Thursday, 30 July 2009

Orwell and Waugh

Hello again. Looking through some of my previously unpublshed writings, I recentlly came across the following from 2003, which I think worth posting here:

George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh

This year sees the centenary of the birth of both George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. They make an unlikely pairing, Waugh the reactionary defender of privilege and Roman Catholicism, contrasting with Orwell the passionate advocate of democratic Socialism. Although their political outlook and lifestyle were very different, Orwell and Waugh came from a similar background. Waugh’s ancestry, which he was to comment upon at length in “A Little Learning”, a volume of autobiography published in 1964, was solidly middle class. Orwell’s immediate family was also middle class, but further back he had aristocratic, and even royal, ancestry through the marriage of his great great grandfather Charles Blair (1743 – 1820) to Mary Fane, a daughter of the Earl of Westmorland. For most of the 1930s and 1940s – the decades in which they made their literary reputations - Orwell and Waugh lived on parallel lines, with little to connect them apart from their literary brilliance, but towards the end of Orwell’s life they became acquainted, and wrote about each other’s work.

The first connection between the two men was a couple of passing references to Waugh in the title-essay of Orwell’s book of literary criticism “Inside the Whale”, published in 1940. This essay moved from an appreciation of the work of Henry Miller into a study of the difficult position of novelists in an age of rapid political change. In the following years Orwell mentioned Waugh a few times in his writing. Waugh did not return the compliment until 1945, and then only in private. In his diary entry of August 31st 1945, Waugh wrote “I dined with my Communist cousin Claud [Cockburn] who warned me against Trotskyist literature, so that I read and greatly enjoyed Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’”. “The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh” were not to be published until 1976, a decade after his death. Waugh’s first published reference to Orwell, and the first significant recognition between the two men, was therefore his review of “Critical Essays”, which appeared in the issue of the “Tablet” dated April 6 1946.

It is a mixed review, which Waugh apparently wrote in a hurry. Waugh’s diary entry of March 25th 1946 shows the piece was written on that single day, amidst his campaigning over problems with the local water supply, and doing some gardening. Waugh opens with a perceptive appreciation of the collection of ten essays written by Orwell on literary and cultural themes, which “represent at its best the new humanism of the common man”. In the course of favourable comments on most of the pieces in the book Waugh, however, felt the need to let slip his prejudices against Orwell’s viewpoint. A piece in which the reactionary outlook displayed in “Gem”, “Magnet” and other magazines aimed at schoolboys is criticised, leads Waugh to declare “Mr Orwell betrays the unreasoned animosity of a class-war in which he has not achieved neutrality”. Towards the end of the review Waugh, remembering the Roman Catholic audience of the “Tablet”, goes off at a tangent. He suggests that Orwell has seen the falsity in humanism, but rejects the obvious alternative of religion. Orwell is charged with being “unaware of the existence of his Christian neighbours” and in “ignorance of Catholic life”. Following this Waugh comes up with “Mr Orwell’s writing is as readable as his thought is lucid. His style is conversational. Sometimes it lapses into the barrack-room slang of the class-war”. Waugh adds “It is a pity, I think, to desert the lingua franca of polite letters for the jargon of a coterie”. He also warns his readers that Orwell’s essay on Salvador Dali had previously been suppressed “on grounds of obscenity”. In the final sentence Waugh redresses the balance for Orwell, stating “There is nothing in his writing that is inconsistent with high moral principles”.

Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, published in 1945, and Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four, which appeared in 1949, represent diametrically contrasting reactions to the political upheaval caused by the Second World War. Waugh retreated back to the inter-war years, as he glorified aristocracy, Roman Catholicism, and Oxford University. Orwell looked ahead, and warned about the threat of a totalitarian future. Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” appears to have provided unlikely inspiration for Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in a couple of instances. Waugh has Lord Brideshead becoming engaged to Beryl Muspratt, a widow whose eldest son is at Ampleforth, a Catholic school (Book Three Chapter 3). In “Nineteen Eighty-Four” one of Winston Smith’s colleagues at the Ministry of Truth is named Ampleforth (Part I Section IV). This specific point suggests that Orwell’s use of the name Julia for the heroine of his novel may follow that of Lady Julia Flyte, the central female character in Waugh’s book.

In February 1949 Orwell agreed to write a 5,000 word article on Waugh for “Partisan Review”, a magazine in the USA to which he had been a regular contributor since 1941. Orwell was not, however, to get beyond writing notes for the article, due to poor health. It is unfortunate that Orwell could not write the piece, as it would have been a fascinating pendent to Waugh’s review of Orwell’s essays. At this point Orwell was resident at the Cotswold Sanatorium, at Cranham in Gloucestershire, being treated for tuberculosis, an illness that had plagued him for much of his life, and would lead to his death the following year. Orwell’s notes for the article appear in Volume 4 of “The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters” (edited by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, 1968), including: “Analyse Brideshead Revisited. (Note faults due to being written in first person). Studiously detached attitude. Not puritanical. Priests not superhuman. Real theme – Sebastian’s drunkenness, & family’s unwillingness to cure this at the expense of committing a sin. Note that this is a real departure from the humanist attitude, with which no compromise possible. But. Last scene, where the unconscious man makes the sign of the Cross. Note that after all the veneer is bound to crack sooner of later. One cannot really be Catholic & grown-up”.

Coincidentally, having been prompted by their mutual friends Anthony Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge, Waugh made a series of visits to Orwell at Cranham. Orwell sent a copy of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Waugh upon its publication in June 1949. Waugh commented at length on the book in a letter of July 17. Ironically, I should mention that the following quotes from the letter include an obscenity from Waugh. After noting that “I have seen a number of reviews, English and American, all respectful and appreciative”, Waugh wrote “please believe that I echo their admiration for your ingenuity. On the other hand, Waugh continued “But the book failed to make my flesh creep as presumably you intended”. Waugh also cast doubt on the validity of Winston's rebellion, writing “It was false, to me, that the form of his revolt should simply be ******* in the style of Lady Chatterley - finding reality through a sort of mystical union with the Proles in the sexual act. I think it possible that in 1984 we shall be living in conditions rather like those you show. But what makes your vision spurious to me is the disappearance of the Church”. It was probably not the message Orwell wanted to read, but Waugh did at least accord the book the serious consideration that it deserved. The comments in the letter represent a fitting conclusion to the brief, and enigmatic, links between Orwell and Waugh.

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