Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was an English writer, best known
for such satirical and darkly humorous novels as Decline and Fall,
Vile Bodies, Scoop, A Handful of Dust, and The Loved One, as well
as for more serious works, such as Brideshead Revisited and the
Sword of Honour trilogy, that are influenced by his own conservative
and Catholic outlook.
of Waugh's novels depict the British aristocracy and high society,
which he savagely satirizes but to which he was also strongly
attracted. In addition, he wrote short stories, three biographies,
and the first volume of an unfinished autobiography. His travel
accounts and his extensive diaries and correspondence have also
anglophobic critic Edmund Wilson pronounced Waugh "the only
first-rate comic genius the English have produced since George
Bernard Shaw," while Time magazine declared that he had "developed
a wickedly hilarious yet fundamentally religious assault on a
century that, in his opinion, had ripped up the nourishing taproot
of tradition and let wither all the dear things of the world."
works were very successful with the reading public and he was
widely admired by critics as a humorist and prose stylist, but
his later, more overtly religious works have attracted much controversy.
In an unpublished review of Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell
declared that Waugh was "about as good a novelist as one
can be while holding untenable opinions." Conservative commentator
William F. Buckley, Jr. found in Waugh "the greatest English
novelist of the century."
in London, Evelyn Waugh was the son of a noted editor and publisher
Arthur Waugh. He was brought up in upper middle class circumstances
in the London suburb of Hampstead. His only sibling was his older
brother Alec Waugh, who also became a writer. Both Arthur and
Alec had been educated at Sherborne, a not quite top English public
school, but Alec had been expelled during his final year and had
then published a very controversial novel, The Loom of Youth,
based on his school life.
therefore refused to take Evelyn and his father sent him to Lancing
College, a school of lesser social prestige with a strong High
Church Anglican character. This circumstance would rankle the
status-conscious Evelyn for the rest of his life but may have
contributed to his interest in religion, even though at Lancing
he lost his childhood faith and became an agnostic. After Lancing,
he attended Hertford College, Oxford as a history scholar. At
Oxford, Waugh neglected academic work and was known as much for
his artwork as for his writing.
also threw himself into a vigorous social scene populated by both
aesthetes such as Harold Acton and Brian Howard, as well as members
of the British aristocracy and the upper classes. His social life
at Oxford influenced Waugh's personal transformation into something
of a snob and provided the background for some of his most characteristic
later writing. Waugh had at least two homosexual romances at Oxford
(whether they had a physical dimension is unclear) before he began
to date women in the late 1920s. Asked if he had competed in any
sport for his College, Waugh famously replied "I drank for
final exam results qualified him only for a third-class degree.
He refused to remain in residence for the extra term that would
have been required of him and he left Oxford in 1924 without taking
his degree. In 1925 he taught at a private school in Wales. In
his autobiography, Waugh claims that he attempted suicide at the
time by swimming out to sea, only to turn back after being stung
by jellyfish. He was later dismissed from another teaching post
for attempting to seduce the matron, telling his father he had
been dismissed for "inebriation".
was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker and worked briefly as a journalist,
before he had his first great literary success in 1928 with his
first completed novel, Decline and Fall. The title is from Gibbon,
but whereas Gibbon charted the bankruptcy and dissolution of Rome,
Waugh's was a hilariously witty account of quite a different sort
of dissolution, following the career of the harmless Paul Pennyfeather,
a student of divinity, as he is accidentally expelled from Oxford
for indecency ("I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster,
sir," says the College porter to Paul, "That’s
what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for
indecent behaviour") and enters into the worlds of schoolmastering,
high society, and the white slave trade. Other novels about England's
"Bright Young Things" followed, and all were well received
by both critics and the general public.
entered into a brief, unsuccessful marriage in 1928 to the Hon.
Evelyn Gardner. (Their friends called them he-Evelyn and she-Evelyn.)
Gardner's infidelity would provide the background for Waugh's
novel A Handful of Dust. The marriage ended in divorce in 1930.
Waugh converted to Catholicism and, after his marriage to Gardner
was annulled by the Church, he married the Catholic Laura Herbert,
daughter of Aubrey Herbert. His second marriage was more successful,
lasting for the rest of his life and producing seven children.
One of his sons was Auberon Waugh, who would achieve recognition
in his own right as a writer and journalist.
Waugh's fame continued to grow between the wars, based on his
satires of contemporary upper middle class English society, written
in a prose which was both approachable and innovative. (A chapter,
for example, written entirely in the form of a dialogue of telephone
calls). His conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930 introduced
a more serious undertone to his writing, and his faith, whether
implicit or explicit, underlies all of his later work.
period between the wars also saw extensive travels around the
Mediterranean and Red Sea, Spitsbergen, Africa and South America.
Sections of the numerous travel books which resulted are often
cited as among the best writing in this genre. A compendium of
Waugh's favourite travel writing has been issued under the title
When The Going Was Good.
With the advent of World War II, Waugh used "friends in high
places", such as Randolph Churchill - son of Winston - to
find him a service commission. Though thirty-six years of age
with poor eyesight, he was commissioned in the Royal Marines in
1940. Few can have been less suited to command troops. He lacked
a common touch. Though personally brave, he did not suffer fools
gladly. There was some concern that the men under his command
might shoot him instead of the enemy. Promoted to Captain, Waugh
found life in the Marines dull.
participated in the failed attempt to take Dakar from the Vichy
French in late 1940. Following a joint exercise with No.8 Commando
(Army), he applied to join them and was accepted. Waugh took part
in an ill-fated commando raid on the coast of Libya. As special
assistant to the famed commando leader, Robert Laycock, Waugh
showed conspicuous bravery during the fighting in Crete in 1941,
supervising the evacuation of troops while under attack by Stuka
Waugh was placed on extended leave for several years and reassigned
to the Royal Horse Guards. During this period he wrote Brideshead
Revisited. He was recalled for a military/diplomatic mission to
Yugoslavia in 1944 at the request of his old friend Randolph Churchill.
