The Picturesque Prison: Evelyn Waugh and His Writing


334 pages
Contains Index
ISBN 0-7735-0377-3




Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


Readers of Evelyn Waugh have frequently been puzzled by the fact that the author of such hilarious satires as Decline and Fall, Scoop, and The Loved One could also write a study of Edmund Campion and a historical novel about St. Helena. How could a writer so familiar with the details of social absurdity in the 1920s be a devout Catholic? And how could a devout Catholic get the reputation of so often behaving like an ill-mannered boon in his later years? A psychological study (product of a world Waugh despised) might help here, but Jeffrey Heath has taken a more traditional — and, I think, wiser — course. In The Picturesque Prison he offers a systematic reading of Waugh’s fictional corpus in terms that verge on the allegorical. If we look below the superficial layer of sardonic comedy, he argues, we find that Waugh had “one foot in fantasy and the other in parable” (p. 84). Heath proceeds to interpret the parables and reveal a firm moral stance which develops in Waugh’s work and can be seen as both coherent and consistent.

Heath’s approach goes against Waugh’s own claim that he was not a satirist. Satire for Waugh “flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous moral standards”; these standards do not exist in “the Century of the Common Man,” so satire is impossible in the modern world (p. 56). Heath is, I believe, fully justified in his interpretation of Waugh, but his very success in trying to prove that Waugh was wrong ironically demonstrates that he was partly right. Satire is helpless in a fragmented society not because it cannot be written but because it cannot readily be understood. In a world of “homogeneous moral standards” Waugh’s satire would have been comprehended at once, and Heath’s book would therefore be superfluous.

As it is, The Picturesque Prison is decidedly necessary. Heath catches well the paradoxes in Waugh’s character and writings: “Waugh makes the outrageous sound normal because to him the normal was outrageous” (p. 78); “he fought savagely against savagery and warned immoderately in the name of moderation” (p. 266). Furthermore, Waugh himself was an extremely elegant writer, and any commentator must try to emulate him; Heath writes a clear, precise, rhythmic prose which is a pleasure to read. This is an enlightened and valuable piece of literary criticism.


Heath, Jeffrey, “The Picturesque Prison: Evelyn Waugh and His Writing,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 21, 2024,