Religious themes and situations are undoubtedly stronger in Evelyn Waugh’s later novels than in his early fiction. After the publication of Brideshead Revisited in 1945, Waugh made it clear that all his books would now have a religious purpose: “to represent man more fully, which to me means only one thing, man in his relation to God.”
Waugh’s writing before Brideshead is regarded as more secular in nature. In these early novels, comic inventiveness is unleashed on the gay decadence of the 1920s. Waugh fashions a capricious universe in which responsibilities are shirked, sexual deviance is commonplace, and virtue, if it appears at all, goes unrewarded. Critics as far back as Aristotle have appreciated the comic possibility of presenting human beings in their least flattering light, and Waugh’s efforts in this vein were highly innovative.
But was there some deeper purpose to his anarchic sense of humour? Early works like Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, for example, touch upon religion in ways that do not seem wholly driven by a creative search for comic material. The satirical tendency in Waugh was clearly strong and, as such, it became his mode of literary expression. But despite their undoubtedly comic form and apparent lack of any moral purpose, these youthful, zany novels also voice concern about the pitfalls of nihilism in a world that has abandoned God.
Religious institutions, from the Catholic hierarchy to life-long marriage, serve multiple purposes in these early novels, even when they exist on the periphery of the action. Often, they simply generate comedy for its own sake; but they are also brought in to make serious insights about the moral condition of the real world.
The satirical role of religion is most overt in the character of Mrs. Melrose Ape, the loud American evangelical in Vile Bodies who melds superficially Christian principles with the glitziness of modern showbiz. Waugh clearly viewed the mix as a ghastly, obscene hybrid, though this is not explicitly stated. There is a transparent charlatanry to Mrs. Ape’s feel-good preaching, which she tries on miserable Englishmen on board a sea-liner: “Hope’s what you want and hope’s what I got.” Her religious promise contains all the hallmarks of American evangelism, fusing the language of salvation with the jazzy vernacular of commercial salesmanship. Having collected £2 after getting the smoking room to sing in unison, Mrs. Ape is at least honest enough to acknowledge how she is monetizing the Gospel: “Salvation doesn’t do them the same good if they think it’s free.” Redemption becomes a product to be sold and only incidentally, if at all, a metaphysical truth to be shared. Her shallowness is elsewhere made clear by the satirical power of Waugh’s perfunctory tone: “She then left the country with her angels, having received a sudden call to ginger up the religious life of Oberammergau.” Sentences like these operate as comedic formulae, juxtaposing the most preposterous ideas and images with an incongruous blandness of expression. There is also a mocking quality to the modish phrase “ginger up,” which, regarding Mrs. Ape’s religious mission, hints at superficialities as opposed to substance.
Waugh is no less brutal in his treatment of more official religious figures. A Handful of Dust in particular presents us with a Church of England that has lost any power to inspire adherents—a quality which Mrs. Ape, however suspect, appears to possess in abundance. The protagonist Tony Last attends church less out of strong faith than unthinking habit: “As Tony inhaled the agreeable, slightly musty atmosphere and performed the familiar motions of sitting, standing and leaning forward, his thoughts drifted from subject to subject, among the events of the past week and his plans for the future.” Admittedly, this is not very funny. But Tony’s lack of interest does provide the context for something which is: the unimpressive local vicar who recycles old sermons from his time in India and gets an accordingly puzzled reception from those in attendance.
Father Rothschild in Vile Bodies is amusing for different reasons. From the beginning, he strikes us as a scheming busybody. In his first description of the priest, Waugh employs physiognomy to underline his reptilian character. His tongue “protruded very lightly on deck” resembling “the gargoyles of Notre Dame.” An ironic picture gradually emerges of a supposedly godly man no less averse than Mrs. Ape to rubbing shoulders with temporal power. Far from renouncing the kingdoms of this world, Father Rothschild ingratiates himself with just about everyone important, from noblemen to the Prime Minister himself. Fevered evangelicals, lackadaisical vicars, sly Jesuits—all came within Waugh’s comic purview. Nobody could escape the merciless nature of his satirical wit, including the religious personalities of one form or another who are frequently placed at the centre of his comedies.
However, Waugh was more than a mere humourist. Religion, even in the early novels, was not just a laughing matter. Alongside Waugh’s gift for comedy, he also possessed an awareness of a fateful void in the modern world. He was not P.G. Wodehouse, whose delightful tales exist for their own sake and say nothing about moral questions. Even Waugh’s most comic fiction admits of a seriousness which Wodehouse, for all his brilliance, did not seek.
Malcolm Bradbury was adamant that the more profound side of Waugh’s early novels should not be exaggerated. Fundamentally, these were self-justifying comic masterpieces that need not be searched for deeper meaning. “All the characters,” wrote Bradbury referring to Vile Bodies, “are totally involved in the world of frenetic gaiety the book creates.” But is this true of Father Rothschild? True, he participates and seeks to suck up to worldly power. But crucially, in a perceptive speech about the bright young things, he also becomes a curious outsider peering in: “I know very few young people, but it seems to me they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence.”