He and Churchill narrowly escaped capture/death when the Germans
undertook Operation Rösselsprung, and paratroops and glider
borne storm troops attacked the Partisan headquarters where they
were staying. An outcome was a formidable report detailing Tito's
persecution of the clergy. It was "buried" by Foreign
Secretary Anthony Eden as being largely irrelevant.
of Waugh's war experience is reflected in the Sword of Honour
trilogy. His trilogy, along with his other work after the 1930's,
became some of the best books written about World War II. Many
of his portraits are unforgettable, and often show striking resemblances
to noted real personalities. Many feel that the fire eating officer
in the Sword of Honour trilogy, Brig. Ben Ritchie-Hook, was based
on Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton De Wiart, V.C., a friend
of the author's father-in-law. Waugh was familiar with Carton
De Wiart through the club to which he belonged. The fictional
commando leader, Tommy Blackhouse, is based on Major-General Sir
Robert Laycock, a real-life commando leader and friend of Waugh's.
The period after the war saw Waugh living with his family in the
West Country at his country homes, Piers Court, and from 1956
onwards, at Combe Florey in Somerset, where he lived as a country
squire. He bequeathed the latter to his son, the writer and journalist
Auberon Waugh. He made his living through writing and became a
self-parodying reactionary figure. He was bitterly disappointed
when the Roman Catholic Church, which he in part loved for what
he perceived as its timelessness, began to adopt modern vernacular
liturgy and other changes.
of Waugh's best-loved and best-known novels come from this period.
Brideshead Revisted (1945), is a brilliant evocation of a vanished
pre-War England. Waugh revised the novel in the late 'fifties
because he found parts of it 'distasteful on a full stomach' by
which he meant that he wrote the novel during the grey privations
of the latter war years (though his Diaries reveal that he made
plenty of wartime visits to his club and to the Ritz for champagne
and amusement). He described the novel as being about the effect
of the grace of God on a diverse group of people. At the same
time it was an elegy to an England he believed was being destroyed
partially retracted this view in his preface to the revised Brideshead;
he said he didn't foresee when he wrote it, the 'cult of the English
country house' which grew up after the war; after admitting this
he concluded that in some ways the novel was 'a panygeric preached
over an empty coffin'. Brideshead is a distinct halfway mark in
Waugh's career. Though his work had become darker and more Catholic
from the second half of Vile Bodies onwards, Brideshead represents
the beginning of a more serious and middle-aged period for Waugh:
when it was published he said he felt it to be 'his first real
divides critics and writers. Anthony Burgess said he was seduced
by it and that he'd read it a dozen times and had 'never failed
to be charmed or moved'; he also praised it for its 'superb comedy'
(we might speculate that Burgess, being a Catholic, was more open
to the book). On the other hand Kingsley Amis (whose Lucky Jim
twits Waugh within its pages and, in Jim Dixon, gives an answering
voice to the despised Hooper in Brideshead) condemned the book
with 'there are few things I detest more than Roman Catholic baronial
snobbery'. (Interestingly, Amis became Waugh-like as he grew older,
taking a reactionary stance to modern life.
also calls Waugh a very rude name in his letters and says that
Waugh only ever wrote one good book: Decline and Fall.) The Australian
critic Robert Hughes called it 'the only vulgar novel Waugh ever
wrote'. The American critic Edmund Wilson had similar distaste
for Brideshead and the works that followed. The objections are
legitimate but are directed almost entirely at the novel's politically
Conservative and religiously Catholic content; judged as a piece
of fiction, it is a great production by one of the best prose
stylists in English.
Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) is amazing for its dispassionate
recounting of the hero's steady descent into madness - the experience
was actually Waugh's own, the result of taking medication which
induced a bout of severe paranoia on a sea-voyage to Ceylon (Sri
Lanka). Less successful was Helena, (1953), a fictional account
of the Empress Helena and the finding of the True Cross. Waugh
regarded this novel as his best work, a verdict which few others
have ever shared.
Waugh put on a lot of weight, and the sleeping pills he took,
combined with a heavy intake of alcohol, cigars and little exercise,
weakened his health. His writing productivity gradually ran down,
and there was a very noticeable falling off in the quality of
what fiction he did write (his last published work, Basil Seal
Rides Again, taking up some of the characters from his very earliest
satirical works, fails to reach any dramatic climax). At the same
time, he continued to produce valuable journalism, where the demands
of sustained construction were less severe; and his power of delivering
fearsome insults remained intact.
hearing that Randolph Churchill had had a non-malignant tumour
removed, Waugh complained: "It was a typical triumph of modern
science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant
and remove it." His duties as paterfamilias brought him little
pleasure: "My unhealthy affection for my second daughter
has waned. Now I despise all my seven children equally."
died, aged 62, on 10 April 1966, on returning home from Mass on
Easter Sunday. His estate at probate was valued at £20,068.
This did not include the value of his lucrative copyrights, which
Waugh put in a trust for his children. He is buried at Combe Florey,
better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries
and will not publicly eat human flesh uncooked in Lent, without
special and costly dispensation from their bishop."
is a species of person called a "Modern Churchman" who
draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit
himself to any religious belief."
human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors;
it is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish."