Evelyn Waugh's catholicism. His temporal religious attitude in comparison to "Decline and Fall"

Seminar Paper, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Switchback to Catholic belief
2.1 Youth and School
2.2 The twenties
2.3 Conversion to Roman Catholicism

3. Decline and Fall
3.1 Reception of Decline and Fall
3.2 Catholicism and Faith
3.2.1 Main Character
3.2.2 Minor Characters
3.2.3 Static vs. Dynamic characters
3.3 Discussion about personal impact
3.4 Doubts and Parallels

4. Conclusion and forecast

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Evelyn Waugh is one of the most complex characters in the history of British authors. Before Waugh was successful with Decline and Fall as a writer he ran through a development influenced by professional and religious struggles. Working at different opportunities as teacher, painter or writer he did at first not want to get serious about his artistic career (Stannard 1986, xiv). Only with the success of Decline and Fall around the year 1929 he made the final step to become a respected author. Waugh’s growing religious interest in Catholicism had a significant influence in his ongoing literary work (Stannard 1986, 232). Christopher Sykes goes in his biography of Evelyn Waugh as far as to claim that his faith was the fundamental feature for his aesthetic creating: "Waugh’s adoption of Catholicism virtually completed the development of his aesthetic" (Stannard 1986, 232).

In his later career Waugh established his works as important Catholic novels. Therefore they are often discussed in relation to his personal religious background. Waugh’s first published book Decline and Fall is certainly no religious work. Thereby it holds a special position in his artistic career written right before Waugh’s conversion to Roman Catholic belief. This sets Decline and Fall in an outstanding relation to Waugh’s faith what makes the book very interesting to discuss in respect to religious issues.

Over this term paper will now be discussed how Waugh’s religious affection had an impact on Decline and Fall. Remarkable steps are Waugh’s youth and school education as well as the broken marriage with his first wife. These themes are presented chronologically before Evelyn Waugh’s motivation for his conversion is discussed in detail. Followed by the examination of Decline and Fall about religious influences by the author the discussion ends with the conclusion that his strong Catholic faith helped Waugh to become the extraordinary author he was. Presupposed is the knowledge of the book and Waugh’s basic vita.

2. Switchback to Catholic belief

Except for Evelyn Waugh’s extraordinary endowment for satire and farce he was famous for his strong Roman Catholic faith. Although the intransigence of his faith is legendary he has not always been as devout as he had been for the main part of his literary legislating. How Evelyn Waugh was involved in Catholic faith, how he almost lost it during his adolescence and how he returned to religion will be demonstrated in the oncoming chapters.

2.1 Youth and School

Evelyn Waugh was born into a highly pious family. Especially his father attended divine service regularly and arranged the lifestyle of the Waugh family according to the Christian ideals of the Anglican Church (Waugh, A Little Order, 147). This did not only have a marginal influence on Waugh’s intensity of faith[1], it is evident that his religious childhood built the basis for his connection to faith which never really lost hold on him. Waugh writes in A Little Order: "I was born in England in 1903 with a strong hereditary predisposition towards the Established Church." (Waugh, A Little Order, 147) Following his hereditary conditioning Evelyn Waugh showed religious interest from an early age on (Johnstone 1984, 79). Thus his belief was of a sentimental shape and led so far that he intended to become a clergyman (Waugh, A Little Order, 147). Lancing College with its focus on Christian education was ought to support Waugh in his religious temperament. However, the school turned out to affect the opposite. During his last year at college Waugh claimed himself an atheist (Johnstone 1984, 79). Evelyn Waugh traced his change in faith on the one hand back to the teachers at Lancing. Confronted with critical questions about the Christian ideology those were not about to be answered, the teachers left their pupils confused in their faith and vulnerable for the impact of new manners of reasoning. Waugh’s mind now removed from strict faith and turned around blaming on the other hand the reading of enlightened authors like Arnold Lunn and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for his absence of devoutness. Attracted by the rational ideas of Enlightenment Evelyn Waugh eliminated his faith in God (Waugh, A Little Learning, 142f). In June 1921 he confessed his loss and wrote in his diary the popular lines:

In the last few weeks I have ceased to be a Christian. I have realised for the last two terms at least I have been an atheist in all except the courage to admit it myself. (D'Arcy, 1973, 60)

