The Life of Evelyn Waugh
Dr. White introduces Brideshead Revisited by giving some insights into the life of its author, Evelyn Waugh.
This book was very close to Waugh in many ways. He adds an author’s note at the beginning disclaiming that it is an autobiographical novel. We must respect his words as he would not have said so if it was not true. Nevertheless, the novel draws on certain very significant aspects of his life. In order to understand the novel and Waugh’s intentions in writing it, I think it is important that you know certain things about his background with an eye towards the production of this masterpiece.
Let me begin with a quotation from Waugh himself that will give us the two sides of the man and the problem we have in analyzing any of his remarkable work: “I was driven into writing because it was the only way a lazy and ill-educated man could make a decent living.” Here is the wonderful superb wit but a real sense of self-criticism. He believed these words.
At one point, a London newspaper was running a series on the seven deadly sins. They asked Waugh which one he might be interested in discussing in essay form. He chose “sloth” as he claimed to know it the best of them all. He found himself impossibly lazy, although he fought this tendency his whole life. In his interesting essay, which can be found in his collected essays and articles, he makes an important point: Sloth is not just laziness. It is an inability to act for your own spiritual good: knowing what is necessary for the good of your own soul but not being able or willing to take the necessary action.
This man would become a Catholic apologist, but he never became a man proud in his Catholic faith. He was always aware of his own failings. He was constantly working to perfect his own character in the same way that he was always working to perfect his style. Waugh made the point that there is no end to the writer’s craft, no point where one can ever say “I am now a writer.” It was an ongoing process, trying to learn more and more about language and how to craft it effectively and beautifully.
His style did change from the beginning of his career to the end because of his hard work. In the same way, he was very hard on his own character. He had a famously vicious tongue and could be incredibly pompous, rude, and insulting. After one such occasion, when he had been at a dinner party and excoriated everyone in sight, a woman came up to him and said, “Mr. Waugh, I thought you were supposed to be a Catholic.” He responded, “My dear woman, I am a Catholic. You can not imagine, were I not a Catholic, what a beast I would be.” His point was that what the woman had seen was as good an Evelyn Waugh as he could be at that moment, even with the Catholic Faith. I think he was quite sincere in that. He was constantly fighting certain aspects of his character.
He also believed he was an ill-educated man. Of course, that recognition should extend to anyone born in the past century. None of us can possibly be well-educated. Good education is one of many treasures that have been discarded by the modern world.
Waugh was being honest in saying that he was driven into writing. He went to Oxford but did not do particularly well there. His Oxford years are chronicled in Brideshead. He is drawing on his own experience in those pages. You will notice that study is granted perhaps one paragraph in all those pages set at Oxford. By the time he left Oxford, he had no sense whatsoever of what he was going to do with his life.
He had hoped at first to become an artist. That is one of the links between the author and Charles Ryder. Waugh’s dream was to be an artist. He made money for a short time designing book jackets. Then he wrote some pieces on painting and art theory. He became a schoolmaster for a while. Then he undertook an apprenticeship to become a printer. He applied to the BBC to become an announcer. He had a brief stint as a newspaper reporter. He studied cabinet-making for a while. Indeed, his own mother said that one of the great tragedies of her son’s life was that he decided to become a writer when he could have become such a fine cabinet-maker. He learned much from cabinet-making. He always spoke of writing as a craft. A writer must plan, construct, and build in the same way a good cabinet-maker would do. Finally, he gave up and became a writer.
Almost immediately, he had huge success. He came from a family involved with letters. Arthur Waugh, his father, came from gentlefolk, as did his mother. The family heritage included doctors, lawyers, soldiers, and clergymen in the Church of England. His father, Arthur, had written a life of Tennyson which was published in 1892. His father had been a journalist for a while. Thus there was a literary background in the family. His father went to work for one of the major British publishing houses, Kegan Paul. He then became the Managing Director at Chapman and Hall, which at that time published the works of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, etc. It was a major British publishing firm. Curiously enough, Chapman and Hall would publish all the Waugh novels. His father published the very successful novels of his son, though he felt very uneasy about this at the time. Others in the firm encouraged him; the books became a gold mine for Chapman and Hall.
