Scott-King’s Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh
Scott-King’s Modern Europe is a short, perhaps over-short novella by Evelyn Waugh. Written in 1946, it visits a fictitious part of Europe largely unknown to its determinedly English protagonist. In 1946 Scott-King had been classical master at Grantchester for twenty-five years, we are told in the tale’s first sentence. This locks the book’s principal character firmly in his place within the English class system, sketches his likely character, with its staid dedication to what has always been and remains “right”, and posits him without doubt in the apolitical conservatism of an ultimately submissive establishment. It’s the kind of England that used to believe that fog at Dover meant that Europe was cut off. Thus Waugh presents him to his undoubtedly sympathetic readers.
Out of a non-political blue comes a request from the little-known and less understood and now independent state of Neutralia that Scott-King attend a national celebration of a long-forgotten national poet called Bellorius. The writer died in 1646 and left a fifteen hundred line tract, written in Latin hexameters, of unrelenting tedium. It described a journey to an unknown new world island, where there subsisted a virtuous, chaste and reasonable community, Waugh tells us. This utopia was left forgotten and unread, until it appeared in a German edition in the twentieth century, a copy of which Scott-King picked up while on holiday some years ago. Thus the teacher of classics began a relationship with this European obscurity that led to this invitation to visit his homeland.
Scott-King’s Modern Europe is so short that any more detail of its plot would undermine its reading. Suffice it to say that the international delegation is not what it seems. Things do not go to plan, or perhaps do, depending on your perspective on Neutralian politics, whose internecine struggles could not be further from anything associated with aloof Britishness, let alone its higher class relative, Englishness. Life becomes unbearably complicated for the scrupulously fair Scott-King. He may, perish the possibility, suffer such ignominy as not having enough traveller’s cheques left to cover his hotel bill!
As the farce develops, the celebration of Bellorius morphs into something decidedly more contemporary, whose limits become ever more blurred. Most of those involved are revealed, in some form or another, as frauds, except of course for the stolid and enduring Englishman of the title, who throughout remains the epitome of the innocent victim. If there is fault in the world, then it’s all the fault of foreigners, those who live over there, those who speak the unintelligible languages that aren’t English and live in those unbearable climates that have sunshine. They do not play fair in politics, and confuse responsibility with gain, All unthinkable at home, of course…
It all works out in the end, after a fashion. Let it be recorded here only that, true to the values of the English Public School where Scott-King has taught, it is a former pupil, ever loyal, that eventually extracts his former teacher from his troubles. But what is enduringly interesting about this little book is the depth of the metaphor that classical education presents. It is a culture in decline. Its vales are destined not to endure. Inevitably, the values enshrined in the assumption of this enduringly educated state are set themselves to disappear. The English surely are going to become like the untrustworthy, squabbling, divided Neutralians, and all the other foreigners with their unacceptable strange ways, who previously had only ever lived “over there”.
Written at the end of the second world war, when perhaps mythically the British had stood alone, the book is perhaps the author’s reflection on events that saw the division of Europe into opposing camps. The territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, and essentially England within it, had been maintained. But those “over there” we’re still foreign and thankfully thy weren’t “over here”. Their values weren’t our values, and yet their influence was all-pervading, or at least potentially so. Britain, and the English on the throne within it, we’re still alone, still threatened. This is the culture that is suffused throughout Evelyn Waugh’s little book and it is the assumption that makes its reading in 2018 at least poignant. It might even have been written a week ago, based on anyone’s list of presumptions that surrounded the Brexit referendum. Everything that was not an English value is manifest in this non-culture of Neutralia, a nation that needs to invent heroes raised from within the mediocrity of its unrecognized and – even more reprehensible – unrecorded past. How non-English can one get?
Waugh’s humor enlivens the story and his unapologetic Englishness almost renders himself as the principal character. It is short enough to be read in an hour, but it’s sentiment and message will resonate very strongly with contemporary readers. In Britain’s current political context, Scott-King’s Modern Europe is a little book with a big message.