Part II: Evelyn Waugh and the Bright Young People
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Part II examines the largely satirical prose of Evelyn Waugh’s long 1930s, seeking to shift critical focus from the stylistic qualities of his work to its ideological content, through detailed close readings of the novels in conjunction with those of friends and Oxford contemporaries including Harold Acton, Henry Green, Anthony Powell and Nancy Mitford. Tracing the group’s use and abuse of seven key terms—including queer and party in addition to game, family, escape, leader and racket—it reveals a complex understanding of queerness that, alert to plurality and the possibilities of both positive and negative models of queer masculinity, questions normative gender roles and temporal structures in ways that radically problematize received critical assumptions of Waugh’s straightforward conservatism.
Evelyn Waugh’s most prolific period—the seventeen years of his long 1930s during which, opening with debut novel Decline and Fall (1928), he produced seven full-length novels and five travelogues alongside numerous short stories, reviews and articles for magazine and newspaper publication—remains widely neglected by current criticism. Following the trend set by contemporary reviewers and critics, much of Waugh’s fiction before Brideshead Revisited (1945)—the novel commonly held to have ‘marked a watershed’1 in the author’s career—continues to be valued mainly for its style rather than its substance, critics and readers alike ‘delighting in the rich comedy of the novels’ but ‘largely ignoring their serious undertones.’ Admired and ‘savoured as well-wrought black comedy’ though the early fiction has been, it would appear, nonetheless, to be the conic label itself that has blinded many to the more ‘serious’ and, at times, even subversive social commentary at work in these texts, limiting Waugh’s achievements, in critical terms, to ‘a style and a vision peculiar to himself for outrageously funny, pungent, serio-comic burlesque.’2 The subject of Brideshead Revisited continues to divide critics, now—as on first publication—leaving those who glimpse something more robust in the attitude of the earlier satires bitterly disappointed, its nostalgic snobbery giving rise to what remains—as Martin Standard’s review of the critical heritage demonstrates—the overriding impression of Waugh as ‘a redundant elitist.’3
Indeed, as Stannard himself suggests, the critical furore that Waugh—a flagrant and often contradictory self-publicist—courted throughout his career, and continues to attract, offers a valuable lesson in the distinction between ‘prestige’ and ‘popularity’ (8) that is implicit in all literary criticism: what ‘prestige’ Waugh gained with the few as a stylist—even if they failed to grasp the social implications of his work—was irrevocably marred by the ‘popularity’ he achieved as the ‘middlebrow’ Catholic moralist that Brideshead Revisited unleashed. As one mid-century reviewer put it: ‘A coterie loved him seventeen years for being a heartless and light-minded satirist of the ruling classes. In 1945, the general public discovered that he was a snobbish and sentimental bigot who hated the common people, and they at once made him a bestseller.’4 The result of this critical paradox has been the division of more recent Waugh scholarship into two broadly ‘recuperative’ strands. The first has seen critics since Jeffrey Heath’s influential Picturesque Prison: Evelyn Waugh and His Writing (1982) evoke the concept of ‘vocation’ in order to redeem Waugh as a serious—as opposed to a popular—spiritually-motivated author.5 Despite the fact that his conversion to Catholicism took place in 1930, recent criticism in this vein has chosen to ignore the somewhat ‘difficult’ implications of Waugh’s 1930s satires for this image, arguing—as, for example, Marcel DeCoste does—that since the Second World War marked a decisive turning point in ‘his view of himself, and of his proper ends as both artist and Catholic,’ it is only in Brideshead Revisited and the novels that followed it that Waugh ‘articulates and fulfils his sense of both these vocations.’6
The second strand has by contrast wholly embraced Waugh’s ‘popular’ status, a resurgence of biographical interest in the author and his circle having prompted, and indeed been prompted by, several volumes—among them D.J. Taylor’s Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918–1940 (2007), Paula Byrne’s revelatory Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (2009) and, most recently, Philip Eade’s lengthier Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited (2016)—that seek in some way to rehabilitate the novelist by unearthing or re-examining the ‘truth’ behind what Stannard terms ‘the mythology of Waugh’s ogreish temperament […] largely constructed, with his help, through the popular press’ (1). Whilst biography has foregrounded the novelist’s unique and problematic vantage point as ‘the outsider’ who was not only ‘looking in’7 but, as Byrne makes clear, invited to stay—at once an outside observer, the product of a middle-class family and a minor public school, and a participating insider, admitted to high society through his connections with an old-Etonian set including Harold Acton, Anthony Powell and Henry Yorke—the majority of critics have failed to engage fully with the implications of this paradox for his fiction. Yet these are arguably played out at the most fundamental linguistic level in Waugh’s writings, revealing a queer masculinity defined as much by its almost phobic reaction to and dissociation from certain senses as by its adoption of and association with others.
Building on the work of Naomi Milthorpe, whose Evelyn Waugh’s Satire: Texts and Contexts (2016) marks a welcome departure from the trends outlined above—arguing for ‘a less pious, more historicized understanding’8 of the novelist through his early writings—what follows is a close critical engagement with the substance of these texts, treating satire ‘as a contemporary social document,’ a self-conscious writerly strategy that is, as Milthorpe puts it, both ‘intentional and specific, marking out particular objects (people, ideas, sentiments, and things) as deserving of censure or praise’ (2). To this list of ‘objects’ I would add ‘words’ themselves, not least because it is through words that people, ideas, sentiments and things—men, masculinities and normative class and gender roles—are constructed, and might therefore be undone. Waugh’s use of language is, as the following analysis illustrates, wholly intentional and specific, marking out particular words—or, more accurately, particular senses—as symptomatic of those attitudes and values deserving of censure or praise. Together with the writings not only of Oxford friends such as Acton, Powell and Yorke (who wrote under the penname Henry Green) but also the figures, including Nancy Mitford, with whom they brought him into close and lasting contact, Waugh’s fiction of the long 1930s thus enables identification through what Milthorpe terms ‘a sophisticated satirical performance’ (2). A novel anchored in the interwar years by its retrospective mode, I include Brideshead Revisited in this category, seeing in both its satirical and ‘serious’ elements the evocation and development of many of the linguistic tropes and attitudes, however discomfiting, that define Waugh’s prose of the 1930s-proper.
The term queer maintains a singular instability during the first half of the twentieth century but, owing in part to his personal connections—forged both at Oxford and in London—and in part to his experiences as a journalist at home and abroad, Evelyn Waugh uses it far more self-consciously than many writers of the period. In its crudest sense it remains a common synonym for odd, strange or eccentric, and there are occasions upon which Waugh appears to use it in precisely this way, particularly in the early and more experimental short fiction. In ‘The Balance’ (1926) cinema-goer Gladys remarks of an experimental film: ‘It’s going queer again, Ada. D’you think it’s meant to be like this?’9 In ‘A House of Gentlefolks’ (1927) the young Marques of Stayle, jealously sheltered and kept in a state of arrested development by his grandfather and two ageing aunts, complains of the ‘mighty queer ideas’10 of these three guardians, a phrase that recurs in ‘Too Much Tolerance’ (1932) as the narrator’s over-credulous travelling companion notes that, despite their having ‘some queer ideas about honesty,’ the locals are ‘all jolly good chaps.’11 Yet, although in these early conversational examples the term seems relatively stable, it is important to note by whom it is spoken. Two shop-girls, a ragged and uneducated Marques, an easily duped and thoroughly unsuccessful businessman: these are, in each case, the narrator’s (and, indeed, the author’s) inexperienced intellectual inferiors. The term, Waugh implies, may only mean ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ to these characters, but he and his reading public know better, the term serving to emphasize the potential shortcomings of both referent and speaker.
In the novels, the polyvalence of the word queer is exploited to a much greater degree. Examples taken from Decline and Fall (1928) and A Handful of Dust (1934) see it retain its status as a signifier of strangeness or peculiarity whilst simultaneously taking on other meanings. Early in the former, Flossie Fagan, the headmaster’s daughter, remarks of one of the mothers present at a day of school sports: ‘It’s queer […] that a woman with as much money as Mrs Beste-Chetwynde, should wear such dull clothes.’12 Here the term not only signifies oddity but also suspiciousness. Flossie’s emphasis, the mother’s name (to be pronounced Mrs Beast-Cheatin’ according to Waugh) and her behaviour both here and throughout the novel—a South-American society hostess turned white-slave trafficker, she allows her unfortunate fiancé, Paul Pennyfeather, to be prosecuted and subsequently imprisoned for her crimes before marrying an English peer—combine to highlight this double meaning. Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s sartorial choices at once mark her out as odd and, because of this oddness, as a woman of potentially questionable character, Flossie’s remark prompting us to contemplate from whence this apparently unemployed single mother derives her income, and upon what, if not the fashionable clothes common to those of her milieu, she is spending it. If ‘such dull clothes’ are part of a calculated effort to deflect attention away from her, the attempt fails entirely, ironically attracting Flossie’s notice and eliciting her accusation of queerness. Given Flossie’s own position as unmarried housekeeper to a bullying father and his financially-ailing third-rate public school, there is of course a possibility that the remark is motivated by jealousy or spite, the term resonating with a potentially derogative force.
We see something similar in A Handful of Dust , where the racial implications of the term—arguably latent in Flossie’s criticism of the South-American mother—are given fuller rein. It is not until the latter stages of the novel—when disconsolate protagonist Tony Last, bereft of his only child and abandoned by his wife, falls into conversation with freelance explorer Dr Messinger—that the term first occurs, referring directly here to the native tribesmen of South America: ‘Queer people.’13 All Tony need know of them, it is implied, is encoded within this single truncated sentence. For Messinger, this entire population is inconsequential enough to warrant a description of only two words, the use of only one adjective, and yet Waugh ensures that the very adjective he selects has a variety of senses, many of which betray the small-mindedness of the speaker himself. The natives certainly appear odd to the doctor, but he leaves it to Tony to infer any other characteristics that his curt remark is intended to imply. The possibilities range from contemptible to criminal, from mentally or physically inferior to vicious or morally questionable. Only once the two Englishmen have embarked upon their expedition does the doctor elaborate. Faced with restlessness and reluctance amongst the tribesmen he has hired to guide them through the jungle, he notes—with an unwitting irony surely as patent to Tony as to the reader—that they are ‘a queer, timid lot. If you threaten them they take fright and disappear, leaving you stranded’ (187). Here his prejudices become more apparent, his qualifying remarks highlighting in him a tendency—characteristic of the previous generation’s affluent intellectual class—to employ queer as a strictly derogatory term indicative of peculiarity but also of an erratic, cowardly, dishonest and even emasculate nature.
By contrast, when used as a synonym for ‘sick’ the term queer is most frequently indicative, in Waugh’s work, of its speaker’s low social status. Rightly or wrongly, as Paula Byrne notes, Waugh was and continues to be perceived by many ‘as a social climber, a parvenu who was hopelessly in love with the aristocracy and deeply ashamed of his middle-class upbringing’ (121). Within this context, it is not difficult to understand why his work demonstrates so acute a consciousness of the capacity of individual words to indicate class identity, a concept that would later be theorized by socio-linguist Alan Ross, whose essay, ‘Linguistic Class-Indicators in Present-Day English’ (1954), opens with the claim that ‘the English class-system is essentially tripartite—there exist an upper, a middle and a lower class. It is solely by its language that the upper class is clearly marked off from the others.’14 The notation that Ross employs to distinguish between linguistic variants—using ‘U’ to ‘designate usages of the upper class’ and ‘non-U’ to ‘designate usages which are not upper class’ (114)—was picked up by Nancy Mitford, herself a member of the aristocracy by birth, and notoriously prompted the publication of Noblesse Oblige (1956), a collection that reprinted Ross’s essay under the title ‘U and non-U’ and featured a contribution from Waugh himself. The use of queer as a synonym for ‘sick’ or ‘ill’ is clearly identifiable as a ‘non-U’ usage initially borrowed from the ‘U’ vocabulary before being absorbed entirely into the ‘non-U’ equivalent, and thus serves Waugh and those ‘U’ friends for and about whom he wrote as an almost infallible class-indicator. Porters, barmaids, commercial travellers, urban evacuees and, of course, Americans use this term simply to indicate sickness—Waugh’s protagonists do not. Not content with this trick of authorial dexterity, however, Waugh is unable to resist further demonstrating his own ‘U’ credentials to the receptive reader by complicating this sense with the implications of the term’s alternative meanings.
In Put Out More Flags (1942), for example, we are presented with Marlene Connolly, the youngest of three notoriously ill-behaved siblings evacuated from Birmingham to the rural village of Malfrey and repeatedly returned—as each billet proves unable to cope with them—into the care of billeting officer Barbara Sothill at the Hall. The child, who will be sick on demand and persistently urinates in the least appropriate rooms of the house, is first brought to our attention early in her umpteenth stay at the house by her elder sister Doris, who summons Barbara upstairs with the call: ‘Marlene’s queer again.’15 Marlene is accordingly ‘treated for her queerness’ (85), but we are never given full details of what this queerness actually entails. The girl has already been ‘terribly sick’ (83) in the car on the way to the house and it would seem that her being ‘queer again’ is, on one level, simply a repeat-performance. Her sister’s usage certainly suggests a delayed bout of travel-sickness, a violent physical response to her journey, whether genuine or feigned. However, in the short time since her arrival in the house, Marlene has also briefly gone missing, only to be found ‘grovelling under the pantry sink eating the remains of the dogs’ dinners’ (84). To many readers, this kind of behaviour would constitute ‘being queer’ in and of itself, indicating oddity at the very least, though it could also be surmised that this culinary experiment has made the child physically sick. At the most fundamental level, however, for the more acutely class-conscious reader of the interwar period in particular, this child—and, indeed, both her siblings—can be nothing but queer. Their origins in Birmingham’s slums confirmed by Doris’s ‘non-U’ usage of the term, these are children queered by their class. In a western society that, as Kathryn Bond Stockton demonstrates in her landmark study The Queer Child: Or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009), privileges weakness and innocence as the definitive markers of childhood, the peculiar resilience, strength and experience attendant upon surviving poverty queers, makes strange, or otherwise brings into question the working-class child’s identification as a child: ‘Experience is still hard to square with innocence, making depictions of streetwise children […] hard to square with “children.”’16 By normative standards—that is, by the standards of a largely white, conservative, middle- or upper-middle-class readership—the ingenuity that has got the Connolly children as far as Malfrey—given that ‘their names did not appear on any list; they carried no credentials; no one was responsible for them’ (80)—is enough in itself to render them queer.
Yet it is not easy to escape the feeling that, in diagnosing Marlene’s queerness, Waugh also has some other form of illness in mind. We have already been told in passing that ‘Marlene was simple. An appeal to have her certified imbecile was disallowed by the […] inspecting doctor, who expressed an opinion that country life might work wonders for the child’ (80–1). Country life has done no such thing. It seems clear from her activities that Marlene is mentally disturbed in some way—that she is, to quote the Scone College porter tasked by Waugh in Decline and Fall with explaining Paul Pennyfeather’s unexpected ejection from Oxford, ‘a little queer in the head, I suppose’ (194). The speculation that surrounds Marlene’s ‘queerness’ is equally reminiscent of that attracted by Miss Fellowes in Henry Green’s Party Going (1939). Found by her niece’s husband, Robert Hignam, in the station bar ‘looking pretty queer,’ Miss Fellowes is taken quietly up the back stairs of the station hotel in which much of the novel’s action takes place, and a doctor is called.17 There follows so much speculation as to the nature of her condition, however, by so many spectators of varying social classes, that Green’s use of queer may have one or all of four possible meanings.
Undoubtedly we are to take it that the woman is physically unwell in some way, but the possibility that she is in fact just ‘tight’ (413) is also suggested by several of the gentlemen of the party, including Robert, implying that he uses ‘queer’ as a synonym for ‘drunk’ here. The term maintains a certain ambivalence, however, Robert subsequently confiding to a friend that ‘there’s something more wrong with her than just that’ (435), though he is unwilling to share his suspicions with his wife. Indeed, Miss Fellowes’s behaviour before her collapse—she has retrieved a dead pigeon from the pavement outside the station, washed it in a basin in the ladies toilets and wrapped it in brown paper, before depositing it in a waste-bin and then, after further consideration, fishing it out again—has been noted in another quarter. Max Adey’s valet Edwards is later revealed to have ‘remarked Miss Fellowes had been acting very extraordinary before, very extraordinary, but that did not mean anything except she had come over queer’ (499). In spite of his evident desire to play down the incident as no more than the consequence of common sickness—the phrase ‘come over queer’18 is echoed with just this sense by head footman Charley Raunce in Green’s Loving (1945)—the valet’s repetition of ‘very extraordinary’ in such close proximity to ‘queer’ offers the reader other interpretive possibilities. Miss Fellowes is clearly sick, possibly drunk and certainly odd, but there is also a chance she has suffered some kind of mental breakdown. Long admired ‘for the fidelity with which they render ordinary speech without caricature,’ Green’s novels are always peculiarly sensitive to the class of their speakers, and Party Going is no exception.19 Yet Green’s use of the word queer in this passage serves a dual purpose: whilst it is natural to the valet’s vocabulary with a particular sense, the term’s inherent polyvalence—as confirmed by its earlier use amongst his master’s friends—simultaneously negates this particularity, enacting at a basic linguistic level what, as Nick Shepley observes, Green himself found inherently ‘problematic’ in the ‘notion of a singular interpretation or reading’ of any narrative.20
We see something similar occur in the opening scenes of Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930), the author taking the opportunity provided by a rough channel-crossing to experiment both with the term queer itself, and the degree of self-consciousness with which it is used and received in conversation. Most of the characters who will come to dominate the novel are aboard the ship, but a nondescript group of commercial travellers, who never reappear, are repeatedly brought to our attention. They tease Arthur, the only one of their number who appears to suffer from sea-sickness:
The men’s remarks could be seen merely as demonstrative of genuine concern for their friend, but that the extent to which they repeat themselves betrays their real motive. Arthur is certainly feeling sick but does not like the suggestion that he feels ‘queer’ for two reasons. These are thrown into sharp relief by the unique proximity in which passengers of all classes are held temporarily captive aboard ship. On one level, Arthur’s resentment springs from acute class-conscious and aspiration: being burdened with this ‘non-U’ usage by ‘non-U’ friends aligns him not only with them, but potentially with other low-status passengers on-board, thereby compromising his social standing with the more privileged travellers within earshot. Where, for example, coarse American evangelist Mrs Melrose Ape—looking, we are told, ‘every inch a sailor’ (8)—advises her charges, ‘if you do feel queer—sing’ (8), the aristocratic Agatha Runcible, in what the narrator terms ‘one of her rare flashes of accuracy,’ describes the crossing itself as ‘sick-making’ (11) and herself and her society friends simply as ‘being sick’ (17)—the correct ‘U’ usage according to the Noblesse Oblige glossary.22
‘D’you know, I think I shall go on deck for a minute. A bit stuffy in here, don’t you think?’
‘You can’t do that. The sea’s coming right over it all the time. Not feeling queer are you?’
‘No, of course I’m not feeling queer. I only thought a little fresh air. … Christ, why won’t the damn thing stop?’
‘Steady, old boy. I wouldn’t go trying to walk about, not if I were you. Much better stay just where you are. What you want’s a spot of whisky.’
‘Not feeling ill, you know. Just stuffy.’21
Yet Arthur is equally concerned with maintaining his position, both within his peer-group and before strangers of all classes, as normatively male. Within this context, the herm rankles because its implications are damaging to his sense of what constitutes a normative masculine identity. When he makes a mistake in a game of bridge one of his companions taunts:
The patronizing mock-genteel epithets ‘old boy’ and ‘old man’ are emasculating in themselves but, when coupled with the renewed accusation of queerness, these jibes seem to insinuate that Arthur is suffering something more than mere sea-sickness. It is not surprising, then, that even on dry land he is still to be heard vehemently protesting, his emphasis on the term—as if it were unfamiliar to him within the context of illness and foreign to his own tongue—again suggesting he is conscious that he may be overheard and judged accordingly by those of a higher class: ‘Queer, who felt queer?’ (21).
‘Arthur, old man, you must be feeling queer.’
‘No, I ain’t, I tell you, just tired. You’d be tired if you’d been hit on the back same as I was … anyway I’m fed up with this game … there go the cards again.’ (15)
It is worth noting the change in tense here. Arthur’s queerness, despite the mocking insinuations of his friends, is clearly connected to his presence on-board a ship on rough seas. Once he has disembarked it becomes a thing of the past. The same cannot be said for Waugh’s central characters, ‘the Younger Set’ (9) who, the narrator notes, still look ‘a bit queer’ (23) once on the train to London. It is no coincidence that this remark follows the observation that Miles Malpractice—one of their number—is looking ‘terribly tapette’ (23). Waugh must certainly have the issue of Miles’s sexuality in mind when he describes the set as queer-looking. That he consciously deploys the term queer in this sense is confirmed by its repetition in a later scene, blundering outsider Ginger Littlejohn commenting: ‘That cove Miles, you know, he’s awfully queer’ (105). Waugh adds nothing to this, assuming that a reader sensitive both to the implications of Miles’s surname and to those of his none too discreet behaviour—an incident in which ‘Miles touched up his eyelashes in the dining-room of the hotel where they stopped for luncheon’ being indicative (129)—will understand his meaning, even if Ginger has not quite grasped the situation himself. Anyone choosing to ignore the signs, Waugh implies, is welcome to remain as ignorant as the red-headed outsider.