He had one older brother, Alec. Alec had some success as a literary man and had a few novels published, but he was in no way in the same league as his younger brother, Evelyn. Evelyn himself began his writing career at the age of six when he wrote a short story which we still possess called “The Curse of the Horse Race.” The story is what you would expect from a six year old (although I am very fond of the title).
He went off to a school called Lancing. While there, he came under the influence of two different men. They were not teachers at the school, but they lived nearby. He had made their acquaintance and they agreed to help him in his artistic designs. At that point, Waugh still wanted to be an artist. In these two early mentors, we see the two sides of the Waugh character that remained until the end of his life.
The first was a man named Francis Crease. He taught Waugh calligraphy and manuscript illumination. By all accounts, Crease was a very shy, thoughtful, and quiet gentleman who was hugely talented. He lived a life removed and was not at all interested in success, company, or society. He was a private man with something of a mystical nature. How far that goes cannot be determined, but he was a man content to rest in his own thoughts.
His other instructor was a man named J. F. Roxburgh. He had a very different kind of personality. He was forceful, articulate, elegant, and had a great deal of panache. He was a public figure who could not be ignored. He taught Waugh a good bit about writing. Later, Waugh claimed that what Roxburgh taught him was precision of grammar and contempt of the cliché.
He honored both of these men the rest of his life. But you see the kind of double-vision it fostered. On the one hand, the quiet, removed, shy, and unsocial (not anti-social) man and on the other hand, the man of great panache, the public and elegant figure who puts himself forward to make the world take notice. Waugh learned much from both of them.
Eventually he would go to Oxford for his undergraduate studies. He did not care for many of his tutors there, particularly a man named Cruttwell, whom he detested. Here again is Waugh at his nastiest: If you read the first five novels, you will notice that every one contains an absolutely obnoxious minor character named Cruttwell. He appears in book after book. It was Waugh’s way of getting revenge on this man he could not stand. The tutor was absolutely horrified by what Waugh was doing, but Cruttwell is now immortalized in those early books.
During his undergraduate years, as a young man, he fell into the circle of aesthetes. He knew the figures he writes about in Brideshead. Those were his companions. This means he did not take advantage of his university years for education–indeed, he did little growing up or maturation–but he did learn a great deal about the world, probably more than a young man should know.
In a letter to Thomas Merton, Waugh wrote that maturation is best when it proceeds slowly. I think there is some wisdom in that. In this country we see the folly of young people forced to grow up too soon. They merely mimic adults or gain adult knowledge at a time when they are too young to absorb such knowledge in any way, or, perhaps even disturbing, children mimicking adult corruption in the midst of a kind of innocence. You get the horror of eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds, children, dressing and behaving like corrupt rock stars.
Waugh wrote to Merton: “Most souls are of slow growth.” This idea is one of the major themes of Brideshead. Charles takes a long time to get the most important ideas into his skull. It is a fairly lengthy novel and Charles does not arrive at his final spiritual destination for a long time, although we know such a conversion is coming. The reader is told about it almost immediately at the end of the Prologue. After the army arrives at Brideshead, Hooper says:
“Brigade Headquarters are coming there next week. Great barrack of a place. I’ve just had a snoop round. Very ornate, I’d call it. And a queer thing, there’s a sort of R.C. Church attached. I looked in and there was a kind of service going on–just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine.”
Thus Hooper speaks to Charles, but really Waugh is telling us in the beginning about the end. Then we follow Charles’ slow maturation. Waugh felt he himself had matured slowly. He became successful—finally–when he began writing. The successive failures of Oxford and the other occupations all occurred in the 1920’s. In this country they were called the “Roaring Twenties.” And they were. It was a time of high living, corruption in society from top to bottom, and disorientation. Waugh became the chronicler of a whole set of youth whom he referred to as “bright young people.”
