Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) is not only one of the greatest twentieth-century English novelists and stylists, but one whose Catholic faith informs much of his writing. The son of a publisher and literary critic, he abandoned most of his religious beliefs in his late teens. At university, he befriended a circle of aristocrats, socialites, and aesthetes, combining his artistic pursuits with a dissipated life. Following university, he worked for several years as a schoolteacher and eked out a living as a writer and journalist. In 1929, his wife left him for her lover, one of his friends. They had only been married for a year. In 1930, he converted to Catholicism and in 1937 he remarried. He and Laura would have seven children. During World War Two, he served in the Armed Forces but grew disillusioned with the Allies’ abandonment of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Famed for his crusty personality and unfashionable beliefs, during his final years, he struggled with ill-health, meagre finances, and discontent at both the rise of socialism in the United Kingdom and the novus ordo Mass of the Second Vatican Council.

In this interview, Christopher J. Scalia discusses his pick of five of Waugh’s novels.

Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow in the Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies department at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on literature, culture, and higher education. A former English professor, he specialized in 18th-century and early 19th-century British literature. He also spent three years as director of AEI’s Academic Programs department, where he led educational and professional-development programs and events for college students around the country. His articles, essays, and reviews on literature, music, higher education, and other topics have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, USA Today, Commentary, National Review, First Things, the Washington Free Beacon, the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator World, and FoxNews.com, among other outlets. He is the co-editor of On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer (Crown Forum, 2019), and Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (Crown Forum, 2017). His forthcoming book, Eleven Conservative Novels You Must Read . . . but Probably Have not, will be published by Regnery.

  1. A Handful of Dust
    by Evelyn Waugh
  2. Scoop
    by Evelyn Waugh
  3. Brideshead Revisited
    by Evelyn Waugh
  4. Helena
    by Evelyn Waugh
  5. The Sword of Honour Trilogy
    Men at Arms) (Officers and Gentlemen) (Unconditional Surrender)
    by Evelyn Waugh
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“The reputation of Evelyn Waugh rests on two premises: that he was one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century, and that as a man he was a monster.” So begins Selina Hastings’s biography of Waugh. Did he deserve this reputation for behaving monstrously?
He was a difficult man and a curmudgeon. There is no doubt about that. However, he was a lovable curmudgeon.

There is a famous exchange he had with Nancy Mitford. She pointed out that he a monster and wondered how, being a Christian, he could he be so mean. He replied that were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible.”

He had a great sense of his foibles, weaknesses, and the importance of Catholicism to his life. A more recent biography—Philip Eade’s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisitedis more generous to him. Eades does not justify all his foibles, but, generally, casts him in a more favourable and friendlier light. This counters some of Waugh’s past reputation for monstrousness. Regardless of what he was like in person, he is undeniably a marvellous writer. He is superior to almost every other twentieth-century writer, whether it be as a stylist, a comic writer, and an explorer of the significance of faith in the modern world.

"I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language. And with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.”
Evelyn Waugh

Waugh is often cited as one of the greatest writers of English prose of the twentieth century. In his essay, “Literary Style in England and America”, he lists lucidity, elegance, and individuality as the three characteristics of literary style. He even explains them. Presumably, Waugh writes with these three characteristics.
That is absolutely right. He writes with a very unvictorian and twentieth-century style. Like Mark Twain, his sentences are short and direct sentences. They are always clear, sophisticated, and deceptively simple.

Furthermore, he does not give a lot of explanations. He lets the actions, gestures, and details of his characters gestures speak for themselves. This is one of the things he does especially well but, as with his humour, poses a challenge to many readers. A character will say something stupid, barbaric, or intentionally funny. However, the narrator does not slow down to advert the reader to the joke funny incident. There are no laugh tracks in Waugh’s novels. Rather, he expects the reader to be sharp and attentive enough to recognise these beats and the skill of his timing.

Late in his career, in an interview with the Paris Review, he spoke about another peculiarity of his writing. “I regard writing,” he said, “not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language. And with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.”

That is slightly misleading. It can give you the impression that his characters are flat, uninteresting, and have no complexity whatsoever. That is not the case at all. However, his third person narrators— and, with the great exception of Brideshead Revisited, he almost always wrote in the third person—do not explore at length what the characters are thinking. Instead, his narrators attend to what the characters do and say. Remarkably, he still draws such complex and interesting characters.

What are the main points of Waugh’s biography?
He was born in London in 1903. His family had been involved in the publishing business for a couple of generations. He attended Oxford but was not a particularly good student and did not complete his degree there.

He had written throughout his childhood but the visual arts, especially some of the medieval ones, were his first artistic love. He provided crude illustrations for his early novels and his first major publication was a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1928). It earned favourable reviews and much praise, but one reviewer thought mistook the author for a woman because on account of his first name. In the reviewer's defence, Waugh’s wife was also called Evelyn (though her name is pronounced differently). To this day, biographer refer to them as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn.

Their names were compatible, but their lives were not. She carried on an affair very early in their marriage, and they divorced in 1929. Around that time, he published his first novel, Decline and Fall. It is a great comic novel, based on his experience as a grammar school teacher. He followed it up with Vile Bodies. It is a lesser comic novel, but still very funny. It is about the Bright Young Things set that was around in England at the time.

