The hundred years of Waugh

As we celebrate his centenary, Evelyn Waugh is still synonymous with snobbery. He was no snob, but h

There are two kinds of snobbery. One form is nobs despising people who aren't nobs. The other is people who aren't nobs sucking up to people who are. Snobbery is ignoble. And in the popular imagination, Evelyn Waugh is a byword for snobbery of both sorts. The truth is more complicated than the malicious caricature. Waugh had flaws, but the harsh light of gossip casts a grotesque, simplified shadow.

Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: "There we spent one night, unfortunately with baboon Conolly [sic] and his gollywog slug wife Jean to bring in the roar of the Chelsea omnibus." That was snobbery. Cyril Connolly wrote in his journal: "it amused me to hear Peter laughing at Evelyn's 'provincial little Arnold Bennett appearance'." That, too, was snobbery. And it was snobbery when Cruttwell, Waugh's history tutor at Hertford College, Oxford, called Waugh "a silly little suburban sod with an inferiority complex and no palate - drinks Pernod after meals!"

Contrast this with Waugh when he attended the Sixth Eucharistic Congress in Budapest in 1938. He rejoiced in a common faith and common humanity. "To my great good fortune I got lost in the crowd and spent the evening standing on the embankment among the people of the town. I shall always be grateful for the confusion of tongues that landed me there." This was not snobbery. "It was just these crowds, so diverse and so unified, which formed one of the most inspiring spectacles. One longed for them to be greater, to include all one's friends and relations and acquaintances and strangers . . ." When he called the Eighth Earl of Antrim "Lavatory Chain" (because he was always flushing), that was not snobbery, either. A title couldn't save you from Waugh's irreverent, instinctive humour.

Nor was it snobbery when Waugh took Mr Grother for the day on a cruise up the Bristol Channel. Grother was a Durham coal miner, and the father of Waugh's housemaid, Vera. She never forgot his kindness: "Mr Waugh tells me afterwards, he just wanted to get to know my father, and he was so kind. He said, you realise your father with opportunities would have gone to Oxford like me . . ." Vera and Jean Gabb, the other maid, remembered Waugh's butler with more awe than they did Waugh himself - "He was, he was absolutely decked out . . .", "He was the major domo . . .", "He would equal Mr Waugh any day . . ."

The memories of Waugh's servants are uniformly warm and positive. Waugh clearly did not behave as a snob to them. Conversely, his behaviour to those in authority over him was suicidally unservile. When he was serving in wartime Yugoslavia, the British - and Fitzroy Maclean, Waugh's commanding officer - were busy courting Tito. Waugh's sympathies lay with the Catholic and (surprisingly to some) Jewish minorities. A toady would have sustained official policy. It did Waugh no good at all to sustain publicly the fantastical fiction that "Tit-o" was a woman. A silly joke, certainly, but not self-serving, as Waugh's snobbery is commonly perceived to be.

Waugh's wartime experiences raise other revealing instances that counter the caricature. When he was serving in Egypt in 1941, Waugh engineered an introduction to the Cairo Museum's curator for his batman, who had an interest in archaeology. This was typical of him. Waugh's batman at this time, Ralph Tanner, is in fact a crucial and neglected witness for the defence. He served Waugh from 1940-41. They lived through the Battle of Crete together, and Tanner's evidence draws on a close working relationship with Waugh under intensely difficult circumstances.

Tanner was interviewed by Punch in 1975. The interviewer, Peter Buckman, clearly buys into Waugh's posthumous reputation for bad-tempered snobbery. But he is thwarted at every turn:

"There was a rumour, wasn't there, that [Waugh] was so unpopular he had to be protected from the other soldiers?"

"Absolute rubbish. He fitted in very well. He was everything you'd expect an officer to be, if you were an ordinary soldier."

"A bit of a tyrant, you mean?"

"Not at all."

"He didn't exploit you the teeniest, weeniest little bit?"

"I'd say he behaved as a model employer to a servant."

"Waugh was famous for being irascible when bored. How did you cope?"

