“Throughout the early Middle Ages the monks were regarded by their lay contemporaries as the intercessors for the rest of society, divided against those who gave it livelihood by toil and those who defended it by arms. The monasteries therefore were not endowed solely as shrines of adoration or homes of charity, but as houses of public prayer, and when, in the perfected, self-conscious feudal state labour-service and military service were imposed and assessed as necessary functions of different classes, the monks were regarded as executing an equally indispensable social service of intercession.”
—Dom David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England: From the Times of St. Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council 940-1216 (1940; second edition, 1963)
“My God, when I have dedicated something I have written to any human person, I am taking away something which does not belong to me, and giving it away to one who is not competent to receive it. What I have written does not belong to me. If I have written the truth, then it is ‘God’s truth’: it would be true if every human mind denied it, or if there were no human minds in existence to recognize it. If I have written well, that is not because Hobbs, Nobbs, Noakes and Stokes unite in praising it, but because it contains that interior excellence which is some strange refraction of your own perfect beauty, and of that excellence of which you alone are the judge. If it proves useful to others, that is because you have seen fit to make use of it as a weak tool, to achieve something in them of that supernatural end which is their destiny, and your secret.”
—Ronald Knox, preface to an unfinished book of apologetics, quoted in Evelyn Waugh, The Life of Right Reverend Ronald Knox (1959)
In his crowning masterpiece, Sword of Honour (1965), Evelyn Waugh describes an encounter between his Catholic hero Guy Crouchback and his father Gervase, which reinforces a major theme of the trilogy. In the scene, Guy, on leave from the Halberdiers during World War II and reunited with his father, says in the wake of Italy’s surrender:
“What a mistake the Lateran Treaty was. It seemed masterly at the time—how long? Fifteen years ago? What are fifteen years in the history of Rome? How much better it would have been if the Popes had sat it out and then emerged saying: ‘What was all that? Risorgimento? Garibaldi? Cavour? The House of Savoy? Mussolini? Just some hooligans from out of town causing a disturbance. Come to think of it, wasn’t there once a poor little boy whom they called King of Rome?’ That’s what the Pope ought to be saying today.”
Mr. Crouchback regarded his son sadly. “My dear boy,” he said, “you’re really making the most terrible nonsense, you know. That isn’t at all what the Church is like. It isn’t what she’s for.”
This realization on the part of the elder Crouchback that the Church cannot conduct herself as though she were merely a political entity is pivotal to the book. Indeed, the real theme of Sword of Honour is the Church and the World. How do these two seemingly irreconcilable things coexist? Before I delve into this lively matter, I should say something briefly of the treaty that inspired Guy’s contempt.
The Lateran Treaty (1929), struck between the Kingdom of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and the Holy See under Pope Pius XI, settled the hitherto unresolved Roman Question by recognizing the Vatican City as an independent state under the sovereignty of the Holy See. The Italian government also agreed to compensate the Roman Catholic Church for the loss of the Papal States under Pope Pius IX. For the historian Paul Corner of the University of Siena, the treaty “was an example of the fact that Mussolini’s formula, ‘Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State,’ was capable of exceptions when necessary and when political advantage was to be gained,” though the advantage to Mussolini was not unalloyed. “Certainly, the agreement consolidated his position and confirmed his independence from the [Fascist] party, but it did also mean a concession; like the monarchy, the Church remained an autonomous centre of power in respect to the Fascist structure and as such put a limit to any genuinely totalitarian pretensions.”
For Cardinal Bourne, the Archbishop of Westminster between the years 1903 and 1935, the treaty was welcome. As he told his English countrymen in his Easter Sunday homily:
One thing only is necessary for sovereignty—namely, to be absolutely sui juris—not to be the subject of another. This sovereignty may be rooted in a purely spiritual function . . . But Peter and his successors, as mortal men, must have a foothold for their feet, a place in which to dwell, a territory in which to exercise the necessary and essential function of their purely spiritual charge and sovereignty.
In Sword of Honour, Gervase Crouchback writes his son a pivotal letter in which he defends the treaty. “When you spoke of the Lateran Treaty,” he writes, “did you consider how many souls may have been reconciled and have died at peace as the result of it? How many children may have been brought up in the faith who might have lived in ignorance? Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of ‘face.’”
