Tuesday, December 12, 2023

BOOK: Evelyn Waugh, "Robbery Under Law"

The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. Volume 24: Robbery Under Law. Ed. by Michael G. Brennan. Oxford University Press, 2023. 9780198836391. civ + 212 pp.

Another interesting book by Waugh on a subject that I knew almost nothing about and which I probably wouldn't have read if not for the fact that it appeared in the series of Waugh's collected works that I'm slowly in the process of reading. As an example of my complete ignorance on the subject: I had no idea that Mexico even had an oil industry! It turns out that “[b]y 1914 Mexico was the world's third producer of oil” and by 1920 the second largest after the U.S. (editor's introduction, p. xxx); it was a particularly important supplier of oil to Britain (p. xxviii; which didn't have any oil on its own territory, unlike e.g. the USA and Russia).* Much of Mexico's oil industry had been developed by British capital, especially by an engineer and industrialist named Weetman Pearson. In fact President Díaz, in the late 19th century, had specifically encouraged British investment as a way to counterbalance U.S. influence in the country.

[*Mexican oil was still important for Britain on the eve of the WW2, due to concerns that developments in the Mediterranean might make it impossible for Britain to get oil from the Middle East; p. lxii.]

The Díaz administration was followed by a long period of instability known as the Mexican Revolution — again something of which I had been only very vaguely aware. Eventually, in 1938, President Cárdenas nationalized the oil industry, including Pearson's “Mexican Eagle Company”. This had been in the the hands of the late founder's son, Clive Pearson; and this is where Waugh comes into the picture: he signed a contract with Pearson to write and publish a book about Mexico. Pearson paid him £1500 plus travel expenses for Waugh and his wife, in return for which Waugh had to let him see the manuscript before publication and to keep the whole arrangement a secret. The whole contract is published in this book in the editor's introduction (pp. xxxii–iii). It is not known whether Pearson actually requested any changes to Waugh's manuscript before publication (p. xlviii).

So, some people have a sugar daddy, but Waugh had an oil uncle :D I don't know whether to laugh or cry; I was mostly just shaking my head in disbelief. It's one thing when Waugh contrived to get himself appointed as a foreign correspondent so he could travel to Abyssinia; it's easy to smile indulgently when he wangles free passage on a cruise ship in exchange for mentioning the company favourably in his book about Africa; but a secret contract with an oil baron? Really?...

At least one has to admit that Waugh regarded his prostitution with good humour. He jokingly refers to Pearson as “Uncle Clive” in his letters to his agent (pp. xxxviii–ix, xli, xliv–v), and describes his book self-deprecatingly as “[l]ike an interminable Times leader of 1880. People will say well Waugh is done for, it is marriage and living in the country has done it” (p. xliv). And he may have been a whore, but at least he wasn't a cheap whore; we see him trying to use Uncle Clive's travel insurance to pay for the cost of his wife's appendicitis operation several months after their return from Mexico :] (p. xxxix; admittedly her problems had already begun while in Mexico).

And one also has to admit that Waugh probably didn't have to betray any of his principles for the sake of this book and of Uncle Clive's oil money. His existing beliefs and commitments — zealously Catholic by religion, politically conservative with a deep dislike of meddling governments and complete distrust in their schemes to improve people's lives — were quite enough to ensure that he disliked the Cárdenas government (and its predecessors) and nearly all of its policies, and that any book that he might have written about contemporary Mexico would have been be no less favourable to British oil interests than Pearson would have wished. Probably the main effect of Pearson's oil money was not on the content of Waugh's book but on the fact that it got written at all — otherwise Waugh wouldn't have travelled to Mexico and wouldn't have written a book about it.

Waugh also tried to get some material from this book published in American magazines, but with very little success (“too much from the British angle”; see p. xliii for a list of magazines that rejected him).

The editor's introduction in the present volume has a long section about reviews of Robbery Under Law in the press. It was widely reviewed but for the most part not very favourably; Waugh was said to have “failed to communicate much beyond his own anger [. . .] the book was veiled ‘in sad clouds of disgust’ ” (p. lxxi); Waugh “glories in his misconceptions” (p. lxxxiii); he has a “Waughped view” (p. lxxiv). He “expresses very well the contemporary attitude of the angry minority of Mexican conservatives [. . .] whose land had been taken away and had suffered persecution because of their religious beliefs. [. . .] the only Mexicans he met were disgruntled members of the upper class, who hated Cárdenas not only for economic but also for religious reasons.” (P. lxiv.) One reviewer wondered “why, when the persecution of the church reached its height in the last years of the nineteen-twenties, two devout catholic converts like Messrs. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh should wait until the year after the expropriation of the Mexican oilfields to expose those horrors.” (P. lxxxii.) :))) (Greene's book about Mexico was The Lawless Roads, published in 1939, same as Waugh's Robbery Under Law.)


Although Waugh took a trip to Mexico in order to write this book, it isn't really a travel book, and he says as much at the outset (“This is a political book; [. . .] The succeeding pages are notes on anarchy”, p. 2). He likewise openly admits to his conservative biases, which he says were only strengthened by his visit to Mexico (p. 9). Indeed there is a fine concise summary of his political views on p. 10: “I believe in government; that men cannot live together without rules but that thes should be kept at the bare minimum of safety; [. . .] that the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole-time task to keep the peace. I believe that inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of their elimination; that men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes; that such a system is necessary for any form of co-operative work, more particularly the work of keeping a nation together.” Yuck :( but at least he is honest.

Nevertheless he does have a chapter about “Tourist Mexico” (pp. 11–28). Overall you get the impression that the country was in a fairly shabby condition, especially once he got out of the areas most commonly frequented by tourists. Waugh comes across as a patient and sympathetic tourist, and I couldn't help wishing that the whole book had been about travel rather than politics.

Waugh continues with a chapter about Mexican history, which I found interesting as it was mostly new to me. He clearly thinks very highly of the Spanish colonial period in Mexico, and says that the country was then more advanced in many ways than the British colonies in North America (pp. 71–2; “the predominance of the U.S. in the New World is quite a recent development”). After independence it began to fall behind, and its history in the 19th and early 20th century was characterized by instability, civil wars, rebellions, revolutions and the like. Apparently much of the 19th-century instability was due to Masonic secret societies :)) (p. 74; though one wonders if Waugh as a Catholic may have been a bit biased about this). Moreover, the United States did their fair share of meddling, the effect of which was mostly to strengthen the “disorderly side” of Mexican politics (p. 96).

Mexican political leaders took turns plundering the country before ending their terms in exile or death (“Now and then a politician gets across the border in time”, p. 40). The only notable exception to this pattern was the administration of Porfirio Díaz (president in 1884–1911), which Waugh describes as a period of stability and prosperity, thanks in no small part to foreign investment (much of it British), which Díaz encouraged. Judging by the wikipedia, Díaz' administration was a near-dictatorship in which economic technocrats ran the country for the benefit of big landowners and rich foreign investors. In fact, Waugh doesn't particularly deny that Díaz was autocratic,* but seems to think it a good tradeoff in exchange for security; he sort of shrugs resignedly, and cynically, as he describes how the Mexicans who “knew the boredom and inevitable abuses that grow in an autocracy, [. . .] wished to see their country conforming still more closely to the contemporary fashion”, and so “party politics were reintroduced [. . .] The result has been twenty-five years of graft, bloodshed and bankruptcy. [. . .] The only difference between the Mexican system and the Fascist is that the nation has sacrificed its political liberties without getting internal security or foreign prestige in exchange.” (P. 40.) “A whole generation [. . .] has known nothing but pillage, graft and degeneration.” (P. 44.) It is unsurprising, of course, that Waugh as a rich and conservative person would prefer the stability of an autocratic system, even a fascist one, over the turbulence of a revolutionary period. But in my opinion the solution to this is not to reintroduce autocracy, but to continue the revolutions until the political system improves :]

[*He remarks elsewhere, in what is simultaneously an admission and a defense of Díaz' autocracy: “It is characteristic of Mexican history that at almost any period one looks at there are abundant reasons for deploring the existing regime; one turns the pages and one realizes that one was wrong; the cure was always worse than the ill.” (P. 80.)]

The party that seized power during the Mexican Revolution was called, reasonably enough, the Revolutionary Party of Mexico; in Waugh's time, it was led by General Cárdenas (president in 1934–40). The party had Marxist leanings and did not shy from policies of nationalization and confiscation. Waugh, as befitting a man of his politics, spends much time ranting about the supposedly immoderate demands of Mexican workers, the frequency of strikes, and you can practically see him holding his breath as he tells you — hoping you will be as shocked as he is — that the right to strike extends even to schoolchildren, who are able to get unpopular teachers replaced that way (pp. 35, 117)! The poor, poor employers are afraid to hire people, knowing they won't be able to fire them (p. 35)! The nasty, nasty unions have such immoderate power that janitors end up working as museum curators (p. 36)! Won't you shed a tear for the unfortunate, beleaguered upper classes of Mexico?