Despite the author’s decision to put queer into the mouth of a well-travelled character here (Ginger is, in any case, somewhat naive) there is certainly evidence that the term was being used amongst Waugh’s English friends at this time to signify non-normative sexuality, most notably by self-declared aesthete Harold Acton. The sexually liberated and, indeed, liberating friend to whom Waugh dedicated Decline and Fall in 1928, Acton remained deeply influential upon Waugh’s life long after the pair’s time at Oxford, where both he and fellow old-Etonian Brian Howard had seen to it that Waugh be ‘taken up into the fashionable and extravagant life, the exotic aesthetic tastes and the anarchic childish playfulness.’23 Now largely forgotten, Acton’s own satirical debut novel Humdrum (1928) is unequivocal in its usage, the term queer featuring prominently in a violent argument between guests at a cocktail party:
What is so striking here is the link drawn between the queer and the decadent—between queerness and excess. It is a connection that is, in fact, latent in many of the examples given so far—in the affected fragmentation of the film Gladys and Ada cannot quite understand; in Marlene’s surfeit of bodily fluids; and in the speculation over whether Miss Fellowes’s queerness is the result of excessive drinking—but Acton’s text throws it into sharp relief, bringing ‘the aesthetic tastes’ of his set vividly to life in a scene of ‘anarchic’ childishness in which the playful no longer has a hand. Conrad’s initial remark is replete with an excess of venomous adjectives—Blanche and the other girls are not only ‘rampant’ and ‘boozey’ but ‘nauseating’ too—and is compounded by a grotesque physical demonstration of his disgust. The bodily response it provokes in Blanche exceeds the verbal, her figure tightening into not a single- or a double- but a ‘triple-breasted waistcoat gesture.’ All those present have obviously had too much to drink—they are ‘queer’ in this sense as much as in any other—and yet Vicky, in one of several acts of neo-Wildean decadence, deems it appropriate to start handing out cocaine. Blanche’s husband wears far too much make-up and, in an excess of high spirits, he and his ‘boy friend’ have, we learn, ‘forced their way in to the flat by breaking the frail pseudo-Renaissance gate’ (288)—an artefact of unnecessary and pretentious contrivance in itself given that the flat occupies a single unit in a modern service block—simply because nobody heard them knocking.
‘You’re worse than a lot of rampant boozey harlots. You’re nauseating.’ Conrad made a retching sound.
‘Why don’t you clear out, then? Nobody asked you here, and nobody’s forcing you to stay.’
Blanche answered back: ‘You’re not the one to talk about harlots anyway. Everybody knows you’re “queer” as queer can be.’ Her loathing for ‘queer’ people accumulated, hardened on her features; her expression was patent of the contempt she felt for them. A cold glitter spread suddenly over the films of her gin-affected eyes. ‘A little fairy,’ she lisped, drawing herself together in a tight triple-breasted waistcoat gesture. ‘And what do little fairies know of harlots?’ she inquired.
‘They know your husband,’ Conrad answered, unruffled. ‘We have our harlots, too,’ he smiled. ‘By the way, you should really tell him, just in a wifely or a sisterly way, not to be so uncouth about his maquillage. He’s painted to the eyes, and all in the wrong colours. […] Of course he’s “queer”—that goes without saying, since he married you.’
Blanche was about to spring at him when her husband staggered in with a boy friend on his arm. They were both very drunk. […] Blanche burst into tears.
‘Come along, Baby. […] Not feeling yourself, dear?’ Vicky opened a delicate eighteenth-century snuff-box. ‘Sniff some of this,’ she said, offering it to Blanche.24
The connection between queerness and excess seems to have been almost instinctive to Acton. Recalling a childhood visit to Florence’s Gran Caffé Doney in Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948) he writes of his puzzlement on hearing one of its customers described as ‘queer’ by the adults at his table:
As a child unfamiliar not with the term queer but with its homosexual connotations—and, indeed, with the emerging concept of modern homosexuality itself—Acton instinctively searches for something excessive in the man’s appearance, concluding that, as ‘he was prettier than a man was supposed to be; […] that might have something to do with it.’ He is quite right, even if he cannot entirely comprehend why. What is interesting in this passage is not only the early link Acton appears to have made between queerness and excess at the level of the referent, but also the suggestion—implicit both in the actions of Acton-the-child-protagonist and in the adult author’s asides—that one person’s queerness might trigger excessive behaviour, whether negative or positive, in another. Our protagonist’s curiosity about the ‘queer’ young man prompts him to stare excessively: ‘I stared at the young man until he flushed with embarrassment.’ Our author’s exuberant ‘the queerer the dearer’ suggests that to be a ‘queer’ man, in certain circles, is to be singularly popular, to be treated to an intimacy far exceeding that of social nicety. What we find in the climactic scene of Humdrum is an early attempt to establish and express artistically this symbiotic connection between queerness and excess, a connection that serves, in subtler ways, to fuel much of the tragedy of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945).
What did they mean exactly? One was continually hearing that certain men in Florence were queer, not that it made much difference to their popularity: on the contrary! the queerer the dearer. But wherein did this queerness reside? I must find out. In trying to solve this problem I stared at the young man until he flushed with embarrassment. ‘But I can’t see anything queer about him,’ I exclaimed, and was told to mind my own business, which led to further cogitation. Thinking him over, I came to the conclusion that he was prettier than a man was supposed to be; and that might have something to do with it.25
Indeed, Brideshead Revisited is arguably a novel as much about queerness as about Catholicism, its range of for the most part sensitive portrayals of non-normative acts and intimacies—between men but also, and more explicitly, between men and women—far exceeding that implied by its reputation as a classic novel of ‘male same-sex love’26 and serving as the sites within which the two strands are entwined and unpicked. Here, the signifier queer itself takes on an excess of meaning, occurring more frequently, and in a greater variety of senses, than in any of Waugh’s earlier texts. It is, however, consistently linked to extravagant or excessive behaviour. A line from one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, ‘The Queer Feet’ (1910), runs through the novel as a kind of refrain, finally becoming the title of its third book.27 The elaborately decorated Catholic chapel at Brideshead Castle is termed ‘a queer thing’ by platoon commander Hooper during the novel’s wartime prologue.28 Co-protagonist Sebastian Flyte remarks of his elder brother, Lord Brideshead: ‘Queer fellow, my brother.’ Charles Ryder’s protestation that he ‘looks normal enough’ is met by Sebastian with knowing solemnity: ‘Oh, but he’s not. If you only knew, he’s much the craziest of us, only it doesn’t come out at all. He’s all twisted inside’ (88). It is, however, in describing the behaviour of intimates Sebastian and Charles themselves, and that of their Oxford contemporaries, that Waugh most often deploys the term.
Edward Ryder’s response to his son’s revelation that he has been living beyond his means during his first year at Oxford provides a good example:
This response is in itself linguistically excessive. Ryder suggests eight different ways of describing his son’s financial situation before settling on—and lingering over—the old-fashioned colloquialism of Queer Street. But the phrase’s full implications are delayed until he delivers his tit-bit of family history. Melchior’s difficulties led him not just to the Queer Street, but to another, unnamed queer street. We are left to ponder what, exactly, he did in this ‘street’ and how he got to Australia at all. Either, it is implied, he earned his passage by working the street—soliciting—or he was exiled for just such behaviour. Something of the kind is certainly suggested in the unmistakeable innuendo of Ryder’s parting shot: ‘Your cousin Melchior worked his passage to Australia before the mast. […] What, I wonder, is “before the mast?”’ (65). In tacitly linking one kind of queerness—financial difficulty—with another—some unspoken sexual transgression—Charles’s father implies, not unkindly, that he has seen through his son’s incomplete and inadequate explanations, perceiving the true cause of Charles’s fiscal excesses to be his attraction to Sebastian and the decadent life he leads.
I’m the worst person to come to for advice. I’ve never been ‘short,’ as you so painfully call it. And yet what else could you say? Hard up? Penurious? Distressed? Embarrassed? Stony-broke? […] On the rocks? In Queer Street? Let us say you are in Queer Street and leave it at that. […] Your cousin Melchior was imprudent […] and got into a very queer street. He went to Australia. (64)
Long after the friends have left Oxford, contemporary Anthony Blanche—a less-sensitively drawn queer character modelled in part on Acton—still counts Sebastian amongst the ‘queerer fish’ of his eclectic acquaintance, Sebastian’s undiminished taste for expensive alcohol raising questions about his own finances and thinly-veiled speculation as to the source of his funds. Meeting Charles in London by chance, Anthony describes Sebastian’s deteriorating behaviour, his comments as indicative of his own queerness as of Sebastian’s:
Coupled with Anthony’s admission that Sebastian did not merely ‘stay’ but ‘came to live’ with him in Marseille after Charles ‘threw him over’ (an exaggeration of the facts that is, one suspects. not all Anthony’s own), his comparison of Sebastian to ‘a dowager’ not only serves, in its subversion of gender norms, to confirm Sebastian’s queer sexuality, but also, in connoting widowhood and advancing age, his loneliness and dislocation. Sebastian is a ‘queer fish’ not only in that he is subject to non-normative desires—it would, as his complacent aside on his own tastes suggests, take more than this to earn the epithet from Anthony—but also in that his alcoholism renders him prone, somewhat prematurely, to the self-indulgent and necessarily isolative eccentricities—excessive drinking, but also excesses of secrecy, repetitiveness and even petty theft—we might more readily associate with the ‘second childhood’ of a doting old-age.
My dear, he’s such a sot. He came to live with me in Marseille last year when you threw him over, and really it was as much as I could stand. Sip, sip, sip like a dowager all day long. And so sly. I was always missing little things, my dear, things I rather liked; […] I didn’t know it was Sebastian—there were some rather queer fish, my dear, in and out of my little apartment. Who knows better than you my taste for queer fish? (203)
Yet Waugh’s attitude is not one of censure. Sebastian neither ‘degenerates’29 nor ‘sinks into both dipsomania and homosexuality.’30 His trajectory is more complex than this. ‘Same-sex love does not survive or triumph in the novel, and Sebastian never overcomes his alcoholism,’ but as Peter Christensen argues, the suggestion that Brideshead Revisited thus constitutes a condemnation of the former—or, indeed, a justification of the latter as a wholly negative and thus fitting fate—is belied by the novel’s ‘continuing appeal’ amongst a queer readership.31 To read the novel in this way is to profoundly underestimate the complexity with which Waugh conceptualizes queerness as related, but by no means inextricably bound, to sex. Indeed, I would argue that in Sebastian’s narrative trajectory, Waugh offers an opportunity ‘to think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices,’ and in so doing, to ‘detach queerness from sexual identity’ in a way that prefigures the contemporary critical impulse of queer theorists such as Judith Halberstam.32 Like Isherwood’s protagonists, Sebastian resists the schedule of normativity, but this resistance is reflected as much by his relationship with time as with space. Halberstam uses the example of drug addiction to illustrate the concept of a queer temporality detached from sexual identity, arguing that within the ‘life cycle of the Western human subject, long periods of stability are considered to be desirable, and people who live in rapid bursts […] are characterized as immature and even dangerous. But the ludic temporality created by drugs […] reveals the artificiality of our privileged constructions of time and activity.’33 This argument is equally applicable to alcoholism, alcohol fuelling the ‘rapid bursts’ in which Sebastian lives, and becoming the prism through which he views his relationships not only with other people but with the divine.
Perhaps inevitably, then, the label of ‘queer fish’ is one that follows Sebastian throughout a nomadic and episodic existence, a life lived in fits and starts, but capable of achieving a queer peace nonetheless. In the closing stages of the novel his younger sister Cordelia—having recently returned from Europe after serving as a nurse and welfare worker in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War—explains to Charles the impression Sebastian has made on those he has met abroad. The conversation takes place at Brideshead Castle only a month after her last meeting with her brother, and she is easily able to recall the words of the Superior at the monastery at which Sebastian, having collapsed drunk and emaciated, has been taken in: ‘We see some queer fish, […] he was a queer fish, but he was very earnest’ (305). Again the assertion is in part a reflection on the material exigencies of Sebastian’s alcoholism, recalling—as the ‘sip, sip, sip’ of Anthony’s description resounds in our ears—the English idiom to drink like a fish. Yet in qualifying it with a reference to Sebastian’s patent earnestness, it also suggests a spiritual dimension to his queerness, a quality of vision attributable to his experiences of ludic temporality, his position beyond the ‘artificiality of our privileged constructions of time and activity.’
This is, arguably, Cordelia’s own view. Sharing with Charles the future she anticipates for Sebastian, she assures him, ‘I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God’ (308). She continues:
Charles ponders her words, the image of ‘the joyful youth with the Teddy-bear’ (309) in his mind: ‘It’s not what one would have foretold’ (309), he remarks. Cordelia, despite her youth, is more clear-sighted. For, as both her own and Anthony’s accounts attest, and Charles’s response underlines, Sebastian’s existence is innately cyclical in its exchange of one set of excessive behaviours for another. In place of the ‘intense personal cults’ and rituals of his privileged youth—the much-indulged teddy-bear, Aloysius, the elaborate luncheons and high-teas, the flamboyant sartorial flourishes, the homosexual romanticism of his relationship with Charles—his sister foresees ‘little eccentricities of devotion’ prompted in part by the intensified experience of a queer temporality measurable only in the ‘bouts’ and ‘sprees’ of alcoholism. It is, Waugh implies, exactly what one would have foretold. The ‘queer old character’ was as inherent in the ‘joyful youth’ as in the doting dowager and he will inhere in Sebastian to the last.
Everyone will know about his drinking; he’ll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they’ll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, ‘Old Sebastian’s on the spree again,’ and then he’ll come back dishevelled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. […] If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character […] and remember him in their masses. He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; […] one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. (308–9)
It is doubtful whether any English novelist, outside the realms of the Left Book Club, uses the word party as often as Waugh does during the interwar years. Its primary usage, particularly in the earliest fiction, as a synonym for ‘social gathering’ or ‘entertainment’ comes as little surprise given Waugh’s accepted and enduring dual role as participant and chronicler of metropolitan society life between the wars, a life played out very publicly, thanks to the literary ambitions of himself and his friends, as ‘a surface world of party-going, expensive cars and rentier lucre.’34 For many, as D.J. Taylor illustrates, vile Bodies remains ‘the definitive exposé of this restless, rackety Mayfair world, its endless flights to nowhere in particular, its fractured alliances and emotional dead ends.’35 Whilst it would be inaccurate to suggest that this is the only sense in which the term party occurs either in Vile Bodies or elsewhere—both Waugh and his contemporaries use the term in four different senses which often intersect and overlap—the novel remains an appropriate starting point, since its fictionalized parties—rightly or wrongly—came ultimately to define as much as to ‘explicate a class, a generation, and a society.’36
The novel’s, and indeed the author’s, most sustained use of the word occurs in the unprecedented authorial aside with which Waugh punctuates—and punctures—the ‘surface world’ of his fictional party-goers aboard a symbolically captive hot-air balloon. The passage provides a startling linguistic performance of the weight of ‘a deep-rooted fascination with “smart” metropolitan life, balanced and eventually overrun by a profound sense of disgust and futility,’ as Taylor argues it was for Waugh in reality (132):
As the clipped precision of the society journalist gives way to longer and longer clauses here, Waugh’s usual detachment is belied by a fascination with the finer details of these events, even as it turns to an almost visceral disgust in the abject image of innumerable, coursing, insentient bodies, before petering out, the futility of it all tracked across the page in a final, insubstantial ellipsis. Waugh complicates the attribution of these sentiments both stylistically and typographically, utilizing a stream-of-consciousness technique wholly uncharacteristic of his prose, but also enclosing the passage within parentheses, at once tempting and challenging the reader’s acceptance of it as an exercise in free-indirect style. Yet if these are not precisely the thoughts of protagonist Adam Fenwick-Symes, they are certainly sentiments in which he and his author coincide, the passage immediately following—and thus elucidating—Adan’s emphatic but inadequate attempt to convey his sense of abject disillusion to his girlfriend: ‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties’ (104). These parties are not pleasurable for Adam and this outburst merely marks the over-spilling of an anxiety and ennui that has tempered his response to such events throughout the novel. At the first invitational to which we are privy—hosted by Archie Schwert and described by one gossip columnist as ‘a repulsive party’ (42)—Adam is woken by his girlfriend, Nina Blount, to be told that he has been asleep on her lap, ‘for hours and hours’ (46). Overwhelmed by the pleasure of receiving Colonel Blount’s blessing—along with the requisite funds—to marry Nina, he later refuses an invitation to a cocktail party, implying that a party might spoil this apparently rare experience of genuine exhilaration: ‘I couldn’t face a party. I’m so excited’ (65).
Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. … Those vile bodies. (104)
Adam is not alone in his adverse response to party-going, the ‘succession and repetition of massed humanity’ of Waugh’s evocative aside leading to nausea, agitation and boredom in even the most hardened party-goers of his acquaintance, a sea-sick Agatha Runcible musing of the terrible channel-crossing that opens the novel: ‘So like one’s first parties, […] being sick with other people singing’ (17). For all but the most sheltered newcomers—in Vile Bodies only Miss Mouse and Miss Brown are described as having ‘fun’ at Archie Schwert’s party, Waugh noting of the former, with heavy irony, that she ‘never could get used to so much excitement, never’ (43)—the party has become, as Rishona Zimring argues, ‘a distortion and perversion’ of the pleasures of youthful celebration.37 We see this process of disillusionment tracked across the novels in the recurrent figure of Alastair Trumpington, a minor character whose attitude to parties develops and changes over the course of the long 1930s, arguably in line with Waugh’s own. Introduced in Decline and Fall as the exuberant driving-force behind the Bollinger Club ‘beano’ (7) with which the novel opens, it is ‘owing to his party’ (44) that an unassuming Paul Pennyfeather is debagged and sent down from Oxford for indecency: ‘It was a lovely evening. […] Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington felt quite ill with excitement, and was supported to bed by Lumsden of Strathdrummond’ (9). Whilst Waugh’s tone is satirical here he is clearly more fascinated than disgusted. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that Alastair himself is anything but sincere in his excitement, despite being the worse for drink. Yet the passage of only a few years finds him, still only in his early twenties, complaining in Black Mischief (1932): ‘The boring thing about parties is that it’s far too much effort to meet new people, and if it’s just all the ordinary people one knows already one might just as well stay at home and ring them up instead of having all the business of remembering the right day.’38 Once the life of the party, Alistair would rather stay in bed, disenchanted by the repetitions of the London party scene.
Beyond such brief glimpses as that of Alastair’s first Bollinger Club beano, Waugh’s parties have little to tell us about what Zimring terms ‘the rapacious pleasure of being young and open to new experiences and courtships: the pleasure of beginning’ (26–7). They tell us ‘about endings, not beginnings, about a sense of decline and decay, of superannuated entertainments and just going through the motions’ (27). This concern with endings is reflected and magnified in the effect parties have on the Older Set. Part Two of Decline and Fall sees society widow Margot Beste-Chetwynde—having ensured, through extensive and costly modernization, that her country home at King’s Thursday ‘gradually became a Mecca for weekend parties’ (108)—retire to her bedroom in a barbiturate-induced coma for the duration of one such event. Whilst her younger guests prove indifferent to her non-appearance, middle-aged politician Humphrey Maltravers is bitterly disappointed, showing ‘himself as a discordant element in the gay little party by noticing the absence of their hostess’ (120). Where Margot’s intention is to escape her visitors, the elderly heroine of ‘Bella Fleace Gave a Party’ (1932) suffers complete emotional, mental and physical collapse when nobody, beyond two intentionally uninvited guests, attends her elaborate party. She dies murmuring: ‘They came uninvited, those two … and nobody else.’39 When her house is cleared after the funeral, a full set of hand-addressed party invitations is found, unsent. If Scoop (1938) finds a somewhat maturer Margot, now Lady Metroland, at home (albeit a little later than expected) to guests, this is of little consolation to newspaper magnate Lord Copper, who reluctantly attends a ‘luncheon party’ at her London home, only to find himself ‘a stranger’ amidst a sea of ‘men and women who appeared to know one another intimately and did not know […] him.’40 We see nothing of ‘the pleasure of beginning’ here: this is a ‘harrowing experience’ from which, were it at all possible, Copper ‘would readily […] purchase his release’ (11).