Of course, the ignominious pact into which Pope Francis and his friends in the Vatican have entered with the red Chinese offers the Church no such assurances, nor does it secure her any autonomy; but Gervase’s insistence that one soul saved is full compensation for any loss of diplomatic face resonates deeply with his son and becomes the thematic means by which Waugh unifies his work.
Gervase’s letter is also a clear echo of what John Henry Newman had written in one of his first Catholic compositions, Anglican Difficulties (1850), in which he had occasion to remind his readers of the Church’s true charge in the fallen world.
My dear brethren, do not think I am declaiming in the air or translating the pages of some old worm-eaten homily; as I have already said, I bear my own testimony to what has been brought home to me most closely and vividly as a matter of fact since I have been a Catholic; viz., that that mighty world-wide Church, like her Divine Author, regards, consults for, labours for the individual soul; she looks at the souls for whom Christ died, and who are made over to her; and her one object, for which everything is sacrificed—appearances, reputation, worldly triumph—is to acquit herself well of this most awful responsibility. Her one duty is to bring forward the elect to salvation, and to make them as many as she can to take offences out of their path, to warn them of sin, to rescue them from evil, to convert them, to teach them, to feed them, to protect them, and to perfect them. Oh, most tender loving Mother, ill-judged by the world, which thinks she is, like itself, always minding the main chance; on the contrary, it is her keen view of things spiritual, and her love for the soul, which hampers her in her negotiations and her measures, on this hard cold earth, which is her place of sojourning.
When Gervase dies, Guy, in pensive attendance at the requiem Mass, takes stock of the counsel he had received from his father over the years and realizes that he is at a crossroads. The besetting sin of spiritual sloth about which his father had warned him requires his attention as never before, and Waugh describes him thus discerning his way forward:
In the recesses of Guy’s conscience there lay the belief that somewhere, somehow, something would be required of him; that he must be attentive to the summons when it came. They also served who only stood and waited. He saw himself as one of the labourers in the parable who sat in the marketplace waiting to be hired and were not called into the vineyard until late in the day. They had their reward on an equality with the men who had toiled since dawn. One day he would get the chance to do some small service which only he could perform, for which he had been created. Even he must have his function in the divine plan. He did not expect a heroic destiny. Quantitative judgments did not apply. All that mattered was to recognise the chance when it offered. Perhaps his father was at that moment clearing the way for him. “Show me what to do and help me to do it,” he prayed.
This, too, echoes Newman, who wrote in one of his most cherished prayers:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.
Since Sword of Honour, like Brideshead Revisited (1945) and Helena (1950), is a novel about the workings of Providence in the fallen world, Guy comes to realize his “definite service” in rather an anfractuous way. And to capture this anfractuosity, Waugh deploys one of his best female characters, Virginia, a prodigal, promiscuous, ingenuous creature. Civilly divorced from Guy at the book’s outset, Virginia marries and divorces a man named Troy, has an affair with a man named Trimmer, and then finds herself not only broke and alone but saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. The passages in the book describing Virginia desperately searching wartime London for an abortionist exhibit not only his shrewd understanding of character but his even shrewder appreciation of the dignity of human fallenness—even at its most absurd.
The last prospective abortionist she visits has actually closed shop, the War Office having requisitioned his talents for voodoo for the war effort. Instead of performing abortions, he now casts spells on Herr von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador to Britain. When Virginia meets the man whom she wishes to kill her child, he receives her with a memorable salutation.
“Good morning. Come in. How are you? You have the scorpions?” “No,” said Virginia, “no scorpions this morning.”
Readers who know their Bible will see echoes in this of Luke 10:19: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” But parents of children who know their Bible will also be reminded of Luke 11:12-14: “Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” In having Dr. Akonanga of 14 Blight Street, W2, off the Edgware Road, ask after scorpions, Waugh reminds his readers in one word of what the true relationship between God and his children should be. In giving the doctor’s office this definite address, Waugh makes a vital allusion to Graham Greene’s short story “A Little Place Off the Edgware Road” (1939), in which his friend speaks of “the squalid darkening street,” which was “only one of the innumerable tunnels connecting grave to grave where the imperishable bodies lay.” Abortion, in other words, cannot abort God’s immortal work.
