The early novels of Evelyn Waugh have probably given more pleasure to more readers than any comparable body of work from the same period of English fiction (1928-1942). I discovered these books myself in adolescence. I was, I think, fifteen when my father put into my hands a tattered Penguin edition of Decline and Fall. For most of his life he was a dance musician by profession, and at some time in the 1930s he used to play in a nightclub frequented by Evelyn Waugh and his friends, whose names figured prominently in the newspaper gossip columns of the day. This had given my father a personal interest in the author, but it was a very tenuous link between my world and that of Waugh’s early fiction.
We lived in a cramped semi-detached house in a drab suburb of southeast London, our respectable lower-middle-class life style constrained not only by the income of a jobbing dance musician but by the climate of austerity that permeated the whole country in the immediate postwar years: rationing, shortages, rules and restrictions—the fair-minded but somewhat puritanical ethos of the early Welfare State. I attended a local state-aided Catholic grammar school. Nothing could have been further from my experience than the world of Waugh’s early novels, inhabited by characters who were for the most part upper-class and in some cases aristocratic, educated at public school and Oxbridge, many of them idle, dissolute, and sexually promiscuous or deviant (though much of that went over my adolescent head), seldom seen occupied in useful work, their time mostly spent shuttling from party to party or from country house to country house, with occasional adventurous excursions Abroad.
Even the fact that Evelyn Waugh was a Roman Catholic, as I was, provided little basis for identification, partly because Waugh’s romantically idealized version of Catholicism (epitomized in Brideshead Revisited) was so remote from the religious subculture of the suburban Catholic “ghetto” which I knew, and partly because his religious beliefs were not overtly manifested in the early novels which I most enjoyed. I suppose I found these books fascinating precisely because they opened my eyes to the existence of a milieu wholly different from my own—adult, glamorous, hedonistic, and quintessentially “pre-war.” By Christmas 1950, when I was a month short of sixteen, I was sufficiently hooked to request as a present from my mother copies of Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and Scoop in the Chapman and Hall Uniform Edition—books which I still possess and frequently reread with undiminished pleasure.
So what sort of books are these novels, and what is the secret of their enduring and catholic (with a small “c”) appeal? The first thing to be said about them is that they are funny, very funny, laugh-out-loud funny. Laughter, as we know (intuitively, and lately from medical science), is highly therapeutic; and the ability to provoke it, in generation after generation of readers, is a rare gift, always cherished. “Comedy” is a generic term more often applied to drama than to fiction, but to call these books “comic novels” might suggest that they belong to a subgenre of light fiction designed merely to divert and amuse. Waugh’s early novels certainly do that—but they do much more. They disturb and challenge as well as entertain the reader. P.G. Wodehouse wrote “comic novels”—with skill and verve, which Waugh greatly admired. But they are essentially escapist and formulaic; they do not grapple with the dark side of human nature. As Waugh himself eloquently observed, late in life, “For Mr. Wodehouse there has been no Fall of Man…. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.”1 The world of Waugh’s fiction, in contrast, is definitely a fallen one, in which people act with appalling disregard for fidelity, honesty, and all the other virtues. The fact that this behavior is often very amusing does not make it any less shocking.
For this reason these books are sometimes described as satires. Waugh himself disclaimed this description, asserting that satire “flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous moral standards.”2 In fact it is doubtful whether there ever was such an era—it is a historical construction or a nostalgic myth. But the idea was of the utmost importance to Waugh’s imagination. His work is saturated in the idea of decline—that civilization is in a state of terminal decay. The title of his first novel, Decline and Fall, could stand as the title of almost all of them, and the hymn sung by Uncle Theodore in Scoop, “Change and decay in all around I see,” could be their signature tune.
Satire in any era is a kind of writing that draws its energy from an essentially critical and subversive view of the world, seizing with delight on absurdities, anomalies, and contradictions in human conduct. It is not the disposable wrapping around a set of positive moral precepts. Evelyn Waugh’s early novels therefore have an essentially satirical motivation. They turn an impartial and comprehensive ironic vision upon the pretensions and follies of every class, profession, race, and even religion. They gave offense to some readers in their own day, and undoubtedly they still do in the era of “political correctness.” We all have a desire or need to protect some things from irreverent scrutiny. But in these novels nothing is immune.
