Greetings, Deep Down Things readers. As a new editor on the Dappled Things staff, I have given some thought about how to best introduce myself to our web readership. Should I talk about my favorite writers? Should I offer a spiritual reflection on the upcoming Holy Week? Should I make tasteless bathroom jokes? But why choose one when I could do all three?
Evelyn Waugh fills a sort of archetypal role in our collective memory of the last century’s Catholic literary movement. Starting his career as an overgrown enfant terrible of English letters, he blossomed into a choleric defender of western tradition and satirist of all things modern. As a Catholic, Waugh was faithful to a fault, however poorly he lived up to the Church’s moral ideals. In this collective memory, Flannery O’Connor fills the archetypal role of a desert prophet, Graham Greene is the prodigal son, J.R.R. Tolkien the tragic dreamer, and G.K. Chesterton the jolly prankster. One could easily carve a set of allegorical statues based on their likenesses for a cathedral. Waugh’s particular archetype is somewhat more contested.
His most popular novel Brideshead Revisited is oddly the least “Wauvian,” in part because it heralds the advent of a new novelistic spirit he was trying to embody, and also because its baroque prose style is something Waugh had never achieved before and never truly attempted again. His pre-Brideshead writing embodied the authorial archetype of the smirking cynic, his later novels that of the sentimental religionist. (I am speaking of perception more than reality, for Waugh never truly lost his cynicism.)
Evelyn’s brutal sense of humor dished out some unfortunate fates even to benign characters. From Tony Last’s Dickensian imprisonment in A Handful of Dust to Aimée Thanatogenos’ tail-wagging farewell in The Loved One, Waugh was kind to as few fictional characters as he was to his real-life friends. As we come up on the 49th anniversary of his death, it is worth remembering Evelyn Waugh’s own bizarre end.
In the years leading up to his death, Waugh had become increasingly disenchanted with the management of the Catholic Church. One of the early modifications of the liturgical movement (which still moves regularly to this day) was the refashioning of the Holy Week liturgy by Pius XII in 1955. Papa Pacelli’s massive edits, described by Waugh as “obnoxious,” were publicized as an attempt at reviving the ancient liturgies of the Roman Rite. “The Church rejoices in the development of dogma,” Waugh complained, “why does it not also admit the development of liturgy?”
These were but the heralds of liturgy in the vernacular and other modifications to the Roman Missal which came long before the Novus Ordo Missae was to perform a clean sweep in 1969. Frequently reassured by high-ranking clerics like Cardinal Heenan that the chaotic liturgical changes were at an end, Waugh was repeatedly affirmed in his cynicism when these promises proved to be false. He confided to his friends in 1965 that he worried about temptations toward apostasy.
All these things came to a head in 1966 when Holy Week terminated in Easter morning Mass on April the tenth. Waugh assisted at the locally celebrated Latin Mass–even then a dying liturgical specimen–and returned to his Combe Florey home. Many friends and family were gathered there: wife, children, grandchildren, and the local priest Fr. Caraman. Evelyn was reportedly in good humor, disappeared into the library sometime in the morning, and was never seen alive again.
He was found in the lavatory, a gash on his forehead, and (according to a rumor perpetuated by Graham Greene) with water in his lungs. Rumors of foul play never gained much traction, in spite of the doubtless dozens of people who would have been ready to perform the deed. Unless there was a massive conspiracy and coverup among the family to give their literary patriarch the what-ho, it seems that Waugh died from natural causes and the fall that ensued.
Death on the toilet immediately after attending a traditional Mass was a more fittingly ironic end than any of Waugh’s fans could hope to expect. One is reminded inevitably of the Thunder-box–the portable toilet carried about by the hapless Apthorpe in the first novel of the Sword of Honour trilogy–and its ignominious end by explosion with Apthorpe astride the thing:
Apthorpe removed his steel-helmet, recovered his cap, straightened his uniform, put up a hand to assure himself that his new stars were still in place. He looked once more on all that remained of his thunder-box; the mot juste, thought Guy.
He seemed too dazed for grief. Guy was at a loss for words of condolence. “Better come back to breakfast.”
They turned silently towards the house. Apthorpe walked unsteadily across the wet, patchy field with his eyes fixed before him. On the steps he paused once and looked back. There was more of high tragedy than of bitterness in the epitaph he spoke.
—Men at Arms, p. 214
For all his choleric intolerance of his fellow human persons, one still prefers to think of Waugh’s end as one of high tragedy rather than bitterness. With a pen whose sharp point constantly pricked those he blamed for the sorry state of the world, he might have been one of those who met his end with a mind weighed down with anger and despondency. Instead, the Easter liturgy had lifted him to good spirits, and the manner of his death doubtless brought a chuckle to his throat.
His last word, I would like to think, was “Biffed.”