Of course, Waugh presents the scene to portray the sinner in Virginia, but he does so with striking compassion. The sinner in Virginia actually has a tragic dignity. Once the misunderstanding about the parcel of scorpions is sorted out, Virginia introduces herself. “‘I’ve come as a private patient,’ she said. ‘You’ve treated lots of women. Women like myself,’ she explained with her high incorrigible candour, ‘who want to get rid of babies.’” Virginia may be a sinner; she may be unaware of the love that God the Father bears for her and her baby; but she is not a canting sinner. She does not follow the ineffable Marie Stopes and prate of birth control. She does not prate of reproductive rights, like our own sinners. She calls a spade a spade. She has come to the doctor to get rid of her unwanted child.
When Virginia despairs of finding an abortionist, she looks up her former husband, having heard that he is likely to come into a considerable fortune now that his father is dead. Guy is staying with his Uncle Peregrine after a training injury with a parachute and welcomes the society of his lively former wife. Peregrine, an eccentric bachelor, whose exacting Catholicism puts one in mind of Bridey’s faith in Brideshead Revisited, is the perfect foil for Virginia, though, as Waugh shows, for all their differences, they share an unworldly childlikeness. Indeed, when Peregrine takes Virginia out for dinner, their conversation nicely reveals their characters’ improbable similarity.
“Peregrine, have you never been to bed with a woman?”
“Yes,” said Uncle Peregrine smugly, “twice. It is not a thing I normally talk about.” “Do tell.”
“Once when I was twenty and once when I was forty-five. I didn’t particularly enjoy it.” “Tell me about them.”
“It was the same woman.”
Virginia’s spontaneous laughter had seldom been heard in recent years; it had once been one of her chief charms. She sat back in her chair and gave full, free tongue; clear, unrestrained, entirely joyous, without a shadow of ridicule, her mirth rang through the quiet little restaurant. Sympathetic and envious faces were turned towards her. She stretched across the tablecloth and caught his hand, held it convulsively, unable to speak, laughed until she was breathless and mute, still gripping his bony fingers. And Uncle Peregrine smirked. He had never before struck success. He had in his time been at parties where others had laughed in this way. He had never had any share in it. He did not know quite what it was that had won this prize, but he was highly gratified.
“Oh, Peregrine,” said Virginia at last with radiant sincerity, “I love you.”
As their conversation continues, it transpires that the promiscuous Virginia and the celibate Peregrine have something else in common. They are both, in their different ways, keenly aware of the sorrows of sex, of how desire and disorder can go hand-in-hand. When Peregrine describes the attitude towards sex that he has encountered among the denizens of Bellamy’s, his club, he could be describing the sordid liaisons to which Virginia has succumbed before and after leaving Guy.
“I know most men go in for love affairs,” he said. “Some of them can’t help it. They can’t get on at all without women, but there are plenty of others—I daresay you haven’t come across them much—who don’t really care about that sort of thing, but they don’t know any reason why they shouldn’t, so they spend half their lives going after women they don’t really want. I can tell you something you probably don’t know. There are men who have been great womanizers in their time and when they get to my age and don’t want it any more and in fact can’t do it, instead of being glad of a rest, what do they do but take all kinds of medicines to make them want to go on? I’ve heard fellows in my club talking about it.”
Peregrine also reveals his recognition of Virginia’s peculiar plight in taking up with the ramshackle Trimmer when he says to his dinner guest: “You only have to look at the ghastly fellows who are a success with women to realise that there isn’t much point in it.” Virginia is described by Waugh as listening distractedly to her interlocutor, only making “a little pagoda of the empty oyster-shells on her plate.” Yet when she breaks her silence, it is to share with Peregrine how she and he are bound together by other preoccupations. “Without raising her eyes she said: ‘I’m rather thinking of becoming a Catholic.’” Peregrine receives this startling revelation with a revelation of his own.
“Oh,” he said. “Why?”
“Don’t you think it would be a good thing?”
‘”It depends on your reasons.” “Isn’t it always a good thing?”
The waiter reproachfully rearranged the oyster-shells on Virginia’s plate before removing it.