These were the fairly well-to-do who had little responsibility. They lived life solely for pleasure. They amused themselves by being witty, corrupt, and high-spirited. They were insubstantial. Waugh traveled in this set for a long while and came to know them very well.
Needing to support himself, he turned for a while to a teaching career, but after teaching for five pounds a week in a state school at Notting Hill, he abandoned the teaching profession. Waugh presents an uproariously funny and ghastly vision of this in his first novel, Decline and Fall. In it, the hero, Paul Pennyfeather, goes off to Wales to teach in an abominable school. At one point in the novel, Paul sets a task for his students to write the longest essay possible–quite apart from merit. This is so he can get away from teaching them! This is Waugh’s description of the school at Notting Hill. He describes it as quite awful:
All the masters drop their ‘H’s and spit in the fire and scratch their genitals. The boys pick their noses and scream at each other in a Cockney accent.
Such was his vision of the school in which he found himself teaching. Needless to say, he got out of there at once and devoted himself to running with the smart set. He led a life of sheer caprice and personal enjoyment.
This led to his marriage in June 1928 to Evelyn Gardner. They were known to their friends as “He-Evelyn” and “She-Evelyn” as they shared a common first name. The marriage was based on whimsy, lacking substance. Clearly, neither had maturity, much less an understanding of the spiritual basis of the vocation of marriage. They simply married on a whim. This is hinted at in his second novel, Vile Bodies, in which the hero and heroine are constantly debating whether or not to get married. And this occurs in completely shallow and insubstantial conversations. Throughout the book, every few pages, these “bright young people” are getting engaged, and then breaking it off, over and over again.
As he ran with the smart set, however, he began to realize there was something seriously missing. It was in these circumstances that he sat down and wrote his first novel, Decline and Fall. At this time Waugh had no thoughts of a conversion, but it was a significant moment for he looked at the world and found it wanting. He looked at the people around him and found them shallow. He looked at himself and realized that there was emptiness inside him, out of which came Paul Pennyfeather, the insubstantial hero.
The first novel was published in 1928 and was very successful both critically and popularly. The novel with its depiction of the younger generation made him some money. In 1929, in an essay called “The War [World War I] and the Younger Generation,” he says:
Unfortunately, a great number of schoolmasters came with their own faith shaken in those very standards which avowedly they had fought to preserve. They returned with a jolly tolerance of everything modern. Every effort was made to encourage the children at the public schools to “think for themselves.” When they should have been whipped and taught Greek paradigms, they were set arguing about birth control and nationalization. Their crude little opinions were treated with respect. It is hardly surprising that they were Bolshevik at 18 and bored at 20.
It is a brilliant passage chronicling the collapse of education–a collapse that continues. Most students need serious and consistent discipline, the “whipping,” and difficult and challenging tasks, the “Greek paradigms.” I myself should have had both; I got neither. Almost all of the writing manuals I receive or books of essays intended to provoke “classroom discussion” are nothing more than shallow overviews of “controversial” modern issues: gay “rights,” abortion, women’s liberation, economic justice. The issues are simply presented as issues for debate, minus any moral framework. The classroom debates are pointless and without direction, a total waste of words and time. Such chatter pretends to be “education.” The students having been taught nothing, know nothing. What passes for education in the humanities is the merely rehashing of superficial editorial debates found in any liberal newspaper or journal. Waugh saw through this fraud may decades ago.
The students are not being taught to write a sentence, to read a play by Shakespeare (much less to scan a line of poetry), or to grasp the necessity of a concept of moral order that must frame any serious discussion. The difference now is that they are not Bolsheviks at 18; they no longer care enough even to be revolutionaries for a few years. They are bored at 12 and stay bored. This boredom permeates the early novels, including Decline and Fall and especially Vile Bodies.
