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A Forgotten Waugh

The literary feud of the century.

By From the May 2014 issue

Andy Watt 2014

American literary feuds: meh. So Gore Vidal called Bill Buckley a “crypto-Nazi”? So Buckley retorted, “Listen, you queer, I’ll sock you in the goddamn face”? Kids’ stuff. John Updike gunning for Tom Wolfe? A mere gentlemen’s disagreement, old fellow.

Norman Mailer denouncing Mary McCarthy for, um, terminal femaleness? That was much ado about nothing (or, more precisely, it resembled Beatrice and Benedick).

No, if you want a real X-rated literary feud, as opposed to a playground spat, there are only two nations you need study. One of these nations is France. Read, sometime, the letter that Paul Claudel (convert to turbo-Catholicism) wrote to André Gide, having discovered Gide’s homosexual tastes. Sartre versus Camus, François Mauriac versus Jean Cocteau, Léon Daudet versus everyone: all bare-knuckle stuff, some of it involving pugilists old enough to have acquired their training wheels during the Dreyfus case. (Yep, pugilists acquired their training wheels in a baptism of fire over the skeletons in the French political closet. Mixed metaphors are on special at Walmart this week.)

The other nation for great literary feuds is England. Not the England of Cool Britannia, Blaircameroncleggboris, Sir Elton John, Sir Mick Jagger, and demands that 10 Downing Street’s domestic staff address 1997’s electoral victor as “Tony.” No, this is the England of the Great Depression, when Old Etonians tramped the Road to Wigan Pier; when Liverpool had not the Beatles yet, but merely “trams going whining down long sad roads” (an unexpectedly poetic phrase from J.B. Priestley). The England of Jarrow hunger-marches and Mosleyite fisticuffs and the Oxford Union’s assurance that “This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country.” Also—most relevant to our purpose—the England of resurgent literary Catholicism, of a whole younger generation of Catholic writers uneasily absorbing Newman’s influence; grateful to, but a little patronizing about, the Chesterbelloc; finding, to their astonishment, publishers in the popular press.

This may set the scene for the 1933 literary feud between the twenty-nine-year-old Evelyn Waugh, who needs no further introductions, and the sixty-five-year-old Ernest Oldmeadow, editor of the Tablet, who certainly does need them. What Commentary later was for American Jewish intellectuals, so the Tablet then was for British Catholics. Every British ambassador, whatever his religion, read it. Every British bookstore owner respected it. The Archbishop of Westminster—at this time Francis Cardinal Bourne—owned it. They do say that the only men in the world who predicted Alfonso XIII’s 1931 downfall were Pius XI, the nuncio to Madrid, and the Tablet’s office manager. (Certainly this downfall caught by surprise Whitehall, the Quai d’Orsay, and the State Department, not to mention Alfonso XIII.)

What gives the Waugh-Oldmeadow title fight its particular significance, unrepeatable in our egalitarian epoch, is its gentlemanly language. The combatants exhibited an ire that would not have been out of place on cage-fighters in a Bangkok brothel. But they expressed their ire in the lexicon of Downton Abbey. Could this joust acquire a fresh import in an age awash in religious scandals?

Introspective yet cosmopolitan, British Catholicism of the 1930s was like a village where everyone had been abroad and where almost no one had been to Northamptonshire. A typical British Catholic at that time would have been not merely impervious to all Leninist propaganda concerning the Spanish war, but often capable of discussing fine strategic differences between Generals Franco and Mola. At the same time he might not have bought a single novel in his life, and the cinema might well have scandalized him. For him (to quote Fred Reed), “the idea of going to college [was like] going to Mars.” A mixture, then, of hyper-expertise in one intellectual area, unawareness in another.

What he did read was the Tablet. When the Tablet sneezed, he caught cold. In 1933 the specific pepper that had found its way up the Tablet editor’s nose was Black Mischief, by Evelyn Waugh, newly converted to Rome.

The French have a phrase for what Black Mischief achieved in England on its 1932 publication: succès de scandale. Everybody who was anybody read it. Waugh could not have shocked his public more if he had dressed in a flesh-colored body suit and twerked, tongue askew, like Miley Cyrus. In a million English breasts there contended the sentiments of “That chap Waugh’s gone too far this time” and “I say, my dear, did you read the chapter about what happens to Prudence? Haven’t laughed so much in months.”

In one mind alone reigned total certitude. Alas for Waugh, it belonged to Oldmeadow. A strange silence fell upon umpteen Catholic households when their occupants opened the Tablet issue for January 7, 1933, and read inter alia in its stately editorial:

Whether Mr. Waugh still considers himself a Catholic, The Tablet does not know; but in case he is so regarded by booksellers, librarians, and novel-readers in general, we hereby state that his latest novel would be a disgrace to anybody professing the Catholic name. We refuse to print its title or to mention its publishers. Indeed this paragraph is not to be read as a review. We are mentioning Mr. Evelyn Waugh’s work only because it would not be fair on The Tablet’s part to condemn coarseness and foulness in non-Catholic writers while glossing over equally outrageous lapses in those who are, or are supposed to be, our co-religionists…

And so on. This constituted an unmistakable declaration of hostilities.