“Well, isn’t it?” she pressed. “Come on. Tell. Why are you so shocked suddenly? I’ve heard an awful lot one way and another about the Catholic Church being the Church of sinners.”
“Not from me,” said Uncle Peregrine. The waiter brought them their turbot.
“Of course, if you’d sooner not discuss it . . .”
“I’m not really competent to,” said the Privy Chamberlain, the Knight of Devotion and Grace of the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem. “Personally I find it very difficult to regard converts as Catholics.”
One might be inclined to see this as simply another comic twist of Peregrine’s recusant Catholicism, but Waugh actually means it as an expression of the man’s humility, his appreciation of the demands of conversion. “Uncle Peregrine hesitated between his acceptance in theory of the operation of divine grace and his distant but quite detailed observation of the men and women he had known, and relapsed to his former ‘I’m really not competent to say.’” The devout Catholic in Peregrine is cast in an even more interesting light when he admits to Virginia that he had thought that she was coming to his flat not to see her estranged husband but him, an admission which appeals richly to her sense of the ridiculous, though Waugh could not present his portrait of these two unlikely sinners with more winning tenderness.
“Well,” said Uncle Peregrine, “that alters everything.” He looked at her with eyes of woe. “It was Guy you’ve been coming to see all these last days?”
“Of course. What did you think? . . . Oh, Peregrine, did you think I had Designs on you?” “The thought had crossed my mind.”
“You thought perhaps I might provide your third—.” She used a word, then unprintable, which despite its timeless obscenity did not make Uncle Peregrine wince. He even found it attractive on her lips. She was full of good humour and mischief now, on the verge of another access of laughter.
“That was rather the idea.”
Here one can see Waugh’s Jamesian flare for scene making—“Dramatise it, dramatise it!” being the American novelist’s constant mantra. Yet James rarely managed dialogue of this beguiling alchemy.
“But surely that would have been Wrong?”
“Very Wrong indeed. I did not seriously entertain it. But it recurred often . . . You could have moved into the room Guy is in now. . .”
Virginia’s laughter came again, most endearing of her charms.
“Darling Peregrine. And you wouldn’t have needed any of those expensive treatments your chums in Bellamy’s recommend?”
“In your case,” said Uncle Peregrine with his cavalier grace, “I am practically sure not.”
When Virginia shares her “Designs” with Guy, the two are forced to speak of the love that their fraught relations have betrayed. “I don’t love any more,” says the desolate Guy, to which Virginia retorts, pleadingly: “Not me?”
“Oh, no, Virginia, not you. You must have realised that.”
“It is not easy to realise when lots of people have been so keen, not so long ago. What about you, Guy, that evening in Claridge’s?”
“That wasn’t love,” said Guy. “Believe it or not, it was the Halberdiers.” “Yes. I think I know what you mean.”
The justness of their agreeing on this last point is borne out by Waugh’s describing wartime London earlier in the book as a place where “every doorway held an embraced couple.” For no less a critic and no less a Londoner than V.S. Pritchett, “large portions of the last war were exactly as [Waugh] describes them.” Pritchett is also astute in realizing that if “Crouchback’s bad wife would once have been seen [by the novelist] as a vile body; she is now discerned as a displaced person.” One of the great achievements of Waugh’s masterpiece is to show how all of its characters are displaced persons, though their home is not this or that English or European place but the country St. Raphael describes in the prayer that meant so much to Flannery O’Connor.
Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us:
Raphael, Angel of happy meeting,
lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for.
May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your joy.
Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you
at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life,
we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings,
so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.
Remember the weak, you who are strong,
you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder,
in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.
Of course, the “region of thunder” has a special significance for the ineffable Apthorpe, but that is another story.
In showing Guy accepting Virginia’s offer of re-marriage, even with Trimmer’s child in her womb, indeed, precisely because of the illegitimate child, Waugh exhibits the fruits of the conversion that Peregrine finds so improbable, though, brilliantly, the novelist presents this turning to God from the standpoint of Guy’s highly conventional friend, Kerstie—from the standpoint, that is to say, of Vanity Fair.
“You poor bloody fool,” said Kerstie, anger and pity and something near love in her voice, “you’re being chivalrous—about Virginia. Can’t you understand men aren’t chivalrous anymore and I don’t believe they ever were. Do you really see Virginia as a damsel in distress?”