He has an interesting theory — and is honest enough to admit that it is no more than a conjecture — that relations between labour and employers follow a cyclical pattern: labourers get exploited for some time; start standing up for themselves; but gradually their demands grow excessive, class war ruins the country and paves the way for the rise of fascism or something like it; war and ruin follow, and the cycle is ready to start anew (pp. 43–4). The ‘rise of fascism’ part, he suggests, is where Mexico might go next. In fact he seems to have, much like many right-wingers today, a stubborn but nonsensical idea that far left and far right systems have much more in common than they really do (since WW1 “two forms of proletarian rule have appeared, Nazism and Communism”, p. 162), and that the sort-of-Marxist sort-of-dictatorship of Cárdenas could easily turn, at any moment (perhaps through a coup), into something like fascism or nazism.* In fact, Waugh says, Cárdenas is already cooperating just fine with the Axis powers: after he nationalized foreign oil companies, Britain and America refused to buy Mexican oil, so he started selling it to the Axis powers through barter agreements (p. 69). Evidently Waugh thought that these commercial links could easily develop into closer political alignment as well, and in fact late in the book he has some impressive fearmongering about the supposed spread of German influence all over Latin America (p. 162). This was, of course, a common enough concern at that time, one that many authors liked to write worried articles and book chapters about, but as far as I can tell this supposed influence in Latin America did not do Nazi Germany even an iota of good. I suspect most of this influence existed only in the minds of the fearmongers.

[*In an outline of his book for an American publisher, Waugh wrote similarly that the present Mexican “regime is an odd mixture of Nazism & Communism representing most of the worst features of both systems. In the next few years, perhaps months, it is likely to throw in its lot definitely with one or another of the two extremes.” (P. xlvi. Another of his many failed prognostications.)]


Considering that this book owes its very existence to Uncle Clive's oil money, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it actually dedicates no more than one chapter (pp. 45–69) to the Mexican oil industry and its nationalization. I liked his summary of the different political attitudes to the issue: on the one hand you have English extremists “who believe that the world was created to supply the English with physical comforts”; on the other hand you have Mexican extremists “who believe that the soil of the country and anything on or below it, was ordained for the exclusive use of the heterogeneous peoples who have been born there; that this possession is inalienable and that any use made of it by a foreigner is an act of theft.” (P. 50.) I for one am happy to side with the Mexicans here, but Waugh argues for a middle course where the case should be judged on its merits, and spends most of this chapter defending the foreign oil companies from various accusations.

He points out that oil companies had been established in Mexico with the full encouragement of President Díaz; that large investments are needed before you find sufficient oil deposits and develop them into a profitable venture; hence having big oil companies do this is the best option. He denies that they meddled in Mexican politics, except for yielding to various demands for bribes without which they wouldn't have been able to operate at all during the turbulent times of the Mexican Revolution. If oil has an outsized role in the Mexican economy, it is (Waugh says) because the unwise policies of Cárdenas and his predecessors have already ruined all the other branches of the economy (p. 57). Waugh insists that the oil companies “paid high wages and high taxes; the workmen misspent the wages and the politicians misspent the taxes, with the result that the country did not benefit as richly as it might have done had it been differently inhabited” (p. 59). In fact wages and working conditions in the oil industry were better than in other branches of the economy (pp. lviii–ix, 63).

Officially, nationalization was the government's response to the failure of the oil industry to negotiate with the trade unions; but Waugh says that this was only a pretext, the unions' demands (pp. 64–66) were deliberately impossible, and at any rate the lot of the oil workers did not in any way improve with nationalization. The deeper reason, according to Waugh, is simply that to the Mexican politician “wealth is, in fact and in theory, the product of theft” (p. 60).* In the nineteenth century they had looted the Church; then more recently the big landowners, with an agrarian reform dedicated to expropriating their estates rather than at opening up more land (of which Mexico had plenty) to farming; and now the oil industry was the last thing left to loot.

[*He wrote similarly in a synopsis of proposed newspaper articles about Mexico: “For century [sic] Mexican economy based on theft.”]

Even if all this is true (and it may well be; I simply have no idea), I still think it's better if each people develops its own resources, at its own pace, with its own abilities and capital, even if foreign companies would do it better and sooner. Every form of trade is unequal; one party or the other always gets screwed over. Here the foreigners got their oil, “paid high wages and high taxes”, the Mexicans pissed away the money, and in the end had nothing to show for it; so it would have been better if the oil had stayed in the ground instead. The Mexicans would still have had nothing, but at least the foreigners wouldn't have profited from their oil. I do agree, however, that it would have been more decent if the Mexican government had been forthright about its goals, rather than pretending that this is all because of some sort of labour dispute.


Cárdenas's government also announced a “Six Year Plan”, with much fanfare and clumsy, heavy-handed propaganda; but it was hardly a plan at all, certainly nothing like the detailed four- or five-year plans of the Nazis or Soviets (p. 98), and not much of it was likely to get implemented (p. 119).

Apart from the nationalization of oil, Cárdenas's most notable efforts seem to have been in land reform. Most of the land, according to Waugh, had always been in the hands of big landowners — under the Aztecs, under the Spaniards, and after independence. Now the government was dispossessing them, on the basis of (often fake) petitions by local peasants (p. 106). The better your estate, the sooner it would be expropriated, which discouraged owners from trying to improve anything. With the land now split into small holdings, farming was mostly less efficient and production fell (p. 109). Waugh presents some pretty reasonable ideas of his own as to what a more moderate land reform might look like (p. 111).

This seems to be another good example that land reforms should be done carefully and gradually; before you kick the old owners out, you should make sure that you have other people ready with the necessary skills to run their farms. Zimbabwe is a more recent example of the same problem (and I guess revolution-era Haiti was another).


Unsurprisingly, there is also a long chapter about the plight of the Catholic Church in Mexico — a subject that Waugh didn't need any oil money to be interested in. Apparently many accusations were being circulated about the Church being rich and greedy, the priests being immoral, etc., but Waugh insists this was mostly exaggerations of isolated cases — slander spread by the Mexican government who just wanted an excuse to rob the Church (p. 125). The persecution of the Church had already started under the Reptilians “Liberal-Mason-Agnostics” (p. 139) of the 19th century, and had lately been intensified by the communist-leaning governments in the wake of the Mexican Revolution.* The 1917 Constitution of Queretaro contained very harsh anti-Church provisions (p. 140); at the time of Waugh's writing, he says that the Church was in practice tolerated to a somewhat greater extent than before, though this varied from region to region (p. 141). Cárdenas himself was not particularly fanatical (“He is more interested in pleasing the people than in following any logical policy”, p. 144), but some of his supporters were.

[*Waugh puts the roots of this conflict still farther back: it is a “conflict with merciless, fanatical atheism—an atheism that at the moment adopts Marxist language, just as in earlier generations it used Liberal language, but which antedates either; the atheism of the impenitent thief at the crucifixion.” (P. 122.)]

Meanwhile, the bulk of the Mexican people were deeply attached to the Church. Waugh even says he met an organization of laypeople working in secret to “train and maintain teachers [. . .] counteract the official atheism [. . .] facilitate the movement and concealment of the priesthood; [. . .] organize study groups” etc. (p. 149), but he is vague about the details (understandably so, I guess).

There's also an interesting section about the Virgin of Guadalupe, of which I was only vaguely aware until now. Mary appeared to a recently converted Indian in 1531, and an image of her, with Indian features, miraculously appeared on his cloak. Waugh, of course, defends the authenticity of the miracle, and emphasizes its social consequences: the Spanish colonialists at the time had been having some doubts about the policy of baptising the Indians; but now here was “a Virgin with an Indian face; a thing no painter would have dared to do without incurring the charge of blasphemy. And the Spaniards accepted the miracle. The important feature is not the repugnance it aroused but the fact that the repugnance was overcome. The nobility of the country, from the Viceroy down, solemnly prostrated themselves in the new shrine”. It proved to everyone “that the religion of the Spaniard was equally the religion of the Indian” (p. 133). (Incidentally, there has been a new development since the time Waugh wrote about this: Juan Diego, the man to whom the Virgin had appeared, was canonized in 2002.)