In the summer of 1929, just one year after the marriage, She-Evelyn ran off with one of Waugh’s good friends. He had no idea it was coming. He was completely unprepared for such a shock and was devastated. He fell into a profound despair. As he wrote in a letter to a friend, “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live.”
But if he had come to suspect that there was something lacking in the world he saw around him, he now came to see that there was something seriously lacking in the marriage he had made. As a result, he recognized that there was something very much lacking in himself. He became profoundly self-critical. Waugh was writing Vile Bodies at the time. He took a brief hiatus but then completed it. He began to pursue seriously the question of what was of lasting value in the world. The world he had lived in and what he saw around him had proven to be empty. Yet he believed that there had to be something of value.
By 1930, he was seen as a popular novelist, a well-known public figure who was one of the “bright young people.” In September 1930 he converted to the Church of Rome. It came as a surprise to everyone. His father called it “his son’s perversion to Rome.” His parents never came to terms with the fact and remained upset with their son’s decision.
He felt that everything in the world was designed to undermine the most serious questions of life–those having to do with religion and the state of the human soul:
Psychology? There isn’t such a thing as psychology. Like the word slenderizing. There isn’t such a word. The whole thing’s a fraud. Such speculative systems undermine belief in the soul, will, and divine purpose.
In this statement, he separates himself in a major way from all the popular ideas of the day. It is an astonishing thing for a modern writer to say. At the beginning of World War II, Waugh was forced to undergo a psychiatric exam. He was going into the Army and it was a standard procedure. But since he was “peculiar,” the interrogator probably had a few extra questions for him. The psychologist asked him countless questions about his childhood, his upbringing, how he was reared, and how his parents had treated him. Finally Waugh stopped the man and asked: “Why haven’t you asked me about the most important thing in a man’s life—his religion?” The psychologist, of course, had nothing to say. It was not part of his system.
For Waugh, religious belief was the defining element of any human being. If you know that, you know what makes the man tick. If you ask a man and he says he has no religion, you realize the man can’t tick. The whole mechanism has been shut down–or never started.
In 1946, he wrote to a friend of his, John Betjeman: “People are going mad and talking balls to psychiatrists not because of accidents to the chamber-pot in the nursery but because there is no logical structure to their beliefs.” Everything gets reduced to one’s past, early childhood, traumatic experiences, and so forth. Waugh calls this nonsense; the real problem is the lack of a logical structure. Modern men are stumbling around with no idea who they are, where they come from, why they are here, what they are supposed to do, or what their end is supposed to be. Waugh voices a criticism of all modernist thought, thought so fragmented that it can give no logical structure to anything. He himself described the beginning of his religious experience in the following way: he began with a youthful period of shallow piety in the Church of England, a kind of youthful attraction that may be sweet but, if the attraction is to a false system, cannot last.
I remember visiting my boyhood home and going through a box of odds and ends that my mother had saved from when I was young. I came upon a little diary I had kept for a couple weeks during a Protestant summer church camp in southern Wisconsin. A well-meaning soul had encouraged me to do so. I came across a short embarrassing but very funny entry that I had written in a little outburst of such youthful piety. We had been to a little chapel service. I was later walking by a beautiful lake as the sun was setting. I wrote that “Last night, as I was walking by the lake, I realized I am going to be a minister.” I could be in a Congregationalist pulpit right now, encouraging my faithful to write impassioned liberally-minded letters to Washington! But it was an absolutely shallow sentiment on my part. It was empty “religious” sentimentality. The young have such feelings, but they must be grounded in something real. I am not mocking youthful sentiments, but unless they are connected to something real, they will wither away instantly.
Waugh said that his youthful period of shallow piety was followed by adolescent atheism. It is the same path I myself followed. At 17, I went off to college and, after six months, any lingering faith was knocked out of me. I became one of the arrogant young things boasting that God does not exist and that life has no meaning. Waugh says his adolescent atheism was followed by a dissipated young manhood. He ripped out of his diary the pages chronicling those years and burned them.