In combining elements of comedy, often of a robustly farcical kind, with satirical wit and caricature, in order to explore social reality with an underlying seriousness of purpose, Evelyn Waugh belonged to a venerable and peculiarly English literary tradition which one can trace back through Dickens and Thackeray, Smollett, Sterne, and Henry Fielding. Lewis Carroll was also a perpetual source of inspiration. But Waugh’s early novels were distinctively modern, indeed they were significantly innovative in form, though it was some time before this was fully perceived or appreciated. Could novels so effortless to read, so funny, and so accessible really belong to the history of modern literature? The academic critics of the time certainly didn’t think so. Reviews apart, there was virtually no serious criticism written about Evelyn Waugh until after World War II (and then, ironically, the usual complaint was that he was not as good as he had been before the war).
One reason for this neglect was that in the perspective of the dominant critical orthodoxy, that of the New Criticism, modern fiction was identified with modernist fiction, that is to say the symbolist novel of subjective consciousness as represented variously by the work of Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence. Modernist fiction was difficult, obscure, experimental. It sacrificed story to the representation of subjective experience. It heightened and distorted language to imitate the workings of consciousness and the unconscious. The generation of writers to which Waugh belonged (it included Christopher Isherwood, Graham Greene, Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Anthony Powell) were of course well aware of this body of work, and of its poetic equivalents (Waugh’s familiarity with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is particularly obvious). In many ways they shared the assumptions on which it was based—that modern life was peculiarly chaotic, disorderly, and unstable, and that the conventions of the Victorian or Edwardian realistic novel were inadequate to represent it truthfully.
But like every new generation of writers, they had to free themselves from “the anxiety of influence” by their literary father figures; they had to find a new way to “make it new.” They developed a fictional technique that was antithetical to that of modernist fiction, without being a mere reversion to Victorian or Edwardian models. Instead of the overplotted, overmoralized traditional novel, and instead of the almost plotless stream-of-consciousness novel, they wrote novels which declined either to comment or to introspect, which told a clear but often unsettling story mainly through dialogue and objective description of external behavior.
Of course nothing is ever entirely new in the development of literary form. There is always a precursor, a source of inspiration, for every innovation. In Waugh’s case it was Ronald Firbank, that late-flowering bloom of the Decadence. His description of Firbank’s eccentric but original fiction, in an essay published in 1929, is worth quoting at length:
[Firbank’s] later novels are almost wholly devoid of any attribution of cause to effect; there is the barest minimum of direct description; his compositions are built up, intricately and with a balanced alternation of the wildest extravagance and the most austere economy, with conversational nuances…. His art is purely selective. From the fashionable chatter of his period, vapid and interminable, he has plucked, like tiny brilliant feathers from the breast of a bird, the particles of his design…. The talk goes on, delicate, chic, exquisitely humorous, and seemingly without point or plan. Then, quite gradually, the reader is aware that a casual reference on page one links up with some particular inflexion of phrase on another until there emerges a plot; usually a plot so outrageous that he distrusts his own inferences.3
This, written by Evelyn Waugh between his first and second novels, would do very well as a characterization of his own technique. But great writers do not copy other writers; they borrow and transform the tricks they admire. Firbank’s novels, amusing in short, infrequent samplings, are fatally limited by the author’s narrow interests and camp sensibility. Waugh applied Firbank’s techniques to a broader and more recognizable social world and combined them with other methods of fictional representation. From Firbank he derived the technique of evoking a scene and implying a plot through a mosaic of fragmentary, often unattributed, direct speech, but he does not entirely eschew “direct description.” Indeed, passages of carefully wrought descriptive prose are often the source of his most effective comedy—as in, for example, the arrival of the Welsh Silver Band at the school sports day in Decline and Fall:
Ten men of revolting appearance were approaching from the drive. They were low of brow, crafty of eye and crooked of limb. They advanced huddled together with the loping tread of wolves, peering about them furtively as they came, as though in constant terror of ambush; they slavered at their mouths, which hung loosely over their receding chins, while each clasped under his ape-like arm a burden of curious and unaccountable shape.
Unfair to Welsh rustics? Of course—but the description of the upper-class members of the Bollinger Club mustering for their Oxford reunion on the first page of the novel is scarcely more flattering:
…epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates torn from the London season and the indelicate advances of debutantes…
The comic surprise of that last phrase, attributing indelicacy to the putative virgins rather than their suitors, is very typical of Waugh’s style, depending as it does on both the artful positioning of the words and the inversion of a presumed natural order.
Who was the young man who composed this droll, poised, irresistibly readable prose? Born in London in 1903, he belonged to a very literary family. His father, Arthur Waugh, was a publisher and man of letters; his elder brother, Alec, wrote a novel, The Loom of Youth, when he was only seventeen, and went on to become a professional writer and popular novelist. Alec had left his (and his father’s) public school, Sherborne, under something of a cloud—the source material for The Loom of Youth—and in consequence Evelyn was sent to Lancing College, an establishment which prided itself on its atmosphere of Anglican piety. By the time Evelyn went up to Oxford, in 1922, however, he had become an agnostic.
Evelyn Waugh’s adolescence was inevitably overshadowed by the Great War and the patriotic emotions it aroused, heightened by the circumstance that Alec was fighting in the trenches of Flanders. Evelyn’s generation, the young men who had been just too young to fight in the war themselves, felt an irrational guilt about this, and a certain resentment at having been denied the opportunity to prove themselves in action. But in retrospect the war itself seemed more and more to have been a catastrophic folly, which completely discredited the older generation who had presided over it, and the values and assumptions to which they clung. In due course many of the younger generation, including Evelyn Waugh, would find ways of testing themselves by adventurous foreign travel, and would seek an alternative system of values in communism or Catholicism. But in their early youth they asserted themselves by the reckless and anarchic pursuit of pleasure.
By the time Waugh went up to Oxford, the sobering presence of Great War veterans in the student body had almost disappeared, and undergraduate life was, for many at least, a continuous party. Waugh certainly did little academic work. He mixed with a fast, smart set, lived above his income, got frequently drunk, and amused himself with student journalism. He was, in his own words, “idle, dissolute and extravagant.” He left Oxford with a third-class degree in History and scant prospects of employment that would enable him to keep up with his fashionable friends. He enrolled for a while in an art course (he was a skillful draughtsman, as his illustrations to his own early novels attest), taught in two private schools of the kind classified by the teaching agency in Decline and Fall as “School” (as distinct from Leading School, First-Rate School, and Good School), was briefly a probationary reporter on the Daily Express, and even contemplated an apprenticeship as a carpenter. This was a period of great frustration and depression for Waugh, and according to his volume of autobiography, A Little Learning, he actually tried to drown himself off a Welsh beach in 1925, but was driven back to shore, and to the will to live, by jellyfish. This story, at once shocking and amusing, reminds us how much angst and despair lies under the urbane comic surface of his early novels.
In 1927 he obtained a commission to write a book about Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and became engaged to Evelyn Gardner, daughter of Lord Burghclere. In 1928 they married, and at first fortune seemed to smile on the union of “He-Evelyn” and “She-Evelyn” (as they were known to their friends). Decline and Fall was published shortly afterward to enthusiastic reviews, and they had a belated honeymoon on a Mediterranean cruise which He-Evelyn was offered free, as part of a travel-book deal (Labels, 1930). Rather ominously, he took Spengler’s The Decline of the West with him to read on this trip. On their return to England in the spring of 1929, the novelist retired to the country to write Vile Bodies, leaving his wife in London. A few months later she informed him that she was in love with another man, the couple separated, and civil divorce proceedings began.
This, needless to say, was a heavy blow to Evelyn Waugh, a private agony and a public humiliation. It seems that he had no inkling that there was anything amiss with his marriage, and the suddenness and completeness of his wife’s infidelity, so early in their life together, left a permanent scar on his psyche. It also left its trace in his fiction, most powerfully in A Handful of Dust, where the heartless sexual betrayal of a man by a woman epitomizes the general collapse of values and morals in modern society. Shortly after this experience Waugh began taking instructions from a Jesuit priest, Fr. Martin D’Arcy, and he was received into the Catholic Church in 1930, the year that Vile Bodies was published. The character of Father Rothschild S.J. who pops up here and there in that novel, often in the most exalted political circles, with a false beard and heavily annotated atlas in his suitcase, parodies the Protestant stereotype of the Jesuit as devious conspirator. But he makes a serious comment on the decadence of the Younger Generation which seems to reflect Waugh’s own views:
“Don’t you think,” said Father Rothschild gently, “that perhaps it is all in some way historical? I don’t think people ever want to lose their faith either in religion or anything else. I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence. I think all these divorces show that…”
Although Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies are obviously the work of the same writer, there are interesting differences, both formal and thematic, between them. Paul Pennyfeather, the hero of the earlier book, is, as has often been observed, a kind of latter-day Candide, an innocent naif who is both victim and observer of the folly, villainy, and corruption of modern society. Expelled, with monstrous injustice, from Oxford, he is condemned to work as the lowest form of pedagogic life, an unqualified schoolmaster at a bad private school. From this fate he is rescued by the whim of Margot Beste-Chetwynde and suddenly installed at the glittering apex of high society. But the financial basis of this luxurious life style is a prostitution racket for which Paul chivalrously takes the rap, and he is sent to prison. He is not altogether unhappy there: “Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.” The absence of any pity for the hero’s plight is entirely typical of these novels: it is left to the reader to supply the moral outrage which events invite. But he is rescued once again by his rich friends, and given a new identity, under which he returns to Oxford to study theology. Paul thus ends up where he began—but not quite the same person. He has had enough of liberty and license. We leave him studying early Christian heresies in a spirit of intolerant orthodoxy—perhaps a premonition of the author’s later conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Adam Fenwick-Symes, the hero of Vile Bodies, is also the victim of duplicity and betrayal, but less innocent and more knowing than Paul Pennyfeather; and by the end of the story he has become a deceiver himself. The plot, such as it is, charts his constantly frustrated attempts to raise enough money to marry Nina. Promises of riches are constantly being pressed upon him—by the drunk Major, by Nina’s father, by Fleet Street—only to be snatched away again, or prove worthless. Eventually Nina callously jilts Adam to marry his friend Ginger, but soon regrets her decision. While Ginger is fighting in the war which has just broken out in Europe, Adam impersonates him at the Christmas festivities in Nina’s family home. This adulterous episode, framed by all the domestic sentiment that belongs to a traditional English Christmas, is richly ironic—funny, shocking, and oddly poignant, all at once.
Vile Bodies is my personal favorite among these novels, for its daring mixture of the comic and the serious, and for the brilliance of its technique. There are unforgettable comic set-pieces, like Agatha Runcible’s appearance at breakfast at 10 Downing Street in her Hawaiian fancy dress costume, or Colonel Blount’s absent-minded reception of Adam at Doubting Hall. But there is also a seemingly effortless evocation and deployment of a large cast of characters on a broad social stage. The novel might be described as a kind of comic prose equivalent to The Waste Land. Like Eliot’s poem, it had painful personal sources (Adam’s relationship with Nina obviously derives in part from that between He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), but, like Eliot, Waugh managed to objectify this material and embed it in a panoramic overview of the decadence and confusion of English society in the aftermath of the Great War, spinning faster and faster out of control, like Agatha Runcible in her racing car. The narrative shifts rapidly from social group to social group; Cockney accents contrast with patrician voices, the jargon of motor-racing mechanics with the in-group slang of the Bright Young Things—“So bogus, so sick-making, don’t you think? Or don’t you?”
The technique owes a lot to cinema, in its fluid cutting from scene to scene, and in making the reader infer meaning from brief, telling images and fragments of conversation. Waugh belonged to the first generation of writers to grow up with the medium, and he was fascinated by it. He was involved in the making of a silent film himself on coming down from Oxford (an experience turned to good effect in Vile Bodies in Colonel Blount’s hilarious venture into the movie business) and remained a regular cinema-goer throughout his life. Waugh’s early fiction does by choice what film is bound by its nature to do—it stays on the surface of things. Perhaps this explains why these early novels have proved difficult to adapt successfully as films: what seems experimental on the page seems routine on the screen, and the tension between the two media is somehow lost.
Another development in technology which left its mark on Waugh’s fiction was the telephone. He was perhaps the first literary novelist to exploit this instrument on a significant scale to dramatize failures of communication, either deliberate or involuntary, between characters. Much of the courtship between Adam and Nina is conducted by phone, and one short chapter (eleven) consists entirely of two such conversations. Behind the clipped, banal phrases—“We aren’t going to be married today?” “No.” “I see.” “Well?” “I said, I see.” “Is that all?” “Yes, that’s all, Adam.” “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry too. Good-bye.” “Good-bye, Nina”—there are depths of unspoken pain and betrayal. The phrases “Well” and “I see,” which have a merely phatic function in the conversation, acquire an ironic and poignant resonance, for nothing is well and these interlocutors cannot see each other.
In the 1930s, Waugh’s professional life fell into a certain pattern: he would go abroad, write a travel book about his experiences, and then rework the material in a novel. In 1930 he was sent to Abyssinia by a newspaper to report on the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I. His nonfiction account of this trip was Remote People (1931), and its fictional fruit was Black Mischief (1932). Abyssinia is transformed into Azania, an island state off the coast of East Africa, whose young monarch, the Emperor Seth, is infatuated with Western ideas of Progress and strives vainly to impose them on his still-primitive subjects. He orders his commander-in-chief, General Connolly, to issue the army with boots and equip it with a tank. The tank cannot operate in jungle terrain and is useful only as a punishment cell; the soldiers assume the boots are extra rations and eat them. Seth’s campaign to introduce contraception misfires when the people misinterpret his posters, with their before-and-after illustrations of the advantages of using condoms.
See: on right hand: there is rich man: smoke pipe like big chief: but his wife she no good; sit eating meat; and rich man no good: he only one son.
See: on left hand: poor man: not much to eat: but his wife she very good, work hard in field: man he good too: eleven children; one very mad, very holy. And in the middle: Emperor’s juju. Make you like that good man with eleven children.
It is easy to mistake this comedy for a display of racial prejudice. There is no doubt that Evelyn Waugh, like most Englishmen of his class and time, harbored a measure of such prejudice. But his imagination was more even-handed. It was the clash of different cultures in colonial and postcolonial Africa, all seeking to exploit each other, that fascinated Waugh, because it generated so many delicious incongruities, absurdities, and contradictions in human behavior. In Africa, he found, the comedy of manners bordered on the surreal. Only in Alice in Wonderland, Waugh wrote in Remote People, could he find a “parallel for life in Addis Ababa…the peculiar flavour of galvanised and translated reality.”
Seth defines his struggle as “a war of Progress against Barbarism.” Waugh shows that progress is usually only another form of barbarism. Certainly its representatives in Azania are hardly to its credit: the sublimely lazy and inefficient British legation, the self-important, self-deceiving French legation, or the Englishman who becomes Seth’s right-hand man, Basil Seal. As a novel, Black Mischief suffers perhaps from not having a really sympathetic character, unless it is the down-to-earth General Connolly. Instead of a reactive, victimized hero, we have in this book a totally amoral antihero, a “corker” but a cad, to whom deception and the double cross are second nature. Basil Seal’s romance with Prudence, the British ambassador’s daughter, lacks the underlying poignancy of the relationship between Adam and Nina in Vile Bodies, but this absence licenses one of the blackest reversals in the history of comedy.
In the winter of 1932-1933, Waugh made a trip to British Guiana and Brazil to gather material for a travel book (92 Days). In the course of an otherwise uneventful trek through the jungle, he encountered a lonely settler whose eccentric and slightly sinister demeanor gave him the idea for a short story about an explorer who is held captive by such a man and made to read the entire works of Dickens aloud at gunpoint. The idea continued to fascinate him, and in due course he wrote a novel, in his own words, “to discover how the prisoner got there, and eventually the thing grew into a study of other sorts of savage at home and the civilized man’s helpless plight among them.” The novel was A Handful of Dust (1934), and the “civilized man” is Tony Last, proud owner of Hetton Abbey, a hideously ugly Victorian fake Gothic country house, happily married (or so he thinks) to Brenda.
In fact Brenda, a kind of aristocratic latter-day Emma Bovary, is bored and restless, unable to share Tony’s enthusiasm for Hetton and the archaic lord-of-the-manor life style that he tries to keep up on an insufficient income. She starts an affair with the unremarkable and effete John Beaver because he offers her some escape from the crippling ennui of her domestic life, and reentry into the shallow, sophisticated pleasures of London high society. Tony is easily deceived because he “had got into a habit of loving and trusting Brenda,” but a tragic accident to their son, John, precipitates an open breach.
Of all Waugh’s novels, A Handful of Dust draws most deeply on the traumatic breakdown of his own first marriage, which makes the poise of the book—its subtle balancing and tight control of the tragic and the comic, the emotional and the satirical—all the more remarkable. Waugh’s technique of staying on the surface, giving the minimum of information about the characters’ thoughts and feelings, making the reader draw the appropriate conclusions from what they say and do, prevents the novel from becoming excessively emotional or moralistic. We never, for instance, get direct access to Brenda’s mind or heart. The first indication that she is attracted to Beaver comes from a conversation with her sister Marjorie in which she first denies and then half-admits that she “fancies” him; and when she fails to mention on returning home to Tony that she met Beaver in London we realize that she has embarked on a course of deception. Marjorie irresponsibly encourages the affair, then tries to effect a reconciliation—too late and for the wrong reasons. “Of course Brenda doesn’t love Beaver. How could she?” Marjorie says to Tony. “And if she thinks she does at the moment, it’s your duty to prevent her making a fool of herself. You must refuse to be divorced—anyway, until she has found someone more reasonable.” The callousness, snobbishness, and arrogance of that afterthought make it a devastating indictment of Marjorie and her set.
Our sympathies are naturally drawn to the innocent party in the triangle, Tony Last, and it is hard to suppress a cheer when, by a brilliant narrative reversal, he turns the tables on Brenda’s selfish and grasping family and friends. But it is important to recognize that he is portrayed as a weak and limited man in many respects, and that his cult of Hetton is exposed as a self-indulgent illusion. “A whole Gothic world had come to grief” in the collapse of his marriage, for which he must bear some of the blame. That is why, in the novel’s design, he is punished by the grotesque fate that awaits him in the depths of the South American jungle. Both Tony and Brenda are shown to be fundamentally immature, reverting to nursery rituals in times of stress, and both are shown weeping with self-pity, like children, when their fortunes reach their lowest ebb. Waugh later said of A Handful of Dust that “it was humanist and contained all I had to say about humanism.”4 What he implied was that, without a transcendental religious faith, humanism was helpless in the face of human weakness, evil, and death. His title was taken from The Waste Land, the work of another literary convert to Christian orthodoxy: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” A Handful of Dust is considered by most critics to be one of Waugh’s finest achievements, possibly the finest. It is certainly the most serious and complex of the early novels.