Another interesting passage in this chapter was about a small community of nuns that managed to exist in hiding for some seventy years, from the time religious orders were banned in the mid-19th century until 1935 when they were discovered (pp. 145–7). I never quite understood why so many regimes were opposed to monasteries (e.g. Henry VIII shut them down as soon as he turned protetant). If you tolerate regular priests, why not monks and nuns as well? If anything, they have less of an impact on the outside world since they are mostly shut in their monasteries, so there's no harm in allowing them to continue.


Waugh concludes the book with some speculation about Mexico's future. He suggests that if the Mexicans grow disappointed with Cárdenas's socialism, they may well end up trying something along the lines of Nazism or even National Bolshevism (pp. 153, 163). Moreover, Mexico might get destabilized by all the anarchists, communists etc. who sought asylum there from their defeat in the Spanish Civil War (p. 156). There could be a civil war; an anti-Cárdenas coup; Mexico might join the Anti-Comintern Pact (p. 162). He warns against growing German influence in Latin America, and suggests that the nationalized Mexican oil fields may soon be in Nazi hands (p. 157). He even suggests that, since the example of the U.S. fighting in Europe in WW1 proves that waging a campaign across the Atlantic is now possible, Germany may soon do the same: “South America has become accessible as a battle-ground while at every point the German-Japanese alliance threatens vital American interests.” (P. 162.) Or perhaps now that Franco has won, Spain might rise again as an imperial power (p. 157–9). Or perhaps a pagan cult might re-emerge amongst the Indians (p. 159). Or perhaps pigs will soon fly over Mexico City... no, wait, he doesn't mention that one, but it's scarcely less probable than some of his other ideas.

As you can see, no scenario is too ridiculous or too far-fetched for Waugh to entertain, and I think we can pretty safely conclude that he has proven to be a complete and utter failure as a prognosticator of the future. As far as I can tell, what actually happened in Mexico was: absolutely nothing dramatic; or at least nothing dramatic enough that someone like me, living some 80 years later and one ocean away, would have much reason to care about it.

Another prediction: “I believe, in fact, that within a hundred years Mexico will form part of the U.S.A.” (P. 38.) There's some 15 years left before we can judge that one, but I don't think it's likely to happen :) But I guess he was just extrapolating from past experience; he says later that in the time of Díaz, some “statesmen were openly claiming that the natural boundary of the United States was the isthmus of Panama” (p. 40).

More interesting than his wild speculations is the last paragraph of the book (p. 164), where he suggests that the ongoing collapse of Mexico can be a warning to all: “Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all. [. . .] Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. [. . .] we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. [. . .] The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. [. . .] There is nothing, except ourselves, to stop our own countries becoming like Mexico.” (P. 164.)

I found that paragraph very interesting as another fine summary of Waugh's conservative views, where civilization is just barely hanging on and we're always just one step away from barbarism and anarchy. But it seems to me that civilization is a good deal more robust than these people give it credit for. World wars, great depressions, momentous social transformations and the like have been tearing at the fabric of society for more than a century, and the damn thing just won't collapse! Any kind of chart you care to look at just goes up, up, up all the time. Any collapse you might get is very localized, such as when a country gets a particularly bad government, and is sooner or later followed by the inevitable recovery when its regime changes. Even outbursts of barbarism are short-lived and surprisingly half-hearted: people are at each other's throats for a war or two, do a bit of genociding, but then ten years later they are friends and neighbours and trading partners again, and listen to each other's popular music and visit each other for vacations. The conservatives always feel as if we were in 5th-century Rome, facing a flood of barbarians about to plunge our world into the dark ages for the next thousand years — heck, often enough I feel that way myself — and yet it's hard to see just how you can justify such views with objective facts. Actually these feelings are probably mostly borne of internal factors; it would be more honest to say: eh, you're just mildly dyspeptic, the world is mostly OKish and will keep hobbling along much the same as hitherto; very far from perfect to be sure, but hardly in any real danger of imminent collapse either.

In any case, I don't want to sound too critical of the book. It was an enoyable enough book to read, written in the same pleasant style as all of Waugh's works, with plenty of sarcastic and humorous passages, and as long as you take his opinions with a grain of salt, keep his political biases in mind, and pay no attention to his efforts to speculate about the future, you can still learn something little about 1930s Mexico and have a good time while doing so.


Waugh in a letter about his voyage from the U.S. to Mexico: “New York was 93° and felt like 193°. The Siboney packed with jewesses.” :)))

Waugh in a letter some ten years after his visit to Mexico: “The food is very nasty—an awful kind of tough pancake with a sauce that takes the skin off the tongue is the main dish—called I think ‘tamales’.” (P. lxx.)

Before settling on Robbery Under Law, Waugh intended the book to be titled Pickpocket Government (p. xlv). Even with the new title, his American publisher was “somewhat afraid of this title” and changed it to Mexico: An Object Lesson for the American edition (p. xlix).* Waugh didn't seem to mind: “They can call the book the Giant Panda for all I care.” (P. l.) :)) Another change was that some passages critical of Henry Lane Wilson, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in 1909–13, were toned down in the U.S. edition (p. liv). There were also many minor changes in spelling and capitalization (p. 181; notably, the U.S. ed. prints acute accents on Spanish names while the U.K. ed. doesn't).

[*Editor's note 133 on p. xcii suggests that this was because Britain had by then broken off diplomatic relations with Mexico (due to the nationalization of the British oil companies) but the U.S. hadn't.]

Robbery Under Law was reprinted in 1940 by the Catholic Book Club, despite the fact that Waugh pokes fun at book clubs in his preface: readers, he says, have lately “banded themselves into book clubs so that they may be perfectly confident that whatever they read will be written with the intention of confirming their existing opinions” (p. lxxxv). :)

Waugh has some doubts whether tourism promotes international friendship: “There are very few English villagers who have seen an Egyptian; very few Egyptian villagers who have not seen an Englishman; the result is that the English generally are well disposed towards Egypt, while the Egyptians detest us.” :)) (Pp. 3–4.)

About the loss of old architecture: the Mexicans “have been rather frivolous in their vandalism; they have stolen and neglected and put things to unsuitable uses, but there has been none of the systematic extermination of good architecture the Londoners have enjoyed” (p. 16).

He mentions some people who “drink cokokola” (p. 23) — a sign, I guess, that this brand was not yet known in Britain at that time. In the U.S. edition it is spelt correctly, “Coca Cola” (p. 184).

Waugh is skeptical about the Aztecs: “When I read accounts of the splendour of lost civilizations, I always remember the descriptions with which the world's press was lately full of the Imperial court at Addis Ababa.” :] (P. 29.)

He has several sour comments to the effect that Mexican nationalization of British oil provoked comparatively little protest amongst the British public because it was done by a left-wing and not a right-wing regime. “If the Japanese, or Nationalist-Spaniards, or Germans or Italians had taken our oil, then there would have been a series of meetings in the Albert Hall; but the Mexicans had a Left Book Club vocabulary.” Cárdenas's regime may have been autocratic, but “when the Mexicans saluted their bosses they raised the arm with clenched first, not with extended fingers. So they were all right; they were democrats, like ourselves and the French.” :))) (P. 46.) Waugh, like I suppose most right-wingers, refuses to recognize that left-wing totalitarianism is fundamentally good, even if horrible in practice, while right-wing totalitaranism is fundamentally evil, and that this difference is important.

“The General [Cárdenas], too, is, like all revolutionary leaders, in a somewhat ambiguous position with regard to revolutions. The crown of Spain might logically claim that all rebellion was of its nature, wrong; no subsequent government of Mexico has that right.” :)) (P. 57.)

A pleasantly cynical view of elections: “There are, in various parts of the world, various means of securing election; the candidate may buy votes in the old English way of ready money down, in the new English way of promises to pay from the public funds when elected; [. . .] the Mexicans, for the most part, prefer to leave the voting papers uncounted and draw from the lists made up at the party headquarters.” (P. 79.)

“Just as the United States earned the gratitude of the world by ‘trying out’ prohibition, so the Mexicans may be said to be trying out Marxism.” :)) (P. 80.)

When visiting the Exhibition of the Six-Year Plan [Plan Sexenal]: “Some no doubt were misled by the name Sexenal and having heard lurid stories of sexual education in the schools, were there in the hope of being shocked.” :)) (P. 98.)

Waugh remarks that “[t]his is true nearly everywhere; a great proportion of militant communists are or have been teachers [. . .] partly because there is something about the work itself which sensibly inclines the mind to bigotry” (pp. 113–14). He had worked as a teacher early in his career (1925–27); I wonder if he speaks from experience?

“There are only a few thousand native whites in Mexico” (p. 159). I guess that his ideas of what counts as white were narrower than today, but that still strikes me as an unusually small number.

