When an accomplished and celebrated novelist writes a biography, it is no small matter. The subject must be great indeed, to be the cause of such a deviation. In the case of Evelyn Waugh, the noble subject is none other than the great martyr Saint Edmund Campion.
Edmund Campion: A Life was written by Evelyn Waugh in 1935, only five years after converting to the Catholic Church, and won the Hawthornden Prize in 1936. This is clear in his writing, which displays the vibrancy and fervor rarely found outside recent converts to the one true faith.
This wonderful book is far more than a biography, far more than simply a glimpse into the life of this powerful martyr; it is a portrait, intricately woven, of the effects of the Protestant Reformation on English scholarship, politics, government, and religion. Indeed, Campion himself is merely a character in this sad story, one that shines with the light of hope and righteousness in a culture as confused and disoriented as the one in America today.
Like St. Thomas More, Edmund Campion was a man deeply rooted in English society, almost as in love with his country as he was with Christ. He was raised at Oxford, and quickly garnered the attention of not only his contemporaries, but Queen Elizabeth herself. Campion was a man that had everything going for him, every opportunity at his fingertips. But the truth is a persistent thing, and the more he studied, the more he came to know that the Catholic faith was the only place of truth. According to Percy Hutchison, author of the New York Times article “Evelyn Waugh's Life of Edmund Campion” in 1936 describes Campion’s situation, saying,
“He was devoted to his Queen. In every fiber of body and mind he was an Englishman. But he was of the opposite faith from the queen. His political allegiance could give whole-heartedly; his religious allegiance lay elsewhere.” (1)
The court of Queen Elizabeth could afford no such loyalties, let alone from within their ranks. So Campion left and joined the Jesuits.
He served his order in Europe, but as the persecutions of Catholics in England worsened, Campion was called by Rome to return to his native land to aid his beleaguered brethren in their plight, and did so knowing that it could only end in his suffering and death. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Campion could not be swayed by the fickle yet tempting nuances of apostasy, dereliction, and conspiracy; no, he sought nothing but complete holiness and perfection. Waugh beautifully describes this, saying,
“In a world where everything was, by its nature, a makeshift and poor reflection of reality, why throw up so much that was excellent, in straining for a remote and perhaps unattainable perfection? It was an argument which might be—which was—accepted by countless decent people, then and later, but there was that in Campion that made him more than a decent person; an embryo in the womb of his being, maturing in darkness, invisible, barely stirring; the love of holiness, the need for sacrifice. He could not accept.” (39).
This effortlessly beautiful work of spiritual writing ought to be added to the canon of every young Catholic seeking to bring about the New Evangelization and make disciples of all nations. For our efforts will surely fail if we settle for excellence; only by the constant pursuit of the sacrificial fires of perfection, like Saint Edmund Campion, can we hope to be successful.
Hutchison, Percy. “Evelyn Waugh's Life of Edmund Campion.” New York Times. 5 January 1936. Web.
Waugh, Evelyn. Edmund Campion: A Life. Ignatius Press, 2007. Print.