As Evelyn Waugh is a very straight character which clings to rules and regulations it is no wonder that reasonable ideas outshone his hereditary, sentimental and aesthetic belief (Lawson, 2003). The early interest in Catholic faith was based on Waugh’s enthusiasm on chapel services and ritualistic worship which was embedded in the school’s daily routine. When the interest for the rituals passed with gradually age, Waugh lost his interest in religion itself as well. The lack of pious interest was newly fulfilled by secular reason (Waugh, A Little Learning, 141). What speaks for his will to orientate according to religious ideal is the fact that Waugh tried to talk about his atheistic thoughts with the school chaplain. As his adolescent faith troubles were not taken serious Evelyn Waugh definitely lost his belief in the existence of God (Waugh, A Little Learning, 143f).

2.2 The twenties

Evelyn Waugh finished college in 1922 and attended Hertford at Oxford. At first he felt comfortable and succeeded in university and social life. Later he spent most of his time writing for university journals besides drinking heavily. After only two years at the university he left without a degree. In the following years Evelyn Waugh worked as a teacher at different schools and tried his luck in painting and writing (Rolo, 1954). By the time Waugh met his first wife Evelyn Gardner he was gaining a little money by writing book reviews. Furthermore he had already started to write his first novel Decline and Fall. Even before he married Evelyn Gardner in June 1928 the book had been accepted and was about to be published in September of the same year (Sykes 1975, 76).

His lifestyle from attending university until he met and fell in love with Evelyn Gardner was quite far away from Catholic ideals. In having homosexual affairs, partying constantly and never taking part in church service he probably was the most far away from piety in his whole life (Stannard 1986, 90). Nevertheless point a few references to Catholicism in Waugh’s diaries to him never banning religion from his mind completely. Serious religious enquiries appear not until after the divorce from Evely Gardner, only one year after the wedding in 1929 (Johnstone 1984, 79).

The absence of faith in God also caused disbelief in his abilities. During the years between college and marriage Waugh was tantalised by self-doubt. Unemployment and failure in his aesthetic work actually triggered him to a suicide attempt (Waugh, A Little Learning, 228ff). Even when Decline and Fall turned out to become a large success Waugh remained sceptical.[2] Retrospective Evelyn Waugh comments in his autobiography about this time:

The next ten years of my life [...] those who have read my works will perhaps understand the charakter of the world into which I exuberantly launched myself. Ten years of that world sufficed to show me that life there, or anywhere, was unintelligible and unendurable without God (Waugh, A Little Order, 148).

The divorce of his first wife might be seen as the turning point back to his religious roots.

2.3 Conversion to Roman Catholicism

The betrayal and the resulting separation by his wife left Evely Waugh deeply hurt. In the following time of new orientation Waugh found his way back to the intensive Catholic faith that was about to accompany him for the rest of his life. There are two names that always connect with Evelyn Waugh’s switchback to Catholicism: Gwen Plunket-Greene, a close Catholic friend, and Father Martin D’Arcy who was going to be Waugh’s confidant in religious investigations. Even though they did not push Waugh to follow suit them in their faith, Gwen Plunket-Greene with her mother and Father D’Arcy had been more than willing to confirm Waugh in his religious approaches after all (D'Arcy 1973, 62). On 29th September 1930 Evelyn Waugh converted to the Roman Catholic Church.

All the same was the decision for his conversion the conclusion of a lengthy process of examination of the Catholic dogma. Once again Evelyn Waugh’s rule searching character opened his mind for a new spiritual orientation. The Catholic doctrinal theology counted as the only true religion for Waugh. Without finding logical mistakes in the doctrines of the Catholic Bible he accepted the rules, furthermore internalised them to become his way of life (Stannard 1986, 228). Father Martin D’Arcy described Waugh’s inquisitiveness in detail:

He was a man of very strong convictions and a clear mind. [...] Hence in his instructions or talks he always wanted to know exactly the meaning and content of the Catholic faith, and he would stop me and raise difficulties, then immediately he was satisfied, he would ask me to go on (D'Arcy 1973, 107).

Within the process of inspection Waugh strictly differentiated between the intellectual aspects of faith against the emotional aspect and denied the latter ones (Johnstone 1984, 79).