The editor of the present volume provided a “Glossary of Names” with short biographies of nearly everyone mentioned in the book. I was interested to see that Cárdenas (p. 190), in spite of Waugh's gloomy, near-apocalyptic predictions, retired from office without any fuss when his term as President of Mexico expired, and had a fairly un-dramatic life for another thirty years before dying in 1970.

Two tidbits from p. 198, illustrating the instability of 19th-century Mexican politics. The biography of José de Salas (President of Mexico in 1846 and 1859) consists of a single sentence: “He did not die violently.” :)) On the same page we learn that Santa Anna was “President of Mexico on twenty-two non-consecutive occasions from 1833”.


Here are a few I've noticed:

“10s 6d” (p. xxxiv) — it makes no sense to typeset “d” as a superscript here.

“upt us” (p. xxxvii) should be “put us”.

The “Vichy malice agent” (p. li) was probably just a police agent. Perhaps a Freudian slip? :)

“that of outstanding interest” (p. lxvii) is missing an “are”.

“lamps, contain” (p. lxviii) shouldn't have the comma.

“ ‘padded ’ ” (p. 32) shouldn't have the space before the closing quotation mark.

“Chihuaha” (p. 82).

“Spanish legionnaires who had crossed into France during this period were interred.” (P. 178.) Let us hope for their sake that this is a misprint for “interned” :))

“Mactezuma” (p. 196) should probably be “Moctezuma”.

“The Russian imperial family from 1613 until 1917” (p. 198) shouldn't be in bold italics, as it isn't really a part of the name.

Not exactly an error but a deplorable editorial decision: the first edition of this novel “italicizes Spanish words and following punctuation (e.g. ‘hacienda;’); in these cases the punctuation has been silently revised to roman” (p. 182). Why??? Setting a punctuation mark in italic type after an italic word is exactly the way it should be done in good-quality typesetting; unsurprisingly this practice is less common nowadays since typesetting, like most other things, has gone down in quality. But here they had a good example from a better age that they could have followed, and instead they've gone out of their way to make things worse :(


• The editor's introduction lists a number of books about the Mexican oil industry and its nationalization (pp. lvii, lxiii), but it is not known whether Waugh consulted them in writing his own book. At any rate most of them seem to have been published after 1938, so they would have appeared too late for him to use.

• One book he did use was Ernest Gruening's Mexico and Its Heritage (1928), but it seems to have been a lot more favourable to Mexican revolutionary governments than Waugh was (p. lvi).

• He also used F. C. Kelley's Blood-Drenched Altars (1935), about the persecution of the catholic church in Mexico (pp. lxv–vii).

• D. H. Lawrence: The Plumed Serpent (1926). A novel depicting “the revival of a pre-Christian religion with Aztec overtones” by Mexican revolutionaries (p. 166). Mentioned by Waugh on p. 6. I had some bad experiences with Lawrence's travel writing many years ago (see my post from back then), but perhaps I should give his fiction another chance.

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Saturday, November 04, 2023

BOOK: Evelyn Waugh, "Edmund Campion"

The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. Volume 17: Edmund Campion. Ed. by Gerard Kiloy with the assistance of Thomas M. McCoog. Oxford University Press, 2023. 9780198817529. cxiii + 407 pp.

One nice thing about deciding to read some author's complete works — as in the case of me reading Waugh here — is that it causes you to encounter books that you would never seek out otherwise, and so to find new and interesting things that you'd otherwise miss. I had never even heard of Edmund Campion before reading Waugh's book, and it would never have occurred to me to deliberately go and look for a biography of him; having how read Waugh's Campion I feel that I have learnt a few new things and got a glimpse at a period of history about which I otherwise know very little.

Most of Waugh's books that I've read so far seem to have been inspired in some way or another by something he had experienced in his life, and this one is no exception. Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930 under the guidance of one Father D'Arcy, who subsequently became the master of Campion Hall (a sort of college for Catholic students) at Oxford University (pp. xxix–xxx, xxiv). In 1934, they were trying to construct a new building for the hall, and to help pay for the costs, Waugh offered to write a biography of Campion, the 16th-century martyr after whom the hall was named (p. xxx, xli). Moreover, D'Arcy introduced Waugh to a new circle of more or less intellectual Catholic friends,* and Waugh hoped that the new book would establish him as a Catholic intellectual and impress the woman he was then courting, Laura Herbert, and her family (she and Waugh got married in 1937 — incidentally, she was a cousin of his first wife; p. xxxviii).

[*The editors suggest that D'Arcy's “intervention quite possibly saved Waugh from a life of despondent decadence: affairs with married women [. . .] and distasteful encounters with ‘little Arab girls’.” (P. xxxix.) Incidentally, earlier on the same page we read about a “fifteen-year-old Moroccan girl he had wished to take ‘for his exclusive use’ from a brothel in Fez” :))) Perhaps I am naive, but I would imagine that a recently converted Catholic would be a little more keen on avoiding such obviously sinful activities as sleeping with underaged prostitutes...]

Of course, Waugh was no academic historian, and as he himself says in a note at the start of the book (p. cxiii), he “merely attempted to put into a single, readable narrative the most significant of the facts that are scattered in a dozen or so standard books” and in various other sources. (His main source was Edmund Campion: A Biography by Richard Simpson, first published in 1867. See p. 387.) He originally included a few endnotes and a bibliography, but later thought them so poor that he dropped them in subsequent editions (“I have long been greatly ashamed of the Notes to Campion”, p. lx. The editors of the present edition agree with his decision in the most uncharitable manner: “There is no doubt that the book is greatly improved by the omission of these two disappointing features”, p. liv. Ouch!) The book was “reviewed principally in religious and literary magazines, but largely ignored by historical journals” (p. xc).

Thus this book is a work of popular history, and succeeds quite well at its goals; I found it readable and informative, and the style is not without literary qualities. I also liked the fact that Waugh often puts the story on hold for a moment to give you some useful bit of background information, e.g. about everyday life at Oxford in Campion's time (p. 12), or the history and nature of the Jesuit order (pp. 41–2), or the antagonism between English and Welsh seminarians in Rome (pp. 47–8). (Interestingly, one reviewer said that “Waugh wrote well on Campion himself; he was less successful when he ventured into the history of the period” (p. lxxxii); another similarly complained that “the lack of a real historical knowledge of the period means an absence of background” (p. lxxxi). But those were opinions of professional historians; to a reader as ignorant as me, Waugh's ventures into background material are informative enough.)

Waugh does not try to hide the fact that he is siding with the Catholics, but to my pleasant surprise, that never bothered me even though I am a rabid atheist myself; in fact this may be the first time ever that I felt sorry for some Catholics. Moreover, I never got the impression that the book would be really biased in a problematic way; after all, in England of Campion's time, it really was the Protestants that were oppressing the Catholics and not the other way around, so if Waugh wanted to make the Catholics look good and the Protestants look bad, he didn't have to do anything more than tell the truth. (Of course, my sympathies for the Catholics while reading this book were moderated by the fact that they had happily persecuted the Protestants in the same way when they had had the upper hand a few decades earlier. Almost any religious group is tolerably nice while it is small and oppressed, and almost each of them turns ugly if it gains control of the state and its power. I wonder why I never felt sympathetic to the early Christians when reading about their being persecuted by the Romans in the first few centuries AD; perhaps because I knew that in the end the Christians would win and become oppressors in turn.)


One curious omission in the book is the lack of anything regarding Campion's youth and antecedents. Perhaps Waugh didn't think these things important, or perhaps he found nothing about them in the sources available to him. At the start of the book, Campion is already in his mid-twenties, a promising scholar at the University of Oxford, and his oratory impressed Queen Elizabeth and her court when they came to visit the University in 1566 (p. 6). The state needed new clergymen for its emerging Protestant Church, and it could be the start of a successful career for someone like Campion (pp. 10–11),* but his Catholic sympathies were too strong, and getting stronger: he couldn't believe “that the truth, hidden from the world for fifteen centuries, had suddenly been revealed in the last few years to a group of important Englishmen” (p. 15).**

[*Waugh remarked elsewhere that in Campion's time “the English church, at the top, was run almost exclusively by arrivistes” (p. lxx). He gives an example of a colleague of Campion's who made a great career as a Protestant prelate, and concludes with this glorious remark: “Tobie Matthew died full of honours in 1628. There, but for the Grace of God, went Edmund Campion.” (P. 12.)]

[**On a related note, there's a fine passage from the speech Campion made at the end of his trial, pointing out how preposterous the Protestants' effort to make a break with the past was: “In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors—all the ancient priests, bishops and kings—all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter./ For what have we taught, however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason, that they did not uniformly teach?” (P. 122. But see also the editors' note on p. 233, according to which there is some doubt as to the authenticity of this passage.)]

