In 1929, my great-grandfather Evelyn Waugh wrote to his brother Alec: “The trouble about the world today is that there’s not enough religion in it. There’s nothing to stop young people doing whatever they feel like doing at the moment.” At that very moment Waugh was turning a corner, intellectually and spiritually, and finding answers in Rome which he had not found elsewhere. A year after the letter, in September 1930, he became a Catholic.
Harry Mount writes in this issue about Waugh’s attempt, in Brideshead Revisited, to embody Catholic theology in a novel. Fifty years after Waugh’s death, it is worth asking why he converted in the first place. His conversion has often been dismissed as a manoeuvre to facilitate his divorce from his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, in 1929. Alec wrote of his younger brother: “I have no doubt that the break-up of his marriage hastened his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith.” His divorce may indeed have “hastened” his conversion, but it would be a serious mistake to think this was the main cause.
It is similarly misjudged to sympathise with the theory that Waugh joined the Catholic Church because it was fashionable among the intelligentsia. His peers Baring, Knox, Chesterton and Greene all converted in the two decades before Waugh was received by Rome. But Waugh’s conversion was hardly a matter of joining in with a fashion: rather, it was the natural conclusion to a long intellectual journey.
Waugh was educated at a Church of England boarding school, Lancing College. In his early schooldays, he was a “particularly church-loving boy” with “aspirations to becoming a parson”. It was in the later years that he was most memorably challenged on religious matters: “In my last two years at Lancing I was eager to dispute the intellectual foundations of Christianity.” He wrote in his diary in June 1921: “In the last few weeks I have ceased to be a Christian. I have realised that for the last two terms at least I have been an atheist in all except the courage to admit it to myself.”
Waugh explores his relationship with religious matters extensively in his 1964 autobiography, A Little Learning. He cites numerous influences for his rejection of all Christian thought and faith. A school clergyman introduced him to the speculations of Dr Schweitzer, further challenging the young Waugh with questions such as “Did Jesus know he was God? Did he know it from the first or was he persuaded of it in his last year on earth?”
Waugh remembers that these problems were “entirely new to us; we were left to suggest our solutions and encouraged to be unorthodox”. Other influences that formed his self-pronounced atheism include the works of Leibniz and Loose Ends by Arnold Lunn (who would later become a Catholic himself). Waugh concludes that during his time at Lancing, “no antidote was ever offered us. I do not remember ever being urged to read a book of Christian philosophy.”
It is clear, in reading about Waugh’s early atheism and rejection of religion, that he was always engaged in matters of theology and philosophy and keen to rationalise his conclusions. In 1930, he explained his conversion in a short article in the Daily Express entitled “Converted to Rome – why it happened to me”. The article is a logical acceptance of the Catholic system and a methodical explanation and exploration of the coherence and competence of the Catholic Church. He demonstrates disdain for the Anglican Church, arguing that its indecision and lack of discipline made it disorderly. ‘‘In the Anglican Church today, matters of supreme importance in faith and morals are still discussed indecisively,’’ he wrote; showing, he believed, that it was not “fitted for the conflict in which Christianity is engaged”.
So after much searching, what did Waugh find in Rome that he had failed to discern elsewhere? The universal nature of the Catholic Church, he believed, made it more reflective of the essence of Christianity: “It seems to me that any religious body which is not by nature universal cannot claim to represent complete Christianity.”
The discipline and structure of the Church appealed to Waugh – in disbelieving and chaotic times, ‘‘the loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanised state’’. By contrast, Waugh found he could sympathise with the Church’s resolute insistence on infallible teachings: it appears to have made the Church greater in moral and spiritual fibre in Waugh’s mind than the alternatives that he had extensively explored.
However, Waugh’s intellectual scrutiny of religion and his exploration of Catholicism did not cease after his conversion – quite the contrary. Many critics agree that his writing became more Catholic after 1945, around the time of Brideshead Revisisted. Aside from the novel’s patent absorption with Catholicism, his new-found success meant that he could write on matters that preoccupied him, as opposed to ideas that would sell.
As he observed: “I find that I have written a bestseller … In a civilised age this unexpected moment of popularity would have endowed me with a competency for life. But perhaps in a civilised age I should not be so popular.”
It is clear that Waugh was always preoccupied with the civilised, and in 1949 he described the world around him as being in a “New Dark Age”, redeemable only through “heroic prayer”. The same year, in a letter to his friend Nancy Mitford, Waugh declared: “I can never understand why everyone is not a Catholic.”
Catholicism was, to Waugh, a rational marriage of civilisation and Christianity, at a time when the world was becoming increasingly irreligious and therefore, in his view, increasingly uncivilised. In his words, “civilisation … has not in itself the power of survival … Christianity is essential to civilisation”; and, he added, “Christianity exists in its most complete and vital form in the Roman Catholic Church.”
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