Evelyn Waugh may well have been a snobbish and cruel man, but there's no denying that he was a brilliant one, and it seems that he at least tried to battle his nastier characteristics; I'm always taken by how he responded to people who pointed out that his bullying nature made him a poor advert for Christianity: 'Just think how much worse I would be,' he is reputed to have said, 'if I were not a Christian'.
The wording of his reply varies from source to source, and he's often thought to have answered with respect to his Catholicism in particular, but the point stands. It's a useful example of Freeman Dyson's riposte to Steven Weinberg's trite and dubious observation that good people regularly do good things and bad people regularly do bad things, but it takes religion to make good people do bad things; in response to this Dyson has pointed out that whatever about religion being need to make good people do bad things, it looks as though it takes religion to make bad people do good things.
I'm not sure about either claim, wondering how we define people as 'good people' or 'bad people', and thinking of how Aristotle thinks of moral qualities as habitual behaviour, such that moral actions form our character, and our character then dictates what we do. But I digress.
There's a nice little clip of Waugh on the Spectator website today, where you can watch the great man -- for Clive James' money the man who stood at the pinnacle of English prose -- pour down his scorn upon his modernist contemporaries:
'... there was a much more serious influence, which was to try and reduce prose style to gibberish. In my youth there was a tremendous blind alley a whole lot of good writers went down, in which they tried to give what they called "stream of consciousness", in which they gave what everyone was thinking or feeling apart from what they were saying or doing. But when it came to prose, the English common man knows what prose is; he talks it all the time himself, and he wasn't going to be taken in.
And there were a lot of Americans, headed by one called Gertrude Stein, who wrote absolute gibberish. And then they hired a poor dotty Irishman named James Joyce -- I don't know if you've ever heard about him, but he was thought to be a great influence in my youth. And he wrote absolute rot, you know! He began writing quite well and you could see him going mad sentence by sentence. If you read Ulysses, it's perfectly sane for a little bit, and then it goes madder and madder, but that was before the Americans hired him. And then they hired him to write Finnegans Wake, which is gibberish.'
All else aside, it's worth watching so you can listen to Evelyn's somewhat unorthodox pronunciation of the word 'gibberish'. I've never heard it delivered with a hard 'g' sound before, but it seems that that was the norm back in the day.
I've not read nearly enough Waugh: A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited, Helena, his biography of Ronald Knox, a collection of essays and reviews, and most recently Scoop. Of these, Helena is probably the most obscure, despite how Waugh regarded it as his best and most ambitious book. It's an oddity, to say the least, telling the story of Helena, empress of Rome and mother of Constantine the Great, and doing so from her point of view, her voice being that of a 1920s flapper.
Waugh's Helena is the daughter of King Coel, as per Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century Historia Regum Brittaniae, and Waugh takes advantage of this supposed lineage to have a bit of fun in a scene where the elderly king ponders whether his daughter ought to marry the ambitious Roman soldier Constantius Chlorus:
'Mead,' roared Coel, 'and music. No not you' -- as all the bards came bundling in -- 'only the three strings and the pipe. I have to think.'
Presently, in a softened mood, he sent for Helena.
'I am sorry to interrupt your lessons.'
'It was "break", papa. I had just gone to the stables to look at Pylades's over-reach. He'll be all right for Tuesday.'
'Helena, I have had a most impudent request from that sickly-looking young staff officer. He wants to marry you.'
'A relation of the Divine What-d'you-call-him -- awful fellow who was Emperor not long ago. Says he comes from the Balkans somewhere. You don't really want to marry him, do you?'
'Stop, go away,' said Coel suddenly to his band. 'Take the bowl; be off,' he said to the slave. The music died among the rafters; slippers shuffled among the rushes and the room was silent.
Well, I thought it was funny, anyway. On the offchance that you didn't get the joke, read it again.
To be fair, Waugh's doing important stuff in Helena. It's not just a historical novel written in an outrageously anachronistic style, linking genuine historical events with legendary characters, and with the odd joke thrown in. On the contrary, the book uses fiction to dissect history and myth, homes in on the grittiness at the very heart of historical Christianity as expressed in the brute wooden reality of the Cross, and explores the very nature of what it is to be Christian. As he later wrote to John Betjeman:
'Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own peculiar form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good my saying: “I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.” I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh—after God knows what experiences in purgatory.
I liked Helena's sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn't thrown to the lions, she wasn't a contemplative, she wasn't poor and hungry, she didn't look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial fog, by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.'
Helena, Waugh realises, was someone who had been created by God to do Him some definite service, as Newman put it, and someone who had succeeded in that mission. Waugh didn't know what his mission was, but he knew that whatever it was it was something that only he -- with the grace of God -- could accomplish.
That makes it all sound very sombre, doesn't it? It's nothing of the sort. Helena is as light as a feather, but we shouldn't let the fact that it's funny make us think it's not serious.
Like Chesterton's angels, it flies because it takes itself lightly.