Friday, 28 October 2011

Evelyn Waugh's Short Stories

Evelyn Waugh's short stories are a little patchy in quality but they are still definitely worth owning and teaching. Some, like 'The Man Who Liked Dickens', are rightly regarded as masterpieces but others are less well-known.

'Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future', for example, is not his best story but its subject matter is incredibly relevant in contemporary Britain and, as you would expect from Waugh, it has some great satirical moments.

The story follows Miles Mountjoy, an orphan brought up by the state and subjected to "Constructive Play" and psychonalysis every Friday, who becomes a pyromanaic. Fortunately for him, in "New Britain ... there are no criminals. There are only the victims of inadequate social services." He is therefore rehabilitated rather than punished, before being given a plum job with the Department of Euthanasia:

"Euthanasia had not been part of the original 1945 Health Service; it was a Tory measure designed to attract votes from the aged and mortally sick. Under the Bevan-Eden Coalition the service came into general use and won instant popularity. The Union of Teachers was pressing for its application to difficult children."

In the department he falls in love with Clara, an ex-ballet dancer whose sterilisation has had unexpected side-effects (she has grown a beard) and he slowly learns to become human:

"For Miles, child of the State, Sex had been part of the curriculum at every stage of his education; first in diagrams, then in demonstrations, then in application, he had mastered all the antics of procreation. Love was a word seldom used except by politicians and by them only in moments of pure fatuity. Nothing that he had been taught prepared him for Clara."

Events start to spiral out of control at Santa-Claus-tide (because Christmas, of course, has been abolished) but I won't spoil the ending here.

Evelyn Waugh is sometimes characterised as a conservative throwback, a man who was out of touch, but, in fact, as this story shows, he was not just remarkably acute but also remarkably prescient. 

Another story which now now seems more visionary than it would have done in the years immediately after Waugh's death is 'Out of Depth', which was written shortly after his conversion. Drawing upon the tradition of H G Wells and Conan Doyle and, more directly, on John Gray's Park, it tells the story of two men who, after a drunken night out, are sent back and forward in time to "recover the garnered wisdom which the ages of reason have wasted."

The story follows Rip Van Winkle, the man who travels into the future, to a London which has returned to primitivism. Londoners now live in mud huts, travel by canoe, and move "with the loping gait of savages." However, in a twist familiar to readers of Park (then) and Noughts and Crosses (now), these white savages are ruled by a noble black race. Rip gradually gets to learn about their way of life before coming across that garnered wisdom:

"And then later - how much later he could not tell -something that was new and yet ageless. The word 'Mission' painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar... and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. Something was being done. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered. [...] The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.
   "Ite, missa est."

It may have been difficult to appreciate Waugh's understanding of the hermeneutic of continuity in the years following his death in 1966 but now his insights are coming back into their own. Perhaps his short stories, as well as his wonderful novels, could also put in more of an appearance in the classroom too.


  1. I don't know how I found your blog a few weeks ago but I love it, and it's already in favorites.

    Thank you.

  2. Thank you Varenka. That's really kind of you.