At the time, he was also travelling a lot writing travel works. Over his career, he wrote thirteen novels total, a handful of travel books, two biographies (one of the sixteenth-century Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion, and another of Ronald Knox, the Catholic Chaplain at Oxford).

This brings us to a turning point in Waugh’s life: his conversion to Catholicism in 1930. At first, there is no discernible change in his writing. He does not suddenly take on explicitly Catholic subjects. He does eventually and his works take on a very Catholic focus.

In 1936, his first marriage was declared null. The following year, he married Laura Herbert, with whom he had seven children.

As you mentioned, though Waugh is best known as a novelist, he was also a journalist and widely read travel writer. Why have none of his essays or travel writings figured in your list?
Because I am primarily a reader of novels and Waugh’s reputation rests on his novels. I considered including his biography of St. Edmund Campion, but I just decided that all his novels are superior to everything else he wrote. That is not to say his other works are not worth reading. However, I have not enjoyed them as much and his reputation does not rest on them.

Nevertheless, his travel writing had an enormous influence on his novels. His travels really shaped the plot of some of his novels. You could argue that his biographies shaped one of the novels, Helena.

"I am drawn to him as a Catholic because he takes the faith seriously. He is not overly pious. He recognises the flaws of Catholics and the way they can manipulate their faith for self-deception."

Waugh became known as a novelist for his early satirical novels, Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and Black Mischief. However, you have selected books that he wrote after his reception into the Catholic Church. Was this a conscious choice, happenstance, or simply indicative of how, like many artists, his work matured as he grew older?
The latter. His early novels are extremely good, but he progressed significantly as a novelist. If I were to include one of them, it would be Decline and Fall. It is an even better novel than Helena. However, Helena is remarkable for what it says about Waugh’s faith.

That said, not all the novels he wrote after his conversion, such as Scoop and A Handful of Dust, are explicitly Catholic. A Handful of Dust is a Christian novel insofar as it is about the absence of Christianity. It makes a point about the absence of any spiritual life in the characters.

“Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints.”
Dana Gioia

Why should Catholics read Waugh?
For the reason any lover of fiction should read him: he is such a good novelist. His writing is pristine, powerful, and amazing. His stories are memorable. However, I am drawn to him as a Catholic because he takes the faith seriously. He is not overly pious. He recognises the flaws of Catholics and the way they can manipulate their faith for self-deception.

It is helpful to remember something that the American Catholic poet and critic Dana Gioia has said about Catholic writers. “Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints.”  That is especially true of Waugh. You can also see it in any number of great Catholic writers of the twentieth century, such as Flannery O'Connor, J.F. Powers, Graham Greene, and Muriel Spark. Waugh is clearly a devout Catholic, but he presents the struggles of Catholics in the modern world particularly well.

Do any of Waugh’s novels feature in your forthcoming book, Eleven Conservative Novels You Must Read…but Probably Have not?
Yes, Scoop. I could have included a handful of his novels. However, I chose Scoop because people on both the left and right—and these days conservatives in particular—can appreciate its timeless depiction of the press. It depicts the shortcomings of the media particularly well.

In 1999, The Modern Library solicited experts to draw up a list of the best one hundred novels of the twentieth. Three of Waugh’s novels made the list: A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited, and Scoop. That gives you a sense of just how much there is to choose from in his works. Of those three, Brideshead Revisited is the only one that deals explicitly with the Catholic faith and its significance.

Waugh often laments the decline of an aristocratic, chivalric ethos for an egalitarian one  in Britain and many other countries. Is his conservatism separate or linked intrinsically to his Catholicism?
It is linked to it and very much so. This comes through most clearly in The Sword of Honour trilogy. The main character, Guy Crouchback, is a cradle Catholic who is excited to participate in the Second World War. He sees it as a sort of chivalric crusade against the modern age, with the forces of Nazism and Communism representing all that is wrong with modernity; England and Christianity representing the greatness of European tradition. However, he becomes deeply disillusioned over the course of the trilogy. He realises that this is not what the war is about. This is not a completely autobiographical representation of Waugh, though Crouchback’s encapsulation of Catholicism and conservatism does match Waugh’s own beliefs.

As you mentioned, Waugh had a disdain for egalitarianism. He did not love America, to put it mildly. His send-up of certain American values, The Loved One, is one of the books I considered including on this list. In other venues, he spoke critically of United States’s deeply democratic institutions and beliefs. Several of his novels feature characters who represent the modern age and its beliefs. He enjoys poking fun at them and showing just how shallow and oblivious they are.

Was Waugh a snob?
Yes, he was.


Let us turn to the books you have selected and treat them in chronological order. The first is A Handful of Dust (1934). It takes its title from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Like that poem, it depicts the barrenness of secular humanism. For this reason, some see it as a turning point in Waugh’s oeuvre. Why have you chosen it?
This is my favourite Waugh novel. It is a remarkable combination of laugh aloud funny and cry aloud sad. Its humour is dark and ironic. The fate of the central character is simultaneously tragic and funny. This is remarkable in twentieth-century literature.

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