Then, coming to recognize that there was only one chance for meaning and hope in the world, he found the Catholic Church:
Those who have read my works will perhaps understand the character of the world into which I exuberantly launched myself. Ten years of that world sufficed to show me that life there, or anywhere, was unintelligible and unendurable without God....It only remained to examine the historical and philosophic grounds for supposing the Christian revelation to be genuine. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a brilliant and holy priest [Fr. Martin D’Arcy] who undertook to prove this to me, and so on firm intellectual conviction but with little emotion I was admitted into the Church.
For Waugh, it was an intellectual proposition. There is a moment in Brideshead when Charles is speaking about his own youthful faith and how he had rejected any notion of the “Christian myth” being true. He says, “I had not yet then come to understand that this faith represented a coherent, philosophical system that made intransigent historical claims.” On these two ideas we have the basis of Waugh’s conversion: it was a coherent philosophical system that made complete sense in itself and it made intransigent historical claims. I defy anyone to find a contradictory item in the entire elaborate structure of Catholic theology. Or go back 2,000 years and try to disprove its presence in the world and the influence it has had. Anyone with eyes can see what has happened to the world since the shattering of the Church at the time of the protestant revolt. We now have thousands of denominations and the slow erosion and the final collapse of civilized order.
Fr. D’Arcy, speaking of Waugh, said that he had never himself met a convert who so strongly based his assent on truth. He also said it was a special pleasure to make contact with so able a brain. My point is that no emotional pull brought Waugh to the faith, even though he fully understood and responded to the beauties embodied in the Catholic Church. The attraction was the intellectual truth that could be studied and known; to this he assented. He entered the Church.
There are a number of Waugh biographies available, but I recommend one that is far and away the best of them: The Life of Evelyn Waugh by Douglas Lane Patey. I am very impressed with it and recommend it highly. I don’t know if Professor Patey is Catholic, but I do know that he could not have written this book without having a sensus Catholicus. Patey says, summarizing what Waugh believes, that “the modern world is living on dwindling cultural capital, on inherited institutions deformed by having been cut off from the living faith that was the source of their authority. Without authoritative institutions, anarchy takes over.”
In the early novels, we get anarchy. There is no authority. Everything is collapsing. The very first page of his first novel, Decline and Fall, describes a group of hooligans who get together at Oxford to have raucous drinking parties. They entertain themselves by smashing everything at hand while the school officials in charge hide in their rooms in the dark hoping for a huge amount of damage so that the subsequent fines can buy them some good port. But this is where Waugh starts: the hooligans have taken over, anarchy has set in, and those in charge are doing absolutely nothing.
I recommend the early novels; they are riotously funny. Many people, however, had trouble with them for a very simple reason. In the first five novels, Waugh takes a totally objective stance: he is not giving any kind of commentary on the world he is presenting. He is simply presenting it objectively. Here is the world and what is going on out there. He makes us judge for ourselves how far it has fallen. Often the narrative voice becomes ironic. As an example, in Decline and Fall Waugh presents the same loutish Bollinger Club fondly remembering the last time they had assembled, when a fox was brought into their midst in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles: “What a night that had been!” It is absolutely gruesome but the narrative voice is touched with irony.
These novels are thick with irony, that gap between what is being said and what we as readers know as the real intention. But many people reading the novels think Waugh is sympathetic; they are missing the tone. This problem—and it is a kind of problem—got him into serious trouble with his third novel.
Published in 1932, the novel is called Black Mischief. The book was printed when Waugh was off doing research for one of his travel books. He returned to England to learn that he was in “heavy Catholic trouble.” It was the first novel published since he had converted. As a result, many readers, especially Catholics, assumed he would now be writing sweet, pious books in which everyone is lovely, and the nuns sing together, and we all go to Mass, then to a big family dinner where we say grace as grandma sheds a tear, and as the sun comes up the next morning, the children brush their teeth before going to Catholic school where the nuns inspect their teeth, finding them all clean and shining.
