Waugh

Christopher Sykes, in his biography of his friend Evelyn Waugh, recalls how Waugh treated the soldiers under his command in World War II:

To the naturally weak he was as merciless as he had been in his bullying school days. I witnessed the spectacle many times and it always utterly disgusted me. It was useless to remonstrate as I sometimes did because he was always ready with a witty and plausibly logical defense.

This is the same man whose response to the death of an infant daughter was a brief note in his diary — “Poor little girl, she was not wanted” — and who would later taunt his older children by forcing them to watch him eat treats that he denied to them. “My children weary me,” he told his diary. “I can only see them as defective adults.” For one of his children he was simply “a figure to dodge” as completely as possible. For another, “The worst punishment our nannies would threaten us with was to be sent down to the library to see our father.” (He did, however, encourage his children to ride trains without paying on the grounds that as long as the Labour party was in charge England was “an occupied country.” Not that he had voted Conservative, mind you: “I have never found a Tory stern enough to command my respect.”)

When Nancy Mitford told him that he was scarcely an advertisement for Christianity, he replied, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” It is difficult to imagine how much worse he could have been without ending up in prison or the victim of murder. Sykes reports that during the war he and some other officers had to keep close watch on the men in their company to prevent them from killing Waugh. If the men had managed to do so, there might have been a slight loss to literature but probably an overall gain in the happiness of the human race.

Waugh is one of those converts in whom Catholics take great pride. If I were in their position, I would do everything in my power to prevent the world from finding out that he belonged to my communion. If the rightly administered sacraments are presumed to be instruments of grace, it appears that Waugh, at any rate, was invulnerable to their power. I would appreciate it if my Catholic brothers and sisters took the unremitting nastiness of the man more seriously. I have yet to hear one say that when Waugh took the Sacrament he did so unworthily, though I do not believe, given his gleeful and freely expressed hatred of almost everyone he knew,  that anyone could reasonably say that he did so worthily.

He believed that by becoming Catholic he had ensured his own salvation, and from that elevated seat taunted his friends who remained Outside: “Awful about your obduracy in schism and heresy,” he wrote to the Anglican John Betjeman. “Hell hell hell. Eternal damnation.” Only someone wholly unacquainted with Waugh’s views would think he was joking. Betjeman certainly didn’t.