First, to dispense with the obvious, there seem to be no two more disparate men of 20th-century letters than George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. So the reader enters David Lebedoff’s The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War provoked, in several senses of that word, to see how Lebedoff will convincingly develop his thesis that they were “the same man” in terms of their own time and their views of the future.
The award-winning Cleaning Up (1997), one of five earlier books by David Lebedoff, a Harvard Law School graduate who is now an attorney in Minneapolis, deals with the Exxon Valdez trial; but it is in The New Elite: The Death of Democracy (1981) and The Uncivil War: How a New Elite Is Destroying Our Democracy (2004) that one finds the key to Lebedoff’s reading of Orwell and Waugh. The moral code of Lebedoff’s “new elite,” those experts he sees as comprising the new “test-score meritocracy,” is disbelief in any moral code at all, “the pernicious doctrine known as moral relativism.” Lebedoff argues that in their hatred of the moral relativism of their time and their seemingly opposite ways of fighting against what they saw as the inevitable future of their civilization, Orwell and Waugh were “the same man.” Both of them, he writes, “hated, really hated” their own time and understood the futility of a life without faith—Orwell from the perspective of atheism and Waugh from that of a convert to Catholicism.
It takes some time in this short dual literary biography for Lebedoff to make this point, although that is not necessarily a criticism. The opening chapters show Eric Blair (before he adopted the name George Orwell) and Evelyn Waugh at school and in their early forays into the world—Orwell conditioned by prep-school snobbery to reject the class system and Waugh using it to begin his relentless climb into society. These chapters are a very good read, but they tend to cement the notion that these two young men could not have been more different. Orwell rejected the opportunity to go to university, although his Eton education would have qualified him for it, and began his career as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, following in the footsteps of his civil servant father. Waugh’s famously chronicled years at Oxford set him on a path in pursuit of social standing and pleasure.
Similarly, the chapters on the courtships and marriages of the two men suggest that while Waugh was seeking status rather than love, Orwell (described by Lebedoff as “perhaps the least eligible bachelor in the British Isles” because of his poverty, his health and his inconvenient political positions) was looking for a soul-mate, someone not only intelligent and well educated, but beautiful and sympathetic to his socialist views.
When Waugh’s first marriage failed, he converted to Catholicism and was allowed to marry a second time to Laura Herbert only when the marriage to Evelyn Gardner (the “she-Evelyn,” to their friends) was annulled. Both women had connections to the aristocratic Herbert family, and Waugh made sure the Herbert coat of arms was displayed over the front door of his country house. Orwell’s marriage to Eileen O’Shaughnessy, an Oxford graduate and student of J. R. R. Tolkien, appeared to be an improbable love match. She understood that his work came before all else, and that he was not always the most faithful of husbands, but she willingly followed him to Spain when he was engaged in fighting against Franco during the Spanish Civil War and, more important perhaps, to a depressing village house in Hertfordshire where he wrote and she ran a small store. Lebedoff captures the flavor of these two contrasting personal lives in engaging, almost gossipy, prose. The short chapter on Waugh and Orwell as fathers—Waugh had seven children by his second wife; Orwell and Eileen adopted a baby boy—is alternately painful and touching.
It is in the discussion of the service of Orwell and Waugh during the Second World War and of their writing that Lebedoff develops most convincingly the thesis that the two men were not really on opposite ends of a spectrum, but that they, in fact, shared a moral philosophy rooted in a common hatred of relativism and a fear of the future that their own times were ushering in.
Given the skill with which Lebedoff analyzes certain parts of their work, one would like more direct engagement with the writing of both men. His reading of the scene in Brideshead Revisited in which Lord Marchmain dies absolved by the church he has hated and rejected makes clear Lebedoff’s point that this and much else of Waugh’s writing is not, in fact, about nostalgia for a lost time but “fundamentally…deeply religious.” He argues that after his conversion Waugh’s dissatisfaction with the modern world led him to put his faith in the hereafter; Orwell’s angst led him into politics in an attempt to change that world. The two men met only once, when Waugh visited the dying Orwell in the hospital; they corresponded and critiqued each other’s work on occasion, clearly respecting and admiring one another while disagreeing about how to confront the world.
The Same Man is written in the lucid prose that Orwell himself would have admired. Lebedoff is clearly positioning both Orwell and Waugh to reflect his own views on moral relativity (further reading of his The Uncivil War is useful to define that view). One of the bonuses of Lebedoff’s dual biography is that it reminds us of the pleasures of reading both Orwell and Waugh again, sending us back to Brideshead and 1984, to the essays on language and politics and to the long list of their works we may have missed. Lebedoff makes the case that they are still relevant.