“She’s in distress.” “She’s tough.”
“Perhaps when they are hurt, the tough suffer more than the tender.”
“Oh, come off it, Guy. You’re forty years old. Can’t you see how ridiculous you will look playing the knight-errant? Ian thinks you are insane, literally. Can you tell me any sane reason for doing this thing?”
Here, the Catholic Guy is at a disadvantage. He knows that the unbelieving Kerstie will not enter into why he is doing what he has decided to do, knighterrantry, in the sense in which she understands the term, being something rather different from love—self-surrendering love. Yet, he perseveres.
“Of course Virginia is tough. She would have survived somehow. I shan’t be changing her by what I’m doing. I know all that. But you see there’s another”—he was going to say “soul”; then realized that this word would mean little to Kerstie for all her granite propriety—“there’s another life to consider. What sort of life do you think her child would have, born unwanted in 1944?”
“It’s no business of yours.”
“It was made my business by being offered.”
“My dear Guy, the world is full of unwanted children. Half the population of Europe are homeless—refugees and prisoners. What is one child more or less in all the misery?”
“I can’t do anything about all those others. This is just one case where I can help. And only I, really. I was Virginia’s last resort. So I couldn’t do anything else. Don’t you see?”
“Of course I don’t. Ian [Kerstie’s husband] was quite right. You’re insane.”
That Kerstie is married to Ian Kilbannock, the fatuous journalist attached to the Halberdiers, lends her worldly view of matters an extra absurdity. For Kerstie and Ian, to love selflessly is insane. They might have been the people St. Paul had in mind when he told the Corinthians that the preaching of the cross is only foolishness to them that perish. Still, Kerstie’s spiritual philistinism nicely offsets Guy’s newfound caritas. “It was no good trying to explain, Guy thought. Had someone said: ‘All differences are theological differences’? He turned once more to his father’s letter: Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of ‘face.’ ’
Anne Pasternak Slater’s comments apropos Guy’s decision to take Virginia back are spot on. She certainly recognizes that in the eyes of the Church Guy and Virginia have never been unmarried—despite Troy and Trimmer. One of the very best of our literary critics, she understands the deep Catholic core of the book—a core which baffled Waugh’s contemporary critics, including Kingsley Amis, Philip Toynbee, Frank Kermode, and Gore Vidal, all of whom simply found the book “reactionary,” “snobbish,” and “hollow.” In her study of Waugh, Pasternak Slater notes how the novelist introduces a character named Mr. Goodall, a connoisseur of the recusant aristocracy, to show how a distant relative of Guy unwittingly made an illegitimate child his heir. As far as Goodall is concerned, in such circumstances, in God’s eyes, the child is the true heir. Guy, however, is sceptical, asking whether God’s Providence would ever stoop to concern itself with “the perpetuation of the English Catholic aristocracy.” Goodall insists that it does concern itself with such things—“And with sparrows too, we are taught.” And here Pasternak Slater makes a vital point.
Now, in Waugh’s final volume, this resolution is set the right way up. Guy knowingly fathers Trimmer’s bastard son, and takes him into the household of his faith, a family of inestimably greater value than the aristocracy. Moral order is established and conventional validations of legitimacy and inherited class rejected. This, incidentally, is another answer to those who accuse Waugh of snobbery.
Trimmer, after all, we have to remember, begins his protean career as a hairdresser on Cunard ships. Moreover, the accuracy of Pasternak Slater’s point is borne out by the description of Gervase Crouchback that Waugh provides to his readers at the book’s opening.
There was nothing of the old dandy about him, nothing crusted, nothing crotchety. He was not at all what is called a “character.” He was an innocent, affable old man who had somehow preserved his good humour—much more than that, a mysterious and tranquil joy—throughout a life which to all outward observation had been overloaded with misfortune. He had like many another been born in full sunlight and lived to see night fall. He had an ancient name which was now little regarded and threatened with extinction. Only God and Guy knew the massive and singular quality of Mr. Crouchback’s family pride.