Yet Waugh’s characters are by no means alone in their distaste for the interwar party scene. Now widely acclaimed for his novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–75), Anthony Powell—another old-Etonian introduced to Waugh at Oxford—began his writing career in 1928, with a series of short satirical novels often similar in theme to Waugh’s own. Powell’s Afternoon Men (1931), which rivals Vile Bodies in its ubiquitous use of the word party in the sense discussed above, opens with a steadily-increasing flow of friends attempting to cajole protagonist William Atwater into crashing a party. He is seemingly immovable, insisting with a macabre satisfaction, ‘I’m not coming to the party. I’m going home to die.’41 Even death would appear to be preferable to another party, though as he muses only moments later, in a fit of masochistic wistfulness: ‘You ache with enjoyment there. I quite wish I were coming’ (11). When the friends finally arrive at the much-alluded-to entertainment—with Atwater in tow—they find an inexperienced host already ‘tired of the party’ and guests complaining that ‘they’re sorry they came to the sordid, horrible party’ (25). Green’s Party Going sees a group—perhaps more a ‘party’ in this sense than in any other since to call them friends would be an overstatement—stranded in a station hotel on their way to a party that, as the present participle of Green’s title suggests, they will never reach: they exist suspended in one of what David Trotter terms ‘the moving pauses of transit.’42 The conceit arguably renders the novel more effective than Vile Bodies as an exposé of the younger generation’s ‘endless flights to nowhere in particular,’ since it at once exposes them to the gaze of a ‘real’ and a fictional public. Their consciousness of the latter ensures that it is only those social outsiders who are willing to admit how disastrous—and even farcical—the situation is. The uninvited Robin Adams, having reluctantly delivered his girlfriend into the care of the other party-goers, finds himself locked in the hotel and despairs of ever being able to ‘get away from their bloody party’ (446). Julia Wray’s porter remarks: ‘This is a rum thing this party. And they call it pleasure, eh?’ (472). There can be no pleasure in beginnings—or even in endings for that matter—in the event of a false-start.
A similar pattern emerges from Nancy Mitford’s novels of the 1930s though Mitford, having herself been raised—however unconventionally—to the duties of entertaining, demonstrates a greater sympathy for the predicaments of her hosts. Her debut novel Highland Fling (1931) finds protagonists Walter and Sally Monteath eager to celebrate the return of their friend Albert Gates from Paris, but when the celebration proves a failure, no one is willing to admit that this is the case: ‘Depression began to settle upon the party, but they sat there for some time valiantly pretending to enjoy themselves.’43 Their valiant attempt is testament to Mitford’s own belief in what biographer Laura Thompson describes as ‘the standards set by her social life, and the collective faith in these standards’ as the foundation of that life.44 Yet, valiant or not, we are still left with another example of the misery of massed humanity and such failure dogs Sally’s parties. When she and Walter accept a last-minute invitation to ‘act as host and hostess’ (18) at Dalloch Castle during her aunt and uncle’s absence, ‘feeling it her duty to make the first evening a success’ (42), Sally spends some time on the seating arrangements for dinner: ‘as she sat down she thought, with some satisfaction, that she had mixed up the party rather well. It soon became apparent, however, that the party was not mixing’ (42). Unfortunately for Sally, the party—constituted partly of Sally and Walter’s friends and partly of those of Aunt Madge and Uncle Craig—is certainly ‘mixed up’ even if its guests are not mixing, the phrase perfectly describing the atmosphere of muddle and anxiety that her arrangements prompt.
She does not fare much better as a party-goer, finding herself amongst the guests at the ‘frightful party’ at the heart or Mitford’s Christmas Pudding (1932), an event which prompts a fellow guest to declare: ‘This party is quite the bloodiest I’ve ever been too, personally.’45 Such, it would appear, are the perils of what, with heavy irony, Mitford refers to elsewhere in Christmas Pudding as ‘organized pleasure’ (275). It is, in fact, arguably the very ‘organization’ of such events that constitutes their horror for Waugh and his circle. Indeed, recalling the weird and wonderful parties of his Oxford days in A Little Learning (1964) Waugh claims: ‘A year or two later this craze […] for finding bizarre venues for parties […] came to London and was taken up by the newspapers who dubbed us “the bright young people” and spoilt our fun. But in November 1925 it was all fresh and private.’46 Here, at last, we sense something of the pleasure of beginning. In this ‘fresh and private’ incarnation the party, as Waugh recollects it—frequently ‘impromptu or assembled at very short notice by word of mouth’ (211)—actively resists organization, subverting Halberstam’s schedule of normativity, opening the party-goer up to the ludic possibilities of a queer temporality. To regulate such events, be it through preordained guest lists, formal invitations, or seating plans is—as Mitford’s Sally Monteath finds to her cost—to negate the temporal and spatial practices upon which their fun depends, to normalize and thereby make them routine. More than this, it is to co-opt a formerly queer experience of time and space in support of normalizing structures, the debutante ball, the twenty-first birthday celebration and the engagement party (to name only a few) all working to reinforce the ‘desirability’ of the conventional cycle of maturation, marriage and all they are expected to bring. What we see in the 1930s fiction are repeated but largely unsuccessful attempts by Waugh’s characters and those of his friends to recapture—through ‘bizarre’ venues and outrageous themes—a queer spirit lost somewhere, in the mid-1920s, on the road from Oxford to London. Their failure is one to which, in both title and content. Acton’s Humdrum attests: ‘These parties and these people had, indeed, become a habit’ (255).
Within the context of so much dissatisfaction the grammatical and syntactical choices made by these authors in their delivery of the word party are often as striking as the term’s usage itself. In his pairing of the word with a range of verbs and pronouns, Waugh registers a seemingly endemic tendency within polite society to linguistically displace responsibility when things appear to go wrong at a given party. It is a tendency that is symptomatic, for Waugh, of the complacency and in-fighting that characterize the ruling classes as a whole. We are told, for example, in Vile Bodies that ‘Lady Metroland gave a party for Mrs Melrose Ape’ (71). The implication of the term ‘gave’ here is not only that this is an altruistic act on Lady Metroland’s part, but also that the party itself, in the act of giving, passes from her possession and sphere of influence into those of Mrs Melrose Ape. Simon Balcairn’s inflammatory newspaper report on the party supports and maintains this suggestion, referring to the event as ‘the party given for the famous American Revivalist Mrs Melrose Ape by the Viscountess Metroland’ (88). Yet, as soon as Simon’s almost entirely fictitious account of the party is published—describing the event as an orgy of sexual and religious mania—and the writs for libel come flooding into the Daily Excess offices, it becomes ‘Lady Metroland’s party’ (91), the possessive case indicating its reversion to her sphere of responsibility.
Later—whilst the younger generation attend the infamous party on a captive balloon—their elders, at what our narrator terms, with thinly-veiled irony, ‘a party of quite a different sort’ (106), attempt to distance themselves by similar linguistic means from the behaviour of their offspring. ‘I’m told that they’re having another of their parties’ (109), declares Mrs Mouse, her use of the possessive ‘their’ emphasized by the proximity of the near-homophone ‘they’re’ and eagerly taken up by the aptly-named Lady Throbbing: ‘I always wonder […] what they actually do at these parties of theirs. I mean, do they…?’ (110). Evidently titillated by the topic, her remark alone goes some way towards undermining the assertion that this is ‘a party of quite a different sort’ to that of the Younger Set, its emphatic repetitions implying at the very least that any difference is not for want of enthusiasm on her part. Green uses the possessive case in a similar way in Party Going where—as the term party oscillates between two dominant senses, as often indicating a ‘group’ as a social gathering—the confusion of the novel’s opening scene is intensified linguistically in a rapid succession of varying assertions as to whose party this is. On one level, Green hints at his reader’s complicity in the fate of his characters by terming them ‘our party’ (402), setting us in direct opposition with outsiders such as Robin Adams, who, as we have seen, severs himself linguistically—if not physically—from the group by describing it unequivocally as ‘their bloody party’ (446); on another, several of the company clearly consider themselves to be both Max Adey’s guests and his responsibility, one noting—with an unconscious nod to this verbal conceit—that ‘this was his party so to speak’ (404), another that ‘it was practically his party and yet he did not seem to know who would be coming’ (407). Each, in doing so, subtly limits the degree to which they might be held accountable should the party disappoint.
The station master, in the meantime, having been asked by the director of the line to look out for ‘his niece Miss Julia Wray and party’ (385) has ‘marked them as being Miss Wray’s party’ (410). When Max at last finds Julia and his other guests in the station hotel he is irritated to learn that they are all to be registered as ‘the station master’s party’ (412), a fact which—whether prompted by that functionary’s sense of self-importance or his sense of duty—elicits a response indicative of Max’s own sense of social responsibility: ‘I don’t know anything about the station master, I want three sitting rooms’ (412). The possibility that this might be a show of bravado as much as one of conscientiousness—of maintaining those ‘standards’ of social life to which Mitford adhered as a host—on Max’s part is, however, made plain in Julia’s immediate recollection that, ‘he disliked other people getting rooms and meals—if he was in a party he would never let anyone else pay for whatever it might be’ (412). Max’s largesse, it would appear, frequently blurs the distinction between ‘his’ parties and those of other people.
Powell , as an early passage from Afternoon Men demonstrates, shows a greater interest in how a party might come about. His American characters in particular prefer to ‘throw’ rather than ‘give’ parties:
Scheigan’s choice of verb here is striking in the aggression it lends party as a term. There is something almost primal—even carnal—in his desire to ‘throw a party’ and the phrase, through its repetition, acquires a euphemistic sense here. This is compounded by the American publisher’s insistence that the group do not mix talk of ‘business’ with that of pleasure. It is worth noting that party is already an established American idiom for a sexual encounter or ‘orgy’ by this period.47 Indeed, this sense is evoked more explicitly by American legation secretary Curtis Cortney in Powell’s novel of interwar diplomacy and intrigue, Venusberg (1932): ‘We […] will throw a wild party. And we’ll throw it somewhere the right side of Mason and Dixon. You won’t think the girls are illusions there. I’ll see to that.’48 Little wonder then that one character in Afternoon Men is left with the impression that ‘Americans always have such a lot of misdirected party spirit’ (96).
‘Why, there you go,’ said Mr Scheigan. ‘Talking business. Why can’t we all have some fun? I want to throw a party somewhere. Harriet here wants to throw a party. Mr Atwater wants to throw a party. We all want to throw a party. And yet we go on sitting in this goddamned hole talking business. I want to meet the bunch.’ (12)
Although the senses ‘social gathering’ and ‘group’ dominate Waugh’s use of the term party in the early fiction, there are suggestions, in Vile Bodies and Black Mischief in particular, of the political and military connotations that will come to haunt the term in his later novels. An overlap between senses in which the term at once signifies ‘social gathering’ and ‘political organization’ is used in Vile Bodies to great comic effect: ‘Agatha Runcible […] heard someone say something about an Independent Labour Party, and was furious that she had not been asked’ (45). A similar levity pervades the political content of Mitford’s Wigs on the Green (1935), an acerbic account of fascist sympathies within the English aristocracy—inspired in part by the allegiance of her sisters Diana and Unity to the British Union of Fascists—which was not reprinted during her lifetime. Members of ‘the Social Unionist party’49 (authorial contempt for which is registered in Mitford’s refusal to grant party the status of a proper noun, and the resultant blurring of sense) appear throughout the novel adorned in the sartorial monstrosities that have given rise to the popular epithet ‘Union Jackshirts’ (8), giving onlookers the impression of ‘appearing at everyday functions in elaborate fancy dress’ (21).
In Black Mischief the four senses sit uneasily side by side, as the Oxford-educated Emperor Seth of Azania attempts not only to implement, but to celebrate his radical programme of modernization, amidst rising political and military tensions, and misguided international interference. Thus we see members of ‘the modernizing party’ (119)—headed by Englishman Basil Seal—called upon to ‘supervise the invitations and the menu’ for ‘an entirely Azanian party’ (166) to be held at the palace in honour of a ‘party’ (169) of nondescript European visitors, even as a break-away faction, under the influence of the French Legation, decide: ‘We must consolidate our party’ (133). Their plans for a military coup are laid at a dinner party. In the chaos that ensues—the planned coup coinciding with Seth’s long-awaited ‘Birth-Control Gala’ (136)—it becomes increasingly difficult to keep pace with Waugh’s usage, as the festivities are interrupted by parties of soldiers, militia-men, anti-contraception protestors and civilian looters who clash in the streets of the capital, eventually converging on the palace to learn of Seth’s abdication before, as one member of the British Legation complacently puts it, getting ‘a regular party going’ (200). Yet, as this remark suggests, Waugh’s tone is still one of undiluted satirical detachment.
Writing and setting much of Put Out More Flags in the restive months of the phoney war, however, Waugh’s emphasis begins to shift. The term, though still a cause of confusion between characters and thus still a source of amusement, takes on a much more sinister tone in the novel, published a full decade after Black Mischief but featuring several characters from the earlier satire. A contemporary and sometime friend of Basil Seal, lonely aesthete and writer Ambrose Silk attempts to confide to publisher Geoffrey Bentley his fears about the links that may be made between himself and a group of left-wing intellectuals:
Waugh still finds room for comedy here—in Geoffrey’s initial confusion about the type of ‘party’ Ambrose is referring to (like Mitford Waugh chooses not to capitalize the term as one would ordinarily, perhaps in the hope of catching his reader out too); in Ambrose’s absurd understatement; and in Geoffrey’s intentional pun on underground travel—but there is also something distinctly menacing in these ‘party’ references. Ambrose’s vague allusion to the ‘brutal things’ done to defectors, though it of course serves to highlight his own studied ignorance, is nevertheless far more alarming than a catalogue of specific tortures would be, simply because it is so vague. As he has himself lately pondered, the ‘human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors’ (60). His indistinct status as a former ‘fellow traveller’ rather than a former ‘party member’ is unsettling for similar reasons, leaving both himself and the reader in doubt as to whether or not he might be considered dangerous and by whom. He, somewhat ironically, awaits his fate in an earth-bound version of the limbo to which he has earlier attributed a ‘natural happiness without the beatific vision; no harps; no communal order; but wine and conversation and imperfect, various humanity’ (60). Yet we are undoubtedly encouraged to feel for him. Indeed, despite his absurdities, Ambrose does cut a sympathetic figure. As one of very few characters to whom Waugh accords the privilege of an interior monologue, we have seen these doubts and questions form and develop throughout the novel, his status as ‘a cosmopolitan, Jewish pansy’ (73) offering a queer perspective on the rhetoric of war. He is as conscious as anyone, within or without the novel, that ‘Basil is a philistine and a crook’ (59); that he and the ‘atrocious young people’ (60) he has surrounded himself with would sell him—Ambrose—out without a thought simply to save their own skins; but, as his stilted attempt to confide in Geoffrey illustrates, he has no one else to turn to and ‘nowhere to go’ (71).
‘I was never a party member.’
‘Communist party. I was what they call in their horrible jargon a fellow traveller.’
‘Geoffrey, they do the most brutal things, don’t they, to communists who try to leave the party?’
‘So I’ve heard.’
‘Geoffrey, you don’t think they’d do that to fellow travellers, do you?’
‘I don’t expect so.’
‘But they might?’
‘Oh yes, they might.’
Later he said, ‘You know, Geoffrey, even in fascist countries they have underground organizations. Do you think the underground organizations would get hold of us?’
‘The fellow travellers.’
‘Really it’s too ridiculous to talk like this of fellow travellers and the underground. It sounds like strap-hangers on the Bakerloo railway.’ (111–12)
The predicament of the upper- or upper-middle-class Englishman turned left-wing advocate is treated with a similar mix of satire and sympathy by Mitford in The Pursuit of Love (1945). When heroine Linda Kroesig née Radlett leaves her first husband for left-wing intellectual Christian Talbot, her cousin and confidante Fanny Logan—the novel’s narrator—is forced to admit: ‘The wedding was as different from her first as the Left-wing parties were different from the other kind. It was not exactly sad, but dismal, uncheerful, and with no feeling of happiness.’50 Mitford’s usage of the term ‘parties’ here is intentionally ambiguous, appearing at first to refer to the ‘Left-wing parties’ of European politics, before recalling Linda’s own recent description of the social gatherings—to Linda, ‘such killing parties, you can’t think’ (102)—to which she and Christian are invited: ‘The worst of being a Communist is that the parties you may go to are—well—awfully funny and touching, but not very gay, and they’re always in such gloomy places’ (103). Fanny’s syntax as she records the pair’s wedding implies that not only such parties, but the Party that inspires them, are ‘dismal, uncheerful, and with no feeling of happiness.’ It is, ironically, only by effecting an ‘extraordinary transformation’ in one of the aforementioned gloomy places—by removing, for the duration of her weekly shift as a volunteer in a Red Bookshop, the ‘books and tracts that mouldered there month after month, getting damper and damper until at last they had to be thrown away’ (115), and replacing them with her favourite novels, thereby encouraging a wealthy bourgeois clientele—that Linda gains the respect of Christian’s friends and associates. The shop, for some reason none of its usual volunteers can fathom, starts to make a profit and ‘the comrades all said that Linda was a good girl and a credit to the Party’ (116).
Although initially a source of barbed humour in Put Out More Flags , as the phoney war becomes more serious and the mood of the novel darkens, we begin to see Waugh employing the term party in a more sober sense. This sense, foreshadowed by the ‘bodies of men’ that storm the streets in Black Mischief (192) and signifying a military ‘company’ or ‘detachment’ of troops, is one that will go on to frame and temper the central narrative of social gatherings for which Brideshead Revisited is popularly remembered. In a solemn reprise of what Waugh had himself potently described in Vile Bodies as ‘all that succession and repetition of massed humanity’ (104), Put Out More Flags comes to represent a succession and repetition of faceless troop detachments, of humanity massed for a wholly more sinister purpose. As one ‘advanced working party’ is succeeded by another (178; 179), only to be followed first by a ‘naval beach party’ (182), then an ‘out-flanking party’ (211) and the formation of ‘special parties for raiding’ (216), the word party becomes, in this altered context, a social leveller, the potential fate of such parties investing the phrase ‘vile bodies’ with a new and grimmer significance. These parties too, then, can tell us only, in Zimring’s formulation, ‘about endings, not beginnings, about a sense of decline and decay, […] and just going through the motions’ (27).
The anonymity afforded—or, rather, imposed upon—an individual by the term when it is used in this sense is brought sharply into focus as the one-time aesthete and architect Cedric Lyne—the only character we see mobilized in the novel—is sent out on what will prove his final mission:
Only through this ‘one pair of eyes’ do we gain any sense of the humanity of which such wartime droves are constituted, as Cedric comes face to face with the men he has been sent in search of, the sight one of ‘a ragged and weary party’ (208). Yet he too, despite his own sensitivity to the crazy mathematics of war, subtracts something of value from each of the twenty men before him, attributing human characteristics to them not as individual soldiers but as a single unit, a ‘party’ or a drove. By the time we meet a middle-aged Charles Ryder in the wartime narrative that frames Brideshead Revisited it is no longer just the troops themselves who are subject to the totalizing effect of such martial formulations—rhetorical and physical. The very presence of the ‘fatigue party’ (12; 345) and the ‘working party’ (13; 348) invest Brideshead Castle with its wartime anonymity and delay for Charles the shock of personal association: ‘I had been there before; I knew all about it’ (17).
As he walked alone he was exhilarated with the sense of being one man, one pair of legs, one pair of eyes, one brain, sent on a single, intelligible task; one man alone could go freely anywhere on the earth’s surface; multiply him, put him in a drove, and by each addition of his fellows you subtract something that is of value, make him so much less a man; this was the crazy mathematics of war. (207–8)
Educated at Lancing College, after the furore surrounding the publication of his elder brother Alec’s exposé of public-school life The Loom of Youth (1917) soured the family’s relationship with Sherborne School, Waugh was, for good reason, peculiarly sensitive to the implications of the ‘cult of games’ that had featured so prominently in the novel. His resistance to sporting prosody, and the values it sought to instil throughout the empire, is demonstrated in Labels (1930):
An absurd parody of an English public-school match, one suspects that this passage from what was to be only the first of Waugh’s travelogues is as much a result of artistic licence as of simple observation. Yet it remains a striking illustration of the inadequacy of enforcing a model of imperial masculinity forged within ‘the essentially English’ tradition of school sports.52 These boys are ‘very completely’ turned out—to quote Waugh’s excess of intensifiers—in outfits wholly inappropriate to the Egyptian climate; they are playing on a surface totally unsuitable for football; and yet, despite the heat, despite the irregular ground, despite even the goats, with their bright jerseys and their cries of ‘ip-ip-ooray’ they are boys of whom the empire can be proud, boys who play the game of life as they have been taught to play that of football. Or so it might seem to those more conventional, or more credulous, than Waugh. He sees only the absurdity of the situation, of imposing an upper-middle-class English ideal upon young men of an entirely different culture. It is tempting to suggest that, as he wrote, he may well have had in mind the old goats at home in England, still nosing up, in the remnants of the hackneyed Newboltian phraseology, ‘morsels of lightly buried refuse.’
