Upper-class scoundrel Basil Seal, mad, bad and dangerous to know, creates havoc wherever he goes, much to the despair of the three women in his life - his sister, mother and mistress. And when Neville Chamberlain declares war on Germany, it seems the perfect opportunity for more action and adventure. So Basil follows the call to arms and goes forth to have his finest hour - as a war hero. His instincts for self-preservation come to the fore in such spheres of opportunity as the Ministry of Information and a little-known section of Military Security. But, with Europe frozen in the 'phoney war', when will Basil's big chance to fight finally arrive?
I'm moved to wonder, though, and not for the first time, why Waugh felt the need to spend so much time on them in the first place. After all, the nineteenth century gave us plenty of good novels about characters striving to find their proper place in society, and he doesn't seem particularly interested in their inner lives. Since Waugh's socialites are a tiny, unrepresentative portion of an already tiny upper class, it's curious that Waugh should choose them to illustrate Britain's experience in World War II, or any aspect of twentieth century society. I suspect, again, that the author's attitude toward them might have been motivated by personal spite, even when his creations are trying, in their limited, self-centered ways, to do their best for king and country.
Not much more now because I'm tired and ready for bed. If you like Waugh and haven't read this one yet, do so. It's good. If you haven't read Waugh but would like to give him a try, this is as good a place as any to start.
The books that comprise the Sword of Honour trilogy were written in the 1950s and 1960s when Evelyn Waugh was able to put the Second World War into some kind of perspective. Sword of Honour also happens to be one of Evelyn Waugh's masterpieces.
Put Out More Flags, an earlier war novel, opens in the autumn of 1939 and all takes place during the twelve months of the war. It was published in 1942.
I have read most of Evelyn Waugh's major works now, and, as usual, the quality of the writing is a pleasure. The story follows the wartime activities of characters introduced in Waugh's earlier satirical novels Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies and Black Mischief.
The uncertainty and confusion of the so-called "phoney war" are brilliantly evoked, and - as is so often the case - the satire and humour are very black. Basil Seal, who readers may recall from Black Mischief, is the star of the show. His opportunism creating all manner of mischief for those he runs into, and his scam involving a troublesome family of evacuated children sums him up perfectly. To suggest this book is full of humour would be misleading: one scene involving the troubled and tragic Cedric Lyne visiting his estranged wife Angela, with their son Nigel, for once impressed by him in his army uniform, is absolutely dripping with sadness and melancholy, and demonstrates Waugh's extraordinary skill.
Overall the book felt slightly uneven and a bit rushed. There is much to admire and enjoy, however I conclude this is one of Evelyn Waugh's less successful novels (against his exceptionally high standards). It's of most interest to Waugh completists (of whom I am definitely one) and should not be prioritised ahead of his key works: (Brideshead Revisited, Sword of Honour, Decline and Fall, and A Handful of Dust.