 Men at Arms, (Penguin, London, 1964) p. 18
5 Black Mischief, (Penguin, London, 1964) p. 85
6 Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust, (Penguin, London, 1951) p. 157
7 Scoop, p. 11
8 Black Mischief, p 112
9 Evelyn Waugh, Unconditional Surrender, pp. 162 & 165
10 A Handful of Dust pp 27-38
11 Scoop pp 201-213
12 Black Mischief pp. 82- 3
13 A Handful of Dust p. 128
14 Men at Arms p. 18
15 A Handful of Dust p. 143
16 Black Mischief Preface
17 Unconditional Surrender p. 204
18 Sword of Honour Trilogy
19 A Handful of Dust p. 66
20 Scoop p. 182
21 Scoop p. 50
22 Scoop p. 51
23 Men at Arms p. 16
24 A Handful of Dust p. 149
25 Scoop p. 67
26 A Handful of Dust p. 87
27 A Handful of Dust p. 138
28 A Handful of Dust p. 138-9
29 Unconditional Surrender p. 236
30 Men at Arms p. 34
31 Unconditional Surrender p. 198
32 Based on Lady Diana Cooper. Martin Stannard Evelyn Waugh Volume I The Early Years 1903-1939, (Flamingo, London 1993) p. 474
33 A Handful of Dust p. 139
34 Unconditional Surrender p. 165
35 Black Mischief Preface
© Michael Burgess 1997