Greene and Waugh’s mutual affection survived without serious quarrel to the very end

The odd couple

Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene may have been unlike as possible, but they remained the closest of friends for four decades


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene had one of the great modern literary friendships — comparable to Conrad and Ford, Eliot and Pound, Owen and Sassoon. Strikingly similar in many ways, they were close contemporaries and came from professional middle-class families. Waugh’s father was a publisher, Greene’s father a headmaster.

Both had successful brothers: the older Alec Waugh was a popular novelist; the younger Sir Hugh Greene was Director-General of the BBC. Waugh and Greene went from minor public schools, Lancing and Berkhamsted, to Oxford — Greene to Balliol, Waugh to the less distinguished Hertford College — where they were acquainted but not close since (as Waugh claimed) Greene “looked down on us as childish and ostentatious. He certainly shared in none of our revelry”.

Both men had an unhappy marriage. Greene left his wife and children in 1939 but remained married, which allowed him the freedom to have many affairs without the risk of a permanent connection. (His long-time lovers, Catherine Walston and Yvonne Cloetta, were also married.) Betrayed by his first wife whom he divorced, Waugh had seven children with his second wife and was a severe and distant père de famille. Both men ravelled widely and were temperamentally pugnacious.

Both men were Catholic converts in the late 1920s, but for different reasons. Greene converted in order to marry a devout Catholic. Waugh sought solace in the Church after being deeply wounded by his first wife’s adultery. A religious conservative and political reactionary, Waugh supported the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Greene, resolutely left-wing, befriended the revolutionary dictators Fidel Castro and Omar Torrijos of Panama.

There were other differences, too. Waugh was social, humorous, snobbish, arrogant and difficult to like; Greene was solitary, gloomy, kind, generous and likeable. Waugh lived in the country, courted aristocrats and loved luxury; Greene preferred cities, low life and opium dens. Waugh craved self-indulgent comfort; Greene thrived on self-punishing hardship.

Yet, as Greene’s biographer Norman Sherry concluded, Waugh “must be accounted Greene’s best male friend … equal in fame, equal in intellect, unequal in nature and personality”.

Their friendship began in 1936, and the next year Greene recruited Waugh to write book reviews for the short-lived highbrow magazine Night and Day. But Waugh lived in the country, Greene was frequently abroad and they often made imaginative plans for joint adventures that rarely came to fruition. In July 1936 Greene, always restless, suggested he and Waugh should imitate Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and “do a race around the world”. Waugh refined the plan by adding: “I think that it should be a race not in time but economy. Each to start with no luggage and a limited sum — say £100 — and the one who arrives with the most cash in hand to get a prize.”

Waugh recruited Greene to write for Night & Day

In October 1948 Waugh was frightened when Greene had a sudden dramatic illness, yet amused by the diagnosis. Greene “was sitting in a New York hotel feeling quite well when he felt very wet & sticky in the lap & hurried to the lavatory & found that his penis was pouring with blood. So he fainted & was taken to a hospital and the doctors said ‘It may be caused by five diseases two of which are not immediately fatal, the others are’”. Waugh, as usual, exaggerated.

In 1946, when Greene worked as a publisher (like Waugh’s father) at Eyre & Spottiswoode, he commissioned his friend to write an introduction to Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington. In 1950 Greene tentatively agreed to write the screenplay of Brideshead Revisited and tried to co-opt Waugh: “We might have a certain amount of fun if you would collaborate with me.”

Well aware of his unpleasant reputation, Waugh tried to reassure him: “Don’t think I shall be cantankerous. I am cantankerous but not about that sort of thing — about cooking and theology and clothes and grammar and dogs.” The promising project collapsed when Waugh refused to surrender artistic control to the producer, and Greene absolutely loathed David Selznick.

Their most ambitious plan involved Waugh’s second journey to South America, where they could collaborate instead of competing as they had done with their two books about Mexico in 1939. In October 1961 Greene wrote: “I wish I could come with you to British Guiana — it would really be a most rewarding experience. Would we remain friends at the end of it? It would be worth the risk if I were free to go.” He loved risk but had to remain in Europe and avoided a potentially fatal rupture. The tough explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who detested Waugh, said that if they had travelled together in Ethiopia in 1935, only one of them would have returned alive.

