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  • Contested ConfessionsThe Sins of the Press and Evelyn Waugh’s False Penance in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold
  • D. Marcel DeCoste (bio)

I dont [sic] much mind the papers saying I am beastly, which is true, or that I write badly, which isn’t. What enrages me is wrong facts. They always are wrong in these knowing “profiles.”

evelyn waugh, letter to nancy mitford, september 27, 1950

Confessions no doubt speak of guilt, but don’t necessarily speak the guilt.

peter brooks, troubling confessions

Published in 1957, Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold advertised itself as a tale drawn from the author’s life. As the prefatory note to the American edition readily confided, “Three years ago Mr. Waugh suffered a brief bout of hallucination closely resembling what is here described.”1 Just as he was eager, on his return from a 1954 trip to Ceylon, to regale friends with stories of his “sharp but brief attack of insanity,” so, when he shared this experience with the public, Waugh was determined that they too understand his newest fiction also as autobiography.2 This end, at least, he certainly achieved. First reviewers, taking up his invitation to read the [End Page 67] novel as memoir, professed admiration for this candid “experiment in self-examination,” and later critics have largely agreed with Jeffrey Heath in deeming it “the most revealing book [Waugh] ever wrote.”3 Indeed, with its depiction of an alter ego beset by dependencies and delusions, by hallucinations that accuse him of the widest spectrum of misdeeds, Pinfold has commonly been judged to be something more than a mere autobiographical vignette. Cued by Waugh to take the text as the author’s own truth, critics have been “prompt to treat the book as a confession rather than a novel.”4 On this view, the voices that harangue Gilbert Pinfold represent the penitential eruption, first into phantasm and then into print, of Waugh’s guilty conscience; thus, for R. Neill Johnson, “the mimicking voices he hears are externalizations of his own self-hatred.”5

Yet Douglas Patey’s claim that Waugh “was not a man to bare his soul before the public without some carefully contrived purpose” is both astute and corroborated by the narrative itself.6 At the novel’s conclusion, Pinfold, restored to lucidity, asks why, if he himself were the source of the voices’ accusations, he did not prepare a more damning indictment: “I mean to say, . . . I could make a far blacker and more plausible case than they ever did” (OGP, 229). Given the incoherence of many of the charges hurled at him, it is not odd that Pinfold should challenge their validity. But this question, unanswered at novel’s end and largely unaddressed by critics, does more than this: it unsettles the reader’s role as confessor by subverting the assumption that this tale is, in fact, that exercise in self-accusation Johnson and others have taken it to be. The answer to Pinfold’s question, I contend, is that Waugh’s novel neither depicts Pinfold’s confession nor enacts Waugh’s own. Rather, it is, as its title proclaims, the story of an ordeal, an agonizing and agonistic “test of guilt or innocence,” from which Waugh’s stand-in emerges, we are told, “victor” (OGP, 231).7 What the book exposes, then, is not the penitent-author’s grievous faults, but an author’s contest with his critics, and what it seeks, by its victory, to establish, is the falseness of those critics’ stock formulation and reprobation of Waugh’s sins. [End Page 68]

Thus while John Foxwell maintains that “there are no metafictional ‘mechanics’ brought into play” in this text, I argue that Pinfold is nothing other than a sustained critique of the damning fiction of Waugh, and particularly of his faith, that critics had long substituted for a sober evaluation of his art.8 As Patey rightly notes, after the extraordinary commercial success of his first Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited (1945), Waugh’s fiction met with “reviews which ritually praised his prose style before turning to the real work of damning his politics,” and more vexingly, of damning his...