Evelyn Waughs conversion to the Catholic faith in 1930 was greeted with astonishment by the literary world and caused a sensation in the media.
"Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world,
where everything is an absurd caricature,
into the real world God made;
and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly."
These words of Evelyn Waugh, written in "intense delight" to Edward Sackville-West after the latter had informed him of his intention to be received into the Catholic Church, represent perhaps the most succinct and sufficient description of the process of conversion ever written. Waugh's own conversion from the "absurd caricature" of ultramodernity to the "real world" of Catholic orthodoxy was greeted with astonishment by the literary world and caused a sensation in the media.
His reception into the Church on September 29, 1930 prompted bemused bewilderment in the following morning's edition of the Daily Express. It seemed incomprehensible that an author notorious for his "almost passionate adherence to the ultramodern" could have joined the Catholic Church. In the gossip columns his latest novel, Vile Bodies, had been dubbed "the ultramodern novel." How could the purveyor of all things modern have turned to the pillar of all things ancient?
The paradox was both perplexing and provocative, prompting the Express to publish two leading articles on the significance of Waugh's decision. Finally, three weeks after Waugh's controversial conversion, Waugh's own contribution to the debate, entitled "Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me," was published. It was given a full-page spread, boldly headlined.
Waugh's article was so lucid in its exposition that it belied any suggestion that he had taken his momentous step lightly, or out of ignorance. He dismissed the very suggestion that he had been "captivated by the ritual" of the Church, or that he wanted to have his mind made up for him. Instead, he insisted that the "essential issue" that had led to his conversion was a belief that the modern world was facing a choice between "Christianity and Chaos":
"Today we can see it on all sides as the active negation of all that Western culture has stood for. Civilization — and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organization of Europe — has not in itself the power of survival. It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance. 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, mechanized state . . . It is no longer possible . . . to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests."
Waugh concluded by stating his belief that Catholicism was the "most complete and vital form" of Christianity.
The debate continued in the next day's edition of the Express with the publication of an article by a Protestant member of Parliament, which was followed, a day later, with an article by the Jesuit Fr. Woodlock entitled "Is Britain Turning to Rome?" Three days later an entire page was devoted to the ensuing letters. Seldom has a religious conversion prompted such a blaze of national publicity.
Part of the reason for the extensive interest in Waugh's conversion, apart from his own celebrity status as a fashionable young author of best-selling satirical novels, was the growing awareness that his reception into the Church was only the latest of a long and lengthening list of literary converts to the Catholic faith. On October 8, 1930, the Bystander observed of Waugh's conversion that "the brilliant young author" was "the latest man of letters to be received into the Catholic Church. Other well-known literary people who have gone over to Rome include Sheila Kaye-Smith, Compton MacKenzie, Alfred Noyes, Fr. Ronald Knox, and G.K. Chesterton." The list was impressive but far from exhaustive. By the 1930s, the tide of converts had become a torrent, and throughout that decade there were some 12,000 converts a year in England alone.
A similar mood prevailed in the United States. A few weeks after the controversy in the Daily Express, a debate between G.K. Chesterton and the famous Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow on the question, "Will the World Return to Religion?" attracted an audience of 4,000 to the Mecca Temple in New York. At the close of the debate a vote was taken. The result was 2,359 for Chesterton's point of view and 1,022 for Darrow's.
Waugh's particular path to Rome had been influenced by a number of the literary converts who had preceded him, particularly Chesterton and Knox, the latter of whom would be the subject of a biography by Waugh published in 1959. When Waugh was only 11 his father had read Knox's anti-Modernist satire, "Reunion All Round," and was "dazzled" by its brilliance. "Since then," Waugh wrote to Knox years later, "every word you have written and spoken has been pure light to me." In 1924 Waugh had been impressed by Knox's oratory prowess at the Oxford Union. On that occasion, Knox had been among several well-known speakers to debate the proposition "that civilization has advanced." In Waugh's opinion, Knox had stolen the show by showing that "we were rapidly approaching the civilization of the savage." In Waugh's public confession of faith in the Express there are clearly discernible echoes of Knox's brilliant oratory from six years earlier.
The most striking example of Chesterton's influence on Waugh is to be found in the way that Chesterton inspired Brideshead Revisited, arguably the finest of Waugh's novels and undeniably one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. The novel's central theme of the redemption of lost souls by means of "the unseen hook and invisible line . . . the twitch upon the thread" was taken from one of Chesterton's Fr. Brown stories. Waugh told a friend that he was anxious to obtain a copy of the omnibus edition of the Fr. Brown stories at the time he was putting the finishing touches on Brideshead, and a memorandum he wrote for MGM studios when a film version of the novel was being considered confirmed the profundity of Chesterton's influence:
"The Roman Catholic Church has the unique power of keeping remote control over human souls which have once been part of her. G.K. Chesterton has compared this to the fisherman's line, which allows the fish the illusion of free play in the water and yet has him by the hook; in his own time the fisherman by a 'twitch upon the thread' draws the fish to land."
The Chestertonian metaphor was not lost on Ronald Knox when he first read Brideshead Revisited: "once you reach the end, needless to say the whole cast — even Beryl — falls into place and the twitch upon the thread happening in the very bowels of Metroland is inconceivably effective."
In many respects, Waugh's finest novel is a reiteration of the theme found in his article for the Daily Express. It is a tale of hope among the ruins of a vanishing civilization in which the light of Christianity shines out amidst the chaos.
Brideshead Revisited sold exceedingly well on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, the Tablet acclaimed it "a book for which it is safe to prophesy a lasting place among the major works of fiction." In America, Time described Waugh as a stylist unexcelled among contemporary novelists.
The praise was tempered by a vociferous minority who disliked Brideshead Revisited on both political and religious grounds. In particular, the American critic Edmund Wilson criticized the religious dimension in the novel. "He was outraged (quite legitimately by his standards) at finding God introduced into my story," Waugh replied. "I believe that you can only leave God out by making your characters pure abstractions." Modern novelists, Waugh continued, "try to represent the whole human mind and soul and yet omit its determining character — that of being God's creature with a defined purpose. So in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which to me means only one thing, man in his relation to God."
With the publication of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh completed the metamorphosis from ultramodern to ultramontane, and in so doing passed from fashion to anti-fashion. As with so many of the other converts at the vanguard of the Catholic Literary Revival, his work was an act of subcreation reflecting the glory of creation itself. As Waugh himself put it: "There is an Easter sense in which all things are made new in the risen Christ. A tiny gleam of this is reflected in all true art." What is true of art is as true of the artist. In the works of Waugh, as in the works of the other literary converts, a tiny gleam of Christ is always reflected.
Joseph Pearce. "Evelyn Waugh: Ultramodern to Ultramontane." Lay Witness (May 2001).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Joseph Pearce is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. Among the books he has authored are: Literature: What every Catholic should know, Tolkien: Man and Myth, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Literary Catholics, Race With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love, Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture, Through Shakespeare's Eye, J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf, Solzhenitsyn, and Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc.Copyright © 2001 LayWitness
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