The 1930s was the last decade in which Britain was recognizably its historic self, a country where people expected to live their lives as best they could and with a sense that they were free to do so. The balance between undoubted social inequality and the acceptance of the identity left by previous generations was a matter for all to resolve for themselves.

The writing was on the national wall, however. British politicians had no idea how to steer through the Age of Dictators. Hitler, Stalin, even Mussolini, flummoxed them. So did Gandhi or Haj Amin, the Mufti of Jerusalem, as in their different approaches they and their kind set about destroying the empire on which the sun was not supposed to set. Britain was fast ceasing to be an independent actor on the world’s stage, and this was bound to affect the way its citizens thought about the fate of the country and themselves. Churchill was the last British politician to take it for granted that he could direct the course of events, but his heroic individuality soon came to appear an unlikely hang-over from the by-gone era, and the example he set seemed more exhausted than inspiring. Britain adjusted accordingly to loss and impotence, just as Rome, Byzantium, Abbasid Baghdad, Madrid, or Vienna had once done.

A nation’s culture often seems to linger on past its political death-bed, and even to light it up. A host of nay-sayers and anti-patriots, whether Communist fellow-travelers, doctrinaire socialists, or pacifists, ranging from the embarrassing Shaw and the erratic Wells, to Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley, flooded pre-war Britain with confusion and doubt. But George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, then at the outset of their careers, were conspicuously different, going against the grain of the times by holding uncompromisingly to unpopular opinions, thereby seeming to be survivors from a more confident age.

School exams often ask candidates to compare and contrast two unmatched subjects, and that is what David Lebedoff has done with Waugh and Orwell.[1] In his eyes, the two are both geniuses with unchallenged places in the great canon of literature that justifies England to posterity—and more than that, they have the self-same persona.

As a stylist, Lebedoff is capable of perpetrating sentences as over-wrought as this one about Waugh, “The tight bud of his lavish nature flowered mightily, vivid and pungent,” or as exaggerated as when he says that Waugh’s quest for a bride “outdoes Stanley’s search for Livingstone.” His grasp of detail can also be shaky: Orwell got on quite well at Eton, liked masters such as Mr. Gow who taught him Classics (a copy of a book Orwell presented him with a fulsome compliment on the title-page came up for sale recently), and remained in touch with College contemporaries like Cyril Connolly (who was to publish Orwell’s best essays in Horizon); there is no dukedom of Wemyss; Bullingdon coats are not green; Waugh did not think highly of Anthony Powell’s novels, and so on. Never mind. Lebedoff’s boyish hero-worship sweeps all before it.

There is common ground between Waugh and Orwell. Both men were born in 1903, within a few weeks of one another. Both had titled forebears on branches of the family tree, and could be categorized as lower upper-middle class, in the sociological nicety that Orwell coined about himself. Both were members of the last generation when such distinctions could be made with any relevance. There is a sense in which both took pains to become déclassé, Waugh moving upwards, Orwell downwards. Both lived by a moral code, Waugh as a Catholic and Orwell as a determined secularist for whom conscience was the compass to right behavior, primarily defined as the pursuit of equality and justice. It is still a surprise that both men approved of Neville Chamberlain’s rather pallid speech declaring war in September 1939, and both had reservations about Winston Churchill, particularly in respect of his language, seen either as Augustan or bombastic.

Lebedoff several times describes Orwell as sad and gentle, which is particularly off the mark. The man could be every bit as ferocious as Waugh. In his unusual but formative role as a colonial policeman in Burma, he confessed, “I often thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” Sir Richard Rees, a déclassé aristocrat, knew Orwell well and has recorded him squaring up to some Communist who was vilifying the bourgeoisie, “Look here, I’m a bourgeois and my family are bourgeois. If you talk about them like that I’ll punch your head.” Lebedoff also ignores the testimony of Rayner Heppenstall, the poet whom Orwell once had as a lodger. One evening a drunken Heppenstall was disturbing Orwell, who abandoned his typing and came for him with a shooting-stick. “He fetched me a dreadful crack across the legs and then raised the shooting-stick over his head. I looked at his face [and] saw in it a curious blend of fear and sadistic exaltation.” Heppenstall then had to lift a chair to ward off the next blow aimed at his head.

In much that same pugnacious spirit, Orwell volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, and could write, “I am rather glad to have been hit by a bullet because I think it will happen to us all in the near future, and I am glad to know that it doesn’t hurt to speak off.” At the time of Dunkirk in 1940, he hoped that the army would be cut to pieces before it surrendered. Anxious to be on active service, Waugh sought to enlist in the Marines and the Commandos (and Orwell typically wondered why no left-wing writers were volunteering like that). Randolph Churchill recruited him at one point for the British Military Mission to Yugoslavia. One day German dive-bombers attacked their headquarters there, and Randolph Churchill took cover in a ditch shouting at Waugh to get down too. Waugh instead stood where he was in the open. After the attack Randolph Churchill apologized, to hear Waugh reply that it wasn’t his bad manners he minded but his cowardice. Orwell might well have behaved as outrageously.