More realistically, they always kept in touch and met whenever possible. Waugh attended the first nights of Greene’s plays and saw his films. He thought The Fallen Idol, with a script by Greene, “was clever and funny and original”. But he disliked The End of the Affair, with its famous bargain with God, which seemed to “miss the entire point of the story”.

Their most significant and well-recorded meeting took place in September 1951 when Greene and his lover Catherine Walston visited Waugh on his own at Piers Court in Gloucestershire. At first he tried to discourage Greene, or at least alert him to the drawbacks:

You would be most welcome. But I must warn you of certain discomforts. Drink will be abundant, but food not so good. My cook goes on holiday and a village woman takes her place. If you can live on scrambled eggs you will not starve but I fear you will pine for cosmopolitan dishes … This is said to suggest that the visit may be uncomfortable for you. To me it would be pure delight as I have to endure these sufferings in any case & your presence will mitigate them.

Used to roughing it in foreign parts, Greene said he’d be willing to endure anything: “Your account doesn’t in the least deter me. I like boiled or scrambled eggs and can do without hot water indefinitely. We’re both drinkers rather than eaters.”

Waugh gave his guests gardening tasks, took them to the cinema and arranged a dinner at the home of congenial neighbours. Waugh was dazzled by the wealthy, beautiful and free-spirited Catherine Walston, an American Catholic convert. She had five children and was married to the complaisant Henry, an inveterate loser of by-elections for the Liberals and then the Labour Party until Hugh Gaitskell offered him a peerage and a route to becoming a junior minister. Waugh concluded, “G. Greene behaved well & dressed for dinner every night. Mrs. Walston had never seen him in a dinner jacket and will now make him wear one always.”

Though Greene had been gloomy and depressed, and his relations with Catherine were turbulent, she felt the visit had been a great success: “In spite of our private problems, I was very happy staying with you for you cheer Graham enormously and I like being with you.” Greene agreed, “I enjoyed myself with you so much & you eased what would have been a very bad period for me.”

But Waugh told Ann Fleming that he still found “Greene’s life as mysterious to me as to you … Catherine found him very lonely and morose & thought it her duty to enliven him with new acquaintances. Indeed it is thanks to her that I have seen so much more of him during the last three years.”

Waugh had already warned Greene that he couldn’t control his angry and embarrassing outbursts. He suggested they meet for lunch, “but not in a restaurant. I fall into ungovernable rages with waiters and am sorry afterwards, too late. So let it be your flat or my club whatever suits you best”.

Greene with his married lover, Catherine Walston

Even so, Greene was shocked by Waugh’s outrageous behaviour at the home of Greene’s close friend, the film director Carol Reed in 1952. Waugh suddenly launched into an anti-Semitic attack on another close friend, the director Alexander Korda and his lover, a singer who became his third wife. Greene could not control Waugh, and after they left he asked:

“What on earth induced you to behave like that?”

“Korda had no business to bring his mistress to Carol’s house.”

“But I was there with my mistress.”

“That’s quite different, she’s married.”

Greene wondered if “fornication were more serious than adultery”. In fact, Waugh had an old financial dispute with Korda and took this opportunity to attack him.

Waugh famously told Nancy Mitford that he would have been even worse without the constraints of religion: “You have no idea of how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” Both disgusted and intrigued by Waugh’s fury, Greene told a mutual friend, “I’d love to have dinner with Evelyn. I’m devoted to him & long to see the ear trumpet.” To suppress this offensive apparatus, which he used to intimidate unpleasant guests, Ann Fleming banged it with a serving spoon and made the sound reverberate for several days in his head.

In 1954 Waugh successfully sponsored his friend for White’s club so he could see Greene more often on his own turf. Always keen to meet and dispute in person, Waugh wrote to Greene in the late 1950s, saying: “I don’t think the English countryside attracts you much. If for any reason you feel like coming here for a night or two you would be welcomed with open arms & bottles … On the rare occasions I go to London I always ask for you and am always told you are far away. I am always here and it would be a great treat to see you if you ever felt the need to hide.”

Waugh liked to dramatise the gossip about Greene in order to amuse his friends. In July 1955 Waugh said “he told me he has the beginning of cirrhosis of the liver and is on a strict regime. Also that he has broken with Korda who guillotined the Monte Carlo film just as it was ready for shooting … Also that Mrs. T. S. Eliot’s insanity sprang from her seduction and desertion by Bertrand Russell.” Greene said Waugh had exaggerated his liver trouble and his spat with Korda, who made Loser Takes All. Waugh was closer to the mark about Vivien Eliot and Russell, whose cruelty had indeed exacerbated her mental instability.

