Club classics: would Waugh’s spiritual Sword of Honour get published today?

BY Gerald Warner   /  24 November 2017

Reading Evelyn Waugh’s two most important novels suggests a parallel with the cliché that when people first start drinking white wine they prefer the sweet and as they grow older their tastes become increasingly dry: by that analogy, Brideshead Revisited is the sugary intoxicant of youth, Sword of Honour the dry preference of maturity. For some Waugh aficionados there is a later epiphany when the rich claims of Brideshead reassert themselves.

To compare the two works competitively and try to decide which is the greater, in literary terms, is futile. Yet it is equally pointless to attempt to ignore one in relation to the other. Try as one might to immerse oneself in the austere Recusant ambience of Broome, the Crouchback ancestral home, one could not avoid glimpsing through the window the grandeur of Brideshead, perched like a baroque folly on the distant landscape, where the Flytes disport themselves.

Apart from their common authorship, the unbreakable connection between the two novels, like Father Brown’s invisible thread invoked in Brideshead, is that they share the same principal character: God. The overt protagonists may be Charles Ryder and Guy Crouchback, but the omnipresent actor is the Divinity, despite never appearing on the page, though His presence is palpable in Lord Marchmain’s deathbed scene. A couple of decades ago a film director expressed an interest in re-filming Brideshead, with the religion cut out. He might as well have filmed a Bible epic on the same principle.

Apart from his distasteful religious sympathies, the other charge levelled against Waugh’s later fiction is “snobbery”. It was deployed in an attempt by critics, professional and amateur, to discredit both Brideshead and Sword of Honour. Apparently, since 1944, it has become unacceptable (a favourite cultural Marxist term) for novelists to depict the upper classes. That effectively relegates Balzac, Tolstoy, Proust (even Jane Austen if Burke’s Landed Gentry is as off-limits as the Peerage) and a host of other offenders to the pyres stoked by the stormtroopers of class war. The closing of the Western imagination is work in progress, of which the demonization of Waugh was only an early aggression.

To focus, for the moment, on Sword of Honour, it is questionable whether it remains comprehensible to a generation raised in a contrived climate and educational regime of anti-culture. The editors of the 2001 Penguin Classics edition of Sword of Honour enhanced the text with endnotes to enlighten modern readers. That was not at all a bad idea: how could the early 21st-century English be expected to know what such wartime phenomena as V.A.D.s or A.T.s were? This textual commentary, however, runs to a total of 231 endnotes, including such recondite information as the fact that Lloyd George and Neville Chamberlain were prime ministers, which makes one wonder: what kind of cultural illiterates did Penguin expect to be attracted to Waugh’s writing?

The sublunary claims to fame of Sword of Honour include the author’s unrivalled prose style (superior to Wodehouse, whom Waugh revered, because of its much wider context); the creation of comic characters among the most memorable in English literature, e.g. Apthorpe and Ritchie-Hook; and the best satire ever written on the British Army. Survivors of the Second World War are a dying breed, but anyone who served in uniform in the post-War years will attest that the chronicle of military life, the bureaucracy, the impenetrable acronyms, the “flaps”, the foul-ups, the buck-passing, the mutually uncomprehending, if tolerant, relationship between officers and men are enduring axioms faithfully recorded with a satirist’s eye.

Waugh also enjoyed the advantage of writing a few years after the period he described, which enabled him to depict apparently prophetically the sinister elements working like termites to subvert Britain: the Communist fellow travellers such as the Anthony Blunt figure of Sir Ralph Brompton or the cynical Frank de Souza; the totalitarian ambitions being nurtured in the Ministry of Information, the BBC and all the other nurseries of a statism as fanatical as that prevailing in Berlin and Moscow; and the glorification of the Common Man, (personified by the more developed character of Trimmer, the heir to Hooper in Brideshead) for the socio-political purposes of those engaged in depriving the real-life working classes of freedom, culture and identity.

Taking only those factors into consideration it would be possible to read Sword of Honour with a measure of interest and enjoyment; but not with true comprehension. It is a religious book. It deals with the inevitable themes of such a work: grace and redemption. The conversion of Virginia, calculated to provoke aggressive scepticism in secularist critics, is a case in point. Being received into the Church does not convert Virginia into a good Catholic mother: she sends away her child by Trimmer with undisguised aversion.

In doing so, she saves the baby’s life, which may have been her intention, since she is convinced of her own impending death, asking herself whenever she hears the engine of a flying bomb cut out: “Is that the one that’s coming here?” This apparent fatalism is connected with her remark, after her first confession as a Catholic, that “it is rather satisfactory to feel that I shall never again have anything serious to confess as long as I live”.

That expresses, in theological terms, “a firm purpose of amendment”, but apparently predicated on the expectation of a short life, securing salvation before the temptations of the past can return to threaten her newly acquired state of grace. Otherwise, she could easily have left London, as many did during the V1 and V2 bombardments.

The aridity of Guy Crouchback’s spiritual life mirrors Waugh’s. On 3 January 1954 Waugh wrote in his diary: “My prayer is now only, ‘Here I am again. Show me what to do; help me do it.’ ” In Chapter Nine of Sword of Honour, written seven years later, while attending his father’s funeral, Crouchback’s prayer life is described: “He reported for duty saying to God: ‘I don’t ask anything from you. I am here if you want me. I don’t suppose I can be any use, but if there is anything I can do, let me know,’ and left it at that.”

It is an obscure outcome of the Second World War that both Guy and his formerly estranged wife are redeemed from that state of spiritual inertia, at a time when much of the rest of the world is falling into it. Today, a society that attempts to dignify a vacuum from which the metaphysical has been expelled with terms such as “postmodern” conserves one old English tradition: knee-jerk antipathy to Catholicism. An establishment that, on ideological grounds and in defiance of science, recognizes men with XY chromosomes and male genitalia as women, denounces the Catholic Church for “superstition”.

A far from rhetorical question: would Sword of Honour, or its stable-mate Brideshead, be published today if submitted to a London publishing house? Conceivably, if certain emendations were made: if the Catholic content were either excised or replaced by a chronicle of priestly sex abuse; if the women characters were made more sympathetic, to avoid the charge of misogyny; if offensive “snobbery” were replaced by a more inclusive atmosphere. And who would want to read the resulting text?

The serious point is that such writings are almost certainly being rejected or, worse still, not even committed to paper, in a pseudo-culture poisoned by social Marxism. To look around Britain today is to realize what an unbridled optimist Waugh was in his social, aesthetic and moral forecasts.