And there their paths and personalities diverge. Waugh had a vision of human life as comedy. His early novels from Decline and Fall to Scoop and Put Out More Flags delight in happenings that are unforeseen, decisions that turn out misconceived, all the wildness and nonsense that attends even the best of man-made plans. Politics for him was a snare and a delusion—he could never have been a socialist like Orwell. His response to the Spanish Civil War says it all: “If I were a Spaniard I should be fighting for General Franco. As an Englishman I am not in the predicament of choosing between two evils. I am not a Fascist nor shall I ever become one unless it were the only alternative to Marxism. It is mischievous to suggest that such a choice is imminent.” Such an attitude allows the individual to take his distance from others, to adopt what is essentially the romantic stance of holding fast to one’s own against the whole world.

The comic vision never quite dried up, as evidenced by The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold in which Waugh is able to make fun of his own mental distress. But his first wife deserted him without warning, and he came to feel all sorts of resentments and suspicions, cultivating—perhaps hiding behind—a kind of persecution complex, a need to hold fast to his own even if everyone mocked him for it. Catholicism, he often said, provided the moral structure that alone kept him sane and able to function, and without which he might have sunk to the depths. Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945, when it was almost inconceivable for a novelist to present Catholicism as a Guide to the Perplexed, and all in prose perfectly pitched for its purpose. Hooper, the novel’s anti-hero and representative of the people is too limited to understand either what others have lost or what he has gained. Easily but superficially, critics (including Edmund Wilson, who ought to have been able to see a little deeper) dismissed Waugh as nothing but a snob. With the passing of time, though, that novel appears not just unique but positively revolutionary in its rejection of the ways of the contemporary world.

In the age of the Common Man and the post-war Attlee socialist government, elements both of comedy and self-protection were involved in the role played by the author of Brideshead as old buffer, squire, reactionary, spoil-sport. One weekend, his daughter Teresa invited me to the family house at Combe Florey for the weekend, and we drove the long journey from Oxford where we were both undergraduates. As we arrived, a window opened above and Waugh leaned out to bellow, “Go away!” “When Papa’s like that we better had go,” Teresa said. And so we did. Waugh was then completing the trilogy that came to be Sword of Honour, far and away the best novel to come out of the war, wholly realistic and owing nothing to modernism. Waugh was present during the fall of Crete, and his description of battle there stands comparison with Stendhal on Waterloo.

Guy Crouchback, the trilogy’s protagonist, is an autobiographical projection of Waugh himself. The turn of events, including the alliance with the Soviet Union and the poor showing of British troops in combat, transforms Guy’s idealism into disillusion. Where at the outset Guy had seen himself fighting “the modern age in arms,” by the end he is depressed enough to say, “it doesn’t seem to matter now who wins.” Christopher Sykes, Waugh’s close friend and a Catholic, had met him in Cairo during the war, and his biography is far and away the most perceptive book written about Waugh. Like most comedians, in Sykes’s judgment, Waugh had a strong tendency to melancholy leading to unworthy reactions of self-pity: “frequently he saw himself as a poor, passive, ill-used rat.” His general disappointment with Britain arose rather similarly from over-rating its power, as though still living in the nineteenth century. His sense of history, Sykes comments with insight, was “defective.”

Waugh died in 1966. Not long before that he attended the marriage of friends of mine in the chapel of Wardour Castle, a long-time Catholic stronghold. Waugh came in waving his ear-trumpet in one hand and leaning on Christopher Sykes with the other. They sat near the front. Thanks to Vatican II, the service was conducted in English. Waugh staged much business with the ear-trumpet, while keeping up a loud barrage, “What’s going on? Can’t understand a word of this.” It was as though he had to cut the figure that he had led others to expect of him.

Orwell had the very different vision of human life as tragedy. To Sir Richard Rees, he seemed explicitly to be “a profoundly serious and tragic pessimist.” In his writings, cruelty will out, power must have its way, people are thrown helplessly this way and that at the mercy of forces they cannot control. His early novels are so many exercises in losing out. In his down-and-out period, whether in Paris or the North of England, he seems to be evolving a strategy of converting this obligatory losing out into a form of success. His anger against the British Empire was sincere, but it did not take into account that losses and failure abroad were bound in the end to undo the ruling center at home.

Self-pity was alien to him. On the contrary, Orwell took no care of himself, refusing to treat his tuberculosis as the life-threatening disease it proved to be, often putting himself heedlessly in harm’s way, whether in Spain or when he might have drowned himself (and others) in a whirlpool off the Scottish coast. His mind was also too inquisitive for introspection. Lebedoff lists in an appendix the dozens of books Orwell absorbed in the last year of his life—the range of inquiry is impressive. To read his essays or reviews is to come into contact with an informed reporter of current affairs and analyst of ideas, popular culture, literature, all the personal observations of a quirky and original character.