What he wrote instead is a novel that is so outrageous that I cannot in public describe what happens at the end. It reaches points of the gruesome that are unimaginable but raucously funny at the same time. It is quite horrifying, but not nearly as horrifying as life in the modern world would soon actually become. The novel is set in Africa and is about the British imperialists there. Whatever problems Waugh presents in this mythical African country, run by the black emperor Seth (educated at Oxford), pale in comparison with the problems of the British who are coming to civilize them. Because of the title and because of the use of the “n-word,” the novel was one of the last Waugh novels to be reprinted (I once found the novel placed in the “Black Studies” section of a local bookstore!).
The leading Catholic periodical at the time, The Tablet, published an absolutely scathing review of the book. The author was a man named Ernest Oldmeadow. This magazine was under the close supervision of Cardinal Bourne of London. It was clear that the disapproval was coming from the highest reaches of the Church; they were absolutely appalled and did not understand Waugh’s intentions or his artistry.
To give you a sense of how Catholic the book really is, a letter of support for the attack came from Marie Stopes, one of the leading proponents of birth control at the time. She wrote a letter praising the review and the attack on Waugh: “I am glad that a Roman Catholic should be dealt with by Roman Catholics in the trenchant fashion you have done.” Marie Stopes appears in the novel. As Seth is modernizing his country, he renames everything after liberal British heroes. There is a plaza named for “Marie Stopes.” And Seth arranges a birth control pageant and parade through the main city during which the women carry banners reading “Through Sterility to Culture” and “The Women of Tomorrow Demand an Empty Cradle.” It is not funny anymore; it hurts. In 1932, Waugh saw it all coming.
This madness is all imposed by the liberals and their “progressive” ideas in the novel. They are passing out contraceptives to the natives, who refer to the unfamiliar objects as “magic jujus.” The natives believe if you take the magic jujus into your house, you have many children! Of course, the emperor is discombobulated. The novel is riotously funny. It is great comic satire. Of course, the response was similar to that which greeted the most horrifying piece of satire in English, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in which he recommended the Irish eat their own children as a remedy for famine. Waugh is a satirist on the level of Swift. Sometimes satire needs to be pointed.
Waugh’s fourth novel is called A Handful of Dust, based on the collapse of a modern marriage. It is a chronicle of what he himself had been through. Waugh stated that in the novel he had said all that he had to say about the world of humanism without God. It is a bleak book, but funny in its own way. But the serious side of the author is gaining ground. The writing is still objective and distanced, but the pain is increasing.
Then, I suspect in an attempt to mollify the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic community who did not understand him, Waugh in 1935 wrote a life of St. Edmund Campion. It is an astonishing book, one of the best saints’ lives ever written. The work begins with the grisly death of Elizabeth I and ends with the martyrdom of the saint. We have, with the beginning and the end, a vision of two different ways of dying: one, apostate, cut off, facing the horror of emptiness and meaninglessness; and the other as a martyr going to death with full confidence and full faith, and as a result converting many bystanders.
What we have in Edmund Campion is an appreciation by Waugh of what is called the ars moriendi, the art of dying well. This is something that becomes more and more important to him and will structure Brideshead. The entire narrative builds towards the moment of the good death which comes at the end of the novel, pulling all plot threads together and resolving all conflicts and tensions in the book.
What is very interesting is that the ending was severely criticized as a cop-out on Waugh’s part. I’ll quote one critic in a volume called Evelyn Waugh and the Problem of Evil: “Lord Marchmain’s conversion violates a fundamental law in classical literal theory: it winds up a plot with a simple change of mind of one of the principal characters.” You can see how it is possible to read the whole book without understanding it. Lord Marchmain does not simply change his mind; because of an infusion of grace he saves his soul. A man who has been a reprobate and an apostate has his soul saved at the last instant. The notion of dying well is in Waugh from the time of Edmund Campion. It is a thoroughly Catholic idea.
