A Study of Two Masters of English Prose
Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell were two of the twentieth century’s greatest masters of English prose: Waugh in his comic novels; Orwell in his essays and his two works of striking originality, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Born in the same year, 1903, both “lower upper middle class” to use an Orwell formulation, the two seemingly had little in common. Orwell was the ersatz proletarian rolling his own cigarettes, sipping tea from a saucer; Waugh the star-struck admirer of the English aristocracy, their country houses and their life style. And yet as David Lebedoff argues in his new study of the two authors, they shared powerful common views.
Both men were shaped by England’s pervasive class system but in strikingly different ways. Lebedoff notes Orwell came to hate the class divisions in English society and “chose not to compete on its terms.” Waugh on the other hand “embraced the system as it was and devoted his life to rising within it to the very top.”
Orwell was a product of Eton, England’s most prestigious public, meaning exclusive, school but instead of following his peers to Oxford or Cambridge he joined the Imperial Police and served for five years in Burma, one of the worst outposts in the British Empire. The experience, Lebedoff argues, soured Orwell forever on the Empire which he came to hate because of its corrupting influence over the rulers rather than out of any affection for its victims. His experience in Burma also began the process that would turn Orwell into an idiosyncratic socialist although never a Marxist.
Waugh did not attend Eton or any of the other top public schools and was jealous of those who had when he met them at Oxford. Lebedoff believes that Waugh’s longing to be part of the aristocracy is rooted in his experiences at Oxford where as an outsider he used his charm, wit, and sheer talent to work his way into aristocratic circles.
Waugh gained fame faster than Orwell. While still in his twenties he produced brilliant satires of ‘The Bright Young Things’ that made his reputation as a comic genius: Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930). Orwell after resigning from the Imperial Police struggled for five years to earn a living. Without any experience he wanted to be a writer and literally taught himself to write. His first success came with his portrait of life among the lowest of the lower ranks, dishwashers, tramps etc., in Down and Out in Paris and London (1932). While Waugh went from success to success in the 1930s Orwell struggled to find himself. He wrote four pedestrian novels, all of which showed flashes of talent but also revealed his limitations with dialogue and in the development of character. His breakthrough came with the essay ‘Shooting An Elephant’(1936) a brilliant indictment of what imperialism does to the ruling class in the form of a small incident drawn from his days in Burma. In this essay and subsequent ones in the 1940s Orwell developed a mastery of the essay form. As Lebedoff notes Orwell always began with a powerful generalization and then backed his point in a series of specific examples. It gave his prose a crisp, clear almost crystalline quality, as if he was speaking directly to the reader.
Another crucial quality the two authors shared was their distrust of the modern world. Both men wrote at a time when most intellectuals believed that only the state could expand man’s freedom. Orwell from the left and Waugh from the right vehemently rejected that view. According to Lebedoff both men “feared the future because they correctly saw the evil of their own time not as throwback but as preface.” This is clearly seen in Orwell’s last iconic book, the dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, which reveals his revulsion for the direction that politics was taking in the modern world.
Orwell and Waugh also hated the relativism of the modern world. “They both believed that morality is absolute, though they defined and applied it differently. But each believed . . . that there were such things as moral right and moral wrong, and that these were not subject to changes in fashion.”
In Waugh’s case the root of his disgust at the modern world grew out of his conversion to Catholicism in 1930 after his first marriage disintegrated. He became obsessed with the idea that the retreat from religious belief was undermining all that Western Civilization had created. His novels from his most famous Brideshead Revisited (1945) on through his heralded military trilogy, Sword of Honor, show this rejection of the modern world.
According to Lebedoff, Orwell the atheist, Waugh the deeply religious believer, “came by different routes to the view that the Modern Age would be faithless, and . . . something essential would be missing from our lives, displaced but not replaced by hedonism.”
Lebedoff’s study adds new insights into the lives and writings of these two masters of the English language. He seems at home with the works of both men although I found his insights into Waugh fresher than those on Orwell.
I have some minor quibbles. Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, chose his new name, not Gollancz, as Lebedoff states. The column ‘As I Please’ Orwell wrote for The Tribune not Observer. Lebedoff has Orwell spending “several months” in the north of England researching material for his famous documentary study, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). It was barely two months. He also misses the point about Orwell’s famous list of those who were politically untrustworthy. It wasn’t a Black List that cost someone a job. It simply listed those Orwell believed shouldn’t be trusted to do propaganda for the British government.
But these are minor points that in no way detract from a first class study that should be part of anyone’s library who admired and enjoys these two fascinating Englishmen.
John P. Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. His most recent essay co-authored with John Rodden on a meeting between Orwell and Ernest Hemingway will appear in a future issue of The Kenyon Review.
Posted: April 5, 2010