The two men maintained a professional as well as a personal friendship. They often reviewed each other’s work, and their favorable opinions were especially valuable when other critics were harsh. Both made a point of remaining silent (with one exception) if they could not praise.

Even before they became close, Waugh saw merit in Greene’s second novel The Name of Action (1930). Nine years later, Waugh had published his book on Mexico, Robbery Under Law, and noted that Greene’s Mexican book The Lawless Roads, which also appeared in 1939, was a formidable rival. Greene’s Mexico is “a country where the most buoyant feel crushed by the weight of sheer, hopeless wickedness … and his account at moments becomes savage … [This book] is written with great pungency and a kind of grim humour”. Greene was more personal, emotional and furious than Waugh about the corruption of the country and persecution of the Church.

Waugh’s longest and most important review was of Greene’s major novel The Heart of the Matter (1948): “His technical mastery has never been better … He is a story-teller of genius … There are incidents of the highest imaginative power.” He noted how easily Greene’s novels could be made into movies: “The affinity to the film is everywhere apparent. It is the camera’s eye which moves about the room recording significant detail. It is the modern way of telling a story.” Turning to the religious theme, he observed: “the reader is haunted by the question: Is Scobie damned? … I believe that Mr. Greene thinks him a saint.”

When Greene objected, Waugh softened a reprinted version to “several critics have taken Scobie to be a saint”. But there was a sting in the tail when the defensor fidei concluded, “the idea of willing my own damnation for the love of God is either a very loose poetical expression or a mad blasphemy”.

Greene, modestly explaining his intentions and deflecting the attack, told Waugh: “There’s no other living writer whom I would rather receive praise (& criticism) from. A small point — I did not regard Scobie as a saint, & his offering his damnation up was intended to show how muddled a mind full of good will could become once ‘off the rails’.” Waugh replied: “I am delighted that you did not take the review amiss. My admiration for the book was great — as I hope I made plain.”

When The Heart of the Matter was chosen by the lucrative Book-of-the-Month Club, Waugh told Greene that high British taxes made it “impossible now to be rich but it is possible to be idle, and this American coup relieves you of work for about 15 years”. But he also vented about Greene’s wealth and meanness in letters to his confidante Nancy Mitford: “I am obsessed by poverty at the moment. But not so much as multi-millionaire Graham Greene, the socialist, who I gather has been sniffing round Chantilly”, the posh town near Paris where the British ambassador Duff Cooper lived. “G.G. thinks of nothing but nothing but money, in very small sums. It is odd. He must be about the richest man we know. I don’t mean he is ambitious for more, just that it frets him to spend it.”

Two months later he flattered Greene: “I find I love re-reading now — particularly your books. I am so proud of my line of signed copies of your work.” He greatly admired The End of the Affair (1951), based on Greene’s liaison with Catherine. Waugh praised the story as “a singularly beautiful and moving one … The relationship of lover to husband with its crazy mutations of pity, hate, comradeship, jealousy and contempt is superbly described … Greene’s characteristic achievement has been to take the contemporary form of melodrama and to transfuse it with spiritual life.”

Waugh, photographed in the 1930s

When in 1954 the Catholic Holy Office belatedly suppressed Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, Waugh eagerly sprang to his friend’s defence and offered to help oppose the censorship that might also damage his own work: “Since you showed me the Grand Inquisitor’s letter my indignation has waxed. It was as fatuous as unjust — a vile misreading of a noble book … They have taken 14 years to write their first letter. You should take 14 years to answer it.”

Greene told the Inquisitor the book was controlled by his publisher, and the affair was quietly dropped. When, during his July 1965 interview with Pope Paul VI, the pontiff mentioned he’d read The Power and the Glory, Greene mentioned “it had been condemned by the Holy Office”. “Who condemned it?” “Cardinal Pizzardo.” “Some parts of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that,” the Pope replied — and he didn’t.

Christopher Sykes recalled that Greene, planning The Quiet American (1955), said, “It will be a great relief not to write about God for a change!” Waugh cleverly replied, “I wouldn’t drop God, if I were you. Not at this stage anyway. It would be like P. G. Wodehouse dropping Jeeves halfway through the Wooster series.”