We passed a game of football, played enthusiastically upon an uneven waste of sand by Egyptian youths very completely dressed in green and white jerseys, white shorts, striped stockings, and shiny black football boots. They cried ‘ip-ip-ooray’ each time they kicked the ball, and some of them blew whistles; a goat or two wandered amongst them, nosing up morsels of lightly buried refuse.51
Certainly, a use of the term game to mean ‘sport’ or ‘sporting’ (or the use of these terms themselves) often tells us, in Waugh’s fiction, more about the speaker than a physical description could. In Decline and Fall the very fact that Dr Fagan’s advertisement for a schoolmaster stipulates ‘first-class games essential’ (16) is indicative of his conventionality as a headmaster and of that of the school. Protagonist Paul Pennyfeather’s later admission, on the other hand, that he is ‘not very well up in sporting characters’ (51), suggests his preference for more sedentary and intellectual pursuits, his syntax also revealing—if we take ‘sporting’ as a synonym for ‘wearing’ here—an incapacity for disguise and deceit. The man Nina Blount will ultimately marry, Ginger Littlejohn’s evident embarrassment in Vile Bodi es over the fact that the ultimatum he is about to present to her former boyfriend Adam Fenwick-Symes ‘sounds rather unsporting’ (164) is indicative of his own reliance upon the outmoded principles of the public-school playing-field. It is a reliance he appears to share with ‘little Britisher’ and railway contractor Mr Jagger of Black Mischief, who complains, on being paid in the worthless local currency: ‘It’s not playing the game, Mr Seal, […] I tell you that fair and square and I don’t mind who knows it, not if it’s the Emperor himself’ (152).
Jagger’s evocation of this public-school code may, as his allusion to the emperor implies, be purely aspirational, however, an affectation such as Arthur Atwater adopts in Work Suspended (1939). Atwater’s assertion that novelist and protagonist John Plant is ‘very sporting’ is more indicative of his own parasitical pretensions to public-school connections than of his interlocutor’s good nature—the use of ‘sporting’ here being as symptomatic of its speaker’s class-consciousness as we have seen some uses of queer to be.53 It is a facile understatement. Given that Atwater has just admitted to knocking down and killing John’s father with his motor-car, John’s restraint is not just sporting, it is near-miraculous. For the more credulous amongst Waugh’s characters, however, the public-school code of honour disseminated on the sports-field remains the cornerstone of adult behaviour. Freddy Sothill’s admission in Put Out More Flags that attempting to secure the Malfrey gardeners exemption from active service in 1939 ‘hardly seems playing the game’ (15), whilst it is undoubtedly true, also reveals substantially more about why he does not get on with his brother-in-law, Basil Seal, than he could express directly. It would be fair to suggest that Waugh sees such game references as woefully inadequate in dealing with the challenges of modern life, their use inspiring in him a similar sentiment to that expressed by his friend and fellow-journalist, Patrick Balfour, in Society Racket (1933): ‘Our fathers will continue to “play the game” long after it is played out and a new game, with new rules, begun’ (201). Certainly, Waugh would himself later declare of his own father: ‘The moral code of his upbringing he accepted without question.’54
Yet it is a moral code whose usage both Waugh and Balfour, as experienced newspaper journalists, have seen stretched beyond recognition as often by unscrupulous members of this elder generation as by those of their own. A media-savvy minority for whom, within the context of business and politics, the word game has ceased to connote ‘fair dealings’ and instead become synonymous with ‘dealings’ of any kind, the more disingenuous of Waugh’s characters often use the term euphemistically in referring to arrangements of an exploitative—if not strictly illegal—nature, the African novels Scoop and Black Mischief providing several good examples. In the former, Mr Salter, foreign editor for the Beast newspaper, characterizes his work for the tellingly named Megalopolitan Newspaper Corporation as a kind of ‘ingenious game’ (34), a metaphor that is sustained, through an accumulation of game-play vocabulary, throughout the novel. Journalism is itself a game and as such, the corporation’s owner advises new-recruit William Boot—an inexperienced reporter erroneously hired in his namesake’s stead—there ‘are two invaluable rules for the special correspondent’ (41). When a weary William is himself later questioned by French customs officials about the cleft sticks he has brought with him, supposedly for the transportation of dispatches and in strict adherence to one of Lord Copper’s ‘invaluable’ rules, he allows them to persist in their misapprehension:
William aims only at expediency here, however. Meeting other journalists on his outward journey—amongst and about whom ‘as a rule’ (88; 93; 110) serves as a common observation—he is appalled to learn that, as foreign correspondents for rival firms, they are actively ‘competing’ (70) against one another. Where, for many public-school men, recourse to the language of the playing-field might provide comfort, it only serves to confuse and alarm William. Journalism is not a ‘game’ that he asked to play and, unfamiliar with its rules, he cannot see himself being any good at it. He is an outsider—an innocent—unable to decipher the jargon with which he is presented not only in the messages he receives from staff at the Beast offices in London, but also in the everyday conversation of his new confederates.
‘Ils sont pour porter les dépêches.’
‘C’est un Sport?’
‘Oui, oui, certainement—le Sport.’ (54)
In Black Mischief, and later in Put Out More Flags, Basil Seal suffers no such incomprehension. He is ‘a rascal […] game for anything’ and, as his activities in both novels demonstrate, that ‘anything’ usually takes the form of the illicit business deal.55 It is clear that he knows his business—his ‘game’ as he would put it—and that he can spot a fellow player. Recognizing one in Krikor Youkoumian in Black Mischief and taking him on accordingly, as his assistant, Basil finds nothing remarkable in old-colonial General Connolly’s outburst: ‘I’ve been in the country long enough to see through Youkoumian’s game. Selling junk to government has been the staple industry of Debra Dowa as long as I can remember it’ (131). This sort of lucrative ‘game’ is precisely the reason for Basil’s presence in Azania. Again, in Put Out More Flags , having realized that he has failed to retain any legitimate job simply because he sees every ‘potential employer as his opponent in a game of skill’ (48), it is of course Basil who—joining his sister Barbara at Malfrey during the first winter or the war under the pretence of writing a book on military strategy—comprehends the extent to which streetwise evacuee Doris Connolly is controlling the behaviour of her younger siblings, Micky and Marlene, and turns the business to his advantage: ‘I think it’s a very good game of yours making the kids be a nuisance, but we’re going to play it my way in future’ (102). Basil’s use of vocabulary here is influenced in part by his immediate audience—he is, of course, talking to a child—but, at the same time, it arguably also speaks to a deeper affinity between him and these queer children. It is evident that he seeks more than mere writerly seclusion at Malfrey, but equally as evident is the fact that Barbara no longer retains the capacity to give it, whole-heartedly at any rate: ‘Barbara herself pretended to no illusions about Basil. […] They had played pirates together in the nursery and the game was over. Basil played pirates alone’ (15). In Doris, on the other hand, whose instinct is to bargain with him as an opponent—insisting he ‘play fair’ by her and her siblings when he learns of their deceit (90)—Basil finds a kindred spirit, a match for the inner queer child that has seen his development arrested as those around him have grown and matured. She is someone with whom he can play pirates, and does, repeatedly sending the children into unsuspecting homes to do their worst and accepting bribes to remove them. On yet another level, then, by allowing Basil to term this scheme a ‘game’ Waugh highlights the sheer hypocrisy of the small-time upper-class crook, who justifies profiting from war on the grounds that his share has been negligible compared to that of the big businessman, arguing that his crime is somehow less serious because he is just ‘playing’ at business.
In framing her own relations with her brother as a game, however, Barbara herself can also be seen to be participating in a linguistic trend that spans Waugh’s long 1930s. Indeed, the word game itself, and its associated terms, recur most frequently, in the novels, in references to the most intimate of human relationships—friendships, love affairs, marriages and familial bonds—and it is on the success or failure of these relationships that much of the fiction comes to depend. In the early fiction flirtation in particular is figured as a game. Nina’s connection with Ginger in Vile Bodies is founded solely on the fact that ‘the young man used to play with her as a child’ (99), a fact that, through its repetition in the novel, comes to characterize their engagement—for jilted boyfriend Adam at least—as a simple matter of cause and effect: ‘She used to play with him when they were children. So she’s going to marry him’ (157). The perfunctory connection Adam makes between playing and marriage lends the verb ‘to play’ a wholly euphemistic quality, and the euphemism recurs in A Handful of Dust with reference to Brenda Last’s relationships with men. Seen first at Hetton interacting with her husband Tony in what the narrator terms ‘scenes of domestic playfulness’ (18), her subsequent meeting with John Beaver, the man with whom she will go on to have an extra-marital affair, finds her engaged in playfulness of a subtly different sort: ‘Brenda and Beaver were on the sofa playing games together’ (37). Beaver himself, we learn, on securing Brenda’s affections is viewed by other men simply ‘as a successful fellow competitor’ (58). In implying that Brenda is both a ‘player’ in her own right, and the ‘prize’ at stake in this game, Waugh recalls Adam’s last-ditch attempt to win Nina in Vile Bodies by arguing that he has ‘first claim’ to her. She counters with what is by then the inevitable refrain: ‘I used to play with Ginger as a child’ (160).
A potential source for this connection between flirtation and play in the early novels is later suggested by the author himself in A Little Learning as he describes a recurrent episode from his adolescence. Recalling visits to the family home of his brother’s fiancée, Barbara Jacobs, Waugh recollects how he and Barbara’s siblings entertained themselves, pausing to introduce ‘a second sister, a dark, handsome girl, slightly younger than I, with whom my terms of friendship were quite different from those with Barbara’ (120). He continues:
In mentioning the ‘local dances’ for which the music-room has previously been used, Waugh immediately evokes an atmosphere of adolescent sensuality, nervous interaction between the sexes prompted by a new-found proximity. His initial remark might as easily refer to the confused juvenile flirtations of such events as to his experiments with Barbara’s sister: ‘Here a children’s game of undefined rules was played in the dark.’ Here, as in A Handful of Dust, ‘ play’ offers a pretext for physical contact, the mere mention—or ‘proposal’ as Waugh’s vocabulary implies—of ‘the dark game’ serving, within the presence of others, as a coded plea for intimacy. In both cases—though for entirely different reasons—evoking the terms of play allows both parties a degree of deniability should it be necessary for them to convince themselves, or to persuade others, that their ‘game’ is simply that.
There was a large, galleried music-room at Beechcroft with a slippery oak floor often lent for dances. Here a children’s game of undefined rules was played in the dark. The ostensible object was for one party to crawl through the ranks of the other to a goal on the further side. Here on the polished floor she and I would seek one another, grapple and […] silently cling and roll together. We maintained the pretence of conflict. There was no kissing, merely rapturous minutes of close embrace. No mention of our intimacy was ever made between us. But after the game […] we would exchange glances of complicity and it was always either she or I who proposed ‘the dark game.’ (120)
We see references similar to those of Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust in Green, Powell and Mitford’s work of the long 1930s. John Haye of Green’s debut novel Blindness (1926) notes that ‘being shy […] was all part of the game’ as he forms a relationship with a local girl.56 In his memoir Pack My Bag (1940) Green recalls as a ‘little game’ the habit made by a group of girls, during his teenage years, of stripping to bathe in the river at which he fished, half-conscious of his observation.57 Powell’s From a View to a Death (1933) renders the phrase wholly euphemistic as an old acquaintance, unconvinced that artist Arthur Zouch is at Passenger Court as a guest of the family, jibes, ‘are you having a little game with one of the housemaids?’58 A novel that in its very title frames love as a game or pastime, Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love finds Fanny Logan recalling how she and her cousins took the news that their Aunt Emily—Fanny’s guardian—was to be married in middle-age. She admits that they were incredulous: ‘Like all the very young we took it for granted that making love was child’s play’ (18). On learning of the relative youth of Emily’s fiancé, moreover, eldest cousin Louisa teases: ‘I foresee trouble. Supposing he falls in love with Fanny, that’ll be a pretty kettle of fish, […] he’ll be playing rough games and pinching you in bed, see if he doesn’t’ (19).
Waugh also uses the playing of specific games—particularly card and paper games—amongst his characters as a means of exposing the true dynamics of their personal relationships. In Black Mischief Basil joins Sonia and Alastair Trumpington for dinner on his last night in England. After the meal, we are told, ‘they all played happy families’ (79). Waugh’s decision not to capitalize ‘happy families’ is key: though it is clear that the three are playing the card game, this omission allows for the implication that, in lieu of truly happy families, this group of disaffected outsiders are forced to create a pseudo-familial unit and pretend amongst themselves. It is a habit to which the disappointments of her own family have rendered Basil’s widowed mother Cynthia long accustomed, she and her friend Sir Joseph Man warring indulging in a ‘nursery game of “let’s pretend”’ (82) over her son’s future, even as he plays his card game across town. Later in the same novel we see a party from the English Legation in Azania ‘play consequences on the menu cards’ (109) to stave off boredom at an official function. The implication here is that they will only ever be able to ‘play’ at consequences because they are all too lacklustre to achieve anything of personal consequence, such as a happy marriage or a serious love affair, in real life. It is one of the novel’s most amusing ironies that finding the remnants of their gam amongst the debris of the parry confirms the paranoid French Legation in their misguided belief that the English are ‘playing a deep game’ (106) of political intrigue.
It is, however, in the tense hours that follow the premature death of Tony and Brenda Last’s only son John in A Handful of Dust that we see this device put to its most poignant and sustained use. Left alone with a perfect stranger—the patience-playing morphine addict Mrs Rattery—Tony awaits the call that will tell him that his absent wife has been found and informed of the accident:
They have been talking at cross-purposes for hours—she playing patience, he pacing the room—but here, for an instant, their thoughts appear to coincide. Mrs Rattery’s final remark—framed ostensibly as an aside about the card game itself—is in fact applicable to the situation on several levels. We are left wondering if she feels that patience—the act of being patient—is a ‘heart-breaking game’ too. This is certainly the case for Mitford’s Fanny and Linda in The Pursuit of Love who ‘play endless games of patience’ (35)—the game here as in A Handful of Dust not being vouchsafed the status of proper noun—as they await their coming-out ball, ‘longing for love’ (35). Such is the ambiguity of Waugh’s scene, however, that Mrs Rattery may also be referring to marriage (she knows Brenda is not where Tony supposes her to be), to parenthood and the grief caused by the loss of an only child, or simply to love itself—or what passes for love in high society.
‘It’s a pity you don’t play patience,’ said Mrs Rattery.
‘In a way I shall feel happier when she knows … it feels all wrong as it is at present, having it as a secret that Brenda doesn’t know. … I’m not sure how she fits in her day. I suppose her last lecture is over at about five. … I wonder if she goes home first to change if she’s going out to tea or cocktails. She can’t sit about much in the flat, it’s so small.’
Mrs Rattery brooded over her chequer of cards and then drew them towards her into a heap, haphazard once more and without meaning; it had nearly come to a solution that time, but for a six of diamonds out of place, and a stubbornly congested patch at one corner, where nothing could be made to move. ‘It’s a heart-breaking game,’ she said. (110–11)
References to love as a game persist, but it is only in Waugh’s later writings of the period, and in incomplete novel Work Suspended in particular, that we see a more mature analysis of why the metaphor has been defaulted to, in this context, so many times before. Waughesque novelist John Plant admits that he has himself written of love ‘continually as a game’ but questions how this can possibly help in ‘the simple task of describing, so that others may see her, the woman one loves?’ (276). When he meets a young fan who still sees love as ‘half a game’ (288), he pities her, even as he acknowledges that he has yet to fully extricate himself from this notion. As he begins to fall in love with his friend’s pregnant wife, Lucy Simmonds, he inevitably resorts to his usual ‘tactics’ in gaining her confidence: ‘I moved for advantage as in a parlour game’ (289). When this approach fails, he is forced into a more considered assessment of his friendships, past and present:
In this brief passage John verbalizes something that lurks beneath the surface of Waugh’s earlier novels. In his privileged position as a novelist John is able to express a desire that Adam Fenwick-Symes and Tony Last can only grope at: with the phrase ‘absolute intimacy’ he puts a name to that elusive ‘something different’ so craved by these earlier characters.59
There was little love and no trust at all between any of my friends. Moreover, we were bored; each knew the other so well that it was only by making our friendship into a kind of competitive parlour game that we kept it alive at all. […] Lucy […] could not cope with the attack and defence, the deception and exposure which was our habitual intercourse. Anything less than absolute intimacy embarrassed her. (296–7)
Waugh is as dubious as Isherwood about the use of the term family to convey pedigree or breeding, but his position as an outsider—he does not hail from the landed class that Isherwood is so embarrassed to have been born into—gives his satire added bite. Waugh plays on the implications of generations of in-breeding amongst the aristocracy: for him, coming from a ‘good family’ is more likely to imply eccentricity or madness than unimpeachable morality and virtue. The Stayle family at the heart of early story ‘A House of Gentlefolks’ are precisely that. When the family lawyer arrives in London to take the young Marques home, cancelling his summer abroad on the orders of his grandfather, he gives the following stilted excuses: ‘the boy was not quite sane … very sad … these old families […] discredit on a great name’ (48). Any attentive reader will have grasped, however, that it is not the Marques but his ageing guardians who are insane, though they are going the right way about ensuring the boy is driven mad, too. Decline and Fall opens with a series of ironic references to the future leaders of the empire, our omniscient narrator framing the shrill cries of the rampaging Bollinger Club as ‘the sound of the English country families baying for broken glass’ (8), before dryly observing, in response to the drunken misapprehensions of one of their number: ‘It is not for nothing that since pre-Christian times his family has exercised chieftainship over unchartered miles of barren moorland’ (10). In Wales, in the unfortunate aftermath of this eventful evening in Oxford, a proud Dr Fagan tells newly-appointed schoolmaster Paul: ‘Many of the boys come from the very best families. Little Lord Tangent has come to us this year, […] a nice little chap, erratic, of course, like all his family, but he has tone’ (18). It is doubtful that Paul receives any comfort from this, however, the erratic behaviour of several—slightly older—young men of tone having precipitated his expulsion from the university.
Almost all of Waugh’s major characters of the long 1930s are fatherless—Paul Pennyfeather, Adam Fenwick-Symes, Basil Seal, Tony Last, William Boot, John Plant—and, of those who are not, few can claim to have been sired by entirely sane men. Nina Blount of Vile Bodies is the only child of widower Colonel Blount, a man who lives in a house ‘dark with family portraits’ (59) and yet cannot recognize the real faces of current family members when he sees them, welcoming Nina’s lover Adam into the family home for the Christmas period under the misapprehension that he is her husband, Ginger Littlejohn. Another widower, Charles Ryder’s father in Brideshead Revisited delights in creating ‘a little fantasy for himself,’ and tormenting dinner guests in accordance with it, in what Charles terms a ‘one-sided parlour-game’ (69). Sebastian Flyte’s father—the exiled head of a household variously referred to as ‘an odd family’ (41), ‘a very sinister family’ (53) and ‘an awful family’ (122)—has simply become the ‘family skeleton’ (161). Subject, as this metaphor suggests, to a kind of living death, Lord Marchmain is rarely visited and hardly spoken of or to, except by his younger son. With such precedents, it is not difficult to understand why Waugh mocks so viciously what in A Handful of Dust he terms the ‘atavistic faith in the authority and preternatural good judgement of the Head of the Family’ (145).
It is an attitude expressed in the writings of many of Waugh’s friends and contemporaries throughout the 1930s. In Powell’s Afternoon Men we are given a brief history of artist Raymond Pringle’s family:
Although Powell does not himself explain explicitly what a ‘go-ahead’ family is, the phrase is clearly—as is suggested by the auspicious purchase of the Cézanne—an Anglicization of avant-garde. It also implies, on the one hand, a type of ambition often called ‘get-up-and-go,’ and on the other, a potentially dangerous tendency towards spontaneity and recklessness. Inheriting the latter quality—and perhaps a variation on the religious mania—Raymond inevitably attempts suicide himself. He, however, fails. Those characters of Powell’s that still have fathers do not fare much better. Susan Nunnery of Afternoon Men has, like Waugh’s Nina Blount, been raised by ‘one of those brilliant men whose mind has become a complete blank’ (64). In Venusberg Powell’s protagonist Da Costa, forced to take a position as honorary attaché to the British Legation in Venusberg because it ‘was considered by the Da Costa family to be the very thing’ (7), is shot dead only days before he is due to return to London. In the later From a View to a Death brothers Jasper and Torquil Fosdick—whose names, we are told, ‘had been in the Fosdick family for several generations and were not therefore in themselves any indication of personal eccentricity. On the contrary, it was in this case the names which took on a vicarious importance from their owners’ (20)—are more than matched in their oddity by their father. A cross-dressing amateur poet, Major Fosdick, having been caught in his sequinned evening dress, suffers a nervous breakdown and ends the novel in a lunatic asylum. Yet for all their absurdities Powell’s Major Fosdick and George Nunnery, like Waugh’s Colonel Blount and Edward Ryder, are far more than mere figures of fun. These men are certainly caricatures but their behaviour is, I would suggest, symptomatic of the often unreasonably proscriptive demands and expectations of normative familial roles. These figures serve as a challenge to society’s ‘atavistic faith in the authority and preternatural good judgement’ of the father in an era in which the structure of ‘the traditional family’ was itself in flux. Arguably, then, whilst Waugh and his circle share Isherwood’s disdain for value judgements based on pedigree, they refuse to reject the family as an institution in and of itself, choosing instead to critique its dependence on gender norms.
