Sword of Honour. By Evelyn Waugh. Penguin Classics (1965)
The characters simply swagger off the page. Trimmer with his undeserved but irresistible rise through the ranks, one minute a Scottish soldier, the next a French hair dresser and then a national hero.
Tragic but sensuous Virginia in her two year’s out of date clothes from a grand couturier sitting in a hotel lounge sipping gin and surrounded by tattered copies of fashion magazines.
The doomed Apthorpe with his obsession about his thunderbox and his protracted struggle to keep it from the hands (and bottom) of Brigadier Ritchie-Hook whose only other concern is to get in a spot of biffing.
Evelyn Waugh drew on his own uneven wartime experiences to fashion the tragi-comic military career of the main character Guy Crouchback and his confused and convoluted relationship with his ex-wife Virginia. Waugh is positively cruel to his protagonist Guy, dealing him a series of rotten hands that he heroically does his best with. Trimmer trouncing him at every turn, his disaster in Dakar, and his blundering non-seduction of Virginia; plus the mishandled intervention in Croatia. It’s a miracle we won World War II. But with Crouchback’s good will and his eternal optimism somehow all the cock-ups seem worthwhile.
The trio of novels read better as three separate books but there is a more uniform structure to the combined read. Waugh’s light and ironic touch gives a chuckle to every page and some golden moments of pure comedy and pure farce.
Sword of Honour combines three volumes: Officers and Gentlemen (1952), Men at Arms (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961). They were published as a revised single novel in 1965.
Channel 4 made a film adaptation in 2001 of the trio of novels. It’s available on websites like Amazon for less than a pint of beer and gives a big screen gloss to the humour and period detail of the World War II story with Daniel Craig as Guy and Megan Dodds as Virginia. However if you only read 20 pages anywhere in the novel you’ll be rewarded with Waugh’s beautiful and always ironic prose.
Harry Mottram. Five stars
This is the trailer to the Channel 4 series: