The novel is the genre of our age, which means that other types of writing are often quietly ignored. How often does Waugh’s wonderful biography of Edmund Campion appear on reading lists alongside Brideshead Revisited and The Sword of Honour trilogy, for example? However, it was not all that long ago that literature meant so much more than fiction; it encompassed drama and poetry, of course, but also history, homilies, saints’ lives and much more besides.
So, it is noteworthy that Waugh felt the need to invoke the novelist’s art in the preface to his biography: “There is great need for a complete, scholar’s work on the subject. This is not it. All I have done is select the incidents which strike a novelist as important, and relate them in a single narrative.” For Waugh himself, there seemed to be little difference between his work as a novelist and his work as a biographer, though he did add that his book should “be read as a simple, perfectly true story of heroism and holiness.”
There are some wonderful moments in the book, as you might imagine. Take this one on Pope Pius V’s excommunication of Queen Elizabeth: “It is possible that one of his more worldly predecessors might have acted differently, or at another season, but it was the pride and slight embarrassment of the Church that, as has happened from time to time in her history, the See of Peter was at this moment occupied by a saint.”
Or this one describing Campion’s prayers in the moments before his execution: “They called to him to pray in English, but he replied with great mildness that ‘he would pray God in a language which they both well understood.'” The glory of that put-down is Campion’s rather than Waugh’s but it could so easily have been a phrase used in a Waugh novel.
In the edition of the book which I have, the subtitle is “Scholar, Priest, Hero, Martyr”. I see the Penguin Classics edition has “Jesuit and Martyr” as its subtitle instead. The former follows the pattern of Waugh’s chapter headings but the latter seems to date back a long time too. I wonder which subtitle Waugh would have preferred.