In January 1966, the year he died, Waugh enthusiastically wrote: “I greatly admire The Comedians. What staying power you have. It might have been written 30 years ago and could be by no one but you.” He’d just opened the newspaper to see “the exhilarating news of your having been made a Companion of Honour”. Greene replied, “Thank you so much for your letter which encouraged me, not only about The Comedians, but about the C.H. which I felt snobbish in accepting. You should have had it first & then I could have happily followed in your footsteps.”

But the same month Waugh took a crack at Greene, who’d moved to France to avoid crippling British taxes and was on his way to interview Fidel Castro: “Graham Greene has fled the country with the Companion of Honour and a work of Communist propaganda.”

Greene kept up the friendship, though less frequently, by eagerly responding to Waugh’s books. He thought Brideshead Revisited (1945), roughed up by the critics, was Waugh’s best novel. Five years later he lauded Waugh’s historical novel, Helena (1950), about the saint’s quest to find relics of the Holy Cross: “I write to say how much I like Helena … It is a magnificent book. I think particularly fine & moving was Helena’s invocation of the three wise men. How it applies to people of our kind — ‘of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents’.”

Waugh, who treasured Greene’s commendation, replied: “Most of the reviews have been peculiarly offensive. I don’t believe this modern kind of chastisement is really salutary” — especially when the salvos were directed against himself.

In 1955 Greene again complimented Waugh. The unread Officers and Gentlemen was “waiting to give pleasure — like a love affair when one was young which hasn’t yet begun”. He asked why the dust wrapper hadn’t mentioned that the novel was the second volume of his military trilogy Sword of Honour. Waugh, who’d had a mental breakdown the previous year (described in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold), replied, “I don’t know if I shall ever write the third book. I may go off my head again.” But he did complete the trilogy with Unconditional Surrender in 1961.

Greene reviewed two of Waugh’s Catholic biographies, ignored by most critics. In 1935 he wrote of Edmund Campion, “Mr. Waugh’s study is a model of what a short biography should be. Sensitive and vivid, it catches the curious note of gaiety and gallantry.” Waugh rightly thought his life of Ronald Knox would not appeal to Greene, who disliked the priest and felt he had exploited Waugh. But Greene’s review politely admired the skilful portrayal of an unpleasant man: “Waugh has a sense of style which would have delighted his subject and an exquisite tact which Father Knox had obviously foreseen in asking him to be his biographer … It is Mr. Waugh’s very great achievement that he holds the interest even of the unsympathetic” aspects of Knox’s character.

In James Salter’s interview, reprinted in Don’t Save Anything, Greene echoed Ford Madox Ford’s praise of Hemingway’s style in A Farewell to Arms: “In the Mediterranean you can see a pebble 15 feet down. Waugh’s style was like that.” In a subtle exchange of tributes, Greene mentioned Waugh’s Paul Pennyfeather (from Decline and Fall) in Our Man in Havana, and Waugh mentioned Henry Scobie (from The Heart of the Matter) in Men at Arms.

Waugh privately thought Greene’s play The Potting Shed (1957) was “great nonsense theologically”. Deeply distressed by A Burnt-Out Case (1961), he refused an offer to review the novel, but criticised it in his diaries, in letters to friends and to Greene himself. He privately noted the distressing loss of Greene’s faith, the decline of his powers, the defects of the book and his personal faults. He told friends, “M. Grisjambon Vert has written a very sorrowful novel.” The main character is a “distinguished Papist who has lost his Faith and is disgusted with those who still look to him as a leader”.

Waugh saved most of his sneers for friends, but also attacked the novel in a dangerously frank letter to Greene. He softened the blow with some praise before getting to the heart of the matter: “I could write much of my admiration for your superb description of the leper-village and for the brilliance with which you handle the problems of dialogue in four languages. I particularly admired the sermon of the Father Superior. But I am not reviewing it … To my mind the expression ‘settled and easy atheism’ is meaningless, for an atheist denies his whole purpose as a man — to love & serve God”, which was very far from Waugh’s egoistic, self-indulgent and brutal behaviour. “God forbid I should pry into the secrets of your soul. It is simply your public performance which grieves me.” He was upset by a book that suggested his friend was finished as a Catholic.