Pringle came of a go-ahead family. His father, a business man from Ulster, had bought a Cézanne in 1911. That had been the beginning. Then he had divorced his wife. Later he developed religious mania and jumped off a suspension bridge. But, although he had ill-treated his children during the religious period, he left them all some money, and Pringle, though he did not much care for parting with it, had a considerable income. (2–3)
This is clear from their use of terms such as home and homely, with which family is closely associated, but from which its less desirable traditions and conventions might as easily be distinguished, in favour of alternative models of gender and kinship. Indeed, in Society Racket, Patrick Balfour makes a plea for the home:
There was something of a professional rivalry between Waugh and Balfour. In his former guise as a society hack, Balfour had served as a model for neurotic gossip columnist Simon Balcairn in Vile Bodies and Waugh’s derision persisted, even as Balfour sought advice on this more substantial critical project. As D.J. Taylor explains, Waugh, ‘given the first draft to read, affected to be unimpressed’ (34). Yet Balfour’s sentiments—his belief in a ‘home instinct’ that can survive the inevitable loosening of family ties, his dismay in its erosion and his sense of the soullessness of the homeless—appears nonetheless to be shared not only by Waugh but also by Acton, Mitford and Powell. In this period, as Valentine Cunningham notes, the traditional cycle of preparatory school, public school and the university meant that ‘an experience of home deprivation kept up right into one’s early twenties’ (128) was hardly exceptional for young men of Waugh’s class, still less for those of Acton’s or Powell’s. Yet Waugh seems to have reacted against this ‘home deprivation’ with peculiar vehemence, the experience serving to sharpen, rather than blunt his home instinct. In A Little Learning he would later assert his life-long preference for ‘the close circle of my home and family’ (56) over other forms of company, claiming that, like his father, in adulthood his ‘primary, overriding, instinctive aim was to make a home’ (79).
Comfort may seem a minor and purely physical consideration. But it is more significant. It stands for taste, good sense, simplicity and a homely disposition. The word ‘homely’ in fashionable circles is a term of reproach. It conjures up visions of a vegetable existence; of strong women with shiny faces, brawny arms and an imagination confined by housewifery. This is no mere affectation, but symptomatic of a fundamental attitude towards the home as an institution. He who is homeless is rootless; he who is rootless is soulless. Modern smart society is both.
The slackening of family ties makes for individualism in the children. But the decay of the home instinct need and should not accompany it. Each man can make his own home, whose influence is indeed essential to his balance and general well-being. (219)
Nowhere in the 1930s fiction are these sentiments more evident than in A Handful of Dust which, I would argue, offers an early vision of what Kristin Jacobson terms the ‘hybrid concept of domestic masculinity’ in both its content and its form, as a work in many ways devoted ‘not only to men’s particular relationships with the domestic sphere or feminized, domestic practices but also to the generic blending of the […] masculine social novel and the feminine domestic novel.’60 In Tony and Brenda Last’s conflicting and ultimately irreconcilable attitudes to the home we see these categories turned on their heads, Tony’s story taking on the characteristics of the feminine domestic novel—private, rural and ordered—as his wife’s comes more and more to resemble its masculine counterpart—public, metropolitan and spontaneous. Described by one character as ‘solid and homely and good’ (85), Tony is as ill-equipped as many of Waugh’s male characters for the duties of patriarchal masculinity, yet he is perhaps the author’s first truly sympathetic protagonist. He represents an attempt to rehabilitate the ‘homely’ in the way that Balfour suggests, whilst simultaneously challenging the efficacy of normative gender roles. Tony’s great passion is the family home at Hetton, his ancestral seat serving not only as a symbol of his heritage, but also as a place of ‘peace and stability’ (60) for his wife and young son John: ‘He always hated staying away’ (62). His pleasure in ‘the happy circle of loved faces, of home and family’ (60), in country life and its domestic duties, visiting ‘the home farm’ (77) and watching John grow in tranquillity, are not shared by Brenda, for whom a house is not a home but a purely material necessity, merely ‘somewhere to dress and telephone’ (42). When, in order to be closer to her lover, she takes rooms in London modernized precisely for this purpose, Tony and their son John are left alone in the country to dream of her ‘spending more time at home’ (63). Whilst she might well argue that Tony is ‘crazy about the place’ (36), she cannot see that without her, Hetton ceases to be a home either for her husband or for her son.
For this reason, then, Douglas Lane Patey’s characterization of A Handful of Dust as a ‘tale of domestic infidelity’ is perhaps more incisive than it at first appears.61 Tony and Brenda’s is not simply a story of marital unfaithfulness. Brenda’s betrayal is, for Tony, far more than the personal slight that this narrative arc would imply. Her adultery, coupled with her refusal to consider having another child after John’s premature death, and her subsequent move to the city, is a betrayal of the home instinct itself, robbing Tony of all ‘the cares of domesticity’ (137) for which he is fitted. Sharing his author’s primary, overriding, instinctive aim to make a home, Tony would appear to be the very antithesis of earlier queer characters such as sometime schoolmaster and pederast Captain Grimes, for whom the term ‘home’ is a dirty word and the prospect of joining the ranks of the ‘homebuilders’ enough to drive him to fake his own death.62 Yet Tony is, in his own ‘homely’ way, just as queer, since as Jacobson notes, even today ‘domestic masculinity troubles or otherwise “queers” conventional gender roles, spaces, and readings, particularly as they relate to men and homemaking’ (219). Brenda certainly regards her husband as queer. When a friend suggests they find Tony a mistress to distract him, she has little faith in the plan proving successful, replying: ‘I’m afraid you don’t understand the old boy altogether. He’s much odder than you’d think’ (91). Tony, however flawed and thwarted he may be, as the first of Waugh’s male homemakers represents the earliest and most sustained portrayal of domestic masculinity in the fiction, but he is by no means the last either to challenge fashionable living standards or to trouble conventional gender norms through his relationship with the home.
Torn from his homespun rural bachelorhood at Boot Magna by a summons from Mr Salter, foreign editor at the Beast newspaper, William Boot spends the early part of Scoop trying desperately to convince the incredulous urbanite that he simply wishes to leave London and ‘go on living at home’ (33). Despite having repeatedly ‘told Mr Salter that he wanted nothing except to live at home and keep his job’ (46) as it stands—writing a ‘bi-weekly half-column’ (16) on domestic wildlife—he finds himself bustled about the city and kitted out as a foreign correspondent. For William as for Waugh the sentiments of Waugh’s mother ring true: ‘from her I learned that towns are places of exile where the unfortunate are driven to congregate in order to earn their livings in an unhealthy and unnatural way.’63 William is not made for the nomadic existence of the city-hopping modern journalist, a life lived on the fringes of domesticity, pausing only momentarily ‘in those night-refuges they called their homes’ (89). For William the rural environs and domestic rhythms of the family seat are ‘the ideal of home.’64 Even for those of Waugh’s protagonists seemingly content in being on the move, the home instinct remains strong, often belying this surface contentment. Subtitled ‘My Father’s House’ the extant chapters of Work Suspended find John Plant, on the death of his father and the sale of his house, overwhelmed by a ‘sense of homelessness’ (256) not just because he has lost the house—he has, in any case, spent very little time there in recent years—but because he has lost everything that it stood for. The sale marks a severance as much psychological as physical, as John himself distinguishes, linguistically: ‘I had given up living in St John’s Wood for four or five years. There was never a definite moment when I “left home”’ (242).
Nor is this preoccupation with the decay of the home instinct limited either to Waugh himself, or to the arguably more reflective period of the mid- to late-1930s, Acton’s Humdrum broaching what would prove a prescient theme as early as 1928, Having witnessed at one remove the rootlessness of contemporary smart society, when Acton’s Joan Clutton and Michael Calthorp marry, they are determined ‘to prove exceptions to the “nasty” modern rule’ (102). They endeavour to make their new house as ‘home-like’ (104) as they possibly can, christening it ‘the Nest’ (103) and throwing ‘a house-warming party’ (107) as soon as they are settled. They maintain, we are told, that ‘the only pleasure in going abroad is to get back home again’ (103). Acton is perhaps a little heavy-handed here—homely Joan is set up as a counterpoint to her rootless sister Linda—but the cumulative effect of these references throws the latter half of Joan’s story into sharp relief. When she becomes a mother, her decision to spend more time in London with Linda than at ‘the Nest’ with her husband and son is viewed, from within, as ‘a subversive act of anarchy in their domestic household’ (183), yet the sheer hyperbole of this formulation suggests authorial support for Joan’s desire to test—however tentatively—accepted gender norms. Thus, when she is faced with the premature death of both Michael and their infant son in a house-fire, it is not a punishment for her absence but a critical turning point. Her decision to sever herself completely from what she terms the ‘business of dowdy domesticity’ (213), rather than to rebuild her life—a severance symbolized by the small and uncomfortable studio she takes in London—is figured, more so even than the loss of her young family, as her personal tragedy. In accepting the ‘fashionable’ misconception of the ‘homely’ as the only model of domestic femininity, and thus turning her back on domesticity per se, she forfeits the ‘balance and general well-being’ that Balfour sees as contingent upon the true home.
Published at the other extremity of the long 1930s, Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is arguably a much more considered—and, for good reason, more explicitly sympathetic—reprise of Acton’s central themes. Much like Joan and Linda Clutton in their youth, Fanny Logan and her cousin Linda Radlett are set in counterpoint throughout the novel, Linda’s craving for adoration in high society proving her own tragic flaw. Recalling the appearance of neighbour Lord Merlin and his London friends at a party at Alconleigh, Fanny meditates:
Indeed, as the two girls grow older, it is Linda’s rather than Fanny’s life that begins to follow the pattern set by Fanny’s absent mother—nicknamed ‘the Bolter’ because she ‘ran away so often, and with so many different people’ (2)—whilst Fanny marries a young academic, ‘finding in our home at Oxford that refuge from the storms and puzzles of life which I had always wanted’ (84). Yet Mitford judges neither girl. If Waugh and Acton embrace the homely in adulthood as a reaction against the ‘experience of home deprivation’ that coloured their youth, Mitford—born, raised, educated and, indeed, kept beyond her years within the ‘security’ of the family home—had herself experienced the very opposite, Linda’s hasty and ultimately unhappy first marriage arguably representing a reaction against what we might term a surfeit of home. This is not to suggest that either Mitford or her heroine lack the home instinct or see ‘homely’ as a term of reproach in the way that Baldur describes. Indeed, it is the overriding desire for a truly happy home that, with a cruel irony, motivates all Linda’s subsequent bolts, and in Fanny we see Mitford’s own vision of a balanced modern domestic femininity. For Fanny has seen both sides in her short life. Abandoned by her parents as an infant, before being taken ‘home’ by her Aunt Emily, she has experienced the security of a loving home in combination with the relative freedoms of a day school, Emily—unlike Linda’s parents—firmly believing that ‘home influence is admitted to be a most important part of education. […] A most important, but not by any means the most important’ (30).
Linda was entranced by them, and decided then and there that she would become one of these brilliant beings and live in their world, even if it took her a lifetime to accomplish. I did not aspire to this. I saw that they were admirable, but they were far removed from me and my orbit, belonging more to that of my parents: my back had been turned towards them that day Aunt Emily had taken me home, and there was no return—nor did I wish it. (45)
Only in Powell’s Venusberg do we see the decay of the home instinct in modern society overtly considered as a culturally specific phenomenon, as an outcome of Anglo-Saxon social life, Powell’s Baltic setting and diplomatic milieu allowing for an international perspective. Joining Venusberger Ortrud Mavrin for coffee after dinner one evening American Curtis Cortney remarks:
There is no escaping Cortney’s air of condescending patronage here, towards Ortrud both as a native of ‘this little country’ and as a woman, wife and mother, to all appearances in her ‘place.’ Yet it is remarkable how alike in other respects the sentiments of this passage are to those Balfour expresses. The irony here is that Ortrud is having an extra-marital affair—indulging, like the goddess for whom the mythological mountain of Venusberg was named, the lusts of young men—and not for the first time.65 When we consider, however, that this affair involves an Englishman—and our rootless protagonist at that—Cortney’s concern is validated. English smart society, like American smart society, the novel suggests, is hell-bent on breaking homes. There is, in fact, a sense that the decay of the home instinct has progressed faster in English smart society than it has across the Atlantic: when he later overhears a dinner guest joking that he has fallen in love with a married woman, Cortney asserts, ‘you mustn’t make jokes like that in the presence of someone who comes from the New World, there we still try to retain our homely code of morals’ (71).
Frau Mavrin, what I marvel at in this little country of yours is your home life. Now in America, I hope not too late, we are realising what a sacred institution the home is and how it is threatened by the stress of modern life. It is in the home that the children are being raised that the nation of the future will be proud of and it’s in the home that the finest flower of our womanhood should find its true place. (55)
A mercurial figure, here as elsewhere, Cortney’s meaning is open to interpretation. By ‘homely’ he would appear—particularly given his recent conversation with Ortrud—to mean all that Balfour hopes to see the term reinvested with: balance, simplicity, well-being. Yet he might as easily be engaging in knowing self-satire: this is, after all, a man who, as we have seen, thinks nothing of offering to procure girls to ‘party’ (104) with a melancholy friend. In this case, he may have precisely the opposite in mind, intending to evoke the dull, dowdy and familiar or accustomed—the ‘vegetable existence’ with which the term has become associated in fashionable parlance—as a joke at his own and his countrymen’s expense. Indeed, Waugh’s fiction of the period sees the term familiar used as a synonym for homely in just this way within fashionable circles, Waugh choosing to exploit its inherent polyvalence—traditionally indicative of that which pertains to the family, the term serves as a synonym for ‘intimate’ and ‘accustomed’ or ‘usual’ as well—and that of its opposite, as a mode of commentary on ‘smart’ society. In the first flush of her affair in A Handful of Dust Brenda is disappointed to encounter ‘a familiar voice’ (51) when she answers the telephone in the expectation of hearing John Beaver’s unaccustomed tones. Yet she is equally as discomfited on confronting, whilst still ignorant of her son’s death at home in the country, the ‘unfamiliar expressions’ (118) of her fashionable London friends. Waugh’s use of ‘unfamiliar’ rather than a synonym such as ‘strange’ here is calculated and double-edged. The stricken expressions that Brenda regards are strange, of course, but they also have absolutely no sympathy for the family—or the home—as an institution. The news of John’s accident marks the intrusion of the familiar into their sphere, and serves as a reproach, any change in their countenances stemming from mortification rather than from concern.
In Put Out More Flags and Brideshead Revisited Waugh continues to play—now within a wartime setting—with the traditional implications of familiar as a term. When, in the former, Barbara Sothill comes across ‘six dejected women sat in a row staring fixedly at the closed doors of the Sothill Arms’ it is ‘an unfamiliar spectacle’ (11) not simply because she does not recognize the women, but because, separated from their husbands and children, they do not present the appearance of being of the family. Defamiliarization in this sense is figured as an inevitable outcome of war’s processes; of relocation, evacuation and conscription. The term recurs in a sardonic description of Sir Joseph Mainwaring’s pleasure at the outbreak of war: ‘there was an unfamiliar buoyancy in his bearing as though he had been at somebody’s Eno’s’ (21). His buoyancy is unfamiliar not only because it is unusual, but, I would suggest, also because it is the manifestation of a joy that utterly disregards the plight of the family. The reference to a popular brand of effervescent salts—and the suggestion that Sir Joseph has purloined them—emphasizes the potential threat to the domestic. In the opening pages of Brideshead Revisited Charles Ryder notes the disappointment of his men, who, hopeful of seeing action, at each new camp ‘sniffed the smell of the fried-fish shops and cocked their ears to familiar, peace-time sounds of the works’ siren and the dance-hall band’ (4). These familiar smells and sounds—not just recognizable but inextricable from the home—are of no comfort to these men, separated from their families and yet still unable to fulfil their military potential.
The interplay between the familiar and the unfamiliar—the ability of objects, situations and people to be both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time—fascinates Waugh. It is a paradox that forms the basis of short story ‘Out of Depth’ (1933) which details protagonist Rip Van Winkle’s transportation many centuries into the future by mysterious party-guest Dr Kakophilos. Coming to his senses in twenty-fifth-century London, Rip finds himself amidst the overgrown ruins of the city, on the outskirts of a small, mud-built village. As the village stirs he observes its people: ‘Tousled households appeared on the little platforms before the huts; women scratching their heads, shaking out blankets; naked children.’66 Listening to the tribesmen speak, he recalls, their ‘words seemed familiar and yet unintelligible’ (131). What is most surprising here is our protagonist’s own lack of anxiety. For a man who is only comfortable amongst ‘familiar […] faces’ (121), he is remarkably calm. His composure is attributable to the fact that something in these people, in both their behaviour and their way of life, really is familiar to him, their lifestyle as much as their ‘familiar but unintelligible’ language rekindling ‘the home instinct’ latent within him.
Captured and transported down what remains of the Thames, Rip passes through numerous smaller villages on his route to the coast, where a single word, overheard by chance, prompts him to reflect:
Like Albert Gates of Mitford’s Highland Fling who, ‘without any definite home ties’ (1) seeks shelter at ‘that spiritual home of Oxonian youth’ (1), the Ritz, Rip has spent his life travelling from characterless, steam-heated place to characterless, steam-heated place. These places are familiar in the sense that they are easily recognizable to Rip but they are also, as he here begins to perceive, unfamiliar in that they do not pertain to the family or the home in the way the simple but homely huts of twenty-fifth-century London do. What follows for Rip is an epiphanic experience. Taken to what appears to be ‘a log-built church’ (136–7) he squats ‘among a native congregation’ (137), overcome by a unique sensation: ‘something that was new and yet ageless. […] Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos’ (136).
There was a talk of sending him ‘home.’ ‘Home,’ thought Rip, and beyond the next official town, vague and more distinct, he saw the orderly succession of characterless, steam-heated apartments, the cabin trunks and promenade decks, the casinos and bars and supper restaurants, that were his home. (136)
This is perhaps an extreme example. Yet Waugh’s preoccupation with the simultaneously strange and familiar lingers, finding expression in Work Suspended and Brideshead Revisited in ways that speak to his own aspiration to domestic masculinity. John, in the former, visits the family home after his father’s funeral. He reflects: ‘Every object was familiar and yet so much a part of its surroundings that later, when they came to be moved, I found a number of things which I barely recognized’ (251). These familiar objects become unfamiliar as soon as they are removed from the domestic sphere—once removed, they no longer pertain to the family or the home in the way that even the ‘bourgeois furniture’ (272) amidst which expectant parents Rodger and Lucy Simmonds live, as tenants in a stranger’s house, so plainly does. However ‘out of place’ (272) Lucy looks against this alien backdrop, for John, her condition colours the whole with a queer familiarity. If husband Rodger cannot see things this way it is because, as John himself notes, his own self-knowledge implicit in the recognition: ‘He was not domestic by nature’ (298). In Brideshead Revisited it is Charles’s first meeting with Sebastian’s sister Julia that prompts this queer dual sensation: ‘She so much resembled Sebastian that, sitting beside her in the gathering dusk, I was confused by the double illusion of familiarity and strangeness’ (75–6). It is, ostensibly, Julia’s gender that constitutes the strangeness—as Sebastian’s female doppelganger she is unheimlich in the Freudian sense of that term—but, arguably, her gender is also inherent to the ‘familiarity’ that Charles identifies.
Julia is, to Charles, more ‘familiar’ than Sebastian ever can be, in the sense that she represents the means by which a family might be produced. Like Lucy, she could potentially find herself in ‘the family way’ as several of Mitford’s female protagonists put it, an outcome Charles would appear to be far more open to than Rodger.67 Charles is clearly cognizant of this biological potentiality on some level: ‘Because her sex was the palpable difference between the familiar and the strange, […] I felt her to be especially female as I had felt of no woman before’ (76). Here, as in Work Suspended, we see Waugh’s own belief in the possibilities of pregnancy for the development of a modern domestic masculinity taking artistic shape. It was, as Tony’s thwarted hopes of fatherhood in A Handful of Dust suggest, a long-standing and deeply-rooted personal preoccupation. In the aftermath of Waugh’s separation from his first wife, Evelyn Gardiner—a separation that left him, like John Plant, ‘the homeless wanderer’68 throughout the 1930s—he spent a great deal of time with friends Bryan Guinness—heir to the brewing fortune—and his expectant wife, Nancy Mitford’s younger sister Diana, at their home in Paris. It was, arguably, the arrangement upon which he would ultimately model Work Suspended, but it prompted him, at the time, to meditate privately upon the possibilities of Diana’s condition, writing to Henry Yorke (novelist Henry Green): ‘Do you & Dig share my admiration for Diana? She seems to me the one encouraging figure in this generation—particularly now she is pregnant—a great germinating vat of potentiality like the vat I saw at their brewery.’69 It is, perhaps, far too easy for us from a vantage point of nearly ninety years, to see only the cruel ironies of this statement: the failed potentiality of a broken marriage, a child denied access to its mother, a mother dedicated to a man and a cause—in second husband Oswald Mosely and his British Union of Fascists—seemingly at odds with futurity itself. Arguably, however, Waugh saw in Diana exactly what John sees in Lucy, and chose to immortalize her in that moment of limitless possibility: ‘There is in the apprehension of woman’s beauty an exquisite, early intimation of loveliness when, seeing some face, strange or familiar, one gains, suddenly, a further glimpse and foresees, out of a thousand possible futures, how it might be transfigured by love. With Lucy—her grace daily more encumbered by her pregnancy; deprived of sex, as women are, by its fulfilment—the vision was extended and clarified until, with no perceptible transition, it became the reality’ (289).
