Sense and Nonsense: Eastertide

In 1997, Easter fell early on march 30. On Easter Thursday, 1966 (April 14), Margaret Waugh wrote to Lady Diana Cooper recounting the death at home of her father, Evelyn Waugh, on Easter Sunday. “Don’t be too upset about Papa,” Margaret wrote. “I think it was kind of a wonderful miracle. You know how he longed to die and dying as he did on Easter Sunday, when all the liturgy is about death and resurrection, after a Latin Mass and holy communion, would be exactly as he wanted. I am sure he had prayed for death at Mass. I am very happy for him.”

I have a copy of Waugh’s autobiography, A Little Learning. In it there is a photo identified as “The Lundy Island Group, Easter, 1925.” In it Waugh, at twenty-two, is seen sitting on beach rocks; he wears a turtleneck sweater and knickers. Behind him are two friends, Terence Greenidge and David Plunkett-Green, with Green’s two sisters, Olivia and Gwen. Waugh has some romantic interest in Olivia at the time. But “there was no question of me and Olivia marrying. . . .” Here is how Waugh described this Olivia: “She nagged and bullied at times, she suffered from morbid self-consciousness, she was incapable of the ordinary arts and efforts of pleasing and was generally incapable of any kind of ostentation; a little crazy, truth-loving, and in the end holy.” At Eastertide, from 1925, it is well to remember that anyone can be holy.

Waugh himself died in the faith but was not a happy man with it. His last letter of March 30, 1966, (hence thirty-one years ago this Easter) was written to Lady Diana (Mitford) Mosley, a letter found in Mark Amory’s The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, a book that someone gave me years ago with this delightful inscription: “J. As Flannery (O’Connor) says, don’t make an algebra problem out of this, just enjoy.” I still laugh when I read this inscription, as much directed to my character as Waugh’s wit.

Waugh writes to Lady Diana, “Easter used to mean so much to me. Before Pope John and his Council—they destroyed the beauty of the Liturgy. I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the faith doggedly without joy. Church going is a pure duty parade. I shall not live to see it restored.” As he only lived twelve more days, we can be sure he did not see the liturgy “restored.”

Margaret Waugh was born in 1942. Waugh had great affection for her. On the First Sunday in Lent in 1954 (she was twelve), he wrote to her at school, “I hope that you have given up swearing & smoking & drinking for Lent.” When she was fifteen, Margaret wrote to her father complaining how much she disliked the girls’ convent school. With a piece of advice that would either put him in jail or earn the undying hatred of educationists today, Waugh wrote to her, “I think it a weakness of girls’ schools that they have no adequate punishments. When a boy is naughty he is beaten and that is the end of it. All this admonition makes for resentment and the part of your letter that I don’t like at all is where you say the nuns ‘hate’ you. That is rubbish. And when you run down girls who behave better than you. That is mean. Chuck it, Meg.”

Margaret wants to leave school early. Waugh tells her that they will talk about it at the next vacation. Then he added:

I was miserable at Lancing (his prep school) and kept asking my father to take me away. I am very glad now that he did not. . . . The whole of our life is a test & preparation for heaven—most of it irksome. So each part of our life is an irksome test & preparation for something better. I think you would greatly enjoy Oxford and get the best out of it. But you can’t get there without much boring labor and discipline.

Waugh adds this tender instruction to his daughter unhappy at school:

“Don’t get into your silly head that anyone hates you or is unfair to you. You are loved far beyond your deserts, especially by your Papa.”

There is something appropriate at Eastertide in reading these two letters, Margaret Waugh to Lady Cooper and of Waugh to his daughter at school. The daughter knows something is right about her father dying on Easter Sunday after Latin Mass. Even though he did not live to see the liturgy restored, this was the same man who wrote to his daughter that “the whole of our life is a test and a preparation for something better.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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