Misreading Waugh (As Usual)

My wife sent me a link to this article, from the Guardian (of course) entitled ” The real blame for England’s 20th-century decline lies with the snob who wrote Brideshead Revisited”. The guy basically says that it is Waugh’s fault that British people became sentimental about the aristocracy of their country with its old houses, etc., so that when the ordinary blokes of Britain got an education and a decent job, they were somehow prevented by this nostalgic mental obstruction from forming “a truly classless society”. He also says that Waugh blames the decline of Britain on the rise of the lower classes. I responded as follows:

This guy doesn’t get it, really. This review is about his own class anxiety. He should move to the States.

Everybody who says Waugh was nostalgic about the aristocracy is so wrong. He depicted them as ineffectual, often stupid, and doomed. He loved their buildings, paintings, furniture, lawns. They were the unworthy inheritors of something beautiful they did not make, did not deserve, and were about to lose. Charles Ryder, not an aristocrat, is the only person in the book who appreciates Brideshead for its beauty. The people who live there don’t see it. The people who turn it into a barracks don’t see it. The only man who can appreciate it cannot have it. Or, he could have had it, but he rejects the chance since sin is worse than losing the woman, the mansion, the paintings, the trees, the land, and (for that matter) everything in the whole world.

Waugh did not blame the decline of England on the rise of working class and middle class people. That is utterly stupid. He despised these people, sure. But Waugh’s schtick was to despise everybody, pretty much, especially himself or the character who is “him” — Guy Crouchback, Basil Seal, Charles Ryder. His whole corpus of work is a suppressed scream of anger at people who refuse to face reality and live up to their obligations. England is full of aristocrats who don’t take act like leaders in society, schoolteachers who don’t teach or who are child molesters, scholars who are ignorant and arrogant, soldiers who don’t know how to fight or who run away or who are barking mad if they are brave, priests who mouth platitudes and lack any faith, artists who have no taste or talent, bureaucrats who live in utter ignorance of the real world or the consequences of their actions, philanthropists who love animals and despise people. Etc. To single out loutish parvenus because you are one or your Dad was is to miss the entire point. Waugh’s world is one in which good or beautiful or true people or things or even thoughts are precious and scarce and fragile and worth preserving, though this rarely happens. It is a world of Christian pessimism saturated with an awareness of the consequences of original sin.

These stupid socialists see such a two dimensional world. They can live there if they want to, but leave Waugh out of it.

(The biggest influence on my interpretation of Waugh is Douglas Lane Patey’s biography.)

5 thoughts on “Misreading Waugh (As Usual)”

  1. Neither the proletarian aesthetic nor modern post-colonial believes in sin, unless it is classism.

    A couple of years ago a friend explained his beliefs with the very moving sections in which Waugh discusses sin.

  2. Why would one want a “truly classless society” is a baffling puzzle. Especially given the outcome of all the previous attempts at creating such an alleged paradise. It is all the more confusing when the same people who desire this most boring and ultimate uniformity are the same who promote “diversity”.

    Got to be the weed. Must get a sample.

  3. Your take on Waugh is spot on.

    Waugh lambastes the upper classes (“Vile Bodies” – the title alone gives away Waugh’s take on the subject), mocks the archetypical upper crust bumbling clueless nabob (“Scoop”) and recreates an atmosphere redolent with the death throes of The Empire (“Handful of Dust”).

    To read Waugh as nostalgia for the good life of the upper classes is not to have read Waugh at all.

  4. I wouldn’t worry too much about people buying into the thesis of the “Guardian” article. Anyone who actually reads Waugh knows he was anything but an apologist for the British blue bloods. On the other hand, the article might actually encourage a few people to pick up one of Waugh’s novels, and that would be all to the good. He deserves to be read. I suspect that anyone who makes it halfway through “Vile Bodies” will be laughing so loud they’ll forget all about Waugh’s supposed complicity in “England’s 20th-century decline.”

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