Unlike his rational view on emotional elements of living and believing it did not exclude a sense for the importance of the beauty of living. In the beauty of living Evelyn Waugh saw the presence of a community in which certain values and morals give the people rightfully orientation in life. Church and belief can give that. As Waugh felt a loss of common moral sense around the time of his conversion it even more guided him in direction of the Catholic community that fulfilled his expectations (Johnstone 1984, 80). Also in the Catholic liturgy lays a sense of beauty. Despite of Waugh’s fascination for the symbolic archaic art in the Catholic churches, this could not bring his tendency for church service back. In contrast to his youth, Waugh was not attracted by the ceremonies of the Catholic worship anymore but by the absolute standards provided by its dogma (Stannard 1986, 230). Obeying the rules of Catholic faith gave Evelyn Waugh the limitations he needed to lead a decent life. The Guardian expressed Waugh’s motivations for the conversion in the most conclusive way:

Waugh had been traumatised by his first marriage's end and severe depression, and it seems clear from his letters and his diaries that one of the attractions of his adopted faith was that divorce and despair were simply forbidden. It's possible that Waugh also welcomed Vatican strictures for closing off the option of homosexuality, which he had certainly explored at Oxford. Greene once said shrewdly that Rome gave Waugh something permanent and unchanging to cling to against the social and mental instabilities which tormented him (Lawson, 2003).

The intensity of the process appears in the fact that Waugh’s diaries which he kept permanently for his whole life break off for two months during his decision and arrangement for his conversion (Davie 1976, 238).

In conclusion Waugh’s decision to life after the Roman Catholic faith it is safe to say that his reasonable mind led him back to faith as it had formerly did with disconnecting him from it. The different outcome of his researches can be traced back to the circumstances which led him either to or away from religious faith. In school with its duty to teach evolution and enlightenment Waugh’s struggle with faith did not find the ground to get dissolved. Later Father Martin D’Arcy gave Waugh the reassurance and support he needed. Only Waugh’s willingness to follow concrete rational laws always remained (D'Arcy 1973, 61).

3. Decline and Fall

As it has already been demonstrated Decline and Fall was published in the preface of Evelyn Waugh’s first wedding or in other words two years before his conversion. It was a phase in which Waugh did not yet share serious thoughts on religion or Catholicism in his diaries. Due to many indications in Decline and Fall it can be proofed anyway that religious themes were present in his considerations after all.

3.1 Reception of Decline and Fall

Decline and Fall is often praised as one of the best, if not the best work of Evelyn Waugh (Sykes 1975, 87). At least it is one of the best known works of him because of its originality in dark comic and outstanding spelling style. The Atlantic celebrates his talent zealously:

His style is swift, exact, almost unfailingly felicitous. His inventions are entrancing; his timing inspired; his matter-of-fact approach to the incongrous produces a perverse humor that is immensely effective (Rolo, 1954).

The book was a great success in short time what catapulted Waugh in the position of quite a famous author (Sykes 1975, 85). In his diaries he comments on the sales in October 1928: "I see Decline and Fall quoted as a bestseller in one list" (Davie 1976, 297). Nevertheless Decline and Fall also provoked critical voices. The point of attack by critics was the story’s humour. Some critics were deranged by the fact that in Waugh’s novel humour is from the most macabre sort and morally unpresentable. While the bad characters in the book seem to hold the privilege to succeed, the nice characters are exposed to bad fortune. Its radical nature often was the subject of extensive criticism (Sykes 1975, 85). Maybe this revolutionary attitude is one of the reasons why Decline and Fall is still recognized as one of the most important works by Evelyn Waugh. Amongst other things the date of its origin is what makes it specifically interesting according to Waugh’s Catholicism. It is one of the few works Waugh had produced before his conversion.


[1] Father Martin D'Arcy claims "hereditary played only a smart and not very significant part" (D'Arcy 1973, 60)

[2] "October 12th 1928: Sales for the week of DF 157, total 1093. When we touch 2000 I shall begin to feel more ease about it "(Davie 1976, 298)

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Evelyn Waugh's catholicism. His temporal religious attitude in comparison to "Decline and Fall"
LMU Munich
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Evelyn Waugh, Literaturwissenschaft, Catholicism, Decline and Fall, british authors
Quote paper
Lisa Hyna (Author), 2012, Evelyn Waugh's catholicism. His temporal religious attitude in comparison to "Decline and Fall", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/442619


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