Even Waugh could not joke this away. He lived by his prose. He had been a Catholic only since 1930. His first marriage was caught up somewhere in the creaking wheels of Rome’s annulment machine; hence his insolent private jibes at “wop priests.” Worse still: Oldmeadow answered directly to the Archbishop of Westminster, and to no one else. Catholic archbishops could delate (the technical term) errant authors to the Vatican’s Holy Office, which ran the Index of Prohibited Books.

Back then, if a Catholic writer ended up on the Index, it became a mortal sin for other Catholics to read his work save for certain study purposes (unless, improbably, they read it in ignorance of its banned condition) and such reading would make any subsequent communion sacrilegious, except if it had been repented via priest in the confessional. Serious stuff. So behold Waugh, sweating bricks. What’s a Bright Young Thing to do? 

At first it looked as if Waugh might have fretted unduly. The Tablet’s January 27 issue contained a short but spirited defense of Waugh, signed by twelve Catholics then renowned. They included biographer Christopher Hollis, publisher Thomas F. Burns, and not one but two Jesuit priests: Fathers Martin D’Arcy and C.C. Martindale. (More of whom else they included in a moment.) They wrote of Oldmeadow’s editorial: 

We think these sentences exceed the bounds of legitimate criticism and are in fact an imputation of bad faith. In writing, we wish only to express our great regret at their being published and our regard for Mr. Waugh.

With these heavies cheering him on, Waugh might be said to have won the first round on points. Whereupon Oldmeadow, immediately beneath the letter’s publication, abandoned all traces of his former reserve. In fact, his style attained a very impressive imitation of…Waugh himself:

Foreseeing that its publication must lower more than one of the signatories in public esteem, we have printed the above letter with sorrow; but we cannot refuse a little space to twelve writers, most of whom have long been respected by Catholics.

Two statements of ours are condemned by the remonstrants.…Ours being a paper which is received into thousands of houses whose heads trust us to print nothing vile, we are debarred from fully proving our case by extended extracts. But in these special circumstances, we must ask our readers’ indulgence for a minimum of quotation.

Then Oldmeadow went through the book, explaining its specific causes for offense. There is no need to quote his explanations at length here. Those familiar with the book will already know them and those unfamiliar with the book will not comprehend them. By no means are all of Oldmeadow’s complaints either unjust or excessive, though some are. (Oldmeadow assumed that Waugh supported contraception, a practice Waugh subjects to merciless ridicule in paragraph after paragraph.)

Oldmeadow fired off so much ammunition that, inevitably, some hit home. The incontinent canines about which Oldmeadow complained are not nearly as amusing to read about as Waugh supposed them to be. Anticipating a profitable line in postcolonial lit-crit, Oldmeadow suspected that the novel’s climactic cannibalism might have been intended as a blasphemous parody of the Catholic Eucharist. But this interpretation, which in the twenty-first century would delight a thousand altar-girls, would in Oldmeadow have inspired utter disgust. And in other, more explicitly religious objections, it can hardly be denied that Oldmeadow had a point: 

There is a comic description of a Nestorian monastery with a venerated cross ‘which had fallen from heaven quite unexpectedly during Good Friday luncheon, some years back.’ If the twelve signatories of the above protest find nothing wrong with ‘during Good Friday luncheon’ we cannot help them.

On learning that Mr. Waugh’s novel was being widely circulated as the Book Society’s Book of the Month, The Tablet’s Catholic duty became clear. Having again and again denounced immodesty and irreverence in non-Catholic novelists, who have no fixed Christian principles to guide them, we should have been hypocrites if we had not applied to Mr. Waugh’s book the words which we reapply to it now. It is a disgrace to a professing Catholic and its lapses are outrageous. As for the remonstrants’ ad-hoc status…‘respect for Mr. Waugh’ has roused them at last; but their protest is unaccompanied by even the faintest expression of ‘regard’ for the Catholic standards of decency which have indisputably been outraged.

Much else succeeds this, including specific condemnations of the two Jesuits as unworthy heirs of “the great Ignatius family.” Still, the above epitomizes Oldmeadow’s initial case for the prosecution.