The elder Crouchback is one of the book’s best characters, a good man whose goodness Waugh manages to capture in a few choice, deft, luminous strokes. Ian Ker, in what is the very best essay ever written about the novelist, “Evelyn Waugh: The Priest as Craftsman” (2003), notes how:
When Mr. Crouchback dies, it seems entirely appropriate that his solicitor should observe that, although none of Mr. Crouchback’s furniture is “of any value,” nevertheless “it was all well made.” A man who has done the job of being a Catholic, of doing Catholic things, so perfectly would naturally also have well-crafted furniture.
The American author Gore Vidal, on the other hand, speaking for many of those outside the Catholic pale, found Waugh’s Catholic art unconvincing. “Satirists seldom end well,” he wrote in his review of the trilogy in the New York Times.
The rage that fills them and makes possible their irritable art is apt to turn on themselves. Dean Swift’s madness is instructive. Waugh’s own experiences, recorded in his extraordinary novel “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold” (1956), are in that dark tradition. For Waugh’s art, the difficulties inevitably increase as he turns from present horrors to his private vision of the good life. His religious and social preferences are his own business, but when he tries to make a serious case for them in his work, he is on shaky ground. Even the prose—so precise in its malice when he is on the attack—grows solemn and hollow when he tries to celebrate goodness and love and right action. One might say of him, to paraphrase James on Meredith, that he does the best things worst.
“Shaky ground”? The ground on which Waugh founded his Catholic art is man’s inalienable failure, his radical need for God’s grace and redemption. There is no more solid ground than that. Of course, for any critic blind to the “mysterious and tranquil joy” that animates the faithful Gervase, and, by extension, Waugh’s art, Vidal’s strictures will always seem plausible. Unprejudiced readers will judge otherwise. As for satirists not ending well, Waugh died on Easter Sunday after Easter Sunday Mass surrounded by his family, a spry, devout, accomplished man. Only a fool would regard such an end as bad.
Virginia’s conversion is another instructive riposte to Peregrine’s comical scrupulosity. “In Westminster Cathedral,” Waugh writes, “. . . Virginia made her first confession. She told everything; fully, accurately, calmly, without extenuation or elaboration. The recital of half a lifetime’s mischief took less than five minutes. ‘Thank God for your good humble confession,’ the priest said. She was shriven. The same words were said to her as were said to Guy. The same grace was offered. Little Trimmer stirred as she knelt at the side-altar and pronounced the required penance; then she returned to her needlework.” It is precisely the forthcoming naturalness of Virginia’s unburdening of her sins that puts Peregrine’s scruples in their necessary light. We can ponder the mystery of absolution all we like—or we can simply go to confession. Virginia chooses the latter. “That evening she said to Uncle Peregrine, as she had said before: ‘Why do people make such a fuss? It’s all so easy. But it is rather satisfactory to feel I shall never again have anything to confess as long as I live.’’’ Of course, in a new penitent, imagining that one confession will suffice for the conversion of the natural man might be a piece of understandable deludedness, but for Waugh, and for his readers, Virginia’s peace of mind is edifying. It even impresses Peregrine. “Uncle Peregrine made no comment,” Waugh notes. “He did not credit himself with any peculiar gift of discernment of spirits. Most things which most people did or said puzzled him, if he gave them any thought. He preferred to leave such problems in higher hands.”
In describing Virginia’s experience as a catechumen, Waugh offers his readers a portrait of conversion that should encourage even the most zealous of sinners to repent of their sins. Here, we have no Rex Mottram attempting to rig what ought to be the surrender, the unconditional surrender of conversion, but only the ingenuousness of assent.
Presently she said: “I’ve finished my lessons, you know.”
“Instructions. Canon Weld says he’s ready to receive me any time now.” “I suppose he knows best,” said Uncle Peregrine dubiously.
“It’s all so easy,” said Virginia. “I can’t think what those novelists make such a fuss over—about people ‘losing their faith.’ The whole thing is clear as daylight to me. I wonder why no one ever told me before. I mean it’s all quite obvious really, isn’t it, when you come to think of it?”
“It is to me,” said Uncle Peregrine.
“I want you to be my godfather, please. And that doesn’t mean a present—at least not anything expensive.” She plied her needle assiduously, showing her pretty hands. “It’s really you who have brought me into the Church, you know.”
