“One would suffer a great deal to he happy.”
—Marly Wortley Montagu
To be really successful a modern writer must reach and hold a huge audience, and there seems to be essentially two ways of doing it: the journeyman (or tradesman-like) and the heroic-histrionic. Scott, Trollope, Agatha Christie, and P.G. Wodehouse represent the first way, which demands a lifetime of hard work and patient marketing, and leaves little time for the kind of experience of which exciting biographies are made. Byron, Dickens, and Hemingway represent the second, which requires strong nerves and a knack for self-promotion.
Evelyn Waugh’s career places him firmly in the Byronic line, even though he thought of himself as a craftsman and revered P.G. Wodehouse as “the master.” Nonetheless, he had almost nothing in common with Wodehouse, a modest, private, intensely shy man. Waugh was a very different type. He shared Byron’s gift for dramatics and publicity, and he was similarly brave, pugnacious, and ambitious. Like Byron he hankered for success in action rather than in literature, a desire which took him traveling and soldiering. And as with Byron, he had a violent streak. The role of antagonist came naturally to him.
Although Evelyn Waugh had a sign on his gate reading “No admittance on business,” he led much of his life in public, in a character largely of his own devising, on a series of platforms provided by newspapers, magazines, gossip columns, correspondence, and social intrigue. He was even prepared to use radio and television, though always on terms of guarded hostility. The resulting performance was a distinguished one. It explains why people became so curious about him, and why his death on Easter Day, 1966, released a flood of anecdote and memoir that continues today.
Readers wanting to know about Evelyn Waugh are not short of material. In 1975 Christopher Sykes, who knew him well, published a biography. There are several books of reminiscence by people who knew him, and he appears frequently in the memoirs of his contemporaries. Selections from his diaries, correspondence, and journalism are available. Now there is a thousand-page academic biography, of which the present book is the second volume.
When Frances Donaldson, who had written a delightful memoir of Evelyn Waugh, came to write a life of P.G. Wodehouse, she had a hard time showing that Wodehouse had any life at all away from his typewriter. Martin Stannard faced the entirely different problem of making a coherent narrative out of an enormous mass of material, most of it emanating from the subject himself, much of it already known, and nearly all of it bearing upon Waugh’s activities as a familiar, pungently characterized public figure. In the circumstances, it is understandable that Stannard should have decided to go looking for the unknown, private Evelyn Waugh.
To do this he drew upon much unpublished material, especially letters, and upon interviews with Waugh’s surviving acquaintances. So much is already available, however, that a reader familiar with the subject will probably not learn a great deal about Waugh from Stannard’s book, and in fact will often want to turn from the biography to the originals. The most interesting new material, enough of it to be significant, reveals a little of the Waugh known to his family and really close friends, a very funny man, capable of great kindness, constantly and heroically generous. And while he could be extremely difficult, it will occur to some of Stannard’s readers that in his later years Waugh often found himself among people who deserved all the difficulty he could inflict.
Of course, the important thing about a book like this is its narrative interpretation of the author’s life and work. Stannard’s later Waugh is an increasingly withdrawn and embittered man at odds with himself and his times, disliked and dislikeable. Although enormously successful as a writer, he is haunted by feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and failure. Hence, despite the bluster of his public persona, he is deeply divided against himself. At the period of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold this division drives him mad. Finally, issuing in the form of depression and incapacity, it kills him. His writings are a kind of allegorical or symbolic descant on this story, which some of Stannard’s first reviewers described as harrowing and tragic.
It is certainly an interesting story, and a profoundly moral one, a stern warning to any writer who might be tempted to go against the grain of his age. It is also an extremely unoriginal one. The name of the unfortunate hero may vary, but as a kind of modern version of the rake’s progress this tale of a divided self and what became of it has been told about a number of very successful, very famous, very original artists. To name only three: John Wain told it at Lord Byron’s expense, Edmund Wilson at Charles Dickens’, and Ernest Newman at Franz Liszt’s. If lives like these are in some sense failures, and if Evelyn Waugh’s life was a harrowing tragedy, what have the rest of us to hope for?
Well. Like More’s Utopians, we, and no doubt Martin Stannard, can always hope for good digestions, permanent employment, a well-funded pension, and a comfortable old age. Evelyn Waugh chose to live more adventurously, and Stannard’s immense, informative, industriously assembled book is decidedly out of sympathy with its subject and his chosen way of life. By any ordinary, nonutopian standard Waugh was immensely successful, not only as a writer, but in shaping circumstances to his desires. A man of great vitality, he earned every inch of his place in the world, and a fine, capacious place it was, too. He suffered intermittently from melancholy; he despised socialism; and the Church disappointed him—none of which killed him. Evelyn Waugh died of the natural and untragic conditions known as weariness and old age, both of them premature in his case, but both brought on by the punishing life he chose to lead. And neither finished him off, one notices, until he had completed his masterpiece, the trilogy Sword of Honour.
