The Loved One, Dolling Up the Dead
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In a speech in New York after his recent visit to Ireland, President Joe Biden said that the object of his trip had been “to make sure the Brits didn’t screw around and walk away from their commitments”. London resented this pinprick to the relationship, dubbed time-immemorially as special. But it came from a groggy octogenarian and the UK remembered worse hurts in its long smooch with its big, awkward offspring. It still blushed over FDR’s hesitation to go along with Churchill’s vision post-WWII. There was John Foster Dulles’s slap on Anthony Eden’s elegant wrist over the Suez adventure and, later, sneering macho contempt at Britain’s sitting out the war in Vietnam.
However, the Empire in dissolution did strike back. Evelyn Waugh published The Loved One, An Anglo-American Tragedy in 1948. It reflected what he learned at “one of the oldest Prep Schools in the country.” Britain had been like Athens dispensing refinement and high culture to Rome, the bumptious new kid on the block. There had to be irony in this picture of Imperial London and a callow New York. But it was a face-saving necessity for down-at-the heels English gentlemen in the middle-1940s. Everyday life in the UK was even bleaker than on the ruined continent that currency restrictions kept Englishmen from enjoying.
Waugh’s escape abroad in 1947 came about by an invitation from MGM in to discuss the filming of his novel, Brideshead Revisited. He landed in California recovering from an “excruciating” operation for piles, his tongue dripping venom. Los Angeles was Nero’s Rome plus barbarians. We can imagine his coming upon the American locution funeral parlor with a nasty glee. His Hollywood visit became a research trip into the New World’s preposterous funeral rites.
Between WWI and WWII Waugh wrote brilliant satires and not so lean softer novels like Brideshead. His identification with the aristocracy is a tale to inspire social-climbers everywhere. Born into the prosperous middle-class in London’s humdrum West Hampstead, he saw himself as a prince that the stork dropped by mistake among louts on the wrong side of the tracks. His upward climb began and would end in the imaginary world of Brideshead that he pretended to think real. He crowned it by his conversion to a bizarre Catholicism that spoke with an Eton plus Oxford accent and was orchestrated by a Jesuit strategist with proper introductions to soul-weary aristocrats.
Waugh’s social ascent passed through friendships in one elite clique after another. In university he was close to Harold Acton, one noble family’s end product. His first wife was the daughter of Lord Burghclere and his second wife’s grandfather was the 4th Earl of Carnarvon. Waugh’s success as a writer cemented his connection with the rich and famous. His taste for country house living led to a series of mailing addresses far from West Hampstead. There was Piers Court and finally Combe Florey House where he died.
Waugh’s “almost mystical veneration” for the upper classes that Conor Cruise O’Brien noted, his look-at-me snobbism, his caricatural conservative politics and return to the medieval in religion all were his way of reassuring himself that he was in his place at the top of the social heap. He was a racist and antisemite. Yet there was no doubt about his quality as a writer. George Orwell said, Waugh was "about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions”. Graham Greene called him “the greatest novelist of my generation,” and Clive James said of Waugh:"Nobody ever wrote a more unaffectedly elegant English. Its hundreds of years of steady development culminate in him".
Waugh’s The Loved One sparkles with what V.S. Pritchett called “the beauty of his malice”. Like all satire it simplifies. America entire is disdained, but that’s too big a target for an enjoyable story. The author narrows fire to a Hollywood-infected California with its burial customs as the bullseye. Simplification means leaving out everything else that America, in fact, consisted of.
America’s antagonist, old world maturity and realism, is also simplified. Dennis Barlow, an English poet, twenty-eight, represents it. But his upperclass, ex-officer manner, his cynicism and Oxbridge education leave out everything else that the United Kingdom was at the time. The Loved One doesn’t oppose Euro-British ways to those of a crass adolescent America. Rather, it pits British upperclass values, rendered threadbare by war and charged with resentment, against a thriving, shallow and naive—often outright ridiculous—thoroughly commercial segment of US society.
Not that it doesn’t make a very good story. Barlow in L.A. is like a Victorian colonist in Africa. Out of self-interest, he will play the natives’s game no matter how barbarous. Idealism he saves for his return home. His lowly job at Happier Hunting Ground, an enterprise for disposing of dead domestic pets, stands in the way of his seducing Aimée Thanatogenos, the beautiful cosmetician recycled into corpse care. She is employed at Whispering Glades cemetery, a state-of-the-art, theme park devoted to making death seem like a visit to the mall. The place stands in for a cemetery not much different, Forest Lawn, that Waugh was led to on the funeral parlor trail.
Waugh’s satire is not so biased as to spare his countrymen. The resident Brits in Hollywood are thespians hamming it up to fit the American cliché of Englishmen. Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, who has spent decades in Hollywood, as a stage-Englishman, says of the Brit enclave, “You never find an Englishman among the underdogs—except in England of course.”
Waugh’s mockery is reinforced by traces of a myth present in the United States since the nation took shape. The British in upperclass format—no other being conceived of—was thought truly superior like those refined Greeks of yore opposite the crude Romans. The 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited won a mass audience in America. Viewers not unlike Aimée Thanatogenos relished Waugh’s nostalgic fantasy. In 2023 you could still read an article in the London Guardian headlined “Why are so many young Americans adopting fake British accents?”
The Loved One was first published in Horizon magazine in the UK. The New Yorker refused it on the pretext that it used the same material as several American authors. But the give-away in its explanation was that it did enjoy the send up of the British community in Hollywood. So The New Yorker that boasted of its sophistication and worldliness shied at a satire that made fun of Americans and thereby missed publishing a masterpiece.
(There is a 1965 film adaptation of The Loved One directed by Tony Richardson with a screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood.)