Evelyn Waugh standing in his study. (Photo by Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Evelyn Waugh was right: British politics went wrong in the 1920s

Why do Waugh’s political works remain either caricatured or ignored?

Evelyn Waugh has enjoyed increased attention in 2020, on the 75th  anniversary Brideshead Revisited. But Waugh was so much more than Brideshead. This year marks the centenary of the decade in which he came of age. From the start, Waugh’s writings were political, but since he was on the wrong side of trends, his politics are usually caricatured or ignored.

Evelyn Waugh was the voice and critic of his generation. He was 17 years old in 1920, when he wrote for his school magazine of a generation which felt guilty for missing the war but more mature because of it.

He joined Oxford University in January 1922 but lost his scholarship in 1924 due to poor performance. One cause was his involvement with the “Bright Young People” (a term coined by the tabloids) who scandalised Oxford and thence London. After flitting between studying art at tertiary level and teaching at secondary level, Waugh caught up with the Bright Young People in 1927, as a social reporter for the Daily Express. In the next month he was fired for making up stories.

Waugh was ambivalent; he played off his insight for professional benefit. Soon, his dominant posture was critical. His first published novel (Decline and Fall, 1928) featured despicable characters (except for the naïve hero): college drunks, slave traders, paedophiles, mercenary women, careless parents, cynical teachers, irresponsible professors, and new age reformers. Two generations were distinct, but neither was worthy: the young were wayward and selfish; the old failed to live up to their responsibilities.

He used the success of this book to earn commissions from the press for articles about his generation. He was then approaching 27 years of age and moving into a more critical and conservative phase, partly due to his wife’s betrayal, in mid-1929, after a year of marriage.

Waugh’s war novels criticise the war effort as a socialist enterprise

Waugh’s second novel (Vile Bodies, 1930) directly satirised the Bright Young People. They were entertainingly eccentric, but libatious, promiscuous, deceitful, dishonest, naïve, unemployed, and feckless. They partied constantly at other people’s expense, amidst the fading magnificence of the past, yet they also sought out anything “modern” (tethered airships, car races, newspaper offices, private apartments). Their feelings are bipolar. Everything is either “divine” or “boring.” They demand to be “amusing” lest they be “boring.” Most end in madness, suicide, or marriages for money.

Vile Bodies both celebrated eccentricities and exposed the risks and ultimate meaninglessness of what would develop into the “permissive society.” As a critic, Waugh was a hypocrite, since he was intemperate himself. His conversion to Catholicism in 1930 was partly in pursuit of external pressure.

Vile Bodies was semi-autobiographical: the hero works as a social reporter briefly, unheroically, and dishonestly, participates drunkenly and beyond his means, and ends up adrift. The novel ends with the hero suddenly at war, despite the pious pacifism of his generation. Meanwhile, his sometime fiancée reports that she is pregnant, as a result of their adultery, after she married a less good-looking, less intelligent, but wealthier man. In this dissatisfying and certainly unfunny ending, Waugh was countering another trend of his time: idealism.

Waugh’s counter-idealism is rarely identified but goes back to his first published novel. Decline and Fall included a radical prison governor who thought crime was solved by releasing the criminal’s creativity. He grants to a deranged murderer the carpentry tools that are used to dismember the prison’s parson.

Waugh’s Black Mischief (1932) and Scoop! (1938) are best known for lampooning the virtue-signalling and fake news in journalism, but also satirised the idealism and false promises of international institutionalists.

A Handful of Dust (1934) is a hard book to read, for its unrelenting persecution of the hero, through cuckolding, the death of his only child, and detention in a remote jungle to serve an illiterate despot by reading aloud from Dickens. It expresses Waugh’s cynicism about women, marriage, and friends, and punishes the hero for both naivety and belated adventurism. Subtly, everybody is at fault for profligacy and dependency, which would become his core anxieties about Britain’s creeping socialism.

The novels based set in Second World War are sometimes hilarious romps with eccentric characters, but are generally solemn, nostalgic, and pessimistic. Their most consistent comment is to expose the inefficiencies of Britain’s war effort. The war novels contain no military triumphs – only chaotic expeditions, propaganda, and waste.

The war novels expose incompetent and authoritarian leaders, undeserving recipients of favour, and unrewarded heroes. The focus is on junior to middle ranks, in combatant roles, propaganda, counterintelligence, and the nascent agencies of what would become known as the welfare state. Waugh’s wartime characters tend to be Bohemian, permissive, promiscuous, selfish, and exploitative. This is true even of reprised heroes, such as Basil Seal, the amoral survivor of Black Mischief, who becomes more exploitative in Put Out More Flags (1942).

The war novels are easy to simplify as personal, to the detriment of their political commentary. They criticise the war effort as a national enterprise and especially as a socialist enterprise. In real life, Britain was governed increasingly by a coalition of socialists, despite a Conservative prime minister. Waugh saw through Winston Churchill’s chaotic leadership, partly as a friend of Randolph Churchill, partly as a confidant of Duff Cooper (Churchill’s Minister of Information), partly as a participant in Churchill’s strategic follies (such as the vain defence of Crete in 1941). Waugh was delighted with Churchill’s electoral failure in 1945, and dismayed that Churchill still led the Party when the Labour government was voted out in 1950.

Waugh wrote many political critiques but few prescriptions

Each war novel incorporates wartime Britain’s spin of the Soviet Union as a benign belligerent and socialist state closer to the Labour Party’s vision than Karl Marx’s. Later, three of the war novels would be repackaged as the Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-1961). The real Sword of Honour was commissioned by King George VI, on the government’s instructions, for exhibition in Westminster Abbey before presentation by Churchill to Stalin at the Allied conference in Tehran (November 1943). The third novel (Unconditional Surrender) describes Britain’s alliance with the USSR as “a day of apocalypse for all the world for numberless generations.” The exhibition of the sword in London is described at length, even though the hero chooses not to view it. The text is crassly sarcastic about the viewers’ “piety” and “gratitude” towards an ally that had taken much but reciprocated little. Like Waugh in real life, the hero goes to Yugoslavia as a special operative to support the resistance but sees communist repression and Western betrayal of the non-communist majority that is doing most of the resisting.

Ultimately, the sword symbolises Britain’s hubris. The hero is the only honourable character left alive, and his honour is one of self-separation from the herd.

Usually, reviewers reduce these complex themes to a lament social change. Waugh’s lament is best known through Brideshead Revisited (1945), although here social changes are secondary to what was intended to be advocacy of Catholicism. Waugh failed in his primary mission, which explains his later resentment of the book’s popularity.

In Helena (1950), he attempted to sell a fundamental Christianity from the age of Constantine, but ended up with a cloying mix of history, melodrama, and myth, without his usual stylistic brilliance. Yet even this novel is political: its portrayal of imperial and spiritual decline reflected his view of Clement Attlee’s postwar administration.

Waugh best satirised socialist Britain with Love Among the Ruins (1953), where some “near future” British government keeps criminals in such comparative luxury that they choose crime in order to return to prison, while “welfare weary” citizens seek official euthanasia.

Waugh wrote many political critiques but few prescriptions. He is often categorised as a religious conservative, given his conversion to Catholicism, his opposition to the Church’s later reforms, and his offering of Catholicism as a binary solution to modern decline.

Ultimately, the charge of religious conservatism is dissatisfying: it is used often to suggest a lack of reason, which might be true for George W. Bush, but not Waugh.

Waugh was conservative but not partisan. His novels feature politicians who are equally flawed whatever their party. In fact, parties are rarely clear, although most of his characters are privileged or titled to suggest Conservatives. His second novel (Vile Bodies) satirised the tumultuous politics of the 1920s with a character described as “this week’s prime minister.”

