Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fortnightly Books, August 30

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was a man of extraordinary literary style, high ideals, dark humor, nasty temper, and a remarkable lack of what is called moral fiber. In 1930 he converted to Catholicism, and remained vehemently Catholic for the rest of his life; he never pretended to be other than a horrible person, but always insisted that he would be much worse without the moderating influence of the Church.

The fortnightly books provide a dual perspective on this bad-Catholic life; the first will be a first-time read and the second is a re-read. With Edmund Campion: A Life, published in 1934, we get the high ideal, the heroism of the Catholic faith. It is popular biography; it is not a novelization and sets out to capture the historical essentials, but it is also not intended to be a work of rigorous historical scholarship. It was very controversial when it was published because it is unapologetically pro-Catholic, without much sympathy for the Protestant opponents of Campion at all; but it was praised for its excellent literary style and won Waugh the Hawthornden Prize given for literary excellence by authors forty and under. The proceeds of the work were donated to help rebuild Campion Hall in Oxford. The work is divided into four parts, each capturing an aspect of Campion's greatness: The Scholar, The Priest, The Hero, and The Martyr.

On the other side is Waugh's most famous work, Brideshead Revisited, a novel about Catholics who have nothing of Campion's excellence. Indeed, the major theme of the work is that divine grace is given even to horrible people and can do remarkable and surprising things to them. As he told a movie studio:

Grace is not confined to the happy, prosperous and conventionally virtuous. There is no stereotyped religious habit of life, as may be seen from the vastly dissimilar characters of the canonised saints. God has a separate plan for each individual by which he or she may find salvation. The story of Brideshead Revisited seeks to show the working of several such plans in the lives of a single family....

As part of its development of this theme, it is also a sort of argument that the Catholic Church has an immense power over those who have been Catholic, even when highly attenuated and operating under conditions of advanced decay and apparent failure; in his metaphor, they are like fish on a line, and however they swim away it can often take just "a twitch upon the string" to pull them back.

I don't know how well these two will mesh, but they should be interesting to compare and contrast. And perhaps there is a link between the two in the recognition that the ways of grace are not the ways of human society. As he says bitingly of his contrast between Tobie Matthew and Edmund Campion in the earlier book:

Tobie Matthew died full of honours in 1628. There, but for the Grace of God, went Edmund Campion.

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