“I? Good heavens, how?”
“Just by being such a dear,” said Virginia.
Here, the operation of providence in the world, which Peregrine found so inscrutable in his earlier encounter with Virginia, becomes manifest. And that Waugh manages to pull this off with two characters who would not be out of place in his earlier Mayfair comedies is a mark of his late consummate artistry.
Most readers revel in Sword of Honour because of its high comedy. Apthorpe, Ritchie-Hook, and Ludovic are comic characters of a Falstaffian richness. Yet the comedy inherent in these farcical figures is unredeemed until we meet with Virginia’s divine comedy. This is a comedy, as I have tried to show, with its own peculiar hilarity, but it is also a comedy suffused with grave purpose. It certainly gives Waugh the opportunity to end his trilogy on a note of profound hope—the hope of conversion in a world riddled with despair. And Virginia’s decision to have, not abort her child, is at the heart of that conversion.
After deciding to accept Trimmer’s child as his heir, Guy seeks to help a few displaced Jews whom he has befriended. He loves his neighbor as he loves himself. The same desire to follow God’s commandments that had converted him from a tribal to a true Catholic now enables him to look beyond the desolations of the smart set.
Accordingly, when Guy meets with one of his Jewish friends for the last time before she is taken away for her almost certain murder, the two descant on the nature of war, which turns out to be rather similar to the nature of original sin. While Guy tries to assure Mme. Kanyi that someone who has been pursuing her will make no trouble for her, she demurs, and in her demurral, in a few offhand, simple utterances, she conjures up centuries of Jewish persecution. She also drives home what St. Jerome deplored as the treacherousness of the human heart. Guy may be able to leave the debâcle of Crete behind him, but Mme. Kanyi very likely will not. “You are leaving,” she says. “There was a time when I thought that all I needed for happiness was to leave. Our people feel that. They must move away from evil. Some hope to find homes in Palestine. Most look no farther than Italy—just to cross the water, like crossing the Red Sea.” For Mme. Kanyi and her Jewish friends, fleeing evil is never easy, and this gives her an insight into the nature of evil hitherto unvouchsafed to Guy. “Is there any place that is free from evil,” she asks.
“It is too simple to say that only the Nazis wanted war. These Communists wanted it too. It was the only way in which they could come to power. Many of my people wanted it, to be revenged on the Germans, to hasten the creation of the national state. It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians—not very many perhaps—who felt this. Were there none in England?”
“God forgive me,” said Guy. “I was one of them.”
Faced with the aboriginal calamity of Guy’s fallenness, one is grateful for Waugh’s last joke, replete as it is with his Catholic sense of grace, indeed, his Catholic sense of hope. At the novel’s end, Arthur Box-Bender, Guy’s brother-in-law, who has always thought the Catholic faith nonsense, has been having trouble with his son. What is wrong with the son?
Divorce? Debt? No, something odder than that. He’d gone into a monastery.
In summing up the novel, Frank Kermode argued that it only showed how “the whole matter of Catholic England and its hereditary defenders” was a “myth,” to which Waugh clung to give some order to what he regarded as an otherwise disastrous world. Despite the novelist’s best efforts, Sword of Honour only proved that the “force” of the myth was “diminishing.” After all, at the book’s end, “Priests are corrupt, England dishonoured; and the heir of Broome is sinking into despair until moved to virtuous action by the plight of displaced persons . . . whom he could not save.” Failure, in other words, in Kermode’s jejune reading, discredits Christian hope. Waugh, of course, knew otherwise. Yes, he conceded in the preface to the trilogy that he had written “an obituary for the Roman Catholic Church in England;” he rightly loathed the liturgical depredations of Vatican II. Yet at the same time the very fact that he has the son of Box-Bender enter the monastery at the end of the book affirms his recognition of the truth of something Newman had occasion to say in his “Sermon on the Liturgy” (1830): “Hope is the patient subdued tranquil cheerful thoughtful waiting for Christ.”
Edward Short is the author of several highly acclaimed books on St John Henry Newman. Recently, he chose and introduced The Saint Mary’s Anthology of Christian Verse. His latest book, What The Bells Sang: Essays and Reviews will be published any day by Gracewing. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.