1.4.2 The influence of his conversion

Retrieved from:http://www.lhup.edu/jwilson3/Newsletter_39.2.htm


Evelyn Waugh and The Varieties of

Religious Experience



 by John Howard Wilson

Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania





     On the day after Christmas in 1926, Evelyn Waugh found himself on a ship bound for Greece.  He was reading The Varieties of Religious Experience (Diaries 273), a volume of lectures by William James.  Michael Davie, editor of Waugh’s diaries, explains that Varieties is “a classic analysis, published 1902, of the psychology of conversion” (273n).  Davie’s description is a simplification: only two of James’s twenty lectures deal with conversion, while five deal with saintliness, two with mysticism, and individual lectures with various other topics.  In fact, James’s title, with its emphasis on varieties, is a better description of the book’s contents.  Martin Stannard nevertheless follows Davie: in the first volume of his biography of Waugh, Stannard writes that “William James’s book (1902) deals with the psychology of conversion” (130n).  The Varieties of Religious Experience is also mentioned in several other studies of Waugh, including Jeffrey Heath’s The Picturesque Prison (1982), Humphrey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation (1990), Selina Hastings’s Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1994), and Norman Page’s An Evelyn Waugh Chronology (1997).  None of these authors shows any more knowledge of James than Davie and Stannard do.

     It is hard to believe that Waugh enjoyed reading The Varieties of Religious Experience.  On a “greatly overheated” ship on “very rough” seas, Waugh alternated between dozing, reading, and drawing (Diaries 273).  James’s prose is Victorian rather than modern.  His style is ponderous and self-assured, the sort of writing Waugh liked to parody.  James is constantly summarizing what he has already said and adverting to what he will say later, in another lecture.  Vast generalizations are based on hypothetical examples.  For evidence, he relies mainly on lengthy quotations from tedious accounts of religious experiences.  James was also an American, and Waugh had little patience with citizens of the United States.  Two Americans were on the ship in 1926: one was, according to Waugh, “vulgar and boastful and blasphemous”; the other was “unbelievably ignorant and mean-minded” (Diaries 273-74).  None of those adjectives could be applied to William James, but Waugh never hesitated to generalize about nationalities on the basis of a little experience.  Many years later, Waugh developed a taste for the fiction of Henry James, William’s younger brother.  In 1946, Waugh wrote that it was “an enormous, uncovenanted blessing to have kept Henry James for middle age” (Diaries 663).  Waugh seems not to have reread The Varieties of Religious Experience, nor to have mentioned the book after 1926.  It is not a part of his library at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.
     Why was he reading it?  The Varieties of Religious Experience remained popular in the 1920s: the book’s thirty-eighth impression was printed in 1935.  Carpenter suggests that the entry in Waugh’s diary may be “facetious” (218), but Waugh did read some heavyweights in the 1920s, including Plato’s Republic and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in 1925 (Diaries 221, 227), and I. A. Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism, for a second time, in 1926 (Diaries 263).  The same entry that mentions Varieties also refers to drawings for a book Waugh intended to write, “the Annals of Constitutional Monarchy” (Diaries 273).  That book was never written, and Stannard suggests that the title was “just a private joke to cheer his jaded spirits” (130).  By reading Varieties, Stannard observes, Waugh was “beginning to enquire seriously into mysticism as an alternative means of escape into that ‘third dimension’ beyond the harlequinade” described in his 1926 short story “The Balance” (130).  In January 1926, Waugh had read the letters of Catholic theologian Baron von Hügel to his niece, Gwen Plunket Greene, mother of Waugh’s friend Olivia.  Stannard notes that these letters “interested” Waugh (130), who then turned to Varieties.  When he returned to England early in 1927, Waugh discussed becoming a parson with Father Underhill, who did not encourage him (Diaries 281).
     Waugh went to Athens to see Alastair Graham, his friend and former lover.  Graham had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1924 (Diaries 178) and had left Waugh shortly thereafter.  They spent much of 1925 and 1926 together, but they quarreled on a trip to France in the summer of 1926 (Diaries 263), and Graham took a diplomatic post in Greece.  Perhaps Waugh thought that The Varieties of Religious Experience would offer insight into his friend’s character.  Graham shared a flat with Leonard Bower, an attaché at the British embassy (Stannard 130), and the flat was “usually full of dreadful Dago youths called by heroic names such as Miltiades and Agamemnon with blue chins and greasy clothes who sleep with the English colony for 25 drachmas a night” (Diaries 275).  Within five days, Waugh was looking into buying his return ticket, and two days later he left, “sorry that the Athenian adventure had been such a failure” (Diaries 275).  What had he hoped for?  Renewal of his intimacy with Graham?  If so, Varieties had been no help at all.
     I know of no evidence that The Varieties of Religious Experience influenced Waugh’s writing in any way.  He started to write his first novel within a year of reading Varieties, however, and Decline and Fall (1928) is notable for its varieties of religious experience.  The hero, Paul Pennyfeather, is preparing to be a clergyman, though he reads Dean Stanley’s Eastern Church (1861) instead of William James.  Once he is expelled from Oxford, Paul meets Captain Grimes, who explains his faith by quoting Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes (1841): “God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world” (Decline 40).  James quotes the same lines to describe “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” (136), typical of those who find “wonderful inner paths to a supernatural kind of happiness” (78).  Grimes doesn’t believe that “one can ever be unhappy for long provided one does just exactly what one wants to and when one wants to” (Decline 40), and Paul eventually realizes that “Grimes … was of the immortals” (Decline 269).   Mr Prendergast, on the other hand, exemplifies what James calls “The Sick Soul,” who suffers from “the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning” (141).  Prendy’s ministry has been derailed by “Doubts,” and he can’t understand “why God had made the world at all” (Decline 38).  If he did have Varieties in mind while writing Decline and Fall, Waugh managed to distill James’s generalities into dialogue that is both funny and pithy.  Prendy is killed by a religious maniac who may have been inspired by James’s quotation from the journal of George Fox, founder of Quakerism.  In Lichfield in 1651, Fox thought he saw “a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood” (James 8).  The ex-carpenter who calls himself the “sword of Israel” and the “lion of the Lord’s elect” has a vision “all crimson and wet like blood.”  He sees “the whole prison as if it were carved of ruby, hard and glittering,” but “the ruby became soft and wet, like a great sponge soaked in wine, and it was dripping and melting into a great lake of scarlet” (Decline 240-41).


