With the exception of being converts to Catholicism G. K. Chesterton to Evelyn Waugh seem to have nothing in common: in addition to being born in different periods, each had a unique and unmistakable style.
Yet a profound bond exists between the two, starting with some shared biographical details such as a passion for drawing and the journey towards religion undertaken only after having toyed with the idea of suicide.
Chesterton and Waugh are, so to speak, the alpha and omega of the first period of English Catholic literature of the twentieth century, the one that draws heavily from the theological-cultural tradition of Newman and Manning, and that ends with Vatican II (harshly criticized by Waugh) and with a new generation of more progressive Catholic authors.
Waugh, moreover, admired Chesterton’s work, in particular The Everlasting Man and the ballad Lepanto, an exciting lyrical gallop in the footsteps of John of Austria and the Christian fleet that defeated the Turkish one in 1571. Waugh also dedicated an entire cycle of lectures to Chesterton, whom he had the opportunity to meet in person. During a meeting held in 1949 at the American Notre Dame University, the former also recited the first lines of Chesterton’s poem The Song of Right and Wrong from memory.
But what binds the two writers the most is that nostalgia and that humorous outlook that find ample space in their best works. Chesterton and Waugh felt they lived in a world that was foreign to them. Behind the most popular ideologies they could not fail to discern the seeds of future tragedies, and they worked hard to oppose it through literature or the press. What was most important to them was to remember that it was still possible to believe in that Truth that only the Catholic Church had had the courage to keep intact over the course of two millennia of history.
Consequently their writings are imbued with the nostalgia of Eden, of that celestial Ithaca which is the homeland of every man. Ulysses and his metaphorical homeward journey are evoked by Chesterton in the opening pages of The Flying Inn, where the Greek island becomes the symbol of resistance to the Islamic invasion, or to what is most anti-human. Waugh, for his part, preferred an architectural rather than a geographical analogy: in Brideshead Revisited the ancient stately home that gives the novel its title is a symbol in stone of the protagonists’ mental landscape, a place that preserves everything that is beautiful and good.
This is why the “Contra mundum” shouted at the top of their voices by Charles and Sebastian, far from being the motto of a ridiculous post-adolescent rebellion, is the banner under which both Waugh and Chesterton found themselves in the heat of battle, a challenge to Anglican conformity and to irreligion. And both, to face a declining universe, chose the weapon of laughter, paradox, delicate irony – though also of biting satire.
Sources: R. GRIFFITHS, The Pen and the Cross, Continuum, London, 2010; J. PEARCE, Literary Converts, Harper Collins, London, 2000.