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Waughs in decline.

In his biography of Evelyn Waugh, possibly the greatest English novelist of the twentieth century, Christopher Sykes writes that "Waugh regarded September 1930 as marking the most important event of his life: his reception into the Roman Catholic Church." From Father Martin D'Acry, S.J., Sykes received a letter describing Waugh as an exceptionally easy convert to deal with:

"He was a man of very strong convictions and a clear mind. He had convinced himself very unsentimentally--with only an intellectual passion, of the truth of the Catholic faith and that in it he must save his soul. Hence in his instructions or talks he always wanted to know exactly the meaning and content of the Catholic faith, and he would stop me, raise difficulties,--then immediately he was satisfied, he would ask me to go on. In this way he was one of the most satisfactory people to talk to about the faith, whom I have ever known."

His religion coloured his writings. Many people will think of him first of all as the author of Brideshead Revisited, a conversion story seen by millions in the very popular and excellent television series made out of it. He wrote a fictional biography of Helena, discoverer of the True Cross, and his war trilogy--Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender--dealt with a crusade gone wrong. So his writings were permeated with religious feeling almost from first to last. He wrote a biography of the Elizabethan martyr Edmund Campion and another of an eminent priest and literary figure who was his contemporary, Msgr. Ronald Knox.

One of his early novels, A Handful of Dust (1934), dealt not with religion but with its absence. He stated that it contained all he had to say about humanism--by which he meant, not the Renaissance understanding of humanism as a marriage of classical learning and piety as in More and Erasmus, but a modern definition as in one of the American Heritage Dictionary's understandings of its as "a philosophy or arttitude that is concerned with human beings, their achievements and interests rather than with the abstract beings and problems of theology." Waugh's central character in A Handful of Dust, Tony Last, never misses church on Sunday--but attends out of a sense of social obligation, not of religious duty. The vicar at his parish church, Mr. Tendril, gives sermons--repeated year after year--which were first composed in India during the Victorian age. His Christmas sermon, "one to which his parishioners were greatly attached," is a masterpiece of irrelevance:

"'How difficult it is for us,' he began, blandly surveying his congregation, who coughed into their mufflers and chafed their chilblains under their woolen gloves, 'to realize that this is indeed Christmas. Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered against the drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of an alien sun; instead of the happy circle of loved faces, of home and family, we have the uncomprehending stares of the subjugated, though not doubt grateful, heathen. Instead of the placed ox and ass of Bethlehem ... we have for companions the ravening tiger and the exotic camel ..."

However, when Tony suffers a great blow through the death of his son John in a riding accident, Mr. Tendril does offer the consolations of religion, but Tony will have nothing to do with them: 'I only wanted to see him about arrangements. He tried to be comforting. It was very painful ... after all, the last thing one wants to talk about at a time like this is religion." While his friend Jack goes to London to find Tony's wife Brenda and tell her about John's death, Tony is left with a house guest, Mrs. Rattery, and she suggests a card game to pass the time. But the only game Tony knows is animal snap:

"Well each of us chooses an animal."

"All right, I'm a dog and you're a hen. Now what?"

Tony explained.

They each took a pack and began dealing. Soon a pair of eights appeared.

"Bow-wow," said Mrs. Ratter, scooping up the cards.

Another pair, "Bow-wow," said Mrs. Rattery. "You know you aren't putting your heart into this."

"Oh," said Tony "Coop-coop coop."

They were still playing when Albert the butler came in to draw the curtains.

"What must that man have thought?" said Tony, when he had gone out.

("Sitting there clucking like a 'en," Albert reported, "and the little fellow lying dead upstairs.")

Much more could be said about A Handful of Dust. Suffice it to say that it is one of the most impressive of Waugh's novels, and that it is perhaps the bleakest of his novels since religious commitment is absent from it.

In the Catholic World Report for August/September 2006, Kevin Michael Grace has an article headed "The Apostasy of the Waughs." Alexander Waugh, Evelyn's grandson, has written a book entitled Fathers and Sons which surveys his clan over five generations. A subheading in the magazine indicates what the book's thesis is: "A premier English literary family has gone from arch-Catholicism under Evelyn to agnosticism under Auberon to atheism under Alexander."

Like his father, Grace writes, Auberon was a Catholic because he believed it to be true. As the "spirit" of Vatican II took hold, he increasingly lost respect for a Church that, in his view, had substituted trendy ambiguity for dogmatic certainty and the "Mickey Mouse" Mass for the Mass of Pope St. Plus V. In his novel A Bed of Flowers (1972), he showed a lapsed priest, Jacques, as saying, "When they announced that the Mass was no longer a sacrifice, it had become a meal, I realized that the institutional form of the Church had become no more than an empty shell ..." Sometime in the 1970s, Auberon stopped going to Church; asked decades later when he had last gone to Confession, he replied, "No comment." Six weeks before he died he was asked to imagine what death meant and he answered, "Nonexistence." He had a Catholic funeral in an Anglican church, but everything points to his dying with a hardened heart.

Grace describes Alexander's Fathers and Sons as an engrossing read and elegantly written. But this Waugh does not believe in the soul. Grace writes, "It is not enough to say that the apostate Alexander Waugh manifests what BBC journalist Denis Sewell calls the 'creeping secular fundamentalism among the wider intelligentsia,' his anti-Papism is positively Victorian in its intensity." Grace gives several examples.

Alexander regales us with prurient speculation about Evelyn's possible death agony in the bathroom after Mass on Easter Sunday; he also repeats the preposterous hypothesis advanced by Graham Greene that Waugh committed suicide by drowning himself in the toilet bowl. He suggests that Evelyn's mother-in-law Mary Herbert was the bastard daughter of Hilaire Belloc. When he himself was married in 1990, he claims, the officiating clergyman, Father Caraman, asked him to testify that he loathed his future wife and had no intention of having children by her. This Father Caraman was none other than Philip Caraman, S.J., who said Mass in Evelyn's home on that sad Sunday of 1966. He was a distinguished scholar and a very rational man who could never have said what Alexander said he did. Alexander also refers slightingly to Evelyn's "sanctimonious biography of a priestly friend," not mentioning that the friend was Monsignor Ronald Knox, called by many "easily the most brilliant man of his generation." For a man who could put such nonsense in print, it would not be surprising if a game of animal snap was the closest thing he could get to prayer.

As we have seen, Evelyn Waugh was a convert who insisted on rational explanations for the truths of the faith. Auberon repeated the familiar cliches about the legacy of Vatican Two, but he does not seem to have realized that he was living during the reign of one of the greatest in the long succession of popes, John Paul the Second. Alexander does not seem to have noticed either that John Paul was succeeded by a man of unquestioned brilliance and extraordinary charm. Under such men, the Church has not become something small and contemptible, but some thing worthy of respect. Let us hope that another Waugh will come along to carry on Evelyn's legacy.

David Dooley, Ph.D. is professor emeritus of English from Toronto's University of St. Michael's College.
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Author:Dooley, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:My faith journey: a conversion story.
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