‘Travel—and Escape from Your Friends,’ Waugh advised Daily Mail readers in January 1933, tongue firmly in cheek.70 For a figure so invested, both professionally and privately—insofar as his profession allowed for privacy—in the repetitive world of the Mayfair social round, such an ‘escape’ was necessarily limited, both literally and figuratively. As a figure of speech, to ‘escape’ is—as Waugh’s sardonic headline suggests—more accurately simply to ‘evade’ or ‘avoid’ the more banal, awkward or uncomfortable aspects of social life. Even the traveller—more often captive than free, aboard the train, the ship or the aeroplane—cannot wholly avoid the faintly ludicrous niceties of smart society, however, as A Handful of Dust illustrates. Here, despite having been prompted to travel by a ‘feeling of evasion’ (157), Tony—the character with whom, embittered by divorce and facing homelessness, Waugh is himself most easily identifiable at this time—is forced to resign himself, on his journey to South America, to shuffleboard and quoits with his fellow passengers, the words that had attracted him to the trip ringing in his ears: ‘“We’ll go in a small boat,” Dr Messinger had said, “so as to escape all that hideous nonsense of deck games”’ (164). He is not the first of Waugh’s characters to mistake transit for escape—the opening of Vile Bodies finds both Adam and his London ‘friends’ coincidentally confined to the same channel ferry—and he will not be the last, both Scoop and Brideshead Revisited seeing ships turned into intensely uncomfortable microcosms of Mayfair society. Nor, as this pattern suggests, does it actually serve Waugh as a writer to ‘travel—and escape from his friends’ for any length of time since, as he petulantly observes in the Daily Mail article: ‘People would much sooner read about Mayfair than the jungle’ (133).
Within this context, occurrences of the word escape have little to tell us about the dynamics of political or martial confinement and control, offering instead what Christopher Ames terms a ‘satirical vision of the dynamics of sociability.’71 Indeed, Waugh’s desire to ‘escape’ from his friends would appear to be shared by several of those friends themselves, judging by the behaviour of their fictionalized social circles. Making even fuller use, as we have seen, of the enforced confinements of transit, Green’s Party Going finds Max Adey’s guests perpetually attempting to avoid each other within the narrow confines of the station hotel. Try as they might, however, their individual breaks for freedom are as doomed to failure as their collective break for the continent. Alex Alexander, nervous around women at the best of times, but even more so when—as so often in the novel—he finds himself unwittingly implicated in what, trapped animal as he is, he sees as the ‘baiting’ of their respective lovers and husbands, is ‘determined […] to escape’ (449), but is consistently foiled. Having got away from Angela Crevy, he is caught by Max’s jilted lover Amabel who, arriving uninvited to find the party long-assembled, is clearly as suspicious as those around her that ‘they were all here to escape her which of course in one sense they were’ (462), Green’s allusion to ‘sense’ here tacitly alerting the reader to the term’s misappropriation. Only Max himself seems able to extricate himself for any period of time from the group, a skill apparently necessitated by his complex love life, another of his female admirers complaining that ‘he was always escaping’ (465). How long he will be able to keep this up is another matter, however, an early passage from Mitford’s Highland Fling offering a potent projection of what may await the young womanizer, caught by one or other of his lovers in some unspecified future, in which no fog will intervene to delay the anticipated journey: ‘The most depressing sight in the world […] is a married couple travelling. The horror of it. Not only must they sleep, eat, walk, drive and go to the theatre together all their lives, but they cannot escape even on the train’ (32).
In Powell’s From a View to a Death the comedy of social entanglements and escapes is transposed to the slightly broader, if equally crowded confines of the rural English village, in which individual quests for social, financial and sexual advancement find its inhabitants—locals and visitors—engaged in a perpetual cat and mouse game. Indeed, despite its ostensibly rural setting, the same sense of restriction and exposure through transit that colours Waugh and Green’s texts is evoked here by the names with which Powell endows the novel’s central family, the Passengers, and their home, the homophonic Passenger Court. Admired by several of the novel’s male protagonists, local girl Joanna Brandon is particularly relieved in what Powell describes as ‘her success at having avoided the longueurs of tea’ with the eccentric Fosdick family one afternoon, herself musing in more heroic terms than her author: ‘It was an escape. On an afternoon as hot as this one, tea at the Fosdicks’ was not to be thought of. One of the reasons against it was that Jasper Fosdick was in love with her’ (24). Joanna’s neighbour, local grandee Mr Passenger, emerging from church the following Sunday, is not so lucky. Engaged in a long-running feud with Major Fosdick over shooting rights, his desire to avoid the family is motivated by altogether different interests, to which his wife seems impervious: ‘He was going to escape to the car but before he could get away Mrs Fosdick abandoned Joanna and began to talk to Mrs Passenger about the pageant committee’ (51). A guest of the Passengers, artist Arthur Zouch is out for all he can get, socially, financially and sexually, but is reluctant to commit himself any more than is absolutely necessary in the venture. Another—more successful—of Joanna’s admirers, he is troubled to find himself thinking about her rather too much, a habit that threatens to foil his ‘escape from the sphere of sobering influences.’ He rules out a serious love affair because ‘it was an inconvenient thing to happen when one was staying with people’ (95). It is clearly his own convenience that he has in mind, enjoying the comforts of Passenger Court and the welcome offered by his sitter—the youngest Passenger daughter, Mary—but otherwise taking every ‘good opportunity for escaping from the rest of the Passenger family’ (197). Arthur Zouch, much like Waugh’s John Beaver, whose affair with Brenda in A Handful of Dust prompts her husband’s voluntary exile, is ‘a professional guest whose main desire in life is to avoid being responsible for anyone else.’72
Indeed, most of these attempts to ‘escape’ the obligations of social lie are symptomatic of a more troubling social malaise, to which Waugh is alert from his earliest novel. When schoolmaster Captain Grimes is caught in a compromising position with one of the buys in Decline and Fall, he decides to marry headmaster Dr Fagan’s daughter, in a bid to retain his job and a roof over his head. It is not a decision he takes lightly, though not out of concern for her feelings or those of anyone else, bemoaning his fate in agitated tones:
In Grimes, Waugh ensures that the desire to avoid seemingly minor social obligations and interactions is taken to its logical if disturbing conclusion, the home instinct here having so far decayed as to render ‘home’ an alien concept: ‘What is this impulse of two people to build their beastly home?’ Figured here as the impulse to family life, what Grimes is in fact so desperate to ‘escape’ are the repercussions of his own actions, the social responsibilities attendant upon adulthood regardless of one’s sexual proclivities. For, whilst Grimes himself sees no problem in evoking his homosexuality—claiming to have ‘escaped the itch’ that motivates his peers—in order to excuse his attitude, Waugh plainly does. Queer or not, the duties of maturity are not his to relinquish, a fact thrown sharply into focus by the youth of his schoolboy paramour. The sentiments Grimes expresses here are wholly at odds with those of a character such as Tony Last, whose desire to escape what is left of his domestic and social life is, like his author’s, prompted only once the home he has so lovingly built has been ‘for the time poisoned for him’ (157) by the infidelities of his ex-wife. Tony’s escape is, as his allusion to time here suggests, never intended to be permanent. It is, like Waugh’s own sojourn in the jungle, planned not as a dereliction of duty but as a break from it, the stress of thwarted domestic masculinity prompting both men ‘to take long holidays from their own lives.’73 Even as, held hostage by the sinister Mr Todd, Tony’s hopes of rescue begin to fade, he cannot help but dream of a ‘homecoming’ (214) that will never be.
Our life is lived between two homes. We emerge for a little into the light, and then the front door closes. The chintz curtains shut out the sun, and the hearth glows with the fire of home, while upstairs, above our heads, are enacted again the awful accidents of adolescence. There’s a home and family waiting for every one of us. We can’t escape, try how we may. […] There’s no escape. […] We are just potential homebuilders, beavers and ants. […] What is this impulse of two people to build their beastly home? […] All we are is a manifestation of the impulse to family life, and if by chance we have escaped the itch ourselves, Nature forces it upon us another way. (94–5)
Captain Grimes does in fact marry Flossie Fagan. Within days, however, he effects his ‘escape’ by faking his own drowning. In a series of events that might more accurately be termed an ‘escapade’ than an escape, he then reappears in disguise at Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s country house, purportedly on business. It is Waugh who has the last word, however, ensuring that Grimes has ample time to contemplate the distinction between true ‘escape’ and the mere ‘escapade’ by having him gaoled, ironically, for bigamy. ‘No one has ever succeeded in escaping from this prison’ (182), Paul—himself incarcerated, by contrast, for accepting responsibility for another individual’s actions—tells him, and though Grimes seems undeterred, this is the last we see of hm. Yet the ‘escapade’ or ‘runaway excursion’ itself remains a more characteristic feature of Waugh’s early fiction than the legitimate escape from confinement or control. In A Handful of Dust Brenda’s love affair is ultimately little more than a sordid interlude despite the best efforts of her friends: ‘The choice of Beaver raised the whole escapade into a realm of poetry for Polly and Daisy and Angela and all the gang of gossips’ (57–8). As the first book of Brideshead Revisited draws to a close, we see Charles and Sebastian’s far more earnest affair reduced to a similar level by Mr Samgrass, a confidant of Sebastian’s mother who uses the term in his appropriation and diminishment of the pair’s shared memories: ‘He spoke of “our little escapade” as though he, too, had been in the cells, and had that bond with us’ (124). When Charles later meets Julia aboard an Atlantic liner, we are given few details of the extra-marital affair that has prompted her return to England. It is glossed over by Charles, in a similar if better-intentioned attempt to diminish its significance, as ‘the secret, vicious, disastrous escapade that had taken her to New York’ (257).
It is only within the context of wartime tensions that escape and escapism begin to come under serious scrutiny as terms illustrative of the dynamics of political or martial control and resistance. For the left-wing intellectuals of Put Out More Flags the term escapism is a dirty word, as a heated discussion about the recent emigration of two of their number demonstrates:
The poets Parsnip and Pimpernel are immediately recognizable as a very thinly-veiled satirical portrait of Auden and Isherwood: the latter, as we have seen, freely admitted to the ‘escapist temperament’ that prompted the majority of his movements during the 1930s and beyond.74 Julia, it would seem, speaks for her author here, the acknowledged awkwardness of her question, coupled with the writer’s adjectival excess—the term escapism is considered not only ‘indecent’ but also ‘unforgivable’ and even ‘foul’ by Parsnip and Pimpernel’s obsequious friends—ironically indicative of Waugh’s own opinions. When we later see the term levelled at Ambrose Silk—a figure partly modelled on Brian Howard who, with his German lover, had visited Isherwood both in Berlin and elsewhere in Europe during the 1930s—by this same group, however, Waugh himself is more ambivalent.
‘What I don’t see is how these two can claim to be contemporary if they run away from the biggest event in contemporary history. They were contemporary enough about Spain when no one threatened to come and bomb them.’
It was an awkward question; one that in military parlance was called ‘a swift one.’ At any moment, it was felt in the studio, this indecent girl would use the word ‘escapism’ […] and […] she did, in fact, produce the unforgivable charge. ‘It’s just sheer escapism,’ she said.
The word startled the studio, like the cry of ‘Cheat’ in a card-room.
‘That’s a foul thing to say, Julia.’ (39)
If these characters now deem it both accurate and acceptable, it is merely a reflection of their own changeability, Waugh’s sympathy for Ambrose’s internal conflict heightening our sense of their superficiality:
Poppet’s Americanized vocabulary and syntax here—in the phrases ‘You bet it is’ and ‘That’s fascist if you like’ in particular—demonstrate the influence Parsnip and Pimpernel still exercise over her and her friends, even before the former is mentioned by name. As such, it is hard to see their appropriation of the term escapist as anything more than a fad: it is simply a convenient label for anything they do not fully understand, do not like or do not agree with. Ambrose is an escapist—and he recognizes others, recalling Parsnip and Pimpernel as ‘drab escapists’ (219) as he stares out over the Atlantic at the novel’s end—but not for any reason Poppet or her circle might give. He seeks distraction from reality because he has suffered reality’s harms, but he also realizes the vulnerability of the individual seeking escape. Writing a short story for the Ivory Tower he envisions his estranged German lover thriving under the Nazi regime: ‘Hans loving his comrades, finding in a deep tribal emotion an escape from the guilt of personal love; Hans […] still loving his old friend, puzzled that he could not fit the old love into the scheme of the new; Hans growing a little older, joining the Brown Shirts, lapped in a kind of benighted chivalry…’ (187) In this way, the war offers an opportunity for reflection, the global conflict providing a framework within which Waugh, like Ambrose, might come to understand personal conflict more charitably as a motive for escape. More than this, it prompts in both the recognition that the desire to escape, be it conscious or unconscious, places its subject in a position of vulnerability.
Poppet Green was in London with her friends.
‘Ambrose has turned fascist,’ she said.
‘He’s working for the Government in the Ministry of Information and they’ve bribed him to start a new paper.’
‘Is it a fascist paper?’
‘You bet it is.’
‘I heard it was to be called the Ivory Tower.’
‘That’s fascist if you like.’
‘Ambrose never had the proletarian outlook. I can’t think why we put up with him as we did. Parsnip always said.’ (117)
This preoccupation with the vulnerability contingent upon the desire to escape surfaces much earlier in Mitford’s novels but only finds full expression in the wartime prose. Despite Mitford having herself reputedly been ‘shocked’ to learn that her friend Evelyn Gardner had only married Waugh ‘in order to escape her domineering mother,’75 many of her most intelligent and ambitious young female protagonists see marriage—and thus adherence, however partial, to the schedule of normativity dictated by their society—as the only viable means of escape from the realities of ‘the flat, uninspiring life’ that constitutes their girlhoods at home.76 For several, this longing for escape proves a fatal weakness, threatening ultimately to precipitate their ruin. When in Christmas Pudding London friends Amabelle Fortescue, Paul Fotheringay and Walter and Sally Monteath descend upon the quiet Gloucestershire estate of Compton Bobbin at the same time as stranger Lord Michael Lewes, Philadelphia Bobbin—having lived for so long in isolation with her overbearing mother—is ‘unable to treat them as realities’ (310), finding in their society temporary respite from the banalities of country life. Her desire to make this respite permanent is, we are told, such that should any visitor have proposed, ‘Philadelphia would have accepted him on the spot; she longed for marriage, for escape from her home, which she regarded as a prison, and from her mother, whom she detested’ (315). When both Paul and Michael ask for her hand in marriage, her desire to put distance between herself and her mother induces her to choose penniless writer and philanderer Paul—Michael having been welcomed into their home as her mother’s choice—and to join him unannounced in London: ‘If she was ever to escape, now and now only, was the time’ (351). Leaving Michael and Lady Bobbin asleep at Compton Bobbin one night, and ‘feeling like an escaping criminal’ (352), she is only saved from making a terrible mistake on finding Paul drunk and belligerent in his London rooms.
Linda, in the later and more circumspect The Pursuit of Love, is not so lucky. Fanny recalls Linda’s ‘frame of mind’ (58)—her mood of escapism—in the months preceding their coming-out ball, recognizing her cousin’s vulnerability: ‘she was obviously destined to fall in love with the first young man who came along. It could hardly have been otherwise; she need not, however, have married him’ (58). Linda falls ‘in love’ with Oxford undergraduate Tony Kroesig at the ball and is determined, on being invited to tea at his digs, to attend, Fanny framing the endeavour in her narrative as a fight for survival: ‘we must go, not to do so would be death for Linda, she would never get over it. But how to escape?’ (59). The pair succeed in deceiving Linda’s parents and make their brief escape but, Tony later telephoning Alconleigh to enquire whether either of them left an unclaimed scarf at his digs, they are found out. Matthew Radlett’s anger, and his opposition to Tony’s subsequent proposal to his daughter, merely increase Linda’s determination to marry and escape Alconleigh forever. When the Tony with whom Linda fell in love proves, almost immediately, ‘to have been a chimera, never to have existed outside her imagination’ (82), Fanny recollects, ‘she missed […] family life at Alconleigh. I reminded her how much, when she was there, she had longed to escape, and she agreed, rather doubtfully, that it was wonderful to be on one’s own’ (84). Linda’s loveless marriage isolates her from friends and family, leads to a near-fatal pregnancy, and ends—after the first of ‘a series of uncontrollable bolts’ (99)—in the scandal of divorce.
In Brideshead Revisited it is Sebastian’s craving for escape that makes him vulnerable. When we first meet him, his behaviour suggests that he has already made an escape from someone or something—from the restraints of the public-school environment of Eton at least—and is testing the boundaries of a new-found liberty. A memoir prompted by the same mood of wartime reflection that took hold of Waugh and Mitford in the early 1940s, Green’s Pack My Bag consistently frames the schoolboy as a prisoner seeking ‘chance escapes’ (88) from public school and only finding freedom as an undergraduate. He recalls, ‘I did not begin to live until I had escaped’ (29), admitting that going up to Oxford ‘was like getting out of prison and that is one reason why, like many another escaped prisoner, for a short while I turned to drink’ (133). This is the very pattern Sebastian follows in the early stages of Brideshead Revisited and, at first, he seems to be master of his own sphere. Only as their first year draws to a close and Lady Marchmain’s spy Samgrass begins to haunt their lives does Charles realize that Sebastian remains bound—ostensibly by the demands of his family and his religion—regardless of where he is: ‘His year of anarchy had filled a deep, interior need of his, the escape from reality, and as he found himself increasingly hemmed in, where he once felt himself free, he became at times listless and morose, even with me’ (107). To the outside world, Sebastian’s mother becomes a convenient synecdoche for the ‘reality’ he seeks freedom from, Anthony Blanche claiming of Lady Marchmain: ‘They never escape once she’s had her teeth into them’ (56). Even Charles, himself later pondering the change in his friend, admits: ‘As my intimacy with his family grew I became part of the world he sought to escape; I became one of the bonds which held him, […] Sebastian drank to escape’ (128–9). Sebastian’s escapism, however, does not stem from anything as simple as the physical proximity of his family or their representatives. Rather, his drinking is a reflection of his queerness, the ludic possibilities of alcoholism offering an escape from the schedule of normativity that institutions such as the traditional family and orthodox Catholicism ultimately serve. Indeed, that Sebastian’s relationship with time—his desire to inhabit a queer temporality—has been the motivating factor behind all his previous escapes is implicit in his final, and in many ways, most successful attempt. A flight that promises a total severance from modern time-keeping itself, as Cordelia later tells Charles, ‘he conceived the idea of escaping to the savages. And there he was. […] He seemed quite happy by the time I left’ (307).
In its use of the word leader and its related terms, Waugh’s prose offers a reflection not on the specific figureheads of European politics parodied by Isherwood and his circle, but on the tumultuous political climate of interwar Britain, amidst which specificity has itself seemingly become redundant. The early 1920s had seen David Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald succeed each other as prime minister at a dizzying pace, Law, Baldwin and MacDonald each holding office for only a matter of months between October 1922 and November 1924. The remainder of the decade and much of the 1930s came to resemble a two-horse race in which governance oscillated between Baldwin’s Conservative and MacDonald’s Labour leaderships with wearying repetitiveness and little sense of change. Reflecting and exaggerating this trend, Waugh’s fictional leaders are wholly lacking in both specificity and longevity: virtually indistinguishable from one another, they are rarely recognized by their own people, frequent cases of mistaken identity being exacerbated by their apparent inability to retain power for longer than a few weeks at a time. As one of hotelier Lottie Camp’s pet foreign exiles in Vile Bodies observes, ‘when I come to England always there is a different Prime Minister and no one knows which is which’ (34).
Indeed, much of the novel’s humour is contingent, from the first, upon the widespread confusion caused by a political stalemate evocative of the Baldwin-MacDonald merry-go-round, its opening chapter finding ‘last week’s Prime Minister’ (9), the Right Honourable Walter Outrage, travelling unnoticed by the majority of his fellow passengers aboard a packed cross-channel ferry. A figure remarkable only for his inactivity, he is brought to our attention by Waugh’s narrator. ‘The Leader of his Majesty’s Opposition lay sunk in a rather glorious coma’ (12), we are told, in an assessment indicative of the state of self-absorbed mental collapse he will maintain throughout the novel. Recently replaced in office by the equally unexceptional Sir James Brown, and soon to once more succeed him, Outrage is lazy, stupid and ineffectual. He is little more than a puppet of the party whips and the partisan press, a fact of which he is himself dimly aware: ‘Poor Outrage, thought Mr Outrage; poor, poor old Outrage, always just on the verge of revelation, […] always frustrated. … Just Prime Minister, nothing more, bullied by his colleagues, a source of income to low caricaturists’ (110). In an early evocation of what would prove a career-long concern with the symbiotic connection between the government and the media, Waugh playfully foregrounds his own method here, and with it his attitude towards the contemporary party leaders whose conduct, regardless of their political allegiances, has inspired this portrait.