Why would a biographer who is prepared to spend so much time on an author be so careful to keep his subject’s religion, politics, and social ambition at arm’s length? Why be so ready to agree with his subject’s critics? After Pinfold appeared, J.B. Priestley, an industrious, prosperous, but minor writer of left-wing sympathies, attacked Waugh as Pinfold, saying that Pinfold was haunted by the voices of Waugh’s own bad conscience, telling him he was a fake. Stannard calls Priestley’s piece a silly article, and quotes from Waugh’s masterly reply; but he omits its most telling passages, discounts Waugh’s own explanations of his experience, and in fact agrees with Priestley. He discovers Waugh’s unconscious in the novel and hears “a barrage of self-hatred” in Pinfold’s voices—a boring reading of a funny, moving novel.
Perhaps in this egalitarian age Martin Stannard has no wish to make himself obnoxious to colleagues or reviewers. Perhaps he is sincere in his disapproval. Yet so conventional an approach to a writer like Waugh shows a lack of enterprise. By now Waugh’s attitudes present no threat to anyone’s ambition or self-esteem, and his notorious snobbery is far too easy a target in an age so smugly proud of its social virtue. In Waugh’s youth it was natural for a writer of his background and education to gravitate toward the fashionable end of society, as it was for his successors to ape the accents and attitudes of the working class. That is why, in his later years, flaunting his social habits proved an easy way of baiting critics. Besides, although he enjoyed smart company, Evelyn Waugh—as Stannard’s evidence shows—had no illusions about his status as a self-made middle-class man of letters, and seems to have been proud of it and of his self-sufficiency.
It is hard to gauge Stannard’s opinion of this aspect of Waugh’s life. Sometimes he falls into a kind of reflexive snobbery of his own by tending to accept at face value the condescending assessments offered by some of Waugh’s upper-class friends. Stannard presents Alfred Duff Cooper, who called Waugh a common little man, as an enviable man of the world. Yet Cooper, on the record as Stannard presents it, was a violent, lecherous, and brutal man, a second-rate politician and a negligible writer who, as a social climber, left Waugh standing. Waugh assessed him pretty accurately. Another example: since acknowledgment to Waugh’s family is conspicuously missing from the book, it emerges that for private information and comment, especially about Waugh’s children, the author must be drawing upon gossip from someone, probably a woman, who knew the family. The tone of these passages is superior, knowing, and censorious. Many of them make intolerable intrusions upon lives that arc now none of Stannard’s business, and some of them, to my certain knowledge, present questionable versions of characters and events. Waugh’s aristocratic women friends were part of his publicity apparatus, and he of theirs. None of those friendships can have been uncomplicated, none of the judgments given entirely reliable.
Nonetheless, the chief casualty of Stannard’s approach is neither the author nor his family, but his work. By treating literature as contingent upon psychology, the psychologizing literary biography always tends to diminish the importance of a writer’s work. Reading the work according to his version of the life, Stannard reaches eccentric conclusions: Work Suspended, Helena, and Pinfold are better, more interesting works than Brideshead and Sword of Honour. And because this kind of biography reads the author’s weaknesses in his writing, it leaves both novel and novelist equally disabled as witnesses. Only the biographer emerges unscathed from these proceedings.
Yet the whirligig of time issues in revenges. In 1952 Waugh, in a characteristic fit of high spirits, mounted a campaign against a visit by Tito. Stannard thinks this, like Waugh’s description of postwar England as an occupied country, was the act of a crazy man, and in some indignation mounts his own pulpit to say so. Current events, however, have vindicated the novelist. Like other postwar arrangements that Waugh judged unfavorably, Tito’s Yugoslavia has passed away, and that is why an open-minded reading of Scott-King’s Modern Europe or Sword of Honour will provide a better understanding of Waugh’s position than his biographer’s account.
It is so much better either to know as little of writers as we usually know of scientists, or else to know them as we know our friends, with charity, generosity, and forbearance. That way we avoid a host of vulgar fallacies and inferences, including the biographical fallacy that a book is about its author, not about its ostensible subject matter, which in Waugh’s case is religion, society, and civilization. For most of us who never met him, Evelyn Waugh is a name that we attach to some of the greatest prose written in English, and to a set of fictions that trace what Shakespeare called the form and pressure of the time with prophetic accuracy. The character we attach to that name is itself a fiction. If we were to try to form an idea of the real man from his books, we would have to say that he was a happy man, gifted and fortunate beyond most of our imaginings. Whether such a life would be judged happy within the terms of Utopian debate is doubtful; that it was a happy life in the only real world any of us knows is unquestionable.
[Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966, by Martin Stannard (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) 512 pp., $25.95]