Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief is Humanae Vitae as a novel

This week marks the end of an era: The Catholic Herald is morphing from a weekly broadsheet newspaper into a magazine. From now on, the website will have the news stories, and the magazine will specialise in colourful features and be more of an erudite digest.  

The content from the magazine will be available online - from behind a pay wall. So, I may not have permission to post on my blog the stuff that I will (hopefully) get published in the new magazine.

I've been writing for the paper for over six years.

Here is the first full-length article that I got published in the print edition of the newspaper in autumn 2008. When Ed West commissioned the piece, it was the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, and also Evelyn Waugh's name was in the air because there was the disappointing film version of Brideshead Revisited in cinemas. 

Bear in mind that I was much younger, not long out of university and I think that I strung my points together in a cluttered way. I think my thesis still resonates: that Waugh's work Black Mischief is a literary portrayal of Paul VI's lesser known teachings....


Of all the 20th century Catholic novelists, Evelyn Waugh is among the best and Brideshead Revisited is generally considered his best work. Waugh himself described Brideshead Revisited as ‘my magnum opus’. The novel is a quintessential literary parable of lives spent in vain glories, languishing in human weakness, until redemption is sought in Christ.

Brideshead Revisited is all the more powerful because it charts the very real lives of sinners. It doesn’t shy from detailing the vicissitudes of the Flyte parents’ marriage break-up; Sebastian’s extravagant alcoholism; or the adulterous affair between Julia Flyte and Charles Ryder. Also a historically important work, it is frequently lauded as an apt portrayal of ‘that
generation’ between the two great wars: the generation that were too young to fight in the First World War and too old for the second.

Support from Catholics for Brideshead Revisited is unanimous; all the
important characters convert in the end and there are plentiful references
to Scripture. Few fans of Brideshead, however, are as fond of Black

Black Mischief: Waugh's first novel as a Roman Catholic and initially
regarded by the then editor of The Tablet as ‘a disgrace’. The reception it
receives now is like that in 1932; pious Catholics are either scornful or

Mostly Catholics are uncertain. Is Black Mischief, to use the honoured word among the scrupulous, ‘scandalous’?  With the crude sexual and
exploitative motives of the characters and their language it does challenge our politically correct and feminist sensibilities. Yet, does it fall squarely into the category of vulgar books? 

In my judgment the poor understanding of Black Mischief is not fair or of benefit to Catholics. It is my contention that Black Mischief, like Humanae Vitae has never been given its due recognition. Remarkably, like Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Waugh’s work Black Mischief was strangely prophetic. But what compelling similarity is there to be made between novel and encyclical? 

It is this: when Waugh fictionalised an account of a country’s indefatigable drives to force contraception on the nation’s people, it is a drama of Pope Paul VI’s most unheeded warning; that governments would use contraception for coercive purposes.

It can be easy to laugh one’s way through the novel and miss Waugh’s dire
warning.  Black Mischief is hilariously funny and unashamedly irreverent.
The plot revolves around the misdemeanours of Emperor Seth of the country
Azania. In case anyone has run to check the atlas, Azania is a fictional
East African country. Emperor Seth has a monomania about everything he
perceives as 'modern', particularly birth control.

With the help of the British Basil Seal, Seth re-orders Azanian society; hoping to dismantle tribal life by seducing the masses into contracepting. Seth renames the site of the Anglican cathedral 'Marie Stope’s Place', displays a ludicrous birth
control poster everywhere, and organizes a 'Birth Control Pageant'.

It is all the more pertinent that the leader Seth is Azanian; it is he who
is obsessed with foisting contraception on his own people.  Why, may you
ponder, did Waugh, a Catholic convert who accepted the Church's teachings
without protest, go to the trouble of inventing a society obsessed with
birth control endorsement and with no obvious arguments against birth

But no, Waugh lets the ensuing irony do the teaching. The
landmark ‘Marie Stope’s Place’ is as meaningless to the indigenous
illiterate population as every other government led contraception drive.

The poster advertising contraceptive devices contrasts two families; a
one-child family with material comfort, and the other a scene of poverty
with many children and a tired wife working in the field while her husband
relaxes. WHICH HOME DO YOU CHOOSE? is the caption.  Stock contraception
propaganda, not unlike what Planned Parenthood use today in Nigeria.  But
the Azanians construe that the one-child family is most unfortunate, because
the parents could not possibly be fertile!

Most comical of all, is that the Azanian populace misconstrue the birth
control pageant to be a fertility festival and behave in the opposite way to
how the pageant organisers had expected; they celebrate their fertility as
the mere concept of curtailing fertility is unknown. The emperor issues lots
of contraceptive devices — 'jujus' as the people call them — and the native
Africans perceive them as something, which will increase their fertility.

The idea of posters, devices and even festivals that would promote embracing
the means to limit your family's number, is anathema to the Africans. Should
Black Mischief be required reading for all aid workers who pawn off first
world state-funded contraceptive devices on native Africans?

The novel takes a more sinister tone when leader Seth dabbles in primitive
IVF. One day Seth announces, “I have read here,” he said, tapping a volume
of speculative biology, that there is to be no more birth. The ovum is
fertilised in the laboratory and the foetus is matured in bottles. It is a
splendid idea. Get me some of those bottles.”  Such is Seth’s very real
disrespect for his native people that he will force them to acquiesce.

Thankfully, the government in Azania collapses in a shambles. Seth is
murdered, before he can coerce his people into following the dictates of his
own type of HFE Bill. Reading this, as if it were true, the augury of
Humanae Vitae becomes real: that governments may use contraception for
‘coercive’ purposes.  The dire fact is that tenets of Black Mischief have
become reality for us, as have the consequences of widespread contraception,
spelled out in Humanae Vitae.  The irony remains; Humanae Vitae was
dismissed as being ‘out of touch’ whilst Black Mischief was ‘just a laugh’.

Few have dug deep enough to see the parodies of Black Mischief are often
clever didactics in Catholic teaching.  

Religious dogma becomes seamlessly thematic to the story, so much so, that one could assert that Waugh was trying to skillfully hide his intentions of simultaneously
teaching dogma and writing good satirical fiction. Seen in its proper light,
the novel is a subtle mockery of artificial contraception and its advocates.
Waugh died before Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, but Waugh’s narrative teaches the quintessential truths Paul VI wished to convey.


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