By Ray Schultz
I’m usually wary when I open books by religious converts. Will they be sentimental or dogmatic, or worse, will they attempt to proselytize me? This is especially trying in the case of Evelyn Waugh. It’s clear from ferocious novels like Scoop, Black Mischief and Decline and Fall. that he did not like the human race.
Waugh became a Roman Catholic as a young man, but there was little sign of it in his work until he reached middle age, and started writing Catholic-themed novels like Brideshead Revisited and Helena. They are fine books, but the Catholic angle is most vivid for me in Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, which follows a middle-aged man named Guy Grouchback through World War II.
Crouchback is a born Catholic, not a convert. Yet Waugh does not portray a joyous religion. Mostly, it seems to consist of obligations that outsiders might find hard to understand. He throws in some history of Catholicism in England (not a happy story). Then there’s this theme, which comes right out of the great Rabbinic teachings: That a single deed or mitzvah can redeem even the worst of us.
Guy’s wife Virginia has cuckolded and divorced him. This divorce, of course, is not recognized by the church, so Crouchback is unable to remarry. It’s a heavy burden, but he obeys. Years later, as the war draws to a close, the ex-wife returns, pregnant with another man’s child. Guy has lost all feeling for her. But he agrees to remarry her, and to say that the child is his. He names the boy Gervase, after his father. The boy will inherit the Crouchback estate. And he will be a Catholic.
A mutual friend who has soured on Virginia confronts Guy when he is recovering from an injury. “Oh, come off it, Guy. You’re forty years old. Can’t you see how ridiculous you will look playing the knight-errant? Ian thinks you are insane, literally. Can you tell me any sane reason for doing this thing?
Guy regarded Kerstie from his bed. The question she asked was not new to him. He had posed it and answered it some days ago. “Knights-errant,” he said, “used to go out looking for noble deeds. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life done a single positively unselfish action. I certainly haven’t gone out of my way to find opportunities. Here was something most unwelcome, put into my hands; something which I believe the Americans describe as ‘beyond the call of duty’; not the normal behavior of an officer and a gentleman; something they’ll laugh about in Bellamy’s.
“Of course Virginia is tough. She would have survived somehow. I shant’t be changing her by what I’m doing. I know all that. But you see there’s another”—and he was going to say “soul”; then realized that this word would mean little to Kerstie for all her granite propriety – “there’s another life to consider. What sort of life do you think her child would have, born unwanted in 1944?”
“It’s no business of yours.”
“It was made my business by being offered.”
“My dear Guy, the world is full of unwanted children. Half the population of Europe are homeless—refugees and prisoners. What is one child more or less in all the misery?”
“I can’t do anything about all these others. This is just one case where I can help. And only I, really. I was Virginia’s last resort. So I couldn’t do anything else. Don’t you see?”
She doesn’t. Nor might she understand his effort to help the Jews of Yugoslavia as the war winds down. The man has a sense of responsibility.
Don’t think that these matters take up all of the trilogy. There are tales of heroism, cowardice, bureaucracy and madness in war theaters like Crete, that are perhaps not so familiar to American readers.
It has fantastic Characters like Jumbo Trotter, a retired Colonel who simply returns to barracks when war is declared and tries to make himself useful, when not sleeping or eating, the crazed Brigadier Richie-Hook, and Gervase, Guy’s noble father. And, as in the Waugh novels of old, there are savage portraits of characters like the Scottish Laird who owns the Isle of Mugg.
The books are not likely to convert anyone to Catholicism or anything else. But Waugh, a great artist, found a way to explain some challenging ideas, and to integrate them into the story of a man’s daily life—probably the greatest service he could have performed for the reader or the church to which he belonged.