Orwell and Waugh’s discomfort with modernity and opposition to totalitarianism does not make them moral writers, but it does make them political writers and social critics
The Same ManPublisher: Random House
Subtitle: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War
Author: David Lebedoff
US publication date: 2008-08
In 1903 two men from the same socio-economic background-‘lower upper-middle class’ Orwell called it -- were born who were later to make a significant mark on English letters and in a broad way defined and created permanent images of English culture and society. Waugh’s novels such as Vile Bodies and Brideshead Revisited evoked the glitter, excess, and destructive behavior of the young moneyed elites, who played, loved, ate, and loved at Oxford and various country estates.
Waugh’s images in particular still resonant today of a time when young, well-dressed sons of lords drove hand-crafted green and chrome sports cars and beside them were elegant silk scarf wearing young women with dark rouged lips, their heads titled skyward, laughing. Orwell, on the other hand, in his documentary books such as the The Road to Wigan Pier or in Homage to Catalonia, created permanent images of dirt and hard, sweaty labor in the mines. He was also among the first writers to note how a soldier’s life alternates between long periods of boredom punctuated with moments of absolute terror, in his book about the Spanish civil war, Homage to Catalonia.
Orwell and Waugh, although sharing the same class background and year of birth, are opposites as writers in terms of subject matter, craft, and artistic success (and failure), and are polar opposites in terms of family upbringing, childhood experiences, education. As adults they continued to be opposites politically, spiritually, and artistically. Orwell at the end of the day, Ledbedoff, tells us was an ascetic socialist and Waugh was a sybaritic conservative Catholic. The quixotic thing Ledbedoff wants to show us, in spite of these differences, these two men actually shared the same ‘moral vision’.
Ledbedoff begins his account of Orwell and Waugh by remarking how the British class system shaped their destinies. Orwell at the age of ten was sent to St, Cyprian’s public boy’s school on a partial scholarship (public means private in the UK), and was routinely bullied by the older, wealthy boys. The food was bad, the rooms damp, cold, and smelly, and the school discipline harsh. Orwell, hated his public school and it is Ledbedoff’s view, based on his reading of a late essay by Orwell with the sardonic title Such, such were the Joys that public school was the seminal experience that shaped both the arc of his life and his politics and sympathies as a writer.
Waugh appears to have had a much easier time of it at school, and unlike Orwell, attended university. Waugh won a scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford, where he spent most of this time playing. Once there, Waugh set his sights on becoming part of the landed aristocracy he very much admired. Oxford in the ’20s was the perfect social setting to begin realizing his goal. He was clever and witty at drinking parties and luncheons, and eventually made friends with some of the wealthiest young men in England at the time such as Brian Guinness, the son of the wealthy beer brewing clan that bears its name. Excessive partying and languid days characterized student life at Oxford among the wealthy. The ideal aspired was to be louche, that is charming and drunk in sartorial splendor, as much as possible.
This life of idle excess eventually lead to Waugh being expelled and was Waugh’s first major setback and perhaps the only one, next to his failed first marriage. While Waugh was living and being the life of the party, Orwell was in Burma as a British Imperial policeman and learning to hate the injustices and inequities of imperialism. After five years in the East, Orwell returned to England disillusioned and angry at the whole imperial system and saw it as an extension of the bullying he experienced as a boy at school.
The differences continued throughout their lives. Waugh became a literary lion at the age of 25 and was the toast of social and literary London. Orwell, meanwhile, sank to rock bottom and ended up a hobo (with an Eton accent, to his chagrin) and then a lowly dishwasher in an upscale hotel in Paris. Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War where he was almost killed at the front and then he and his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, narrowly missed being murdered by communist agents before escaping back to England. He was still barely noticed as a writer. Waugh at this point has earned enough as a writer to buy himself a country estate and after a very determined pursuit and courtship, marries into the Catholic English aristocracy.
Waugh was morally anchored by his Catholic faith and Orwell, an atheist, by his commitment to independent thought and social justice for the common man. Yet Lebedoff insists that both men shared "…a hatred of moral relativism. They both believed that morality is absolute, though they defined and applied it differently." But what was their shared absolute morality? Lebedoff never explains or extends his discussion to show us what he means by this phrase.
They both disliked modernity, they both had grave suspicions of the direction society was moving towards and specifically, they both opposed totalitarianism according to Lebedoff. But this hardly holds up as a thorough appreciation and analysis of how both men as supposed to be the ‘same man’. Orwell and Waugh’s discomfort with modernity and opposition to totalitarianism does not make them moral writers, but it does make them political writers and social critics. Both men understood, it seems, that prosperity would not solve the quest for social justice, end class division, or fulfill spiritual longing. But, all writers it can be argued, are moral, and their moral vision whether by hook or crook, conscious or unconscious, leaks into their fiction.
Lebedoff does not help his argument by proposing that both men had the gift of prophecy. "These writers saw not only their own time, but ours." The problem with such a grandiose statement is that it is usually written in hindsight. Did Orwell honestly know the future? Perhaps what he did note was the beginning of the cold war and how the world was dissolving into two major nuclear armed super-powers with various spheres of influence. He coupled this grim geo-political vision to the harsh reality of London after the war when he wrote 1984, which, by the way, is 1948 reversed -- the year he finished the book. His early experience with political orthodoxies during the Spanish Civil War also fed his vision on how objective reporting could become corrupted.
Nor does Lebedoff consider an alternative reading of 1984 and that parts of the novel are satire much in the same way that Animal Farmis both a satire and a political fable of the Russian Revolution. Lebedoff wants us to believe that both Waugh and Orwell had a far ranging vision and their novels and essays were warning shots across the bow of the future, and therefore both men are ‘the same man’. It is a strange argument to want to make based on the evidence. Orwell was predominately interested in social justice in the here and now, and Waugh’s moral compass was focused on the Christian after life.
They may each appear as Cassandra because Lebedoff applies their vision to what he sees as the contemporary problems of our day and not because they were particularly gifted as moral prophets and nor, again, is it clear what their shared moral vision supposedly was. Orwell did defend Waugh in print and Waugh respected Orwell as a kind of secular saint (near the end of his life and in typical Waugh fashion, only when Orwell had a best seller with Animal Farm) but that does mean we should rush out and declare them as the ‘same man’.
The two men were opposites in character, tastes, and interests but did share a respect for each other’s work. Orwell in particular defended Waugh’s right to be disagreeable. Orwell, a gentle man by all who knew him, worked hard all his life at narrowing the gap between who he was as a writer and he who was in private life. In short, Orwell tried to live the very values he wrote about. Canadian writer and friend George Woodcock remarked that Orwell had a 'crystal spirit'. Waugh, on the other hand, was pompous, haughty, and often mean- spirited. The gap between how he himself lived and treated others, including his family, and those he often satirized, was wide.
Thus, it is difficult to understand how Lebedoff claims they are ‘the same man’, unless like Lebedoff, one applies the idea generously and ignores the real differences in the life and work of each man. Here and there, however, their views did intersect and a more fruitful analysis would have been to examine when and where those intersections took place, and to what result. That book, perhaps might have been called "The roads not taken: Orwell & Waugh in Love and War".
Carmelo Militano is a Winnipeg poet and writer.