Greene mildly replied that he could take this misguided but well-intentioned criticism from Waugh: “I have always found our points of disagreement — as in the case of The Heart of the Matter — refreshing or enlightening and miles away from the suburbia of the Catholic Herald or The Universe.” He graciously called Waugh “a writer of genius and insight” and defended his novel by rhetorically asking, “Must a Catholic be forbidden to paint the portrait of a lapsed Catholic?” He concluded: “It’s always my hope & my trust that we are not very far apart” — though they actually were.

In Ways of Escape, Greene defined their essential differences: “Waugh and I inhabited different wastelands. I find nothing unsympathetic in atheism, even in Marxist atheism … Our politics were a hundred miles apart and he regarded my Catholicism as heretical.” He later added, “It didn’t worry me in the least to be non-communicant because I was always a doubter. It is those who have a real and dogmatic belief who suffer from a crisis.”

His biographer noted, “Greene was in favour of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and his own opinions on birth control, ecumenism, social justice and papal infallibility” went far beyond what the bishops espoused. By contrast, Greene thought Waugh “needed to cling to something solid and strong and unchanging”, and in the early 1960s he “was devastated by the changes … in particular the demise of the Latin liturgy”.

Waugh hated confrontations with the Church; Greene relished them. Their differences surfaced dramatically in August 1954 when Greene publicly criticised the Church in Figaro Littéraire for refusing to give the twice-divorced French writer Colette a religious burial. Waugh, who’d also been divorced and had his first marriage annulled, violently disagreed with Greene and told Nancy Mitford: “Graham Greene’s letter was fatuous and impertinent. He was tipsy when he wrote it at luncheon with some frogs & left it to them to translate & dispatch. He is dead to shame in these matters.” Greene corrected him, replying: “I was not tipsy with alcohol when I wrote the letter but tipsy with rage.”

Greene, photographed in the 1930s

An accidental meeting in January 1948 revealed their contrasting characters. Improperly dressed for Mass, Greene looked like a bum who needed a handout. Waugh rescued him, writing in his diary: “Mass at 12 at Farm Street where I met the shambling, unshaven and as it happened quite penniless figure of Graham Greene. Took him to the Ritz for a cocktail and gave him 6d to check his hat. He had suddenly been moved by love of Africa and emptied his pockets into the box for African missions.”

In a significant entry, Waugh noted that Greene had confirmed his worst fears when he declared “he was ‘no longer a practising Catholic’. He asked for a biscuit before Mass as though to provide (like his hero in The Heart of the Matter) a reason for not taking communion … But very sweet and modest. Always judging people by kindness”.

Greene, for example, quietly supported the novelist Muriel Spark, a Catholic convert, whilst she recovered from a mental breakdown. By contrast, the abrasive, needy Waugh was rarely kind. He was keen to maintain the friendship. Greene was more distant, independent and self-assured.

Yet, in touching letters Waugh expressed his love for Greene: “I wish we met more often. I am deeply fond of you.” He treasured Greene’s comradeship but knew it was precarious: “Our friendship started rather late. Pray God it lasts.” Despite Waugh’s large family, Greene “realised what a lonely man he had been”. Greene could live with his doubts and the concept of hell, but said, “there’s no doubt that Waugh was a very troubled man. Troubled by guilt and immensely frightened by death.”

Waugh called Greene “the greatest novelist of the century”. When Waugh died in April 1966, Greene told his widow, “As a writer I admired him more than any other living novelist, & as a man I loved him. He was a very loyal & patient friend to me.” In Ways of Escape, he mourned “the death not only of a writer whom I had admired ever since the twenties, but of a friend” and noted his literary and religious qualities: “There was always in Evelyn a conflict between the satirist and the romantic … He had too great expectations even of his Church.” Despite Waugh’s reputation for rudeness and cruelty, Greene thought he was privately generous and physically courageous in war.

Waugh envied his friend’s good looks, glamorous lover, considerable wealth, freedom from domestic ties and connection to powerful leaders; Greene tolerated Waugh’s doctrinaire criticism and bad behaviour. Their friendship was sustained by their deep emotional affinity; worldly experience, common interests and stimulating talks; respect for each other’s intelligence, perception and judgement; understanding of their struggles and admiration for their books. Their bond was strong enough to survive their political and religious crevasse, and their extraordinary friendship survived without a serious quarrel to the very end.

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