Evelyn Waugh, Catholicism, and America: Hollywood, Death, and the Religious Life (Public Lecture, 12th February)

Join renowned literature scholar Professor Martin Stannard at the next public lecture in the Centre for Catholic Studies’ Ushaw College series, where he’ll be tracking Evelyn Waugh’s encounters with religion in America. All welcome to this free event in Ushaw College on 12th February from 17.30.

About the lecture

By 1947, the year of his first visit to America, Evelyn Waugh had wounded most of his friends. He had tried to bully John Betjeman and Lady Diana Cooper into Catholicism; he had condemned Olivia Plunket-Greene, the woman who had brought him to the Church, as a traitor to the faith; he had lampooned Cyril Connolly in mordant literary reviews. When, two years later, Nancy Mitford entertained him in Paris and he conscientiously insulted all her friends, she asked him why he needed to be so cruel. ‘You have no idea,’ he replied, ‘how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.’ This much-quoted remark from Christopher Sykes’s biography is often set alongside another. Hilaire Belloc, after a visit from Waugh, described him as ‘possessed’. Waugh’s American experience, however, reveals a much more sympathetic character.

In 1944, after Waugh broke a leg while learning to parachute, the army gratefully allowed him extended leave, during which he wrote Brideshead Revisited (1945). Appearing with the Armistice, it transformed his career. In America, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. At a time when most of his countrymen were suffering the austerities of the aftermath, Waugh became rich, and he had the Americans to thank for this. But he didn’t. In 1947, he travelled to Hollywood to negotiate the film rights for an additional $100,000. Waugh preferred to visit Forest Lawn and the pets’ cemetery to attending script conferences, so, although this trip resulted in no film, it did produce The Loved One (1948), an hilarious satire of the American Dream. Waugh’s agent advised him not to publish it in the US. Waugh ignored his advice, and the book rocketed into the best-seller list. His celebrity status had never been higher there. Two more American journeys, however, present us with a quite different personality. He believed that American Catholicism was likely to be the Church’s powerhouse in the post-war world, and he determined to do what he could to support it. A lecture tour was planned for January 1949. Before that, in November 1948, he went on a research trip to discuss the faith with the monks, Bishops and Professors. Less than a year after completing The Loved One, he was returning to the country his book had savaged in search of spiritual enlightenment.

Everywhere he went, he amused and baffled his hosts. He would not play the celebrity game. The great art of public presentation, he felt, was that people should never know what to make of you. A contract existed between writer and public. ‘The writer,’ he once wrote, ‘sweats to write well; the reader sweats to make dollars; writer and reader exchange books for dollars.’ That was the end of the matter. He did not seek intimacy with strangers. But this was not arrogance or hypocrisy. In fact, he was withdrawing from the world, in search of contrition, compassion and humility.

About the speaker

Martin Stannard is Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Leicester. He has published extensively on Evelyn Waugh, following The Critical Heritage (1984) with a biography in two volumes (1986 and 1992). His Norton edition of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier appeared in 1995 (revised 2011), and his biography of Muriel Spark in 2009. Currently he is Co-Executive Editor of OUP’s 43-volume The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, having edited Vile Bodies (2017) for this, and is researching a new biography of Ford. Prof. Stannard is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the English Association.

About the Ushaw Lecture Series

The Ushaw Lecture Series celebrates the cultural and research significance of the remarkable bibliographical, archival and material-cultural collections at Ushaw, and the wider history of which they are expressions. The lectures cover music, art, drama, poetry and literature, architecture, material-culture, politics, science and theology.

The lecture is open to all and is free of charge; registration is essential via Eventbrite, where transport between Durham City and Ushaw is also available to book for those who need it. The registration deadline for transport is  10am on Thursday 7 February 2019.

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