Throughout this book we see how the suppression of Catholicism was gradually growing stricter and stricter; new laws were being passed, and existing laws enforced more firmly. For the English Government it was not only a matter of religion but of politics as well: they increasingly thought it somewhat treasonous for an Englishman to be a Catholic. When the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth (pp. 24, 52), would a Catholic be loyal to the Pope or to the Queen? If a Spanish army were to invade England (something which they seemed to be constantly paranoid about), would the Catholics help defend the country or would they side with their fellow Catholics invading it?

By 1569, Campion came under pressure to openly profess Protestantism, and resigned from the University rather than do that (p. 19). He moved to Dublin at the invitation of the father of a former student, and spent some time working on plans for the establishment of a new university there and writing a History of Ireland. In 1571, he had to flee to the Continent to avoid getting arrested in the wake of yet another Spanish invasion scare (p. 26).

Campion studied theology for some time in Douay, France, where English Catholics had established a college (p. 36); he committed fully to Catholicism, moved to Rome and became a Jesuit (p. 41). Apparently that order had a habit of sending its members to wherever it thought they were needed, and Campion spent the next six years as a professor in a Jesuit college in Prague. (Waugh covers this period of Campion's life relatively briefly; according to the editors' introduction, more is known about Campion's life in Bohemia from sources probably not available to Waugh, and several manuscript works by Campion were recently discovered in Prague; pp. xlix–l.)

In Rome there was a seminary to train English Catholic priests, but it was troubled by poor leadership (the rector was a Welshman who blatantly favourized Welsh students, thereby antagonizing the English ones*). Eventually it was entrusted to Jesuits, but with the understanding that English Jesuits should thenceforth work in England (p. 49). Campion, too, was summoned to Rome to take part in this mission, along with another English Jesuit named Robert Persons** and about a dozen other people, mostly priests but also a few laymen (p. 52). Their task was not to proselytize or to dispute against the Protestants, but simply to support the Catholics who still lived in England, by secretly holding masses, hearing confession, giving sacraments etc. (p. 51).

[*But we know that Waugh was a bit anti-Welsh himself, so perhaps we should take these things with a grain of salt :) The editors say that Waugh “could not resist the chance to make fun of the Welsh” (p. 174), and I remember instances of that from several of his other books.]

[**Interestingly, the editors say that “[u]nlike Persons, Campion displayed little enthusiasm for a mission to England” (p. 176). Somewhat ironically, it was Persons, rather than Campion, that managed to evade arrest, return safe to the Continent and die of old age.]

This was in 1580; the missionaries spent some two months walking across Italy, Switzerland and France, where they split into smaller groups and crossed to England in disguise, from various ports, to avoid detection (the English government had spies in Rome and elsewhere, and was well informed that the missionaries were coming; p. 57).

Waugh has an interesting couple of pages describing how far the oppression of Catholics in England had progressed by then. An interminable series of laws had been passed, imposing heavy fines and prison sentences for performing or attending Catholic masses* and the like (p. 66). And even if you kept these things secret, there was also a fine of £20 per month for not attending Protestant church services;** soon, “none but the wealthiest had any choice between submission and destitution” (p. 67; the editors add: “By the end of Elizabeth's reign, only sixteen Catholic families could still afford to pay the fines”, p. 189). English Catholics lived in constant fear of spies and informers, facing the prospect of arbitrary imprisonment at any time. Englishmen were also prohibited from studying at Catholic seminaries abroad, with fines threatened against their families in case of non-compliance (p. 84). The government hoped that Catholicism would gradually expire in England under all this pressure; the existing “Marian priests” (from the days of Queen Mary, Elizabeth's predecessor) were getting older and would soon die off, and no new ones would be allowed to appear (pp. 33, 36).

[*An interesting minor detail that was new to me: apparently Protestants don't have masses. They have something which to my naive eyes looks much like mass, but they call it a “service” and are very proud of this apparently important distinction. Here in this book we see them referring to Catholic priests as “massing priests” (e.g. p. 84) to distinguish them from Protestant ones.]

[**You might imagine that it would be easy to avoid this fine by simply attending the Protestant services despite being a Catholic, but the Catholic Church was very strongly against that. Persons, Campion's fellow missionary, called it “the highest iniquity that can be committed” (p. 71).]

After spending some time in London, Campion and the other missionaries spent several months travelling across the English countryside in disguise, staying as guests in large households and holding secret Catholic services. Their efforts were still remembered by the locals nearly a century later (p. 204). “Sometimes they stayed in houses where only a few were Catholic. There was constant coming and going in the vast, ramshackle households of the day [. . .] It was natural enough that any respectable wayfarer should put up there for the night, whether or no he had any acquaintance with his host.” (Pp. 79–80.) Campion also wrote a book, Rationes Decem (Ten Reasons), arguing in favour of Catholicism; his associates managed, with great difficulty, to print it secretly in London (pp. 86–8). Later it was widely reprinted across Europe and “was still being used by a Dominican provincial prior in Krakow [. . .] to teach theology and rhetoric in the Jagiellonian University in the early nineteenth century” (p. 209).

There was always a risk that one of the supposed Catholics attending your secret Catholic mass would prove to be a government informer. Several of Campion's associates were arrested in this way, and eventually Campion's luck ran out as well. When the authorities came to arrest him, Campion and two other priests almost managed to escape detection in a secret room of the house where they were staying. The local authorities didn't actually seem terribly keen to find them, but thanks to the fanatical zealousness of the government's spy who had betrayed them, one George Eliot, they were eventually found and arrested (pp. 94–5).

Campion was taken to London and imprisoned in the Tower. Early on he was taken to see Queen Elizabeth and several of her chief advisors; “satisfied that he had no treasonable designs”, they offered him preferment if he converted to Protestantism, but he refused (p. 104). During the following four months or so, he was tortured on the rack several times (three times according to Waugh, five according to the editors, p. 220), but they got no admissions of treason out of him, and very little in the way of names of people he had been associating with (p. 105). The rack left him permanently crippled, unable to lift his arm (p. 115).

What is even more bizarre is that the government organized four “Conferences”, public disputations between Campion and various Protestant clergymen, on terms ludicrously biased in favour of the Protestants (pp. 109–13). Given the unfavourable conditions, Campion acquitted himself pretty well and the government found the propaganda value of the conferences so doubtful that they discontinued them.

The Privy Council was determined to have Campion executed, for political reasons that had little to do with him* (they wanted to bolster Elizabeth's popularity with the Protestant part of the population, who had been getting upset over the plans for Elizabeth to marry a Catholic, the Duke of Anjou). In principle Campion's being a Catholic priest was enough to find him guilty of treason, though they hoped he would confess to being part of some conspiracy more concrete than that (p. 114). In the end they proceeded to trial despite the absence of such a confession, or of any other solid evidence. Campion did a good job of defending himself, but it was plainly a cangaroo court and his position was hopeless.** He and most of the other 15 or so defendants were sentenced to death, except for one who had an alibi (he “could prove that he was [. . .] in London when he was supposed to be at Rheims” conspiring against the Queen, p. 123).

[*And in fact in general, the impression I got from this book was that Elizabeth and her advisors weren't really particularly fanatical about Protestantism as a religious thing; their decision to support Protestantism and suppress Catholicism seems to have been mostly about politics, questions of loyalty and concerns over treason and so on. Waugh contrasts this with people like Campion, who genuinely believed that his side was right. Elizabeth et al. “had been used to the spectacle of men who would risk their lives for power, but to die deliberately, without hope of release, for an idea, was something beyond their comprehension.” (P. 104.) During the preceding reign, of the (Catholic) Mary I, “Elizabeth and Cecil and Dudley had quietly conformed to the prevailing fashion; they had told their beads and eaten fish on Fridays, confessed and taken communion. Faith [. . .] was unknown to them [. . ]. What correspondence, even in their charity, could they have with Campion?” (Ib.)]

[**Another historian, A. .F. Pollard, “agreed that Campion's trial was grossly unfair but no more than every state trial in England at this time.” (P. lxxxii.) Cold comfort :S]

Campion rejected another offer of pardon if he converted (p. 123); his friends made an appeal to the Duke of Anjou to intercede for him, but the Duke ignored them (p. 124). Campion, with two others, was hanged on December 1, 1581; he was supposed to be cut down while still alive and then disembowelled, but fortunately they did in fact wait until he was dead and then butchered his corpse instead (p. 235; this seems to have been thanks to the efforts of a courtier named Charles Howard, p. 369).


Waugh joking, in a letter, about his progress on the book: “I'm pegging away at Campion. Hope to arrest him this afternoon and rack him before I leave. Then I will hang, draw & quarter him at Mells.” :)) (P. xli.)

In 1949, Waugh edited a book of sermons by Ronald Knox, a priest he was acquainted with. The editors of the present volume note that “the type rises to 5 mm” (p. lxi, n. 92). How very odd to measure type in millimetres! Why not in points like any normal person? 5 mm = approx. 14.2 pt, which is indeed rather large.

Regarding his conversion, Waugh wrote that “the first ten years of his adult life as an atheist had proved to him that life was unintelligible and unendurable without God” (p. lxx). That may well be true, but it doesn't therefore follow that God really exists and that you should become religious... He's practically admitting that the whole thing is based on nothing more than wishful thinking :(

Edmund Campion won the 1936 Hawthornden Prize for a “work of imaginative literature” (p. lxxxiv) — perhaps not quite what you want to hear about a work of history :)) But it's not an unheard-of thing, of course; I remember occasionally seeing popular history books (mis)placed in the historical fiction or romance sections of bookshops.

A Jesuit named Clement Tigar wrote to Waugh in 1949: “I know at least four persons who became Catholics as a result of reading your book.” (P. xci; a few more such converts are mentioned later on the same page.)

After the WW2, Waugh was much moved by the persecution of Catholics in countries that recently became communist, and alluded to it in a new preface to the American edition of Campion (in 1946; p. 399). “His long and passionate denunciation of Communism, ‘Church and State in Liberated Croatia’, presented to Anthony Eden in March 1945, was quietly filed away by the Foreign Office” (p. xciv; according to n. 259 on the same page, this essay was reprinted in 1992, but the note does not mention if we'll get it in the present edition of Waugh's collected works eventually).

Tragic scenes when the Protestants descended on the libraries of Oxford earlier in the 16th century: “the illuminated office books in Magdalen choir were hacked up with choppers, and from every College cartloads of books were removed to be burned or sold as waste paper; a coloured initial was enough to convict the contents of Popery; a mathematical diagram of magic.” (Pp. 9–10.)

Pope Gregory XIII “did not continue the more severe, puritanical measures of his predecessor [i.e. Pius V] under whom a wealthy layman had been publicly flogged for adultery and a drove of harlots turned loose on the campagna to be massacred by bandits.” (P. 39.) :)))

Interestingly, Waugh writes “Middle-Europe” on p. 42 where one might expect “Central Europe”. One is tempted to wonder if this is a result of German influence (Mitteleuropa), but I didn't get the impression from this book that Waugh had studied anything much in German while working on Campion.

Interesting: “Ireland, however, was, in feudal law, unquestionably a Papal fief, and had always been recognized as such by the English monarchy; moreover, it had never been effectively conquered or administered; outside the Pale English control had been negligible.” (P. 57. See also the note on p. 183: “The English Pope Adrian IV (c. 1100–1159) granted Ireland as a papal fief to King Henry II (1133–1189) in 1155”.)

A dubious claim from p. 64: “In accordance with his stern moral code Philip forbade his American colonists from enslaving the native Indians and from importing negroes.” The editors note that “It is not clear what evidence EW had for this claim. [. . .] the Asiento de negros legitimizing slavery remained in place until 1750” (p. 186).

“There were numerous disturbing portents recorded on the eve of the Jesuits' arrival. [. . ] A woman named Alice Perin, at the age of eighty years, gave birth to a prodigy with a head like a helmet, a face like a man, a mouth like a mouse, a human body, eight legs, all different, and a tail half a yard long” etc. (pp. 64–65). :S

Richard Topcliffe, one of the informers employed by the Government to hunt out Catholics, “was accorded the privilege unique in the law of England, or, perhaps, of any country, of maintaining a private rack in his own house for the more convenient examination of prisoners.” (P. 67.)

On pp. 72–3 Waugh describes the curious case of one Father Bosgrave, an English Jesuit who spent 16 years in Poland, “far out of touch with the course of events in England”, until he was sent back to England by his superiors “by a singular irony, for the good of his health” (p. 72). The Protestants arrested him and got him to attend their church; he apparently had no idea that, in England at least, a Catholic was not supposed to attend a Protestant church. “The Catholics all shunned him, and Father Bosgrave, who retained only an imperfect knowledge of English, wandered about lonely and bewildered.” (Ib.) Eventually the matter was explained to him; he denounced Protestantism, was duly arrested and found guilty of treason, but was fortunately only banished rather than executed. “He then returned to Poland and resumed his duties there, having benefited less by his prolonged stay in England than his superiors had hoped.” (P. 73.) :))) All's well that ends well, I guess!

Nowadays in English, when you want to combine the passive voice with the progressive aspect, you use constructions of the form: ‘The house is being built.’ I was interested to learn some time ago that this construction only became widespread in the late 18th century, and was frequently objected to by usage guides throughout the 19th. The older way of expressing the same thing was to use the verb to be and the present participle: ‘The house is building.’ This older construction actually has a nice advantage over the newer one: if you want to add the perfect aspect, you can say elegantly enough that ‘the house has been building’; but in the newer construction you'd have to say ‘the house has been being built’, and nobody in their right mind would say that because the combination ‘been being’ sounds too ridiculous. Anyway, I got the impression that the older construction was still in use relatively often in the mid-19th century (I remember seeing it often enough in Dickens), but became rare by the late 19th century. Since then I have always been on the lookout for late occurrences of this older construction, and so it was interesting to find one here in Waugh, in a book written in 1935: “the great houses of the new ruling class were building” (p. 79).

There are some interesting remarks in the editors' introduction about Catholicism in Britain in Waugh's time; “there was a split [. . .] between ‘a small rather consciously English upper-class elite and the urban working class [. . .] with its strong Irish connections [. . .]’ ” (Adrian Hastings, quoted on p. lxvii). Waugh obviously was part of the former group, many of whom, like him, were recent converts. This trend of conversions later declined: “An oddity of the polemic of some Catholics against pre-Vatican II Catholicism is their failure to address the issue of why it was so attractive to converts of the highest culture; and why after the 1960s it ceased to be so” (Sheridan Gilley, quoted on p. lxviii, n. 122).

Glorious beginnings of English protestantism: “Henry [VIII] remained committed to all other features of the Catholic faith, and on one day he hanged three priests for denying the royal supremacy, and burnt three others for heretical views on the Eucharist” (editors' note on p. 147). :))

One of the houses where Campion stayed while in Ireland “survived until 1987, when it was pulled down to give way to a lurid golf club, now itself derelict” (editors' note on p. 159). I'm extremely curious what a lurid golf club looks like :]

Interesting: “James VI of Scotland wrote an epic poem celebrating the victory, His Maiesties Lepanto, in 1591, a poem widely read and translated on the Continent” (editors' note on p. 168).

Decent people hate this one weird trick: “Torture was illegal under common law. [. . .] The government circumvented the prohibition by issuing warrants that exempted the practitioners from common law charges of assault.” (Editors' note on p. 203.)

One Dr. Nicholas Sander organized, “with papal funds”, “an ill-fated invasion force” which landed some 500 men in Ireland about a year before Campion's mission. It was brutally surpressed by the English, but made them extra paranoid: “Sander's intervention put every county in England on invasion alert, and completely undermined Campion's spiritual claims for the mission.” (P. 384.)


The book includes a nearly-60-page appendix of “Biographical Notes” covering seemingly absolutely every person mentioned anywhere in the book, whether by Waugh or by the editors. This, together with the strict alphabetical order, results in a curious assembly where seventeenth-century clergymen, Elizabethan courtiers and Spanish ambassadors mingle easily with Waugh's friends, literary agents, critics, fellow Catholic writers and so on. This was interesting enough to read in moderate doses, but tended to get boring after a while.

A “radical Calvinist” named William Charke got “in trouble with more moderate Protestants for claiming [. . .] that Satan had invented bishops” :)) (p. 350).

On the execution of another Catholic martyr, John Felton, in 1570: “He was cut down very early, and he is said to have uttered the name of Jesus as the executioner held his heart in his hand.” :))) (P. 359.)

Anthony Munday, included here as the author of one of the early pamphlets about Campion's capture, also wrote “The English Romayne Life (1582), a lurid proto-Gothic tale of Catholic conspiracy and self-flagellation” (p. 376), inspired by his time working as an English government spy in Rome. Another thing for the ToRead list :]

Rage, glorious rage

So overall this was a very fine and interesting book and the editors have clearly done a tremendous amount of background research for it; but there's one thing where I disagree with them vehemently: normally Waugh's works in the present series are reprinted without changes from their first British edition; but the present volume makes emendations “where EW's spelling of names departs from received norms, or belongs to vanished empires, to aid the reader's recognition” (p. 240). A long list of these emendations then follows: the Duke of Alva becomes Alba (p. 153), Claudio Aquaviva becomes Acquaviva (p. 163), Tredake in Ireland becomes Drogheda (p. 269), Brunn becomes Brno (p. 170), Leipsic becomes Leipzig (p. 170), and so on.

I don't know how to say how enraged these emendations make me. This is a book written, in 1935, by a man who was born in 1903 and hated everything new that had occurred during his lifetime. Of course his names belong to vanished empires — so, after all, does much of his mentality. (And that's just why we like him!) Of course someone like Waugh couldn't give a damn about some silly Czechs suddenly pretending to have a country of their own and calling their dinky little town by some ghastly name like Brno or whatever — of course it would remain Brunn to him for the rest of his days. Of course he wouldn't care about the Irish spelling of Drogheda; it sounded like Tredake to English ears, so Tredake was how he was going to spell it. And of course seeing as Leipsic had been good enough for English writers in 1850, it was damn well going to be good enough for Waugh in 1930 and he would see no reason whatsoever to adopt a different spelling merely because the silly Germans spell it differently.

In short, the spellings he adopts are obviously an integral part of who Waugh was and of his style. How dare you modern editors of his work interfere with that, for an edition like the present one? If you have the temerity to modernize his place-names, what's preventing you from modernizing the countless other little details where his language differs from how someone would have expressed the same thing in 2020? What's preventing you from updating his facts with things discovered about Campion's life since 1935?

Obviously the correct thing to do would have been to mention the modern equivalents of his spellings in the editorial notes, not to meddle with the text itself...

P.S. And as always, the punishment for trying to correct someone else's text is that you make errors of your own in doing so. They may have updated Brunn to Brno, but nearby Olmütz (p. 44) has not become Olomouc :] (though they do mention the Czech name in parentheses in an editorial note on p. 171).


Considering how well researched and annotated this volume is, and what a large amount of work must have no doubt gone into it, it's a pity that the publisher didn't bother to have it proofread thoroughly. I noticed a bunch of little errors:

• P. xxv lists the History of the University of Oxford as having been published in 1584–2000, but that might be a bit extreme even by their standards :) Actually the first volume appeared in 1984.

• A similar error on p. 146: the year of publication of a Robert McNulty's edition of John Harington's 16th-century translation of Orlando Furioso is given as 1572, but it should be 1972.

• On p. lxx we find: “Waugh ‘later explained [. . .] was ‘unintelligible and unendurable without God’.” That first opening quotation mark has no marching closing mark.

• “Sibonik” (p. xciv) should be “Sibenik” or, better yet, “Šibenik”.

• “Four year later” (p. xcv) should be “years”.

• P. 149, near the bottom, says “see Appendix A”, but this is already in Appendix A; no doubt they mean “see Appendix B” (namely p. 255).

• “forty-fout” (p. 174).

• “Directory ]” (p. 178) has a redundant space.

• “Givevra Crosignani” (p. 179) is of course Ginevra.

• “Montsarrat” (p. 191) should surely be “Montserrat”.

• On p. 192 we find ‘Mr Edmunds’ in single quotes followed immediately by “Mr Edmunds” in double quotes; only the second one should be kept.

• The comma in “Hanmer, was reluctant” (p. 202) should be removed.

• On p. 294, “bibliopola” is glossed as “stationer/publisher”, but surely it is a bookseller. The second part of the word is the same as in ‘monopolist’ = the sole seller.

• On p. 365 we learn that “Harrington, William (1566–1593)” was “executed on 18 February 1594 with spectacular brutality”, which evidently went so far as to interfere even with the calendar :]

• “He became a trusted adviser [. . .] of Elizabeth, with whom she often stayed” (p. 396) should clearly end with “he often stayed”.

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Saturday, October 07, 2023

BOOK: Evelyn Waugh, "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold"

The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. Volume 14: The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: A Conversation Piece. Ed. by Barbara Cooke. Oxford University Press, 2023. 9780198717836. xcv + 221 pp.

This is a very unusual novel, but I liked it better than I had expected. Already in my post about Waugh's A Tourist in Africa I remarked how early Waugh seemed to get old, or at least started to feel old. We see yet more examples of this in the editor's introduction to the present volume: at the age of 50, “as well as toothache he [i.e. Waugh] was suffering from insomnia and rheumatism, and found alcohol effective in dulling all three. He took bromide and chloral as sleeping aids, but also used them as painkillers during the day.” (P. xxxiv.) He began suffering from false memories (“My memory is not at all hazy” but rather “sharp, detailed & dead wrong”, p. xxx) and aural hallucinations, hearing voices that existed only in his head. In early 1954, he wanted to vacation on Ceylon for a few weeks, and boarded a ship bound for Colombo, but his condition got bad enough during the voyage that he was disembarked at Port Said and, with the help of another passenger, sent to Colombo by airplane instead (p. xxxviii). Waugh's problems continued there as well as after his return home, and he even consulted a priest, thinking it might be a case of demonic possession (p. xl). Eventually a doctor realized that “Waugh had been poisoned by his preferred combination of soporifics, anti-depressants, and alcohol” (p. xl), and he got better after switching to different drugs.

Waugh then decided (with some encouragement from his doctor) to write a lightly fictionalized account of these experiences, and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is the result. It is remarkable how closely Pinfold's experiences in the novel match Waugh's experiences in real life, though he did of course change enough details that nobody could feel libelled. Gilbert Pinfold, the eponymous protagonist of the novel, is a successful middle-aged writer; conservative by temperament and a Catholic; he lives with his wife in the countryside, surrounded by declining gentry; he is afflicted by a growing set of health problems — all, in short, exactly like Waugh in real life. Even some of the more bizarre details are taken from life: one of Pinfold's neighbours has a quack medical device called “the Box” which “exercised diagnostic and therapeutic powers” (p. 3), again based on such a device owned by one of Waugh's neighbours (p. lxii).

Pinfold books a passage to Ceylon on a ship, partly to escape the English winter for a few weeks and partly to finish a novel he's been working on. But he is clearly in a bad way, and between his drinking and his narcotics, he becomes “intermittently comatose” and drowsy (p. 13) even before boarding the ship. You can't help feeling how unwise it is for him to travel alone in this condition.

But it is after boarding the ship that things start getting really wacky. In his cabin, Pinfold starts hearing all sorts of sounds, noises, loud music, snatches of conversation between other people. He figures this must be due to some communications equipment that had been used on the ship during the WW2 and then left behind in a state of unpredictable malfunction (pp. 24, 31). At no point does he seem to doubt that the things he hears are real, but when he alludes to them in conversations with other passengers, nobody seems to have heard of them. Consequently Pinfold starts to believe that they are all in league against him, playing pranks and mocking him behind his back. Some of the things he hears are even more disturbing, e.g. an accident in which a sailor was badly injured, and another where the Captain and his mistress tortured another sailor to death (pp. 28–30, 35–7).

Pinfold begins to hear what are apparently BBC programmes in which critics and comedians savage him and his work (pp. 39, 53); and he hears the voices of several young passengers accusing him of all sorts of things such as being a Jewish refugee named Peinfeld, an impotent homosexual, a bad writer on the brink of bankrupcy, and the like. He wonders if all that he's been hearing are radio plays put on by his enemies.

Things get still more bizarre when the ship nears Gibraltar. Due to some dispute over that territory, Spanish officials insist on boarding the ship and inspecting it. Pinfold overhears their conversation, and later hears the Captain discussing the situation with a few other passengers and hatching a plan. The Spaniards are apparently looking for a secret agent that is travelling aboard the ship, and the Captain intends to throw them Pinfold with some false papers to make them think he is the man they're looking for. [In Waugh's manuscript the Captain was even more hostile to Pinfold; see the cut passages on pp. 126–7.] Pinfold hears the Spanish navy ship approach, but then steps out of his cabin and sees no trace of it. He briefly wonders if he is going mad, but concludes that it's all just radio plays (p. 64).

Pinfold hears people gossiping about him all over the ship, but when he tries to deny some of the rumours in conversation with other passenges, they are merely confused. One of the recurring characters whose voices he hears, a young woman named Margaret, is apparently fond of Pinfold and persuades him to let her come to his cabin. He hears her at the door, but when he opens it, she is nowhere to be seen.

Pinfold's chief tormentors are a family of four, but when he complains to the Captain, there turns out to be no such people on the passenger list. Pinfold concludes that the leader of his enemies is a BBC technician named Angel, one of the crew that did an interview with Pinfold shortly before his departure for Ceylon. Angel and his associates are ludicrously well organized and track Pinfold's every move (p. 85). Apparently Angel has a device similar to the aforementioned ‘Box’ and is using it to brainwash Pinfold; but their power over him is waning since he stopped taking his sleeping drugs. Pinfold even turns the tables on them: realizing that they cannot help but hear his thoughts, he torments them by reading boring books and the like :))

To get away from his enemies' influence for good, Pinfold disembarks at Port Said and continues to Colombo by plane. It turns out that he can still hear his enemies' voices; Margaret tells him there's just three of them — she, her brother Angel, and Angel's wife, whom Pinfold has nicknamed “Goneril” after a villain from King Lear. By now Pinfold simply ignores the latter two, but he still talks to Margaret from time to time, as she has always been nice to him.

At the urging of his wife, Pinfold returns to England and things are finally cleared up. Her inquiries at the BBC revealed that Angel has been in England all this time, not on Pinfold's ship; and a priest whom she consulted at Pinfold's request assured her that there is no such device as ‘the Box’. Pinfold finally realizes that he has been talking to himself all this time, and the voices stop; his physician explains it was probably due to the combination of drugs he had been taking. Pinfold puts his half-finished novel aside and begins writing a new one based on his recent ordeals.


I'm glad that the book has a reasonably happy ending, with Pinfold in a much better condition, both physical and mental, than at any earlier point in the book. How could you not sympathize with the unfortunate man throughout his ordeal, and cheer on him as he tries to figure out what is happening and how to face the enemies who constantly assail him! It must be terrifying to have your mind play tricks on you like that. But I also couldn't help being surprised, and slightly disappointed, by the fact that it took him so long to realize that he had been hallucinating all this time. Waugh took care that the reader constantly receives signs that the voices Pinfold hears exist only in his head, but Pinfold never notices those signs, and he stubbornly avoids grappling with the possibility that the things he hears are delusions.

Even his initial idea, about malfunctioning WW2-era communications equipment, is implausible; and it is completely impossible that any such equipment could explain why he eventually hears voices all over the ship, not just in his cabin. By then he has switched to the other explanation, of ‘the Box’ which communicates with him telepathically; but that, of course, is even more implausible. His total lack of skepticism is disappointing;* it should have been obvious to him that his attempts to explain his experiences with some external source like that did not work. Moreover, there is a distinct lack of motive — it's just not plausible that the whole complement of passengers aboard the ship would be in league against poor Pinfold, or that some random BBC technician would go to so much trouble to organize a vast conspiracy against him.

[*But perhaps I shouldn't be disappointed; Waugh, after all, is someone who converted to Catholicism as a grown-up — surely not something that a skeptically-minded person would be likely to have done.]

Despite this minor downside, this was a surprisingly enjoyable novel; its subject was something quite new and fresh to me, and I kept wondering, as the story progressed, what crazy stunt the voices in Pinfold's head would pull next. I was almost a little disappointed in the end when it turned out that it all has a simple medical explanation, an unfortunate combination of alcohol and drugs; the world would be a slightly more charming and fantastical place if the grand conspiracies and vicious pranks that Pinfold is subjected to were real.


Waugh joked in a letter to a friend: “everyone over 40 is dotty in England now. I am sure they used not to be. It ought to secure a sympathetic reception to my work in progress” (p. xli). :))

A similar idea appears in a passage removed from the manuscript version of the novel: when deciding to write up his experiences at the end of the book, Pinfold says “it might amuse a certain number of people. To judge by what the papers say, very nearly half the inhabitants of the kingdom are more or less barmy at one time or another.” (P. 219.)

I was surprised to see, from the critical apparatus (appendix B), how censored the American edition of this novel was. The characters in the novel frequently refer to Middle Easterners as “Wogs”, surely fairly tame stuff as far as ethnic slurs go, at least by 1950s standards; and yet in the American edition, more or less all instances of this word were replaced by something neutral and inoffensive (see e.g. two instances on p. 132). I found this all the more surprising since, as far as I know, “wog” was hardly used in American English at all, so they shouldn't have had any reason to find it particularly offensive. The American edition also tones down some of the anti-Semitic rhetoric that the voices in Pinfold's head abuse him with (pp. lvi, 124). The editor's introduction says that “such practice had been commonplace in the United States for some time” (ibid.) and gives two examples of novel titles being censored: Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers (1930) appeared in America as And Then There Were None (1931); and The Coloured Countries (a 1930 travel book by Waugh's brother Alec) appeared in America as The Hot Countries.

A funny anecdote about Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister: “In 1974, he told Muriel Spark about a visit to Moscow during which he and Krushchev had talked in the garden to avoid bugged offices. Macmillan was perfectly aware that the trees were bugged too.” (P. lxi.) This reminded me of the old joke about the material that the Soviets used to build foreign embassies. It was called microconcrete: 10% concrete, 90% microphones :)

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Waugh was apparently on friendly terms with John Heygate, the man for whom his first wife had left him; here we see Heygate writing a letter to Waugh, praising Pinfold as “all too true and altogether convincing” (p. lxxi, n. 140).

Bizarrely, a composer named Nicholas Nabokov offered to write “a short opera” based on this novel; but Waugh wasn't keen on the idea (“Nabokov may make an opera if I may sing in it & design the scenery”, p. lxxiii), and nothing came of it.

I enjoyed this description of Pinfold's grumpy conservatism, and had much sympathy with it: “His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sun-bathing and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.” (P. 4.) In his manuscript, Waugh initially added the wireless, the telephone, aeroplanes, psychiatrists, popular newspapers, and Corbusier to this list (p. 145). I like Mr. Pinfold better and better! :))

I feel compelled to record a particularly disgusting case of hyphenation: “teleg-|raphist” (p. 29), but apparently it isn't wrong.

Pinfold remembers an old acquaintance from his club who said: “Poor old Nailsworth, his mother was a whore, so's his wife. They say his daughter's going the same way. . .” (p. 69). My god, how the money rolls in :)))

Pinfold is arguing with the voices in his head: “ ‘You're driving me mad.’/ ‘No, no, Gilbert, you are mad already,’ said the duty-officer. ‘We're driving you sane.’ ” (P. 89.)

Waugh on experimental literature: “Experiment? God forbid! Look at the result of experiment in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.” (P. 107.)

Apparently Waugh received a lot of mail with questions from students of literature “who are writing about one & want one, virtually, to write their theses for them”, and simply replied with a printed refusal (p. 108).

Waugh's wife Laura was so devoted to her farm that her son “later insinuated that she preferred her cows to her children” :)) (p. 108). One time she even used her neighbour's ‘Box’ (the pseudo-medical device) “on an ailing cow, which immediately recovered” (p. 109).

I was interested to see Waugh use the word unattested in the sense ‘not certified/approved by some authority’ (p. 7, l. 247; see also the note on p. 112). This is the only sense which the corresponding word has in Slovenian (neatestiran), but I haven't encountered it in this sense in English yet — so far I've only seen unattested as ‘not proven, by some sort of records, to have existed’.

Waugh once said in an interview “that ‘real’ painting ‘stopped with the French Impressionists’ ” (p. 113). Once again I am happy to agree with him :]

Waugh in a letter to Ann Fleming: “My sexual passion for my ten year old daughter is obsessive [. . .] I can't keep my hands off her” (p. 129). :)))

When King Farouk of Egypt was deposed in 1952, much of his property was auctioned off by the government, including “Geiger counters, a signed photograph of Adolf Hitler, and one of the world's largest collections of pornography” (p. 133) :)

Poor Pinfold is being slandered by the voices in his head: “ ‘[he] gives the most peculiar parties at Lychpole.’ — ‘Not when his wife is there?’ — ‘No, but the moment she goes away. Absolute orgies.’ — ‘I've never been to an orgy. I often wonder what really goes on at them.’ — ‘Better go to Lychpole when Mrs Pinfold's away. You'd soon find out there.’ ” :)) (P. 195, in a manuscript passage omitted from the final version of the novel.)

In my posts about previous books in this series, I often complained about errors and misprints; but this time I noticed only two of them, so it's only fair that I praise the publishers for that. There's “Krushchev” on p. lxi (should be “Khrushchev”); and on p. 128, the entry for 69.159–66 refers to pages “lxi–lxii” instead of “xli–xlii”.


  • Cyril Connolly: The Missing Diplomats (1952). A book about British diplomats who turned out to be working for the Soviet Union. Mentioned here on p. 128; the author was a friend of Waugh.
  • Charles Kingsley: Westward Ho! “Deeply conservative, anti-Catholic, and imperialist 1855 novel [. . .] about a sixteenth-century seafarer” (p. 132). Pinfold reads it slowly to harass Angel and his gang, who can't help but hear his thoughts (p. 92).

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