29 July 2014, The Tablet

Surprises from the archive: when Evelyn Waugh savaged a reviewer for Dorothy L Sayers comparison

by Jamie Callison

This is part of a series of blogs celebrating The Tablet’s new online archive, where for a limited time you can view for free every page of every issue since 1840.

Reviewing for The Tablet can be a dangerous business. The danger rises exponentially if you happen to be reviewing in the 1950s and fall foul of the famously caustic contributor, Evelyn Waugh. Fr Gerard Meath OP could not have known that, in making a brief comparison between respective fictional accounts of St Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, produced by Waugh and by Dorothy Sayers, he would end up defending himself from the great and the good of the Catholic world – a foray that the newly digitised archive of The Tablet now lets us follow in full. 

The offence arose when, with Waugh’s Helena in mind, Meath wrote: “Miss Sayers feels no need to be smart and she shows us a woman who was made a saint not by her aristocratic inheritance so much as by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Waugh’s historical novel Saint Helena chronicles her life from an inquisitive girlhood in Colchester, through the cynicism of the imperial court of her son, and into her dogged determination to track down the true Cross of Christ. Her religion is marked by a firm-headed, common-sense desire to deal with the physical realities of a life of faith, which distinguishes her from the visionary tendencies of Sayers’ creation.

Waugh – who made a career from listening in to the language used by, and about, the upper echelons of society – heard disdain in Meath’s “smart” and “aristocratic inheritance” and rejoined with a comic sally, first quoting Meath: ‘“It is perhaps interesting to compare Miss Sayers’ portrait of Helena with that of Evelyn Waugh.’ Since Miss Sayers, I think, has never attempted a portrait of me even in her bloodiest tales, I suppose he is trying to refer to my portrait of St. Helena.” Waugh feigns a misreading of the sentence and has Meath momentarily fantasising about Evelyn-the-murderer in one of Sayers’ Cambridge detective stories. All this occurs before Waugh pointedly refutes the suggestion that his Helena obtained her saintliness by means of high birth. 

Two celebrated and, indeed, celebrity figures among the Catholic clergy, Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ and Mgr Ronnie Knox wrote in over the following weeks to defend their friend from the imputations of Meath's review. And, in the spirit of fair-mindedness, The Tablet printed two correspondents who sided with Meath, or who were at least riled by Waugh’s vexatious tone. Knox’s letter provides an example of a very different kind of humour when he suggests the disparity between the two accounts results from the fact that: “Mr Waugh, quite reasonably preferring the authority of Eusebius to that of Theodoret, dates the conversion of Helena after her son's accession to world-empire.” Mgr Knox’s donnish intervention, which defuses the ill-feeling occasioned by the exchange with the suggestion that it was all down to differences in the library, befits a deeply spiritual man whose parodies of Sherlock Holmes criticism gave rise to a genre of half-serious, half-comic attempts to treat the tales as true crime.

All this humour and hostility notwithstanding, Fr Meath was able to change the tone of the debate: “I was trying to indicate and contrast two modes through which a genuine sanctity was portrayed; for sanctity may be achieved through many paths, natural and supernatural, and among the natural is to be found what may be called the ‘aristocratic inheritance’ of certain natural virtues with which St Helena was richly endowed.”

By clicking through to the full archive record of the exchange, readers can decide for themselves whether or not to take the spiritual value Meath attributes to “aristocratic inheritance” at face value; nonetheless the comparison of Waugh and Sayers’ characters is re-cast in the theological register of natural and supernatural.

The letters page of The Tablet – as this flurry illustrates – comprehends the biting wit of Waugh, the jocular academic musings of Knox and the theological reflection of Meath. Long may it continue.

Jamie Callison

Jamie Callison is a PhD candidate on the Norwegian-run Modernism and Christianity research project. Having published on TS Eliot and religion, he is preparing articles on David Jones and on Evelyn Underhill and mysticism in the twentieth century. He lives in London. 

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