“Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth “

—T.S. Eliot

Many 20th-century literary figures have undergone such exhaustive biographical treatment that a scholar wishing to venture into well-traversed territory is compelled to proffer a startling new thesis to vindicate his labors. All too frequently, alas, the “novel” approach is banal or strained—serving up a bit of latent homosexuality in one author, a touch of incipient feminism in another. At times, however, a new biography invites us to reexamine a writer’s oeuvre (or at least a particular aspect of it) in a genuinely fresh way. Martin Stannard’s Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939, the first of a projected two-volume work, is just such an invitation; and the reason for this is Stannard’s manifest seriousness of purpose: the biography “attempts,” he says, “something which no other biographical study of Waugh has done: to forge a relationship between the crucial events of Waugh’s life and his developing aesthetic.” The ambitious objective requires scholarship that is at once industrious and discriminating; Stannard’s efforts have both of these virtues, and his book is certainly the most definitive account to date of Waugh’s early life and work.

Stannard patiently sketches Waugh’s firmly middle-class background, quiet childhood (though there was a marked tension between father and son), and education. Further, he marshals the evidence to suggest that “Necessity, not vocation, drove [Waugh] to literature.” This serves to illumine Waugh’s desultory education at Lancing and his legendary dissolution at Oxford, where, assuming an aesthete’s persona, he was preoccupied with extravagance and detestation of his tutor, C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. “Waugh’s initial distaste for him,” Stannard comments, “was tenderly nurtured into a fantasy of disgust.” (Waugh’s vituperation was carried over into his fiction: careful readers, for instance, will recall that Cruttwell’s name is attached to minor but inevitably ludicrous characters, e.g., the bonesetter in A Handful of Dust.) After coming down with an unimpressive academic record, he muddled through disappointing teaching positions at obscure Arnold House and Aston Clinton. During this period, Waugh reluctantly began his writing career with his well-received biographical essay on Rossetti.

At this point in the book, Stannard’s biographical design crystallizes. Waugh studied briefly at Heatherley’s Art School, and though not a vocationally fruitful endeavor, it helped to provide him with what was to be an enduring aesthetic foundation, namely, the artist as artisan. “Waugh’s attitudes were, and remained, those of the artistcraftsman,” summarizes Stannard.

Writer, painter, printer, carpenter—the object of all their labours was to produce useful, pleasurable, well-wrought objects. Nothing, as far as he could see, distinguished their essential function. A writer’s business was not to confess or to proselytise or to render the states of heightened consciousness of sensitive introverts; it was to entertain and to inform.

And it was this “classical” approach that he brought to the writing of a trio of superbly comic novels: Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), and Black Mischief (1932). Stannard says that with these works Waugh was emerging as a “serious writer,” intent not only on satirical laceration but “as much interested in stylistic innovation as Joyce or Gertrude Stein. He was even concerned with the identical aesthetic problem of developing a new form of literary expression which banished the author’s intrusive voice.” (Stannard’s sedulous collation of the extant manuscripts with the published texts reveals Waugh’s deliberate excision of the authorial presence.)

Waugh’s meticulous care in matters of form was coupled with a quickening concern for content: his conversion to Catholicism in 1930 was beginning to reverberate thematically in his fiction. Stannard is correct in observing that “All social structures in Waugh’s fictional world tend towards collapse,” but Catholicism brought Waugh to a darker, more penetrating apprehension of this process. It seems clear, moreover, that a significant part of the Church’s attraction for Waugh (at least initially) was its embodiment of order in a civilization bent on anarchy. Ronald Knox—whose official biography Waugh was to write in 1959—noted in his The Belief of Catholics (1927): “Catholicism appeals, no longer to the antiquarian faddist or to the restless in search of spiritual adventure, but to the lovers of order. It beckons like a lifeboat to shipwrecked souls who have seen the conventions go down under their feet.” Waugh echoed this view in a 1930 article defending his decision to convert, saying “that in the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and Chaos.” The battle lines were sharply drawn.

Waugh’s embrace of Catholic order allowed him to see the intrinsic transience and absurdity of this world in the context of an authoritative theological system; in other words, “Decline and Fall,” as Stannard remarks, “were no longer the subject for jokes.” Indeed, Waugh’s ambivalence toward the chaos portrayed in his first three novels is conspicuously jettisoned in his finest achievement, A Handful of Dust (1934). Stannard notes the sophistication of Waugh’s new emphasis: “This time, it seems, he wanted to write a novel which would unequivocally establish him as a writer in T.S. Eliot’s camp, defending civilization against the barbarians.” To be sure, A Handful of Dust doesn’t employ the “mythic method” that is the hallmark of The Waste Land, but both works are premised on a view of modern man as secularized, deracinated from his fragmented civilization and its Christian foundation. Eliot interweaves desiccated modernity with the vanished grandeur of antiquity; Waugh juxtaposes Mr. Todd’s Conradian savagery with the moral anarchy of contemporary London. Eliot, however, concludes with a movement in the direction of renewal (“Then a damp gust / Bringing rain”); Waugh is content with what Stannard calls “the negative assertion of order through an evocation of chaos.” In short, he had not yet incorporated eschatology into his fictional universe.

Waugh’s world view led him to an idiosyncratic political conservatism. Up to a point, political opinions should be of little concern to a reader; but the point at which we begin to inquire into the politics of an author is when we are forced to—which is to say when a writer allows the political or, more precisely, the ideological, to dominate the aesthetic. This insufferable corruption is widespread in our century, but it was particularly egregious in the 30’s—”a low, dishonest decade,” in W.H. Auden’s justly famous phrase. During this period the totalitarian temptation proved far too seductive for many left-wing artists and intellectuals (Auden among them), leading them into the propagation of shameless cant and outright mendacity. This was not the case with Waugh: he viewed, says Stannard, “Art and politics . . . as mutually destructive.” In fact, Waugh was quite aware of the artistic consequences of ideological engagement. His critique, for example, of the Marxist approach to art is remarkably cogent: “I do not think any artist, certainly not writer, can be a Marxist, for a writer’s material must be the individual soul (which is the preconception of Christendom), while the Marxist can only think in classes and categories, and even in classes abhors variety.” Indeed, one wonders what a Marxist would make, say, of Paul Pennyfeather! Waugh’s creation of such characters—what Stannard refers to as his “temperamental sympathy for eccentrics, manipulators, men of the world”—was in keeping with his profound loathing of what he discerned as the trend toward bland conformism in modern life.

Appropriately, the volume closes with Waugh’s life and work concluding one phase and evolving in a vastly different direction. He had finished the peripatetic wanderings that characterized his life in the 30’s. His marriage to Laura Herbert (this was his second; his first, to Evelyn [“She-Evelyn”] Gardner, ended quickly in divorce, eventually annulled) supplied much-needed stability. What’s more, he had exhausted the novelistic form that, up to this time, he had so deftly exploited. Clearly, Scoop (1938) marks the end of Waugh’s early period. Stannard indicates that Waugh “was thirsting for a new fictional form which could include the dimension of ‘supernatural reality,'” but the quenching of this thirst was not to come until Brideshead Revisited (1945). V.S. Pritchett, with his standard perspicacity, has said of Waugh: “His early books spring from the liberating notion that human beings are mad; the war trilogy, a work of maturity, draws on the meatier notion that the horrible thing about human beings is that they are sane.” An explication of this transformation—which must be viewed against Waugh’s increasing withdrawal from the world and his deepening Catholic sensibility—is presumably the subject of Stannard’s next volume, and, if this first one is any indication, it should prove a delight.


[Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939, by Martin Stannard (New York: W.W. Norton) $24.95]