Waugh admired only one of those on-off leaders: Stanley Baldwin (three times prime minister: 1923-1924, 1924-1929, 1935-1937). Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous administration (1937-1940) reflected well on Baldwin. Written during Chamberlain’s administration, Scoop! (1938) contains an international man of intrigue named Baldwin, who fixes an African Marxist-Fascist civil war in Britain’s favour.

Waugh was a prolific writer of non-fiction books too. Indeed, at one point, he aimed to write both a novel and a non-fiction book about each adventure. Most of the non-fiction books are categorised as travel books, but this term suggests little of their political analysis.

Waugh would be dogged by accusations of fascism, but Leftists conveniently reduce all positions to two sides, and forget that fascists could be socialists too (including Britain’s own Oswald Mosley). Waugh preferred the West’s neglected classical liberal and Christian traditions, although he also resented conservatism where it seemed blind. The radicalism and modernism of fascism appealed materially more than politically.

The book that most corrupted his reputation was Waugh in Abyssinia (1936), based on a three-week tour, with Italian support, of newly conquered Abyssinia. He had reported from Abyssinia on the Emperor’s coronation in 1930 and from the Abyssinian side during the first months of Italian invasion in 1935. His contempt for its Emperor, ethnic minority rule, slavery, and corrupt clerics was a consistent feature of his commentary.

Waugh also praised the modernity that Italy brought, such as roads and the abolition of slavery, but chose not to visit the south, where Italian forces were still waging a brutal counterinsurgency. The book was generally dismissed as a fascist apology, but his private letters and diaries prove his contempt for Italian disorganisation and bravado, in both Italy and Italian East Africa.

During the Spanish Civil War, Waugh avoided invitations to report. When asked whether he supported the fascists or the Marxists, he rejected a false choice, although he admitted he would support fascism if it was the only alternative to Marxism.

In popular culture Waugh became a caricature of the unfashionable establishment

In 1938, Waugh travelled to Mexico to investigate the Marxist regime established in 1934 by military coup. Why 1938? A British oil executive secretly bankrolled the tour, just after the regime nationalised the oil industry. Waugh used his observations, gathered over two months, and his benefactor’s data, to write an erudite history of the industry and the politics. He also used the book to set up both communism and fascism as antagonistic to a preferred ideology that he called “individualism.” Waugh’s individualism mixed Christianity, humanism, and classical liberalism, akin to libertarianism.

Unfortunately, his best polemic is the least known. He deferred writing the book until December 1938, and did not finish until April 1939, so it was published too late to capture public attention from the crises in Europe. It sold little and was never reprinted.

After the Second World War, Waugh’s work rate, literary reputation, and health declined, although his royalties remained strong. Alcohol, cigars, and medications for insomnia were his main vices. These contributed to blackouts and hallucinations by 1954, which he described semi-autobiographically in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957).

In popular culture he became a caricature of the unfashionable establishment, which Waugh consciously provoked by keeping servants, wearing garish tweed clothes, and sneering at change. His baiters sought him out, such as when Nancy Spain and Lord (Rufus) Noel-Buxton invaded his home in 1955 (Buxton spontaneously claimed a right to trespass because he was a peer of the realm). Waugh turned the incident into a delicious article for The Spectator, but simultaneously put his home on the market.

Living beyond his means encouraged him into a lawsuit in 1957 against the Daily Express when Nancy Spain disparaged his sales. He won a healthy boost to his income. Still, he couldn’t make ends meet, so he agreed to inane interviews with BBC television in 1960 and 1964. The BBC still presents these interviews as evidence for Waugh’s disengagement, but Waugh appears as the bored victim of an establishment that is trying to paint him as the establishment. He died in 1966, aged just 62.

Today, Waugh is one of those novelists who is too white, male, English, conservative, and counter-consensus to be admitted in English literature classes. Upper classness alone would prevent his novels from being debuted today (although publishers reprint his past successes). Yet Waugh offers more political insight into how Britain has developed since the 1920s than most of the political fiction published today.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover