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Contested Confessions: The Sins of the Press and Evelyn Waugh's False Penance in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

I dont [sic] much mind the papers saying I am beastly, which, is true,
or that I write badly, which isn't. What enrages me is wrong facts.
They always are wrong in these knowing "profiles."


Confessions no doubt speak of guilt, but don't necessarily speak the

PUBLISHED IN 1957, Evelyn Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold advertised itself as a tale drawn from the author's life. As the prefatory note to the American edition readily confided, "Three years ago Mr. Waugh suffered a brief bout of hallucination closely resembling what is here described." (1) Just as he was eager, on his return from a 1954 trip to Ceylon, to regale friends with stories of his "sharp but brief attack of insanity," so, when he shared this experience with the public, Waugh was determined that they too understand his newest fiction also as autobiography. (2) This end, at least, he certainly achieved. First reviewers, taking up his invitation to read the novel as memoir, professed admiration for this candid "experiment in self-examination," and later critics have largely agreed with Jeffrey Heath in deeming it "the most revealing book [Waugh] ever wrote." (3) Indeed, with its depiction of an alter ego beset by dependencies and delusions, by hallucinations that accuse him of the widest spectrum of misdeeds, Pinfold has commonly been judged to be something more than a mere autobiographical vignette. Cued by Waugh to take the text as the author's own truth, critics have been "prompt to treat the book as a confession rather than a novel." (4) On this view, the voices that harangue Gilbert Pinfold represent the penitential eruption, first into phantasm and then into print, of Waugh's guilty conscience; thus, for R. Neill Johnson, "the mimicking voices he hears are externalizations of his own self-hatred." (5)

Yet Douglas Patey's claim that Waugh "was not a man to bare his soul before the public without some carefully contrived purpose" is both astute and corroborated by the narrative itself. (6) At the novel's conclusion, Pinfold, restored to lucidity, asks why, if he himself were the source of the voices' accusations, he did not prepare a more damning indictment: "I mean to say,... I could make a far blacker and more plausible case than they ever did" (OGP, 229). Given the incoherence of many of the charges hurled at him, it is not odd that Pinfold should challenge their validity. But this question, unanswered at novel's end and largely unaddressed by critics, does more than this: it unsettles the reader's role as confessor by subverting the assumption that this tale is, in fact, that exercise in self-accusation Johnson and others have taken it to be. The answer to Pinfold's question, I contend, is that Waugh's novel neither depicts Pinfold's confession nor enacts Waugh's own. Rather, it is, as its title proclaims, the story of an ordeal, an agonizing and agonistic "test of guilt or innocence," from which Waugh's stand-in emerges, we are told, "victor" (OGP, 231). (7) What the book exposes, then, is not the penitent-author's grievous faults, but an author's contest with his critics, and what it seeks, by its victory, to establish, is the falseness of those critics' stock formulation and reprobation of Waugh's sins.

Thus while John Foxwell maintains that "there are no metafictional 'mechanics' brought into play" in this text, I argue that Pinfold is nothing other than a sustained critique of the damning fiction of Waugh, and particularly of his faith, that critics had long substituted for a sober evaluation of his art. (8) As Patey rightly notes, after the extraordinary commercial success of his first Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited (1945), Waugh's fiction met with "reviews which ritually praised his prose style before turning to the real work of damning his politics," and more vexingly, of damning his faith as simply a political gesture. (9) If Pinfold is, as I am claiming, Waugh's sly response to the frustration he voices in my first epigraph, then the wrong fact he most seeks to correct is the long-bruited truism that his Catholicism is nothing but a classism, an "odd fusion of Debrett and divinity." (10) This he does, first, by giving the authors of that libel exactly what they want, a portrait of Waugh/Pinfold that not only conforms to the one they have themselves retailed, but that, moreover, seems to reveal, in the accusations Pinfold's hallucinations level at him, Waugh himself as tortured by guilt over the very sins they have imputed to him. But both by having Pinfold's imagined voices rehearse a self-contradictory litany of faults and by foregrounding his Catholicism as central to his return to sanity, the novel serves as a rebuttal to the literary press's charge sheet, and above all, to its claims concerning the spuriousness of Waugh's faith. What's more, by its successfully winning the approval of this hostile reviewing audience through its putative enactment of an unsparing authorial self-scrutiny, Pinfold works to make its victory over Waugh's foes complete, by exposing them to be readers unable to see, much less justly assess, anything beyond their own self-pleasing fictions. If Pinfold/Waugh thus emerges triumphant at the novel's conclusion, this is not because he has here confessed his true sins, but because he has revealed a literati antagonistic to his faith to be more captive to delusion than poor old Pinfold himself.

Though its seemingly candid confessions are not, I suggest, altogether to be trusted, it is nonetheless true that The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold takes the substance of its narrative from the life of its author. Like his protagonist, Waugh in late 1953 was a novelist who "stood quite high" among his English peers (OGP, 3), the author of "a dozen books all of which were still bought and read" (OGP, 3-4). And like Pinfold, Waugh suffered through the autumn and Christmas of 1953, self-medicating boredom and insomnia with bromide, chloral, and wine, and experiencing, in consequence, increasing physical and mental debility. (11) As he wrote his daughter Meg in the New Year, "Oh I have been ill since you left. First a cold & then agonising rheumatism." (12) Oppressed by the chill of an English winter, all but immobilized by inflamed joints, Waugh describes himself in his diaries as sitting "like a hibernating badger all day." (13) If such infirmities find their echo in Gilbert Pinfold's own--"Every joint, but especially feet, ankles and knees, agonized him" (OGP, 31)--so, too, do the false memories that plagued Waugh during this same period. As early as September 1953, Waugh was writing to his friend, the poet John Betjeman, of his faulty memory: "not at all hazy--just sharp, detailed & dead wrong." (14) This fabulating memory was something that would soon touch Betjeman himself. Having received that December Betjeman's gift of a Victorian wash-hand stand, Waugh was enraged to discover missing "an ornamental bronze pipe which led from the dragons [sic] mouth to the bowl below," and which, it transpired, never existed. (15) Likewise, Pinfold is horrified, upon receipt of a similar gift from his friend James Lance, that a "highly ornamental, copper tap" has failed to arrive (OGP, 28), "an essential part" of the stand (OGP, 28), but one, Lance confirms, Pinfold has wholly imagined (OGP, 29). Thus, the grounds for reading Pinfold's adventure as a transcription of Waugh's own extend beyond the invitation offered by the opening note or even by the recursive gestures that bookend the narrative: a first chapter entitled "Portrait of the Artist in Middle Age" (OGP, 3) and closing lines that see Pinfold begin his next book by writing these exact words (OGP, 232).

The solitary voyage Pinfold undertakes in hopes of restoring his health similarly takes its particulars from Waugh's own ill-fated travels. On January 29, 1954, he embarked at Liverpool, seeking restorative warmer climes. (16) The Staffordshire was bound for Colombo, Ceylon, by way of Gibral tar, Port Said, and Aden, charting a course later followed by Pinfold's more literarily christened Caliban. (17) As soon as he was aboard, Waugh began suffering "traumatic aural hallucinations," not just the ostensibly overheard gossip of his shipmates, but BBC radio programs mysteriously piped into his cabin, and overheard scenes of interrogation, violence, and even murder. (18) Answering such phantasms, Waugh drew other passengers' attention by "talking to the table lamps in the dining room and to the toast rack at breakfast," much as Pinfold does in chapter 4 (OGP, 112-13). (19) Letters home to his wife detail Waugh's physical recovery, but more strikingly, his mental decline, relating how he has been "the victim of an experiment in telepathy," which involves everything he thinks being "read aloud by [a] group of psychologists." (20) More than matching Pinfold's delusions, this correspondence is substantially reproduced in the novel itself (see OGP, 199-201, 215-16), again revealing the factual roots of this apparent fiction. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold thus seems to betray the same willingness to retail his own folly that marked Waugh's private rehearsal of these events. As his neighbor, Frances Donaldson, reports, Waugh spoke of this episode not with shame, but with frank relish: "He told the story with a detachment and a mockery that if he had been speaking of some other person would have seemed... inhumanly cruel." (21) This seeming readiness to expose his own weaknesses to his renowned satirist's eye would stand the eventual novelization of Waugh's ordeals in good stead, for on just such grounds, Pinfold met with widespread critical approval and was hailed by many as "one of Evelyn's finest." (22)

That reviewers should prove so pleased by this literary oddity is, I suggest, altogether germane to Waugh's purpose in making this seeming confession not just of a mental breakdown, but of the many sins Pinfold's hallucinations enumerate. Patey contends that the novel found such critical favor for its echoing and so seeming to validate accusations the literati had been leveling at Waugh for years. (23) Given the centrality of the modern media to Pinfold's narrative, it is in-arguable that Pinfold is meant as a response to such critics, but that response is not the confessional capitulation many reviewers welcomed in 1957. Long before Pinfold's publication, Waugh expressed frustration not just with reviewers' false facts, but with their taking his character, and not his art, as their main object of criticism. In a series of 1951 letters to Nancy Mitford, for example, Waugh first denounces reviewers as "lazy brutes [who] hate having to think" and who therefore replicate peers' caricatures of an author rather than confronting the specifics of a new work. (24) He then proceeds to express his dread of an imminent Time magazine "profile" that promises, in his view, nothing but "a collection of damaging lies" about his private life. (25) In 1953, Waugh took to print to reply to hostile reviews of Love Among the Ruins, but above all to rebuke the reviewers' "tendency to write about the author rather than the book and [to assume] a personal intimacy with him which in fact they do not enjoy." (26) Such complaints are not groundless. Unsatisfied with pronouncing Brideshead Revisited's abandonment of Waugh's early comic style "more or less disastrous" (CH, 245), Edmund Wilson's 1946 review goes on to observe that "something essential has been left out of Waugh" himself (CH, 247). Kingsley Amis's review of Officers and Gentlemen asserts that Waugh "participates in Guy Crouchback's cause" to such a degree as to effect a "complete fusion" between them (CH, 372), before concluding that "Crouchback is really a terrible fellow" (CH, 373). Nor did responses to Ordeal hesitate to read Pinfold as Waugh or then to judge the writer in place of the book. As Stannard notes, reviewers seized on its "autobiographical element and plunged into biographical fallacy," (27) nowhere more so than in J. B. Priestley's notice, which uses the novel to diagnose Pinfold/Waugh as being driven mad by his "pretending to be a Catholic landed gentleman" (CH, 389). (28)

Despite advising Mitford to offer "impudent criticism" no answer, Waugh himself was not above responding to what he deemed impertinent profiles of his character. (29) Both in the narrative of Pinfold and in his reaction to its reception, he was ready to make reply to those who presumed to preach at the man, in place of weighing the work. Thus Priestley would be put in his place by a Waugh insistent that, while critics might justly speak to an artwork's merit, they had no right to present themselves as the artist's confessors: "[Priestley] is not concerned to help me with my writing, as he is so well qualified to do, but to admonish me about the state of my soul, a subject on which I cannot allow him complete mastership." (30) But such a refusal of his reviewers' competence to diagnose his spiritual and moral health is, I maintain, built right into the apparently confessional text of Pinfold itself, not least in the key role played in Pinfold's trials by the BBC. Not long before his terrifying journey on the Staffordshire, Waugh himself had first-hand experience of this institution and its desire to uncover the suspect private figure behind literary publication. Having agreed to be interviewed for BBC International, Waugh first received his interrogators at his Gloucestershire home in August 1953, and then traveled to London to record two further sessions to be aired on the domestic service as a single interview in November. (31) As Patey fairly notes, the final result was a broadcast in which no single Waugh book was so much as mentioned: "The interviewers were not interested in Waugh the writer, only the famous curmudgeon." (32)

This autobiographical episode, too, finds a place in Pinfold's rendering of the mental breakdown that soon followed this series of interviews. Led by a man named Angel, a BBC team arrives at Pinfold's home, seeking to seduce their subject into intimate disclosures: "Angel seemed to believe that anyone sufficiently eminent to be interviewed by him must have something to hide, must be an imposter whom it was his business to trap and expose" (OGP, 20). While Pinfold thinks he has rebuffed their prying assault on his dignity (OGP, 22), this attempted expose of the artist's sins remains central to his subsequent ordeal. The tormenting symphony of hallucinations Pinfold experiences aboard the Caliban resolves itself finally into a single motif: his conviction that the BBC's Angel has been using his technical skills to infiltrate Pinfold's private life, broadcasting the voices that assail him and eavesdropping even on his unspoken thoughts (OGP, 185-87). Yet even apart from Pinfold's thus understanding media prurience as lying at "the heart of the mystery" (OGP, 186), that obsession with violating the artist's privacy that the BBC interview embodies resonates throughout Pinfold's breakdown. His auditory hallucinations tellingly commence when he retires to his private cabin only to find it invaded by what sounds like a radio jazz program (OGP, 49). While he assumes this first incursion on his privacy to originate with a gramophone in the neighboring cabin (OGP, 49), he will later twice return to find "the BBC... loudly in possession" of his quarters (OGP, 117), in the form of a deeply hostile literary programming: first, a profile that proffers him as exemplar of "all that is decadent in contemporary literature" (OGP, 88-89), and second, a talk show that involves two acquaintances airing his correspondence and concluding "he's a dreadfully dim little man" (OGP, 119). Thus, at the root of Pinfold's ordeal, of the hectoring voices and the seemingly confessional charges they hurl at him, lies a sense not primarily of his own faults, but of the presumption of contemporary critical culture.

Calvin Lane contends that Pinfold's tormenting voices represent, for Waugh himself, "the turning back upon the novelist of all... the critical jibes he had to endure." (33) So far as it goes, this is correct. The novel clearly works to present the voices that denounce Pinfold as emanating, not from his own tortured psyche, but from the critics who had long since drafted and disparaged their own portrait of Waugh, the man. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the first of the "overheard" BBC programs mentioned above. Here, a profile of Pinfold's career offers the following conspectus:
The basic qualities of a Pinfold novel seldom vary and may be
enumerated thus: conventionality of plot; falseness of
characterization; morbid sentimentality; gross and hackneyed farce,
alternating with grosser and more hackneyed melodrama; cloying
religiosity, which will be found tedious or blasphemous according as
the reader shares or repudiates his doctrinal preconceptions; an
adventitious and offensive sensuality that is clearly introduced for
commercial motives. All this is presented in a style which, when it
varies from the trite, lapses into positive illiteracy. (OGP, 88)

This hallucinated itemization of Pinfold's artistic sins resounds with criticisms directed at Waugh's own post-Brideshead work. Certainly, charges of false characterization were leveled at both that novel and 1950's Helena. Seconded in this by Edmund Wilson (CH, 246), reviewer Henry Reed would complain that Brideshead's Julia Flyte is "only a theme and not a person" (CH, 240), much as Time magazine would later deem Waugh's St. Helena the dullest of stock figures (CH, 324). Similarly, morbid sentimentality is commonly identified in Waugh's postwar work. Decrying its "purple passages" (CH, 254), Rose Macaulay deems Brideshead to be ultimately undone by its "sentimentality" and "emotionalism" (CH, 253), much as Wilson dismisses its plot as maudlin hackwork aimed at making "people throb and weep" (CH, 246). Critical impatience with Waugh's own religiosity would see Conor Cruise O'Brien condemning his work's "exclusive piety" (CH, 261), while John Raymond, reviewing Men at Arms (1952), would ask in dismay, "Why... must his characters be forever splashing each other with holy water?" (CH, 339). Even the BBC's criticism of Pinfold's mercenary eroticism finds its precedent in a Guardian notice of Brideshead that reduces its "principal themes [to] adultery, perversion, and drunkenness" (CH, 234).

Yet the voices that haunt Pinfold at sea do not restrict themselves to finding fault with his art. Over the course of his ordeal, he is charged not just with writerly solecisms, but with a wide array of personal faults and commonly demonized identities. In what seems to Pinfold's befuddled mind to be his shipmates' gossip, he is first accused of alcoholism (OGP, 79; see also, 144, 160). Later, he will be attacked for being a Jew (OGP, 105, 152), a homosexual (OGP, 96, 105, 120, 147-48), a Fascist (OGP, 151), a Communist (OGP, 120, 152), a neglectful son (OGP, 102), and a depressive whose death wish declares him an imminent suicide (OGP, 145, 148-49). Thus Pinfold's hallucinations seek not only to condemn his fiction, but to define and then to damn his character. Now, if none of these charges, save that of fascism, was ever leveled by literary commentators at Waugh himself, it is nonetheless fair to say that these voices do "echo accusations that had surfaced in scores of profiles and reviews." (34) Indeed, faced with a chorus of churlish obituaries for her friend, Donaldson denied ever knowing the "stuffy, cross, snobbish, little man whose picture the journalists of the day have built up between them." (35) This portrait of Waugh the snob is, it is fair to say, a mainstay of critical commentary on Waugh's work. Reed, for one, traces most of Brideshead's flaws to the "overpowering snobbishness" of its author (CH, 239), a claim echoed, among reviewers, by Wilson (CH, 245), Kermode (CH, 281), and Macaulay (CH, 254). This critical consensus achieved perhaps its pithiest expression in Philip Toynbee's 1961 verdict on Unconditional Surrender. This work fails, Toynbee argues, because Waugh the man consistently puts class ahead of virtue and believes "the man who knows a good brandy is a better man than the man who does not" (CH, 438). This same sin serves as a linchpin for the indictment Pinfold's tormenting voices draw up against him. Thus, for example, they deride his playing at "being Lord of the Manor" (OGP, 148), as well as his snob's distaste for shipboard fare (OGP, 193). Indeed, even after he has disembarked and sought sanctuary in Cairo, the apparition he calls Goneril closes chapter 7 by branding him a name-dropping poseur: "Liar. Snob. You only pretend to know him because he's a lord" (OGP, 211).

More central, however, to Pinfold's trials and, I argue, to Waugh's aims in this peculiar little novel is a corollary to this charge of snobbery that he was most eager to refute. As he would concede in "Awake My Soul! It is a Lord," Waugh was well aware that the press held him guilty "of a partiality for lords." (36) While he would here and elsewhere seek to counter such claims, the Waugh who baldly proclaimed, "Man is made for the knowledge of God and for no other purpose," was even more intent on dispelling the related perception that his Catholicism itself was only a manifestation of, or mask for, his reverence for rank. (37) As the man who instructed him in the faith, Fr. Martin D'Arcy, notes, it was often claimed during the last decades of Waugh's life "that his religious faith was a pose." (38) Thus, for Wilson, love of the aristocracy is "the only real religion in" Brideshead (CH, 246). The charge of idolatry implicit here is only intensified by O'Brien, who sees in the novel little more than a reprehensible devotion to the golden calf: "In Mr. Waugh's theology, the love of money is not only not the root of all evil, it is a preliminary form of the love of God" (CH, 260). This insistence that Waugh, in his life and work, confuses class privilege with true Catholicism has proved lastingly influential, outliving both Waugh and his first reviewers. (39) It certainly echoes throughout Pinfold's ordeal. Even before the Catholic Pinfold embarks, we learn that he is widely "reputed bigoted rather than pious" (OGP, 10), an indication of the currency of a certain estimate of the man, and not just of his work. This assumption concerning Pinfold's beliefs becomes an explicit accusation of bad faith in the mouths of the furies that torment him at sea. As unseen hooligans hurl nocturnal abuse at him from the other side of his cabin door, Pinfold hears how "his religious profession was humbug, assumed in order to ingratiate himself with the aristocracy" (OGP, 103), a charge reiterated in daylight (OGP, 148), and yet again, as he finally heads to Mass for the first time since falling ill: "You don't believe in God. There's no one here to show off to" (OGP, 218).

For the Waugh who had, in 1949, made a public confession of his faith, stating simply that life for him "was unintelligible and unendurable without God," such charges of insincerity could not stand. (40) Thus while James Lynch argues that the "act of writing Pinfold is clearly Waugh's effort to restore to order an imaginative faculty that had gone out of control," I maintain that the novel's object is rather to discredit a disordered fiction of himself scripted by his contemporary literary culture. (41) The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, far from being a confession of Waugh's own faults, is an artful exercise, first, in discrediting the media's image of him as a spurious Catholic and, second, in exposing as fools those responsible for its currency. As much, then, as the novel details the voices' angry accusations, it also takes pains to underscore the incoherence of their charge sheet. Thus, despite its inviting readers to equate Gilbert Pinfold with the real Evelyn Waugh, Pinfold also pointedly insists upon the noncoincidence of public text and private man. Pinfold himself, we read, "regard[s] his books as objects which he had made, things quite external to himself " (OGP, 4). Similarly, the text stresses how, to protect his privacy, Pinfold deliberately assumes a rather histrionic role--"a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel" (OGP, 13)--for the public consumption of readers and reviewers. Thus, the novel sets us up from the first to doubt the very identification of Waugh and Pinfold that it has also encouraged. Such doubts should only grow as Pinfold leaves his private redoubt at Lychpole; entering the Caliban's more public space involves a distortion of who he is, as he finds himself entered on the passenger list as "Mr. G. Penfold" (OGP, 44). The voices that soon assail him only intensify this distortion by offering assertions that fail to square either with the text's description of Pinfold or its demonstration of Waugh's own art. For example, if the BBC assessment of his work quoted above faithfully captures critics' impatience with Waugh's religion and sentimentality, its accusations of conventionality, triteness, and stylistic incompetence are refuted by the literary performance that is Pinfold itself. Waugh's literary craft thus indicates that what is at work in such hallucinatory episodes is less confession than a form of counterargument.

That the voices' merciless accusations are to be understood as contrite authorial admissions is made further dubious by the sheer inconsistency of the charges these tormentors state. Pinfold is, after all, denounced both as a fascist traitor (OGP, 151) and as a Communist (OGP, 120, 152). Similarly, he is arraigned for the cruel neglect of a mother he has let die destitute (OGP, 102), even though readers know both that she is alive and that Pinfold has just visited her (OGP, 37-38). As Pinfold himself reflects, "It was very odd... that these people could go to so much trouble to investigate his affairs and know so little about them" (OGP, 194). These falsehoods and inconsistencies are important, I contend, as they lay the groundwork for the novel's assault on what it takes to be the deadliest error in the media's portrait of the author: namely, the accusations of bad faith that dogged Waugh in the press as much as they pursue Pinfold aboard the Caliban. In response to such charges, D'Arcy writes simply, "His writings... show what nonsense this is, and also his behaviour." (42) Certainly, Pinfold's conduct works to disprove the claim of unbelief. Though it is true that illness has long kept him from the sacrament, Pinfold finally attends Mass at the Church of St. Michael and the Angels in Colombo, and thereby attains a refuge from all but one, and that the least hostile, of his voices (OGP, 218-19). (43) Interestingly, from this point on, he experiences ever greater power to resist their hectoring demands or obsequious cajolery; indeed, while "the voices of hate" keep up their assault "across the Moslem world" (OGP, 220, 219), once Pinfold's journey home reaches "Christendom" (OGP, 220), he seems all but in command. Returned to England and to his family, but also significantly to religious communion, he is able now to reflect on his experiences not like an absolved penitent, but rather "like a warrior returned from a hard-fought victory" (OGP, 228). Far, then, from representing a capitulation to contemporary claims that he worshipped lords in place of his Lord, Pinfold works to underline the sincerity of Waugh/Pinfold's faith. Indeed, far from confessing the bad faith critics discerned in him, the novel dramatizes his religion's deliverance of him from the power of public slanders. (44)

By discrediting the voices that rehearse his reviewers' accusations against him and by revealing Pinfold himself to be empowered by that faith his critics could not credit, Waugh offers not a confession to the sins proclaimed by the press, but a repudiation of them and a performance of his own sincere belief. But Pinfold aims at more than this. By at once both rejecting their charge sheet and convincing his accusers that he assents to their caricature of him, Waugh in this text reveals those critics themselves to be guilty of obtuseness and falsehood both. As Peter Brooks points out, public confessions can as much be acts of aggression as of contrition, aimed at establishing the guilt of the penitent's auditors, as much as, or more than, the confessant's own. (45) So, here, I contend, Waugh works by his seeming acceptance of the media's version of him to "trap and expose" his literary antagonists, just as Angel sought to trap and expose Pinfold at Lychpole. In its being praised by typically hostile readers as comprising "the self-revelations of a remarkably honest and brave man" (CH, 387), Pinfold succeeded in demonstrating what for Waugh was the simple fact of reviewing culture's vanity and fatuity. Missing the text's demolition of press profiles and taking the inclusion of their customary charges as the author's own validation of them, the novel's first reviewers fell into the trap that its promotion as autobiography in fact set for them: namely, to hear in Pinfold's hallucinated voices Waugh's own tortured psyche, confessing as in fact his those very sins the literati had long decried. But because it forcefully disproves such charges, Pinfold undermines the authority of these would-be confessors. Incompetent readers of this book, and a fortiori of its author, the critics who lauded Waugh's candid conversation piece were trapped into exposing their fundamental inability to review anything beyond their own fiction of Waugh. They stand unconsciously self-condemned, more mired in their delusions than Pinfold himself.

If "there can be no conversion until one acknowledges oneself a sinner and ceases to be pleased with oneself," then clearly this combative little book is far from a penitential act. (46) To be sure, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold does make its readers privy to certain trying experiences in Waugh's own life in 1953-54. It does not shrink from depicting the author's befuddled state both before and during his voyage to Ceylon, nor does it hesitate to make this condition the object of readerly laughter. It offers insight into how Waugh views his standing among his literary peers and how he understands the relationship between his private life and the artworks he produces to be one of distance and not of identity. To this extent, perhaps, it might be judged a revealingly autobiographical text. But the declaration that Pinfold and Waugh both view their fictions to be "things quite external to" themselves (OGP, 4) stands as a warning only two pages into the novel that we ought not to take Pinfold as an artless revelation of Waugh's person or a simple confession of his faults. As Stannard points out, the novel omits certain aspects, such as his consultation with a psychiatrist, of Waugh's actual breakdown, precisely so as "to emphasize the completeness of [his] triumph," scarcely the act of a sorrowful penitent. (47) This text, then, is a carefully contrived fiction masquerading as memoir, its aim being to expose to ridicule and so to discredit fictions of the author's private life in which reviewers had trafficked in preference to careful analysis of his literary output itself. Above all, Pinfold seeks to present Waugh's hostile critics as deluded by their own fictions regarding the author's creedal sincerity. Indeed, by having its protagonist regain his senses as he returns to religious observance, Pinfold seeks to stress the importance precisely of that faith his critics had denied any legitimacy. In this way, perhaps, the novel might be seen as confessional after all, not as it confesses to the sins of which the media commonly accused him, but as it proffers a confession of Waugh's own Catholic faith to stand as a final rebuttal to all such accusations.


(1.) Evelyn Waugh, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: A Conversation Piece (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), no page (hereafter cited in text as OGP).

(2.) Evelyn Waugh, The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Mark Amory (New Haven and New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1980), 421. For a fuller description of Waugh's readiness to speak of his mental breakdown, see Frances Donaldson, Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbour (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967), chapter 4.

(3.) Martin Stannard, ed. Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 387 (hereafter cited in text as CH). Jeffrey Heath, The Picturesque Prison: Evelyn Waugh and His Writing (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1982), 265. This habit of reading the novel as autobiography has endured. If Philip Toynbee, reviewing for the Observer, marvels at the pitiless candidness of its author's self- portrait (CH, 387), William Myers offers an almost identical judgment four decades later, praising Pinfold's opening chapter as "Waugh himself to the life, pinning [him] down more stylishly than ever his critics did." (Quoted in his Evelyn Waugh and the Problem of Evil [London: Faber and Faber, 1991], 104). Paula Byrne, more succinctly still, has deemed The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold "the most autobiographical of Waugh's novels." Paula Byrne, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead. (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 304. See also Waugh's most recent biographer, Philip Eade, Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited (New York: Henry Holt, 2016), 300.

(4.) Douglas Lane Patey, The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 339.

(5.) R. Neill Johnson, "Shadowed by the Gaze: Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, " Modern Language Review 91, n o. 1 (1996) : 17. For a similar analysis, see Robert J. Kloss, "Evelyn Waugh: His Ordeal," American Imago 42, no. 1 (1985): 107.

(6.) Patey, Life of Evelyn Waugh, 339.

(7.) Oxford English Reference Dictionary, 2nd ed. s.v. "ordeal."

(8.) John Foxwell, "Enacting Hallucinatory Experience in Fiction: Metalepsis, Agency and the Phenomenology of Reading in Muriel Spark's The Comfor ters, " Style 50, n o. 2 (2016): 139.

(9.) Patey, Life of Evelyn Waugh, 264.

(10.) Michael Gorra, The English Novel at Midcentury: From the Leaning Tower (London: Macmillan, 1990), 188.

(11.) Martin Stannard, Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966 (New York: Norton, 1992), 343.

(12.) Waugh, Letters, 417.

(13.) Evelyn Waugh, The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Michael Davie (London: Penguin, 1979), 724.

(14.) Waugh, Letters, 410.

(15.) Ibid., 417.

(16.) Patey, Life of Evelyn Waugh, 325.

(17.) Stannard, Later Years, 342.

(18.) Stannard, Later Year s, 344. Waugh, Letters, 418. Stannard, Later Year s, 344.

(19.) Eade, Evelyn Waugh, 297-98.

(20.) Waugh, Letters, 418 and 419.

(21.) Donaldson, Portrait, 62.

(22.) Eade, Evelyn Waugh, 301. One dissenting voice in this matter was that of Conor Cruise O'Brien. Reviewing the novel under his pen name, Donat O'Donnell, O'Brien faulted Ordeal for its inability ultimately to expose the "sacred" subject of Waugh's own person to the same kind of satire earlier novels had directed at " the proletariat, Americans or other beings beyond the range of human sympathy" (CH, 381).

(23.) Patey, Life of Evelyn Waugh, 340.

(24.) Waugh, Letters, 354.

(25.) Ibid., 358.

(26.) Evelyn Waugh, The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Donat Gallagher (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984), 442.

(27.) Stannard, Later Years, 393.

(28.) This clinical response to Ordeal has proved enduringly popular. Daniel and Mary Jane Hurst read the novel as "essentially a day-to-day description of Waugh's own bromide poisoning." "Bromide Psychosis: A Literary Case," Clinical Pharmacology 7, no. 3 (1984): 260; they then chart Pinfold's progress from "bromide toxicity to delirium and then to psychosis" (ibid., 261). Kloss, maintaining that bromide dependency and withdrawal alone do not account for the content of Waugh's hallucinations, diagnoses paranoia, and not simple intoxication ("His Ordeal," 99). Stephen Post sees all of Pinfold/Waugh's pathologies and dependencies as rooted in resentment toward an emotionally distant mother. "His and Hers: Mental Breakdown as Depicted by Evelyn Waugh and Charlotte Perkins Gilman," Literature and Medicine 9 (1990): 175. Pamela White Hadas sees Pinfold's ordeal as instead involving his regression to "the limp, asexual helplessness of infancy" in "Madness and Medicine: The Graphomaniac's Cure," Literature and Medicine 9 (1990): 190. This verdict of impotence is echoed also by Stannard (Later Years, 349) and Johnson ("Shadowed by the Gaze," 18-19).

(29.) Waugh, Letters, 376.

(30.) Waugh, Essays, 527.

(31.) Stannard, Later Years, 334-36.

(32.) Patey, Life of Evelyn Waugh, 323. See also, "Frankly Speaking, 16 November 1953, " The Spoken Word: Evelyn Waugh, The British Library Board, 2008, compact disc.

(33.) Calvin W. Lane, Evelyn Waugh (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 112.

(34.) Certainly, Waugh's conservative politics were no secret to postwar critics, having been expressed as early as 1939 as an explicit credo. See Evelyn Waugh, Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object-Lesson (Pleasantville, N Y: Akadine Press, 1999), 16-17. Such views extended, in 1936, even to public expressions of admiration for Benito Mussolini and his Italian fascist regime. See Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), 214-51. Such gestures were commonly remarked and denounced by literary reviewers. See, for example, contemporary criticisms of his support for the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in reviews of Waugh in Abyssinia (CH, 189-90, 191), or the identification of the limits that his reactionary outlook imposes on 1947's Scott-King's Modern Europe made by George Orwell (CH, 296) and John Woodburn (CH, 297-98). Patey, Life of Evelyn Waugh, 340.

(35.) Donaldson, Portrait, xv.

(36.) Waugh, Essays, 468.

(37.) See Waugh's response to O'Brien/O'Donnell's attack on the supposed snobbery of Brideshead in the Dublin literary review, The Bell (CH, 270-71). Here, Waugh answers this charge by adducing the odious pair of monied Rex Mottram and titled Celia Ryder: "Why did my reverence for money and rank not sanctify those two?" (CH, 271). Waugh, Essays, 387.

(38.) Martin D'Arcy, SJ, "The Religion of Evelyn Waugh," in Evelyn Waugh and His World, ed. David Pryce-Jones (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), 61.

(39.) See Gorra's 1990 assertion that Waugh's conversion was less an assent to Church doctrine than a way to cling to aristocratic tradition as a sanctuary from the chaotic modern world (Gorra, The English Novel, 171).

(40.) Waugh, Essays, 367.

(41.) James J. Lynch, "Evelyn Waugh During the Pinfold Years," Modern Fiction Studies 32, no. 4 (1986): 550.

(42.) D'Arcy, "Religion of Evelyn Waugh," 74.

(43.) It is worth noting here that the sacrament of confession makes no appearance in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. This does not make Pinfold in any way exceptional. The only one of Waugh's fictions actually to depict the sacrament of confession is the World War II trilogy finally edited and issued in a single volume, in 1965, as Sword of Honour. Sword of Honour, indeed, foregrounds the act of confession. Three times we follow Guy Crouchback into the confessional: in Italy, before he heads home to England to enlist; in Egypt, prior to his experience of defeat and dishonor in the fall of Crete; in Yugoslavia, before his attempted support of Jewish refugees. See Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour (London: Penguin, 2001), 5-6, 326-27, 597. In the trilogy as it was originally published, this trio of confessions meant that the sacrament, absent from all earlier Waugh novels, was prominently featured in each volume. Why this should be so is a matter as yet little addressed by critics, but is beyond the scope of this essay and must therefore wait upon a later occasion.

(44.) For a fuller reading of the novel as detailing faith's rescue of Pinfold from errant fiction, see D. Marcel DeCoste, The Vocation of Evelyn Waugh: Faith and Art in the Post-Wa r Fiction (Farnham, UK: 2015), 111-23.

(45.) Peter Brooks, Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 60.

(46.) Leonard Geddes and Herbert Thurston, The Catholic Church and Confession (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1928), 96.

(47.) Martin Stannard, Later Years, 348. Rober t Murray Davis has likewise demonstrated at some length how Waugh's manuscript transformed his biographical material, before being itself substantially modified in the published version of the text. See his Evelyn Waugh, Writer (Nor man, OK: Pilgr im Books, 1981), 282-84.
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Author:Decoste, D. Marcel
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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