Visions of Hell: The Fiction of Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark

Module code: EN3184

Module co-ordinator: Professor Martin Stannard

Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark, major (and popular) twentieth-century novelists, were both Catholic converts. She came from a half-Jewish working-class Edinburgh home, he from the Hampstead literati. She left school early and for years had few influential friends. He went to Oxford where he and his contemporaries formed a remarkable literary generation. As an elder statesman of British letters in 1957, Waugh wrote a very favourable review of Spark's first novel, The Comforters. It dealt with madness -- paranoid hallucinations Spark had herself experienced. As it happened, Waugh was completing a novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, that derived from similar experiences. For both authors, the borderline between sanity and madness was always narrow but from behind the fortifications of their faith they could review the daily life of the secular world as fundamentally absurd.

This module will study novels by both writers on related subjects:

  • On school and youth: Decline and Fall (1928); The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
  • On war and nostalgia: Brideshead Revisited (1945); The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
  • On madness: The Comforters (1957); The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957)
  • On death: The Loved One (1948); Memento Mori (1959)

We will examine the historical context of these novels, their form (both writers were considered modernists or even postmodernists), notions of authorship and authority, and the relation of theology to artistic creation. The module will be useful to a more detailed understanding of issues raised by EN3030 and EN3040. But it should also be fun: Decline and Fall and The Loved One are among the funniest books in the language; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means among the most haunting.


The course is taught in ten weekly two-hour seminars.


  • One 5,000-word essay