     The Varieties of Religious Experience may also have had a slight influence on Waugh’s later life.  Through reading Varieties, Waugh became familiar with conversions accompanied by “tremendous emotional excitement or perturbation of the senses” (James 217).  When he himself converted in 1930, Waugh wrote afterward, he entered the Roman Catholic Church on “firm intellectual conviction but with little emotion” (Essays 368).  In The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), Waugh wrote that his autobiographical hero had been “received into the Church—‘conversion’ suggests an event more sudden and emotional than the calm acceptance of the propositions of his faith” (9).  When read with Waugh in mind, one of James’s questions is especially striking.  Citing Ralph Waldo Emerson, James asks “Who knows how much less ideal still the lives of these spiritual grubs and earthworms, these Crumps and Stigginses, might have been, if such poor grace as they have received had never touched them at all?” (239).  Nancy Mitford once asked Waugh “how he could show such gratuitous cruelty while at the same time proclaiming himself a believing Christian and a practising Catholic.”  Waugh’s explanation “became familiar to many of his friends.  ‘You have no idea […] how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic.  Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being’” (Sykes 448).  Again, one of James’s ideas seems to lie behind Waugh’s concise expression.  James employs “the empirical method” to “decide that on the whole one type of religion is approved by its fruits, and another type condemned” (327).  St Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) received the revelation of the Sacred Heart, but judged by James’s “Protestant and modern education,” she seems “feeble of intellectual outlook,” and James feels only “indulgent pity” for her (345).  Waugh was not yet a Catholic when he read Varieties, but he came to detest Protestantism and modernism, as he came to believe in supernatural intervention.  James may also have contributed to Waugh’s distaste for psychology.

     The Varieties of Religious Experience was certainly not Waugh’s favorite book, but there are intriguing echoes of its ideas throughout his life and work. 

Works Cited
     Carpenter, Humphrey. The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends. Boston: Houghton, 1990.
     Hastings, Selina. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. New York: Houghton, 1994.
     Heath, Jeffrey. The Picturesque Prison: Evelyn Waugh and His Writing. 1982. Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1983.
     James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. 1902. New York: Penguin, 1985.
     Page, Norman. An Evelyn Waugh Chronology. New York: St Martin’s, 1997.
     Stannard, Martin. Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939. New York: Norton, 1987.
     Sykes, Christopher. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. 1975. New York: Penguin, 1977.
     Waugh, Evelyn. Decline and Fall. 1928. Boston: Little, 1956.
     —. The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh. Ed. Michael Davie. Boston: Little, 1976.
     —. The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. Ed. Donat Gallagher. Boston: Little, 1983.
     —. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: A Conversation Piece. 1957. Boston: Little, 1979.

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