On February 18, he continued the attack. This time he largely ignored Waugh’s friends, no longer considering them worth much powder and shot. Instead, he had in his sights the novelist himself. Space precludes more than extracts from the new editorial:

Among the letters (all originals) in The Tablet’s dossier is one from a friend of Mr. Waugh’s, who writes: ‘He became a Catholic knowing it would be necessary for him to modify his literary manner, and so probably lessen his income.’ And so thought all of us. Our loyal and generous Catholic folk concluded that it would be their duty and privilege to spend their seven-and-sixpences on the works of a writer who was making sacrifices for Catholic standards of modesty. The convert, as if to signalize the Catholicization of his pen, sat down, in 1931, to write a novel and dated it from Stonyhurst, the great Jesuit school…The above-mentioned colophon, showing that the work was begun at Stonyhurst, shows also that its author was at work upon it for eight months. Thus his act was no momentary lapse, such as might happen to any of us. For two-thirds of a year, Mr. Waugh was intent on elaborating a work outrageous not only to Catholic but to ordinary standards of modesty. Here lie scandal and disgrace, calling for disavowal and reproof…

We are pontifical in the sense that we conscientiously and fearlessly labor to further the teachings of the Sovereign Pontiff. Therefore we have caused a new translation to be made of the Instructions of the Holy Office on immodest books. It will be found on page 200.

Possibly the last two sentences did not constitute a deliberate warning of Index sanctions. But they came very close.

Through all this Waugh remained uncharacteristically cautious. In September 1934—yes, 1934—Waugh approached the same Daily Express newspaperman who had obtained the scoop (le mot juste in this context) on Waugh’s conversion. This was Tom Driberg: gossip columnist, parliamentarian, Anglican, homosexual, possible Soviet agent, and consequently the Englishman most likely to win Cardinal Bourne over.

Oldmeadow, per se, could not threaten Waugh. But Oldmeadow as mouthpiece for the cardinal enjoyed vast influence. Waugh knew perfectly well that his only hope of evading church censure lay in his public status as an intellectual, not to be overawed by archepiscopal ventriloquism. So he told Driberg what to write: 

Two aspects of Tablet article: (a) an unfavorable criticism, (b) a moral lecture. The first is completely justifiable…In the second aspect he [Oldmeadow] is in the position of a valet masquerading in his master’s clothes. Long employment by a prince of the Church has tempted him to ape his superiors and, naturally enough, he gives an uncouth and graceless performance.

By comparison with this amazing invective, Waugh’s open letter to His Eminence was bland indeed, maintaining that he had mocked only “superstitious reverence for relics,” not the Catholic magisterium that he had promised on his conversion to uphold. Blandness being exactly what the situation required, the storm passed. British Catholics soon had other things on their minds. At Vienna’s chancellery, Engelbert Dollfuss lay in a pool of his own blood. Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. Mexico’s state-funded persecution of the faithful persisted. Then, in February 1936, came the ominous front-page news that the unresisting imbecility of Spain’s mainstream Catholic politicians had let into office a Whig-socialist-Marxist Popular Front. With what results we know.

Whether the Cardinal had a chance to read Waugh’s open letter properly is uncertain. Already he was dying. 

In 1966, the year of Waugh’s demise and seventeen years after Oldmeadow’s, Pope Paul VI abolished the Index. Or rather, he formally downgraded it to a mere “moral” guide against literary threats to the acceptance of Catholic dogma.

This meant, in practice, that in several million Catholic lounge-rooms across America (complete with pictures of the martyred JFK adjoining crucifixes), Slats Grobnik, sheet-metal worker and father of five, would come home for dinner to the sound of his little Bernadette chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, / Time to transubstantiate!” and his little Damien issuing encyclicals best summarized as “You shall have to pry this copy of Tom Lehrer’s ‘Vatican Rag’ out of my cold, dead hands.” Happily, Slats Grobnik died before he ever learned of what was secretly done to little Damien by Father O’Reilly on “fishing expeditions.”

Which is, as they say, “where we came in.”

Black Mischief endured. Waugh endured. Oldmeadow, who forfeited his Tablet job to Waugh’s buddy Douglas Woodruff in 1936, is now a mere name in footnotes to Waugh scholarship. By any practical measure, then, Oldmeadow—and every attitude he embodied—lost the battle of ideas. Or did he?

There is the little matter of the twelfth signatory to the pro-Waugh letter. One who hasn’t been identified yet. One who, unlike many of the others, is still remembered.

“If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.” Yes, this twelfth testator to Waugh’s orthodoxy and moral force was none other than Eric Gill: painter, sculptor, typographer for the London Underground’s signage, adherent to Chesterbellocian rural activism, soi-disant theologian, and—as we learned from a 1989 exposé of him—degenerate. Further details (from Gill’s diary) are best omitted from a family magazine, though Wikipedia supplies them; they involved incest and the sort of bestiality which makes you think twice about the old anti-Catholic taunt “three acres and a cow.”

No one, before Gill’s death in 1940, suspected this. Not Waugh, not Oldmeadow, not the Archbishop of Westminster, not Belloc, not Chesterton, not the Jesuits, not Gill’s other fellow-signatories. Miraculously, not a single communist either.

So, let’s have some alternative history here. Suppose Oldmeadow had suspected the truth about Gill, and had decided—purely in private, of course, English libel laws being what they are—to use Gill’s championship of the bellicose Waugh as a stick with which to beat him. A stick to beat him? More like a bomb to drop on him.

How long would Waugh’s reputation have survived that punishment? Five minutes, perhaps?

Just sayin’. 

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About the Author

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, 2012).