"He wasn't irascible with me."

Finally, out of pure courtesy, Tanner concedes - well, yes - maybe other people did say Waugh was "a bit fond of the Honourables". Buckman returns to the attack:

"Didn't Waugh ever get roaring drunk with them, or something like that?"

"No."

"You never had to clean up his vomit, or rescue him from a cold bath in which he had fallen in full evening dress?"

"Never. In fact he was so considerate, I'd wait up for him with some hot water, just to return the courtesy . . ."

When he volunteered to serve him, Tanner knew Waugh was a writer. He'd read Vile Bodies. In retrospect, he modestly says he misunderstood it. "Nobody told me it was satire, you see: I read it as tragedy, and thought it desperately sad." This is a highly intelligent comment. Tanner understood Waugh better than most. The composition of Vile Bodies straddled the break-up of Waugh's first marriage. What had begun as a light-hearted satire about Bright Young Things turned into the tragedy of a doomed and fatuously frivolous society. Its epilogue, derisively titled "Happy Ending", is a prophetic vision of world war nine years before it came to pass.

For all its incidental pleasures, Stephen Fry's new film Bright Young Things, based on Vile Bodies, dramatically erodes the novel through its sentimental happy ending, with Nina bearing Adam's child and the reunited couple dancing together - quietly, intimately - at the close. It is profoundly ironic that Waugh, high society's sharpest critic, should be maligned as its lackey. And equally ironic that his popularity continues to rest on his readers' ignoble admiration for the world he mocks.

Brideshead Revisited compounds the misconception. The reason it continues to be popular is that its readers and viewers share Charles Ryder's enamoured fascination for the aristocratically doomed Flytes - their stately homes in Venice and England, and the jeunesse doree of Oxford between the wars. Waugh's audience is just as snobbishly entranced by it all as Ryder himself. But Ryder is a deeply flawed narrator, with arriviste pretensions. This misapprehension isn't entirely the result of slipshod readers. Waugh later recognised that the novel was skewed by what he called its wartime gluttony for good living - a nostalgia for pre-war food, drink, love and luxury, and its heartfelt lament for the end of the great English country houses. It was, as he later said, a panegyric preached over an empty coffin.

The potently sentimental nostalgia of its first part deflects from the novel's central concern - to trace the workings of divine providence. Waugh shows providence in Ryder's growth from adolescent love for Sebastian to adult love for Julia - and ultimately in Ryder's turning towards God. Ryder's love for Julia is adulterous, and the high romance of their first coupling on a stormy transatlantic crossing is a cardinal sin. Hence Waugh's resolutely chilly, antipathetic metaphor for this moment. It is lustful possession rather than love: "I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure."

In the end, Ryder matures beyond the snobbery that still mesmerises Waugh's readership. At the novel's end, he recognises the two characters closest approaching sanctity. They are the aptly named Cordelia, the novel's unglamorous, unromantic and unerring moral touchstone, and the erring, ailing, fallible Sebastian - lay-brother, alcoholic, homosexual. The lowest of the low.

It is possible that Ryder is a critical self-portrait. Most of Waugh's work derives from his own experience, and many of his heroes, and anti-heroes, are unflattering authorial alter egos - Paul Pennyfeather, Adam Symes, Tony Last, John Boot as well as William Boot, even Guy Crouchback ("a very accurate portrait of him", according to his batman Tanner). The clear progenitor of Charles Ryder is the deeply unattractive, frigid John Plant of Work Suspended.

Waugh was more critical of himself than his detractors could ever be. As his favourite daughter, Margaret, remembered: "He didn't like himself so it wasn't much fun knowing himself so well. He knew himself better, I think, than anybody I have ever known."

Waugh once said that his Catholicism made him a far better man than he would otherwise have been. He spoke with authority. He was accurate and self-critical. When people repeat the familiar, the comforting canard that Waugh was a snob, it is the stale half-truth of prejudice.

Ann Pasternak Slater is writing a critical biography of Evelyn Waugh

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