His experience in Barcelona in May 1937 confirmed the conviction that the contemporary political struggle between totalitarian rivals was the embodiment of the tragic vision, and nothing but ill was to be expected from that quarter. Wounded, he had left the hospital to meet his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, in a local hotel. She quickly informed him that on Moscow’s orders the Stalinists were busy hunting down and murdering their rivals, and she and he counted as Trotskyites, therefore liable to be shot out of hand at any moment. They managed to escape. Orwell’s response was to write Homage to Catalonia, a path-breaking account of Stalinist ruthlessness that was bound to set him well and truly apart from the intellectuals engaged in applauding Stalin, apologizing for the Great Terror, and in addition dominating the media and therefore distorting public opinion. Kingsley Martin and Victor Gollancz, and eventually T. S. Eliot, were among those who refused to publish him. The vitriol of fellow-traveling critics like Arthur Calder-Marshall, Raymond Williams, and—alas—even V. S. Pritchett still has the capacity to evoke disgust.

There followed Animal Farm and 1984. It was at once obvious that the author of these two satires or allegories was a worthy successor to Swift. To depict Stalin and Trotsky as pigs, and to place them on the same moral footing as capitalist exploiters, was an extraordinary defiance in the climate of those times. In 1984, with its depiction of a jackboot stamping on a human face for ever, the supporting language and daily detail are truly imaginative. “Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me,” is only one among so many unforgettable expressions of combined artistry and pessimism. In what has become a universal vocabulary, “Orwellian” is the adjective that fits any and every totalitarian nightmare, and the lies of those who promote or defend it.

In the immediate post-war years, Stalin was absorbing into the Soviet bloc all the countries in eastern and central Europe occupied by the victorious Red Army. A widespread delusion took hold that this empire-building was progressive. Intellectuals all over the continent glorified Stalinism. In a welter of mendacity, the existence of the Gulag was queried in a notorious court case in Paris. In France and Italy, the Communists received up to a third of the votes in elections, and elements of the Party were evidently preparing for coups. Raymond Aron and Arthur Koestler and others were vilified for resisting the mass-surrender of thought and will, and Party hacks called for them to be murdered.

Czeslaw Milosz, then still in his native Poland, was only one among others to marvel that Orwell could evoke so accurately the true reality on the far side of the Iron Curtain when he did not live there. Orwell’s special contribution was to lay out with unmistakable clarity that Stalinism was an equivalent evil to Nazism, and that to oppose Hitler necessarily entailed opposing Stalin as well. Among those with first-hand experience of Communism, Orwell was a lone Englishman, all the more powerful because indignation at injustice was part and parcel of his tragic vision. The example spoke for itself. It is not too much to say that Orwell persuaded the English-speaking world to see through Communist apologetics.

Orwell had not known Waugh personally, but sent him a complimentary copy of Animal Farm, and received a letter thanking him for this “ingenious and delightful allegory.” The two then planned a campaign on behalf of P. G. Wodehouse, maligned and hounded out of the country as a result of broadcasts made in Berlin during the war, bantering in tone but treated as treasonable by panic-stricken officialdom. Countering the caricature of him as a heartless bully, Waugh visited Orwell in the hospital where he was dying, and brought along two admiring friends. In the final span of his life, Orwell planned to write an essay for Partisan Review about Waugh. The intention was to expose the Marxist fallacy that art can only be good if it is progressive. Notes alone survive. Concerning Brideshead, he jotted down “one cannot really be Catholic and grown-up,” adding, “Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable positions.”

Living just long enough to see finished copies of 1984 and to anticipate its global success, Orwell sent a copy of that to Waugh as well. Waugh responded with admiration but paid Orwell the compliment of being candid about his reservation: “Your book failed to make my flesh creep as presumably you intended.” Winston Smith’s rebellion seemed false, his Brotherhood was simply another gang like the Party. Waugh would have preferred a Brotherhood of love, “not adultery in Berkshire” (a devastating reduction of Winston’s joyous affair out of doors with Julia). Finally, “what makes your version spurious to me is the disappearance of the church … you must admit its unique character as a social and historical institution.” In this unexpected exchange and critique, two very different world views had come face to face.

Lebedoff concludes by arguing that rejection of moral relativism brings the writers together as two of a kind. Their moral absolutes might be different, but they nonetheless had a common belief that there is such a thing as a moral right and a moral wrong. Lebedoff is on to something there. Orwell and Waugh both saw clearly that what was coming would be worse than what was now, whether it was to be the Airstrip One of 1984, or the philistine vacuity of Hooper. In either case, the future would owe nothing to the past. Fortunately the worst did not happen and Soviet Communism is no more, but little enough is left of England as they knew and appreciated it, and their legacy has the haunting echo of the Last Post.

Notes
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  1. The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War, by David Lebedoff; Random House, 288 pages, $26. Go back to the text.

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