Another caricature, effete artist Leslie Leader of Mitford’s Wigs on the Green is, despite his name, equally ineffectual. A ‘well-known Pacifist’ (75) in a novel notorious for its merciless assault on British fascism, he is testament to the fact that for Mitford as for Waugh, political specificity has become redundant in the face of wholesale ineptitude and all positions are thus fair game. In Mitford’s novel, even Leader’s so-called friends have no great estimation of him, patron Anne-Marie Lace asking her husband: ‘If I were a snob should I be friends with penniless artists like Leslie Leader? On the contrary, many people would think I was too much the other way—not particular enough’ (73). Leader and his followers—the other, similarly penniless, pacifist intellectuals who form the basis of Rackenbridge’s ‘artistic colony’ (21)—in fact serve Anne-Marie merely as decoration, setting ‘exactly the right note of Bohemian négligé’ (74) at her parties. When she introduces him to her new friends—all members of the BUF-inspired Social Unionist party—his inconsequence is compounded by the patronizing epithet they adopt for him: ‘Dear little Mr Leader’ (113). Ironically, when he finally does show some gumption, leading a pacifist protest march against the Social Unionists, witnesses are afterwards unable to recall his name: ‘a chap who lives at Rackenbridge—forget his name—caused all the trouble’ (154). The uprising itself is short-lived, Leader and his followers ‘falling away’ as their enemy charge: ‘They fled, leaving in possession of the Comrades a battlefield on which were scattered quantities of white wigs, white feathers and wounded men’ (158).
In Waugh’s satire too the clue was ever in the name, though if Mitford’s appellation here proves wholly ironic, Waugh’s are often painfully accurate: Outrage is, like Stayle of ‘A House of Gentlefolks’ and Maltravers of Decline and Fall, as well as old Rampole—who in Put Out More Flags is mistakenly arrested as ‘the ringleader’ (200) of a fascist network—a product of a failing system. Such characters might be regarded as illustrative of ‘the particular variety of demasculinization’77 that Wyndham Lewis—a writer much admired by both Waugh and his friends—had attributed to the politics of interwar Britain in The Art of Being Ruled (1926). In what arguably represents a refinement of Lewis’s claim that ‘man […] is made, not born’ (280) Patrick Belfour asserts:
Balfour’s diagnosis once again finds corroboration in Waugh’s fiction. Implicit in the novelist’s earliest inept politicians, his recognition of the distinction between the two classes of leader is rendered explicit by the necessities of war, as evidenced by Basil Seal’s meditations early in Put Out More Flags on the question: ‘What do you think is the right type of officer?’ Having himself put the question to Sir Joseph Mainwaring and a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Bombardiers—both men of his father’s generation acting on his mother’s behalf—and received the ‘officer-type’ in curt reply, Basil—with his customary sardonic candour—comments: ‘It’s an odd thing […] that people always expect the upper class to be good leaders of men. That was all right in the old days when most of them were brought up with tenantry to look after. But now three-quarters of your officer-type live in towns. I haven’t any tenantry’ (53). Basil is, by his own definition, by no means a ‘born leader of men’ but neither will he consent to being ‘made’ one: asked whether he can see himself ‘leading a platoon in action’ he replies, ‘I can, but that’s the last thing I want’ (57). Whilst he thus maintains that spark of individualism many of his public-school forbears—and, indeed, contemporaries—lack, his resistance to the duties of leadership is nonetheless symptomatic of what Lewis saw as the infantilization of the Englishman by ‘the press, which is an extension of the school on its political and informative side,’ and ‘is controlled by the same interests […] as control the school curriculum’ (417). Together, Lewis argued, these mechanisms encounter ‘little trouble in showing even the obtusest person […] how extremely disagreeable it is to be in a position of authority, how very foolish it is to desire authority, how authority, responsibility, is in every form to be shunned: how it is much pleasanter in everything to be the under dog. […] Even the male […]: is it worth being him? […] The child, not yet a part of “real life,” still in a sheltered tutelage, is the ideal, of course’ (271).
The public-school system pretends to produce gentlemen on the aristocratic pattern, but it destroys the essential quality of the aristocrat: individualism. Aristocracy has lost her gift for leadership, since that was a natural gift, and the ritualism to which she has now submitted is fundamentally opposed to nature. The public-school man’s faculty for leadership is different from the old aristocrat’s because it is based on an artificial conception of life. Instead of ‘born leaders of men’ we have ‘made leaders of men.’78
And this is, for the most part, the position that Waugh’s early protagonists consciously—and even willingly—assume. Few are ever granted the epithet of leader themselves, but are instead constantly led—often astray—by others, their apparent complicity in their own fates marking them out as members of what one Lewis scholar terms the ‘infantilization-embracing’ generation, that queer by-product of what Lewis himself held to be a failing interwar liberalism.79 In Decline and Fall Paul Pennyfeather consoles himself, on being gaoled for his fiancée’s crimes, with the thought that ‘anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison’ (175). Once settled, it does not take him long to realize that he actually prefers being ‘led’ (156; 160; 161; 175) in all things as he is in prison, finding it ‘so exhilarating […] never to have to make any decision on any subject, to be wholly relieved from the smallest consideration of time, meals or clothes, […] in fact, to be free’ (158). Paul’s illusion of freedom, rendered the more farcical by his physical incarceration, is strikingly illustrative of what Lewis described in The Art of Being Ruled as the illusory nature of free citizenship itself: ‘A person is trained up stringently to certain opinions, then he is given a vote, and called a “free” and fully enfranchised person; then he votes […] strictly in accordance with his training’ (111). Paul has had more opportunity for stringent training than most, having quite literally been sent back to school—albeit as a master—on being sent down from Oxford. That he embraces the rule of the prison bell is hardly surprising given its similarity to that of the school bell.
Paul’s acquiescence to the prison regime is merely a conscious extension of his behaviour in the outside world, where he has been practically led by the nose not only by fiancée Margot Beste-Chetwynde, but by her son and his classmates, and by the other masters at Llanabba Castle, both of whom also find themselves in the prison system. Indeed, when Paul is transferred to a second prison only to be reunited with Captain Grimes, their conversation inevitably turns to their time at the school, and the fate of their fellow-master, Mr Prendergast:
Grimes’s adoption of the verb ‘schoolmastering’ here is, whether he realizes it or not, wholly ironic: neither he nor Paul—nor Prendergast, for that matter—ever succeeded in ‘mastering’ the school or exerting any real authority over its pupils. They did not even attempt to, each opting instead for what Lewis might term the ‘much pleasanter’ course, that of the underdog or the child. Allowing themselves to be ‘mastered’ by the temptations of their profession—attractive young boys for Grimes, a wealthy widowed mother for Paul—has ultimately led them both, as Paul points out with uncharacteristic sarcasm, from one infantilizing institution to another.
‘See anything of old Prendy ever?’
‘He was murdered the other day.’
‘Poor old Prendy! He wasn’t cut out for the happy life, was he? D’you know, I think I shall give up schoolmastering for good when I get out. It doesn’t lead anywhere.’
‘It seems to have led us both to the same place.’ (176)
Tony Last of A Handful of Dust arguably has a far more complex, if equally queer, relationship with duty than either Paul or Grimes. Inhabiting a queer masculinity dependent upon the institution of the home he is, as we have seen, both willing and able to assume the duties and responsibilities of an apparently mature domestic existence. Yet it is his very devotion to the home—a devotion which troubles gender norms even today, and would undoubtedly have struck Lewis as an ‘infantilization-embracing’ attempt to shun the responsibilities of what he called ‘real life,’ however sympathetically portrayed by Waugh—that blinds him to his position as the underdog within its fragile bounds, and leaves him without direction, like a lost child, beyond them. He is led on by those around him as comprehensively as is Paul, the somewhat ironic assertion of a society fortune-teller that his wife is ‘easily led by others’ (117) offering a more accurate description of Tony than Brenda. She, it is noted, ‘took the lead’ (48) with John Beaver, and she does the same with her husband. Even when Tony appears to have extricated himself from her control, he is led by others in her stead, ill-equipped to find his own way beyond Hetton. A traditionally-educated Englishman primed in the rhetoric of the Boy’s Own Paper and its rival weeklies, he is easily led by the explorer Dr Messinger into his South American venture, a journey that sees him led deep into the jungle first by the inexperienced local guides hired by Messinger, then by the haunting figures created by his malaria-stricken imagination, and finally by the reclusive Mr Todd: ‘Mr Todd led Tony across the hummocks of grass towards the house’ (205). It is a house he is destined never to leave.
Significantly, however, Waugh saves his most easily led protagonist of the period for his self-proclaimed novel about journalists. Mistaken by a newspaper editor for novelist John Boot, William Boot of Scoop finds himself being led backwards and forwards through a London he is entirely unfamiliar with, in order to equip him for a journey that will lead him half way across the world as a special correspondent:
The reader is carried along as helplessly as William here, pulled inexorably on by Waugh’s delay in deploying the verb ‘led’ until the very end of his opening sentence, a sentence not only uncharacteristically long by the author’s standards but also constituted of only a single clause. The rapid catalogue that follows combines with the repetitions of the term ‘led’ to maintain this forward trajectory and leave the reader almost as dazed as the protagonist. An atmosphere of hushed but ceaseless activity pervades the hotel, where the lift descends and ascends imperceptibly regardless of the hour and the blank and sterile impersonality of the ‘white, unnaturally silent’ passages down which William is led are ironically suggestive of clandestine affairs conducted behind closed doors, the whole evoking the carefully concealed inner workings of the press itself, unseen and unheard by the public—William amongst them—over whom it holds such influence. This sense of noiseless but inexorable progress, of man and machine bent unprotestingly to the will of the press, becomes more emphatic on William’s return to the Megalopolitan offices with Salter to meet Lord Copper himself: ‘The typewriters were of a special kind; their keys made no more sound than the drumming of a bishop’s fingertips on an upholstered priedieu; the telephone buzzers were muffled and purred like warm cats. The personal private secretaries padded through the antechambers and led them nearer and nearer to the presence’ (41). Yet the quasi-religious aspect lent to the scene is symptomatic not only of the press-baron’s implicit power, but of William’s own awed inexperience, his continued acquiescence in being ‘led’ by others boding ill for his prospects as a journalist.
The evening before he had been too much surfeited with new impressions to pay particular attention to the room to which eventually he had been led. It was two o’clock when Mr Salter left him; they had returned to the Megalopolitan office after dinner; William had been led from room to room; he had […] signed a contract, an application for Life Insurance, receipts for a camera, a typewriter, a portfolio full of tickets and a book of traveller’s cheques to the value of £1, 000. He had reached the hotel in a daze; […] they had led him to a lift, then, aloft, along a white, unnaturally silent passage and left him in his room with no desire except to sleep and awake from his nightmare in the familiar, shabby surroundings of Boot Magna. (36)
A prolific newspaper journalist himself, Waugh was neither so inexperienced nor so easily led, his fiction demonstrating from the first his comparative ease in quite literally ‘coming to terms with the mass media’s influence on contemporary life.’80 Chief amongst these terms, the word leader and its derivatives in fact recur most often in the novels within the context of newspaper journalism, Waugh like Lewis clearly identifying the capacity to lead—and, more crucially, to mislead—with the role of the modern journalist. If, as Keith Williams suggests, writers were at this time becoming ‘increasingly worried that an “Age of News” had unprecedented potential for marketing fiction in the guise of fact,’81 then Waugh was not above doing precisely the opposite in his quest to expose the ruse, drawing on his experiences as a correspondent at home and abroad as material for his fiction. In Vile Bodies it is the influence of the society papers that comes under scrutiny, a highly exaggerated report filed by a gossip columnist and published under the heading ‘Midnight Orgies at No. 10’ (49) quickly finding its way into the ‘serious’ press in the form of ‘a leading article’ on ‘Public and Domestic Purity’ (64) that contributes to the fall of the government. Even Waugh’s largely sympathetic protagonist Adam Fenwick-Symes cannot resist marketing fiction in the guise of fact, the bulk of the society page he inherits from Simon Balcairn becoming almost wholly fictitious under his authorship, and thus ‘almost wholly misleading’ (98).
If Vile Bodies is concerned with ‘the power of the press’ (95) in largely abstract terms then Black Mischief is more preoccupied with how this power is harnessed and by whom. For Basil Seal, freedom of the press is just one of a number of ‘ideas that have ceased to be modern’ (128). One of his first moves as the Azanian Minister for Modernization is to buy out the local newspaper, telling its editor, ‘I wish it to publish leading articles explaining the political changes.’ Having ‘outlined his intentions’ for the ‘development’ (125) of the paper as a vehicle for ‘intelligent support of government policy’ in each of the county’s major languages, Basil sends the editor away ‘slightly bewildered, carrying with him a fair-sized cheque and notes for a leading article forecasting possible changes to the penal code’ (126). A matter of only a few weeks finds Basil himself at work on ‘a leafing article’ claiming, with heavy irony, that ‘the people have followed the Emperor’s lead in the cause of Progress and the New Age’ (147). Given such rampant enthusiasm, it comes as little surprise when we learn in Put Out More Flags that, at some point, ‘Basil had been leader writer on the Daily Beast’ (48), though whether this was before or after William Boot’s time there is not clear.
Now more commonly referred to as the editorial, the ‘leader’ or ‘leading article’ had become an established feature of newspaper journalism by the nineteenth century, offering ‘a statement of opinion written under the collective responsibility of a news organization’s editor or publisher’ using the editorial ‘we’ to ‘explicitly articulate their partisan or ideological slant and draw in like-minded segments of the public,’ whilst simultaneously helping ‘policy-makers, politicians and activists gauge public opinion (and members of the public to do likewise).’82 At a time in which print media dominated, the leader could have ‘particular impact during electoral campaigns,’ when the support of the press might ‘critically impact the race.’83 It was, then, perhaps the most powerful weapon in what Lewis saw as the state-sponsored infantilization of the public through ‘education and suggestion, the imposition of the will of the ruler through the press and other publicity channels’ (111), and Waugh’s sympathy with this view is implicit here and throughout the fiction in his usage. Whilst the ‘leader’ is named ostensibly for its physical prominence within a newspaper, in Waugh’s work this meaning can never be separated from its capacity to influence or convince by persuasion, a double resonance distinctly discernible in the ‘leading’ articles that Black Mischief describes. William’s problem in Scoop is that he not only fails to understand this professional jargon—having no conception of either the explicit or implicit journalistic meanings of ‘leading’ at all—but that he also has no notion of the processes involved in creating leading articles. An ingenuous individual raised in a sheltered country-house environment, it is not that he refuses to mislead, he simply cannot. As one character later tells him: ‘Do you know, my first impression of you was not of a young man destined for great success in journalism? Quite the reverse. […] I was sceptical of your identity and […] feared you might be coming here with some ulterior object’ (168).
One of William’s earliest dispatches to the Beast simply reads: ‘please dont worry quite safe and well in fact rather enjoying things weather improving will cable again if there is any news yours boot’ (138). The response in the London office is revealing:
If this passage demonstrates with finality William’s utter obliviousness to the mechanics of newspaper journalism, it also betrays the inherent duplicity of his colleagues, Waugh utilizing his own experience in the service of a satiric mode that ‘questioned claims by the modern “actuality” media to give privileged access to global facts.’84 The first leader-writer, regardless of his complaints, actually knows precisely what his ‘first leader’ will contain. Lord Copper himself has made the corporation’s position clear, dictating the leader’s content—mixed metaphors and all—from his ‘personal quarters’ (41) at Megalopolitan in such a way as to render the leader-writer’s own contribution little more than a question of style, the special correspondent’s virtually redundant.
‘Weather improving,’ said Mr Salter. ‘Weather improving. He’s been in Jacksonburg ten days and all he can tell us is that the weather is improving.’
‘I’ve got to write a first leader on the Ishmaelite question,’ said the first leader-writer. ‘Lord Copper says so. I’ve got to wring the withers of the Government. What do I know about it? What have I got to go on? What are special correspondents for? Why don’t you cable this Boot and wake him up?’
‘How many times have we cabled Boot? […] I never felt [he] was really suited to the job,’ said Mr Salter mildly. ‘I was very much surprised when he was chosen. But he’s all we’ve got. It would take three weeks to get another man out there, and by that time anything may have happened.’
‘Yes, the weather may have got still better,’ said the first leader-writer, bitterly. He gazed out of the window […] with eyes of despair.
‘I have to denounce the vacillation of the Government in the strongest terms,’ he said. ‘They fiddle while Ishmaelia burns. A spark is set to the corner-stone of civilization which will shake its roots like a chilling breath. That’s what I’ve got to say and all I know is that Boot is safe and well and that the weather is improving.’ (138–9)
In spite or even because of his lack of concrete material, the leader-writer—who is, incidentally, never named but consistently referred to by this title—remains the consummate professional, the rhetorical flourishes with which he bemoans his lot clearly illustrating his capacity to influence opinion and lead by persuasion. The leader he in fact outlines with remarkably little trouble appears destined to be, like the Isis editorials that Waugh would later recall from his time working on the Oxford University paper, little more than ‘a leading article in which the editor was free to indulge his idiosyncrasies.’85 In the journalistic ‘leader’ and its author as they emerge from Waugh’s 1930s prose, then, we arguably encounter a newly evolving breed of what Balfour defined as ‘made leaders of men.’ Lacking the individualism of their aristocratic forebears, they are as easily and arbitrarily fired as hired should their ‘idiosyncrasies’ become too pronounced, and yet—as Lewis had suggested in The Art of Being Ruled and Waugh illustrates in Vile Bodies , Black Mischief and Scoop as elsewhere—they are potentially more powerful than those elected to govern. Such, it appeared to both authors, was what Lewis termed the ‘queer expression of the masculine pride of the race’ (271) under interwar liberalism.
In Waugh’s fiction, the term racket is itself queer in that its usage extends to the behaviour and vocabulary of only a single recurrent character, the advent of Basil Seal in Black Mischief marking its first appearance:
Circumstances—the sleeping arrangements, the gramophone, even the implied lack of clean cutlery—would suggest the aftermath of a party, with ‘racket’ here serving as a synonym for the ‘spree’ or ‘binge’ of a heavy drinker, a sense notably absent from the term’s entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.86 The word rapidly accrues meaning as the episode develops, the conversation and its context both adding further layers to Waugh’s apparently unique usage, which grafts together the implications of the term’s more conventional senses to produce a complete picture of Basil’s particular brand of queerness. That Basil—or, at any rate, his hat—has been the cause of a great deal of ‘trouble’ to his apparently unwilling hosts is suggestive of a spree of a subtly different but intimately connected kind, the term ‘racket’ here evoking the ‘disorderly conduct’ with which the heavy drinker is often, though not exclusively associated. Indeed, the fact that this scene opens late in the afternoon—finding Basil asleep, and his hosts in a state of undress, whilst all is ‘busy’ outside—is indicative of the specifically temporal disorderliness which, in contravening what Pierre Bourdieu terms ‘the appropriate rhythms’ of social discipline, marks out ‘suspicious forms of behaviour.’87 In Basil’s case, this temporal disorder is compounded by a peculiar spatial disorder, the presence of tins apparently well-connected young man—an intimate of Lady Metroland—in ‘a totally strange flat’ in which a single room serves as bedroom, bathroom and dining-room with no clear delineation only adding to the atmosphere of suspicion.
Late in the afternoon Basil Seal […] stopped at his club on the way to Lady Metroland’s to cash a bad cheque.
For the last four days Basil had been on a racket. He had woken up an hour ago on the sofa of a totally strange flat. A gramophone was playing. A lady in a dressing jacket sat in an armchair by the gas-fire, eating sardines from the tin with a shoe-horn. An unknown man in shirtsleeves was shaving, the glass propped on the chimneypiece.
The man had said: ‘Now you’re awake you’d better go.’
The woman: ‘Quite thought you were dead.’
Basil: ‘I can’t think why I’m here.’
‘I can’t think why you don’t go.’
‘Isn’t London hell?’
‘Did I have a hat?’
‘That’s what caused half the trouble.’
‘Oh, why don’t you go?’
So Basil had gone down the stairs, which were covered in worn linoleum, and emerged through the side door of a shop into a busy street which proved to be King’s Road, Chelsea.
