There is very little I like more than receiving a letter. The pure joy of getting something in the mail that isn’t a bill, first of all, and then the knowledge that someone thought enough of you to sit down and put pen to paper….well, it’s hard to beat that combination.
My favorite letter, however, wasn’t written or received by me. Rather, it was written by British author Evelyn Waugh.
You know Evelyn Waugh because somewhere along the way, you were assigned Brideshead Revisited, which is one of those books you dissected in high school or undergrad (along with Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights) that you really ought to revisit as an adult, in your spare time between 2 and 2:05 am every night.
Waugh was the son of an editor, and the brother of an author; he attended Oxford, where, he wrote a friend, “I do no work here and never go to Chapel.” He was a heavy drinker, had affairs with both men and women, and was generally unmotivated to do anything much in the way of academics, despite being undeniably bright. After leaving Oxford (without a degree), he took a job as a school teacher, and was fired after attempting to seduce a school matron. He then attempted to become a painter, failed, and took up writing instead.
Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was Evelyn Gardiner. Apparently they were known as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn to their friends…is it any wonder She-Evelyn ran off? Poor dear needed her own identity. (Editorial aside: In college, I went out with a guy with the same first name as mine exactly once, and that was enough for me…the ‘cute’ factor was hideously unbearable.)
Waugh was difficult, to say the least. He could be decidedly unpleasant. But he had a fantastic talent for snark and delighted in pointing out the absurdities of English society. In that regard, he had a staunch ally in Nancy Mitford (More about Mitford in Word Nerd), and the two carried on a lengthy and hearty correspondence.
The letter of Waugh’s that delights me, however, was not written to Mitford, but to Waugh’s second wife, Laura Herbert. Waugh was writing from Yugoslavia, where he was stationed as a war correspondent. Here is a portion of the letter, dripping with snark:
Darling, Laura, sweet whiskers, do try to write me better letters. Your last, dated 19 December received today, so eagerly expected, was a bitter disappointment. Do realize that a letter need not be a bald chronicle of events; I know you lead a dull life now, my heart bleeds for it, though I believe you could make it more interesting if you had the will. But that is no reason to make your letters as dull as your life. I am simply not interested in Bridget’s children. Do grasp that. A letter should be a form of conversation; write as though you were talking to me.
Lovely, no?! Where do we even begin with this letter? Poor Laura, home with the children, takes the time to write her husband a letter, and his response is to call her life dull, criticize her for lacking the will to make it more interesting, and shame her for thinking he might have an interest in someone else’s children! (Apparently Waugh had very little interest in his own children, as well — although his interest in his wife was enough to make seven of them). I can say with some certainty that were I Laura, this would be the final correspondence between us, but I have to give Waugh props for fitting so much snark into such a brief text. That takes skill.
Jesus managed to put serious snark into some of his interactions, too, if you read the parables as many scholars do. In Luke 7, verses 1-10, for instance, we get a terrific peak at my favorite Jesus, Snarky Jesus. Here’s the text (from the NRSV):
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Let’s unpack this, shall we? The centurion is a Roman — one of the occupying oppressors. The word used for “slave,” in the opinion of many scholars, carries a sexual connotation — but we can leave that alone and just understand the ill boy as a servant and not a boy toy, if you prefer it that way.
The centurion, in his favor, has apparently allocated funds to build a synagogue; the fact that this would be a politically expedient maneuver to tamp down civil unrest in the territory he’s been charged with overseeing can also be overlooked, if you think I’m being too cynical.
It’s important to remember that this a culture based on honor, which allows us to understand that the centurion is challenging Jesus. He’s not a follower of Jesus; he has no faith in Jesus. He’s only “heard of” Jesus, and is laying down a gauntlet: “Let’s see if you live up to your hype.” Then the centurion insults Jesus by sending his minions out to meet him, with the lame excuse that he’s not worthy of hosting Jesus (another major insult in a hospitality culture!); the centurion follows it up by bragging about himself and his authority – another “in your face” statement!
What does Jesus do, in return? He turns to the crowd and praises the centurion’s amazing faith! How can this be interpreted as anything other than sarcasm?! And to top it off — as his final act to put the centurion in his place — Jesus goes ahead and heals the servant, without telling anyone.
Snarky Jesus? You bet!
Evelyn Waugh would be proud.