The last of the five early satirical novels is Scoop, in 1938. It concerns journalists in Africa. It is very funny and is the gentlest of them, probably because he had happily remarried. The annulment for his first marriage was years in the making. His wife was named Laura Herbert, and she was a devout Catholic. They married in 1937 after Waugh’s first marriage was annulled by Rome in 1936.
World War II did not surprise Waugh; he had seen it coming. He volunteered to serve and deliberately chose branches of the service where he would be exposed to extreme hazard. He was absolutely fearless and could put up with immense amounts of pain. On three different occasions he saw action. These are chronicled in his brilliant war trilogy, Sword of Honour. He even survived a plane crash in Croatia where half of the people on board were killed. He walked away from it.
But he was not a good soldier. He could not bear pomposity. We see that in the opening scene of Brideshead. He would go out of his way to puncture pomposity wherever he saw it. When he thought people or situations had become too pompous, he would do something outrageous. My favorite story is that once when the brass was gathered and having a very serious meeting. Waugh interrupted and asked whether it was true that, in the Roumanian army, no one below the rank of major was allowed to wear lipstick. His superiors were distrustful of him, and those below him did not like him at all. They thought him pompous and arrogant and realized that he had no time at all for the “common man” in the “era of the common man.”
On one of the occasions when the forces were going into combat, the other officers had a serious debate about whether or not to let Evelyn participate. One of the officers said Evelyn would probably get shot. Another officer replied that it was a chance they would have to take. The first officer responded: “I don’t mean by the enemy!”
In January 1944 he was in training to become a parachutist. In a parachute jump, he badly injured his leg. It became clear that the leg would take some time to heal. He requested of his commander and the Secretary of War that he be given leave as an idea for a novel had come into his head. He stated quite simply that one of the mysteries of the artist is that, when something appears in your head, you have to write it down at once. His request was granted.
But he did not go home. He went to a small isolated hotel from February to June 1944, when he wrote Brideshead Revisited. He based it on personal experiences, people he had known. He had been present when a man named Herbert Duggin had had a deathbed reconciliation with the Church. He had seen it happen. Also, about the time he published Black Mischief, he had fallen in love with an entire family named the Lygons. He loved deeply everyone in the family. The father had been disgraced by personal actions and had been hounded into exile in Venice. Despite these two central influences, Waugh insisted that the novel was not autobiographical. We need to believe him.
Waugh wrote a number of travel books. He traveled extensively. They are not well-known but they are fascinating. Let me close by citing a passage from one of these travel books called Robbery Under Law. He had traveled to Mexico. In the midst of this travel book he includes what he calls his “conservative manifesto.” I think it is a magnificent piece of writing:
Let me then warn the reader that I was a conservative when I went to Mexico. Everything that I saw there strengthened my opinions. I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth, that his chances of happiness and virtue here remain more or less constant through the centuries, and, generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives, that the balance of good and ill tends to revert to a norm, that sudden changes of physical condition are usually ill, and are advocated by the wrong people for the wrong reasons, that the intellectual Communists of today have personal irrelevant grounds for their antagonism to society, which they are trying to exploit. I believe in government, that men cannot live together without rules, but that these should be kept at a bare minimum of safety. That there is no form of government ordained from God as being better than any other, that the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole time task to keep the peace. I believe that inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of their elimination. Men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes and that such a system is necessary for any form of cooperative work, more particularly the work of keeping a nation together. I believe in nationality, not in terms of race or divine commissions for world conquest, but simply this: Mankind inevitably organizes itself into communities according to its geographical distribution. These communities, by sharing a common history, develop common characteristics and inspire a local loyalty...
Everything Waugh wrote after his conversion is Catholic in thought or principle, even if the style or manner is often surprising. At the time of Brideshead, a friend wrote to him, asking him what the new book was about. His response: “The book is about God.”