Incidents of this kind constantly occurred when Basil was on a racket. (67)
This ill-equipped and seemingly make-shift abode is itself illustrative of the rootless and uncomfortable lifestyle that Balfour would cite in Society Racket the following year as a symptom of ‘the racket which London Society has become’ (232). Yet its very air of transience combines with the suspicion raised by the trio’s temporal and spatial disarray to suggest a racket of a more specific nature. Taken alongside the obvious—if belated—impatience of Basil’s ‘unknown’ male host to see him off the premises, and Basil’s own attempt ‘to cash a bad cheque’ within an hour of leaving he property, it also presents the possibility that our protagonist is involved in some kind of dishonest or illegal activity, the phrase ‘on a racket’ potentially equating to the ‘on a job’ of criminal parlance. Indeed, as the otherwise syntactically awkward phrase ‘on a racket’ continues to recur throughout the first half of the novel, the senses ‘on a spree’ and ‘on a job’ vie for dominance, becoming almost inextricable from each other in describing Basil’s behaviour. Meeting his sister at Lady Metroland’s party—a party he attends, we learn, only in search of the funds necessary to leave the country—Basil tells her: ‘I was on a racket. We began at Lottie Crump’s. I rather forget what happened except that Allan got beaten up by some chaps’ (75). The mention of hotelier Lottie Crump—infamous amongst the cast of Vile Bodies for her free hand with the champagne, and the catchphrase, ‘what about a little drink?’ (33)—confirms, together with this second suggestion of alcohol-induced amnesia, that Basil’s four-day ‘racket’ was fuelled by drink.
The suggestion of violence, however, adds a new dimension to Waugh’s—or, rather, Basil’s—usage. It recurs in a telephone conversation between Basil and Sonia Trumpington that evening:
Basil adapts his usage to his interlocutor. The casual bravado implicit in claiming he ‘was on’ a racket, whilst appropriate in conversation with an inquisitive sister, will not pass muster with a ‘furious’ wife intent—and probably quite rightly—on apportioning blame in his direction. In claiming instead that he and Alastair ‘had’ a racket, Basil subtly emphasizes Alistair’s agency as much as his own, foregrounding Alistair’s own complicity in his fate. At the same time, Basil’s syntax opens up the possibility that he is simply using ‘racket’ itself as a euphemism for ‘party’ here, an implicitly more controlled mode of entertainment than a ‘spree’ and one in which—as readers of Decline and Fall will know and Sonia too is entirely aware—Alistair needs little encouragement. Yet Sonia’s concern—albeit exaggerated for comic effect—that some violence had been done to her husband, when coupled with Basil’s earlier admission as to the beating suffered by another member of their party, suggests a further sense. Alistair is indisputably hungover. It seems just as likely, however, that he is nursing the wounds of a ‘row’ or ‘fight’ whilst inebriated. This sense, together with all those accrued by the word racket during Basil’s time in England, is reprised in an account of one spectacular visit ashore during his journey to Azania:
‘Sonia, are you and Alastair doing anything tonight?’
‘We’re at home. Basil, what have you been doing to Alastair? I’m furious with you. I’m sure he’s going to die.’
‘We had rather a racket. Shall I come to dinner?’
‘Yes, do. We’re in bed.’
He drove to Montagu Square and was shown up to their room. (77–8)
Waugh offers a catalogue of minor misdemeanours, ranging from the inappropriate to the illegal, each of which might accurately be termed a ‘racket’ in its own right: a ‘dirty joke’ with another man’s wife; the ‘illicit sale’ of a stolen bracelet; a ‘drinking spree’ with a complete stranger; a ‘row’ that itself escalates into a ‘breach of the peace’ and thus becomes a matter for the police. Yet it is the sum-total of these activities to which Waugh attributes the term, each forming a link in the single—and, indeed, singular—chain of events that leaves Basil characteristically unscathed, but ‘much refreshed by his racket.’ As slippery and difficult to pin down as Mr Seal himself, the word racket serves Waugh—within the parameters of peacetime society at least—as a euphemistic catch-all for Basil’s excesses, its innate ambivalence allowing for the half-admiring, half-deploring authorial stance that would come to characterize his treatment of Basil as he returned to him time and again.
At Port Said he sent lewd postcards to Sonia, disposed of his mother’s bracelet at a fifth of its value to an Indian jeweller, made friends with a Welsh engineer in the bar of the Eastern Exchange, got drunk with him, fought him, to the embarrassment of the Egyptian policeman, and returned to the ship next morning […] much refreshed by his racket. (89)
When racket recurs for a final time in the 1932 novel, however, it is under markedly different conditions, the context of civil and military unrest in Azania offering a foretaste of the resonances that will inform Waugh’s wartime usage. Basil’s assistant advises him to leave the capital for the relative safety of the coast:
The first occasion upon which ‘racket’ is granted the definite article so typical of Isherwood’s overtly theatrical usage, whilst the term ostensibly serves as a synonym for ‘row’ or ‘uproar’ here, the air of scheduled inevitability that attaches both to the article itself, and to Basil’s peculiarly spectatorial anticipation, suggests that ‘show’ is equally implicit. Indeed, the mention of ‘poor Seth’s gala’ at once supports and elaborates upon this reading, complicating the sense in a manner more suggestive of authorial distaste. The gala itself—a festival of contraception inspired by the emperor’s encounter with the limited ‘modern’ families of the West—arguably represents a large-scale commercial racket, not only because it is, in essence, simply an advertisement for contraceptive products financially beyond the reach of most of the Azanian people, but also because it will constitute a large and noisy social gathering. A scheme for monetary gain masquerading as a public holiday, the gala exemplifies ‘something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.88
‘Mr Seal, I think I go down to Matodi day after tomorrow. Got things to fix there, see? How about you come too?’
‘No good this week, Youkoumian. I shall have to wait and see poor Seth’s gala.’
‘Mr Seal, you take my tip and come to Matodi. I hear things. You don’t want to get into no bust-up.’
‘I’ve been hearing things too. I want to stay and see the racket.’ (181)
It was with the much darker, and largely collective, socio-political resonances of this definition—taken from Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket (1935)—that the term would become invested in Put Out More Flags on its publication ten years later. The novel features several of Waugh’s recurrent characters, amongst them Sonia and Alistair Trumpington and Basil Seal, so that the changes wrought in their tone and usage by war are thrown sharply into focus. Shortly after war is declared Sonia muses: ‘I expect that Basil will have the most tremendous adventures. He always did in peace time. Goodness knows what he’ll do in war.’ (38) Even Basil’s long-suffering mother is optimistic of his renewed prospects: ‘There’s room for everyone in war time, every man. It’s always been Basil’s individuality that’s been wrong. […] In war time individuality doesn’t matter any more’ (23). Yet it is, arguably, precisely this openness that leaves Basil himself despondent: ‘“There are too many people in on the racket,” said Basil’ (38). By ‘the racket’ here Basil would appear to mean either ‘the war’ itself or ‘the war effort’ more specifically, a fundamentally collective endeavour from which his ‘individuality’ recoils, as much in frustration as in self-interest. For the temporary suspension of Bourdieu’s ‘temporal disciplines’ that war entails necessarily frustrates the ambitions of those who, in peacetime, actively flout the temporal conventions that regulate social behaviour from a ‘desire to stand apart from others.’89 When the ‘tremendous adventures’ of peace—working and travelling whilst others sleep, resting whilst they work, fasting whilst others eat, feasting whilst they fast—become par for the course, they lose their distinction, their queerness.
At the same time, however, Basil’s assertion that there are too many people ‘in on’ the racket clearly recalls the insider-outsider dynamic of Butler’s definition, suggesting that Basil’s pique is at once a reflection on his own—unaccustomed—position of ignorance as to the affairs of state and, at a more local level, on the potential competition his own ‘interests’ may face from a criminal underclass increasingly alert to the hidden processes of war. A singularly mercenary figure amongst Waugh’s protagonists, Basil’s primary concern is with what—whether politically or financially—he can get out of the war, with maintaining a healthy profit margin and squeezing his competitors out of the (black) market. Indeed, despite his initial despondency, Basil soon realizes that war offers a range of rackets or ‘confidence tricks’ vastly exceeding that offered by peace. He even makes a virtue of the altered temporal and spatial order, choosing to blend in rather than ‘stand apart’ by posing—amongst other things—as an employee of a fictional government ministry, and thereby securing for himself a certain freedom of movement. As he demands of one bewildered ARP warden: ‘Surely you realize that members of M.I.13 are free to go everywhere at all times?’ (32).
When Basil later poses as billeting officer at Malfrey, he is welcomed into the homes of unsuspecting strangers, allowing him to assess each household’s likely financial status before sending in uncontrollable evacuees Doris, Micky and Marlene Connolly only to remove them for a substantial bribe. When he is finally caught, it is by neighbouring billeting officer and fellow-racketeer Mr Todhunter, who advises him: ‘You’re muscling in on my territory when you come past the crossing. […] I always felt there was money in this racket somehow, but I could never quite see my way to get it. Now I know’ (138–9). Undeterred as ever, Basil cuts a deal with his would-be competitor, selling him the children for thirty pounds and returning to London in search of bigger game. In what he later recalls as ‘that racket […] in the winter’ (221), he somehow manages to secure a position at the War Office, complete with the rank and uniform—avowedly ‘the best possible disguise for a man of intelligence’ (150)—of a Second-Lieutenant. When genuine intelligence fails to materialize, Basil actively encourages writer Ambrose Silk to unwittingly implicate himself in a fascist plot of his own fabrication, leaving Ambrose exiled in Ireland indefinitely whilst Basil takes charge of his London flat and its contents. Here, as in reference to Basil’s activities at Malfrey, the word racket serves as a euphemism aimed at sanitizing the exploitation and abuse of others for personal gain. Only when preaching, as it were, to the converted, does Basil make this sinister subtext in any way explicit, confiding at the novel’s close in lover Angela Lyne: ‘I’m joining a new racket. […] There’s only one serious occupation for a chap now, that’s killing Germans. I have an idea I shall rather enjoy it’ (220–1).
Waugh would later grudgingly acknowledge that Basil Seal in fact represented a composite of Oxford contemporaries Basil Murray and Peter Rodd, two men whom he admitted, ‘I did not greatly like but whom, in my innocence, I was proud to know.’90 Murray he described as ‘satanic’ and added—in an overt admission of the impact Murray had on his linguistic choices—the caveat: ‘I use “satanic” deliberately. There were times when he seemed possessed by a devil of mischief.’91 A personality unable to stick at any occupation—be it journalist, biographer, royal aide or parliamentary candidate—for long, life after Oxford, as Humphrey Carpenter explains, found Murray ‘drifting from job to job, frequently having to be bailed out of trouble (drunken binges and dishonoured cheques) by his father.’92 Rodd, who embarked upon a disastrous marriage with Nancy Mitford in 1933, was equally erratic. A diplomat’s son, he was well-travelled, cosmopolitan and precocious from a young age, but despite showing early signs of brilliance, his Oxford days served him only as a first step in what would prove a ‘long career in delinquency, a delinquency made almost inevitable by his upbringing.’93 By the time Put Out More Flags was published, Murray had been dead for nearly five years, and Rodd and Mitford—to whom Waugh had become close—had separated. Yet both men, despite his protestations of dislike, clearly held a continued fascination for Waugh, whose work had by this time immortalized them in Basil Seal. Indeed, as he admitted in his memoirs, to give what he termed ‘a picture of my generation’ in which they did not feature would be not only misleading but wholly inaccurate.94 What becomes clear from a detailed reading of Waugh’s writings of the long 1930s is the degree to which, as a satirist, this attitude informed and even dictated not only his characterization but his language.
Written for the most part within the broad parameters of a documentary mode concerned by definition as much with censure as with praise, Waugh’s fiction linguistically enacts the tension between fidelity and disapprobation, offering—together with the work of Acton, Green, Powell, Mitford and others—a vocabulary of values shaped as fundamentally by its antipathy for the implications or certain terms and senses as by its acceptance of others. To borrow Waugh’s own phrase, whilst he may ‘not greatly like’ the implications of Basil’s often idiolectic usage, such usage is itself as vital to the process of authorial identification and performance as is that of a Tony Last or a John Plant, serving as a definitive point of resistance. What emerges from this process is a complex understanding of queerness that, alert to plurality and the possibilities of both positive and negative models of queer masculinity, questions normative gender roles and temporal structures in a way that radically problematizes the claims of critics such as Bernard Schweizer that Waugh’s prose ‘simply professed his straightforward conservatism.’95 For Waugh and his socio-literary peers, the distinction between these ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ models is largely a matter of personal and social responsibility, a domestic masculinity defined by its relationship with the language of the home and homemaking emerging—despite, or even because of, its evident fragility—as the ideal with which Waugh might himself identify, whilst rejecting a self-serving infantile masculinity propped up by euphemism and professional or institutional jargon. A product of a coterie so often defined and criticized by outside observers in terms of its exclusivity—characterized variously, according to D.J. Taylor, as ‘a cult, a private joke or an exclusive sect’ (78)—the vocabulary of values articulated in Waugh’s fiction, in linguistically detaching queerness from sexual identity and figuring it instead as an outcome of unconventional spatial and temporal practices, in fact looks forward to the universalizing impulse of much contemporary queer theory.
Marcel DeCoste, ‘The World’s Anachronism: The Timelessness of the Secular in Evelyn Waugh’s Helena,’ in A Handful of Mischief: New Essays on Evelyn Waugh, eds Donat Gallagher et al. (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011), pp. 160–71 (p. 160).
Martin Stannard, ‘Introduction,’ in Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage, ed. Martin Stannard (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 1–62 (p. 7).
Ibid., p. 1.
Donald Barr, ‘Waugh, From 7 to 50,’ in New York Times Book Review, 17 October 1954, pp. 6, 36 (p. 6).
For the origins of this project see Jeffrey Heath, Picturesque Prison: Evelyn Waugh and His Writing (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1982), pp. 1–36.
Marcel DeCoste, The Vocation of Evelyn Waugh: Faith and Art in the Post-War Fiction (London: Routledge, 2015), p. 3.
Paula Byrne, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (London: Harper, 2009), p. 8.
Naomi Milthorpe, Evelyn Waugh’s Satire: Texts and Contexts (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016), p. 4.
Evelyn Waugh, ‘The Balance: A Yarn of the Good Old Days of Broad Trousers and High Necked Jumpers,’ in The Complete Short Stories and Selected Drawings, ed. Ann Pasternak Slater (London: Everyman, 1998), pp. 3–38 (p. 26).
Evelyn Waugh, ‘A House of Gentlefolks,’ in The Complete Short Stories, pp. 39–49 (p. 45).
Evelyn Waugh, ‘Too Much Tolerance,’ in The Complete Short Stories, pp. 67–71 (p. 67).
Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, ed. David Bradshaw (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001), p. 77.
Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951), p. 159.
Alan S.C. Ross, ‘Linguistic Class-Indicators in Present-Day English,’ Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 55 (1954), 113–49 (p. 113).
Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p. 85.
Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child: Or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 32.
Henry Green, ‘Party Going,’ in Loving, Living, Party Going (London: Vintage, 2005), pp. 383–528 (p. 435).
Henry Green, ‘Loving,’ in Loving, Living, Party Going, pp. 17–204 (p. 91).
V.S. Pritchett, ‘Back from the War,’ in New York Times Book Review, 1 October 1950, pp. 4, 28 (p. 28).
Nick Shepley, Henry Green: Class, Style, and the Everyday (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 15.
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies, ed. Richard Jacobs (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996), p. 14.
Alan S.C. Ross, ‘U and non-U,’ in Noblesse Oblige, pp. 11–58 (p. 30).
Martin Green, Children of the Sun: A Narrative of ‘Decadence’ in England After 1918 (London: Constable, 1977), p, 214.
Harold Acton, Humdrum (London: Chatto & Windus, 1928), pp. 277–8.
Harold Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), p. 40.
Peter G. Christensen, ‘Homosexuality in Brideshead Revisited: “Something Quite Remote from Anything the [Builder] Intended,”’ in A Handful of Mischief, pp. 137–59 (p. 137).
The feet of Chesterton’s title are ‘queer’ not only in that they make a peculiar sound, but also in that they belong to Flambeau, an extravagant and eccentric criminal with a penchant for silverware and precious stones.
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (Boston: Little Brown, 1945), p. 16.
Marston LaFrance, ‘Content and Structure of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited,’ Twentieth Century Literature, 10.4 (1964), 12–18 (p. 13).
Gene D. Phillips, Evelyn Waugh’s Officers, Gentlemen, and Rogues: The Fact Behind His Fiction (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975). p. 64.
Christensen, p. 137.
Halberstam, In a Queer Time, p. 1.
Ibid., p. 5.
D.J. Taylor, Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918–1940 (London: Chatto & Windus, 2007), p. 17.
Ibid., p. 4.
Christopher Ames, The Life of the Party: Festive Vision in Modern Fiction (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010), p, 177.
Rishona Zimring, Social Dance and the Modernist Imagination in Interwar Britain (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 26.
Evelyn Waugh, Black Mischief (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000), pp. 90–1.
Evelyn Waugh, ‘Bella Fleace Gave a Party,’ in Mr Loveday’s Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (London: Chapman & Hall, 1936), pp. 185–203 (p. 203).
Evelyn Waugh, Scoop: A Novel About Journalists (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 11.
Anthony Powell, Afternoon Men (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 7.
David Trotter, Literature in the First Media Age: Britain Between the Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 206.
Nancy Mitford, ‘Highland Fling,’ in Pudding and Pie: An Anthology (London: Arena, 1986), pp. 1–170 (p. 16).
Laura Thompson, Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford, the Biography (London: Head of Zeus, 2015), p. 256.
Nancy Mitford, ‘Christmas Pudding,’ in Pudding and Pie, pp. 171–358 (p. 309).
Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning: The First Volume of an Autobiography (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), p. 196.
See, for example, James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (New York: Knopf, 1934).
Anthony Powell, ‘ Venusberg ,’ in Two Novels (Boston: Little Brown, 1952), pp. 1–156 (p. 104). Originally named for its eighteenth-century surveyors and referring to the geographical border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, in popular usage the Mason and Dixon Line remains symbolic of a cultural divide between the North and the South of the United States of America, Cortney’s reference to ‘the right side of Mason and Dixon’ here evoking the sexual freedoms of the North.
Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010), p. 78.
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010), p. 112.
Evelyn Waugh, ‘Labels,’ in Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writing (London: Everyman, 2003), pp. 1–178 (p. 59).
Mangan, ‘Preface,’ p. 17.
Evelyn Waugh, ‘Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel,’ in The Complete Short Stories, pp. 225–320 (p. 264).
Waugh, Learning, p. 68.
Waugh, Flags, p. 51.
Henry Green, Blindness (Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2001), p. 125.
Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 80.
Anthony Powell, From a View to a Death (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 104.
Waugh, Vile Bodies, p. 162.
Kristin Jacobson, ‘Anxious Male Domesticity and Gender Troubled Corrections,’ in Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs and Gentlemen: Essays on Media Images of Masculinity, ed. Elwood Watson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009), pp. 216–41 (p. 218).
Douglas Lane Patey, The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 118.
Waugh, Decline, pp. 94–5.
Waugh, Learning, p. 31.
According to Germanic mythology the Venusberg or ‘Venus Mountain’ contained the caverns within which the court of Venus, the goddess of love, was housed. The caverns were supposedly hidden from mortal men, and to enter the Venusberg was to court eternal perdition.
Evelyn Waugh, ‘Out of Depth,’ in Mr Loveday’s Little Outing, pp. 119–38 (p. 131).
See Mitford, Highland Fling, p. 90; Wigs on the Green, pp. 80, 168; The Pursuit of Love, p. 188.
Byrne, p. 287.
Evelyn Waugh, letter to Henry Yorke, Sept. 1929; repr. in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Mark Amory (London: Phoenix, 1995), pp. 39–40 (p. 40). ‘Dig’ is the name by which friends referred to Yorke’s wife, Adelaide Yorke née Biddulph.
Evelyn Waugh, ‘Travel—and Escape from Your Friends,’ in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Donat Gallagher (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp. 133–4 (p. 133).
Ames, p. 176.
Heath, p. 105.
Waugh, ‘Travel,’ p. 134.
Isherwood, Lions, p. 256.
Heath, p. 27.
Mitford, Christmas Pudding, p. 310.
Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled (London: Chatto & Windus, 1926), p. 294.
Balfour, p. 202.
Douglas Mao, ‘A Shaman in Common: Lewis, Auden, and the Queerness of Liberalism,’ in Bad Monisms, eds Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), pp. 206–37 (p. 220).
Keith Williams, British Writers and the Media, 1930–45 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), p. 7.
Ibid., p. 17.
Barbie Zelizer and Stuart Allan, Keywords in News and Journalism Studies (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2010), pp. 33–4.
Ibid., p. 34.
Williams, British Writers, p. 17.
Waugh, Learning, p. 188.
Credence is lent to this reading by a similar turn of phrase used in Put Out More Flags to describe the alcoholic binges to which Basil’s lover, Angela Lyne, is subject. Basil chides her for going ‘on a bat’ (161) without him—a ‘bat’ here being synonymous with a ‘spree’ or ‘binge’ as defined by the OED, which in fact cites Put Out More Flags as an example.
Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 75.
Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket (New York: Round Table, 1935), pp. 1–2.
Bourdieu, p. 75.
Waugh, Learning, p. 204.
Humphrey Carpenter, The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), p. 239.
Selina Hastings, Nancy Mitford: A Biography (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 82.
Waugh, Learning, p. 204.
Bernard Schweizer, Radicals on the Road: The Politics of English Travel Writing in the 1930s (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001), p. 37.