With Scoop (1938) Waugh returned to a more purely comic mode. “It is light and excellent,” he commented in his diary early in its composition, and he was right. For this novel he drew on the experience of two more visits which he made to Abyssinia in the 1930s, as a correspondent reporting the Italian invasion and occupation of that country for The Daily Mail. This campaign was, like the Spanish Civil War, part of the political run-up to World War II, and in Scoop there is a good deal of topical satire at the expense of both Fascist and Communist ideologies. Essentially however, it is, as its subtitle declares, “a novel about journalists,” and has achieved immortality as such. Many journalists consider it the best novel ever written about their profession. The engine of the plot—a case of mistaken identity, which sends the retiring nature columnist of the Daily Beast, William Boot, to the war-threatened African state of Ishmaelia instead of the fashionable novelist John Boot—is one of the oldest in comic literature, and is, in the cold light of reason, highly implausible. So are many other events in the story. That doesn’t matter in the least. As the very name of the fictitious newspaper implies, the novel is not meant to be soberly realistic. Waugh’s comic genius allowed him to invent fantastic incidents which seem only slightly exaggerated in the reading, because they have a representative truthfulness. One might cite as an example the embedded anecdote of the legendary ace reporter Wenlock Jakes, who started a revolution by accidentally filing a story from the wrong country.
The basic message of the book is that newspapers construct the reality they claim to report; not (as modern media studies would argue) for sinister ideological reasons, but because they are so obsessed with the mystique of their trade—the need to entertain their readers, to scoop their competitors, etc.—that they make gross errors of fact and interpretation all the time. It is precisely because he is not a professional journalist that William stumbles on the truth about Ishmaelian politics; but at one exquisitely ironic point in the narrative he is unable to publish a true story about a Russian agent operating in the capital because a false story to the same effect has already been circulated and then denied. The whole novel is a tissue of mistakes, misrepresentations, lies, and evasions. The foreign editor Mr. Salter’s formula for dealing with his employer’s gross misconceptions, “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” has deservedly become proverbial.
Put Out More Flags (1942) is a kind of epilogue or envoi to the sequence of novels that began with Decline and Fall. In it, Waugh revived several characters from the previous books, like Basil Seal, Peter Pastmaster, Alastair and Sonia Trumpington, invented a lot of new ones (notably the homosexual aesthete Ambrose Silk), and exhibited this large cast reacting in various ways to the outbreak of World War II. Most of them are ill-prepared for the crisis—including the soldiers:
Freddy was in uniform, acutely uncomfortable in ten-year-old trousers. He had been to report at the yeomanry headquarters the day before, and was home for two nights collecting his kit, which, in the two years since he was last at camp, had been misused in charades and picnics and dispersed about the house in a dozen improbable places. His pistol, in particular, had been a trouble. He had had the whole household hunting it, saying fretfully, “It’s all very well but I can get court-martialled for this,” until, at length, the nursery-maid found it at the back of the toy cupboard.
The novel is diffuse and episodic in structure, and somewhat uneven in tone, combining ruthless comic satire in Waugh’s old manner with a more affectionate, even at times sentimental attitude toward his characters. One might cite, as examples of the latter, Alastair’s altruistic enlistment in the ranks, or Peter Pastmaster’s decision to marry and beget an heir before risking his life in the armed struggle. It should be remembered, though, that Waugh himself volunteered for active service with similar idealism, and that his subsequent disillusionment with the political and military conduct of the war had not yet hardened into firm conviction when, in 1941, he wrote Put Out More Flags to divert himself on a long and tedious voyage by troopship. And, in spite of its flaws, this novel has many pleasures to offer. The subplot of Basil Seal’s commercial exploitation of the awful evacuees, for example, the narrative thread of the lunatic bomber at large in the Ministry of Information, and the unerringly wrong prophecies of Sir Joseph Mainwaring are handled with characteristic skill. The fact is that Evelyn Waugh was incapable of writing badly, and often in this novel he writes as brilliantly as ever. But his great work of fiction about the Second World War, the Sword of Honour trilogy, was still to come.
July 15, 1999
The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Donat Gallagher (Little, Brown, 1984), p. 567. ↩
The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, p. 304. ↩
“Ronald Firbank,” in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, pp. 57-58. ↩
The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, p. 304. ↩