The hedonistic lifestyles of the bright young things are cast here as a shallow substitute for the spiritual impulse. We begin to see a religious quality to their ritualistic pleasure-seeking and the way in which it substitutes for membership in a community. But Fenwick-Symes grows to acknowledge the cracks in his generation’s social masks: “Nina, do you ever feel that things simply can’t go on much longer?” The anxiety in his tone vindicates Rothschild’s observation about the longing for permanence, and it also exposes the unsustainable lavishness of the lifestyles in which Adam and Nina indulge. Adam looks for an escape in marriage, but Nina chooses a man with money; Adam, now her lover, lives comfortably but without purpose. The scenes are assembled by Waugh in a skilfully comic fashion, but the subject at hand is undoubtedly tragic: the end of a party that is valued like it will last forever. It is hard to overlook Father Rothschild’s role in clarifying this savage irony and suggesting alternative values to the transitory delights of the flesh.
The idea of a moral void is even more central to A Handful of Dust, a novel which Waugh said contained “all I have to say about humanism.” Bradbury took humanism to mean a moral system in which “all act for their own ends.” But the term should be understood more generally to encompass any manmade value structure, be it Marxist socialism or the philosophy of Ayn Rand, that assumes no need for God.
In A Handful of Dust Waugh resisted his typical habit of creating a surreal, highly exaggerated satirical universe. Comic fantasy is toned down to make room for a more realistic narrative about marriage in the modern world, resulting in an unusual intimacy between Waugh’s readers and his suffering protagonist, Tony Last. Bored by domestic life, Tony’s wife Brenda is unfaithful. She expresses a yearning for self-determination and is untroubled by any idea that this may conflict with important duties. Whereas the first half of the book suggests Brenda will take centre stage, becoming an English Madame Bovary for the twentieth century, the second half of the novel invites readers to see the effects of her decision on an unsuspecting husband. The death of their only son awakens Tony to the dark forces that have been invisibly at work. Brenda, seeing no point in continuing to live falsely now that her marriage is childless, files for a divorce, and the financial costs involved force Tony to part with his cherished Hetton estate. Waugh’s style is characteristically detached, but the waste land he describes is unmistakable. The failure of the vicar to provide anything other than recycled platitudes suddenly seems less funny when viewed alongside the breakdown of Tony’s marriage—an institution which must always depend on spiritual instruction and reassurance from the community.
As readers, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, seeing a spiritual desert so grimly and comically brought to life in A Handful Dust, religion plays its strongest role by being absent. Even in Vile Bodies, viewed from the vantage point of Waugh’s subsequent conversion, religion should be understood, in the words of one critic, as the tragically unsought “answer to the ills of the waste land.”
As we have seen, Malcolm Bradbury looked to resist excessively religious readings of Waugh’s earlier fiction. Instead, he stressed “the primacy of comic invention and the place of tragic events within their framework.” This time referring to A Handful of Dust, he argued that it is “hardly open to direct moral interpretation, and shows [Waugh’s] sympathies to be divided and capable of reconciliation only on the level of comedy.” But if anything, Waugh’s dark humour springs from the lack of any proper reconciliation, amusing or otherwise. Comic resolutions in Wodehouse are blissfully achieved because his characters live in a universe governed by the laws of slapstick. They experience social embarrassment, get caught in romantic scrapes and even risk physical pain if they fall foul, as Bertie Wooster does, of the boorish Sir Roderick Spode. But whatever their ordeals, they emerge ultimately unscathed, just as Laurel and Hardy endure all manner of falls and knocks without arousing any concern among viewers for their physical well-being. The closest we get to loss in Wodehouse is when an unknown aunt dies and leaves Bingo Little a handsome inheritance.
We risk missing the horror of Waugh’s dark and riotous early fiction if we regard it purely as a place in which comedy triumphs for its own sake. Waugh’s cynicism was well-suited to producing satire out of human absurdity. After all, it is the farcical dialogue, the anarchic plotlines and the disgraceful characters that have kept readers laughing for almost a century. But Waugh’s gift was to dance on the border between comedy and tragedy. Indeed, without this sense of the tragic and the fallen world that makes comedy possible, he might have been less likely to seek the redemption he found in Catholic faith.
Religion occupies a paradoxical place in Waugh’s early novels. It is part of the morally bankrupt world brought to life and magnified by wild fantasy, yet it also provides a refuge from which that world can be viewed in the clearest light. Satirical by nature, the young Evelyn Waugh saw a modern world ripe with comic material and wrote about it with unsparing lampoonery. But he also realized it was deeply troubled and in need of a salvation that it could not generate for itself.