From the 1940’s until his death in 1966, Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh (waw) served as bête noire for left-wing critics on both sides of the Atlantic, a role he seemed to enjoy. He was born in London on October 28, 1903, the second son of Arthur Waugh, author and managing director of the publishing firm of Chapman and Hall, and Catherine Charlotte Raban. Evelyn’s father and brother, Alec, had attended Sherborne School, but Alec had been expelled and shortly thereafter published The Loom of Youth (1917), a sensational exposé of public school life. Sherborne was thus out of the question for Evelyn, so he attended Lancing College before going up to Oxford University.
In 1925 Waugh left Hertford College, Oxford, with a modest third-class degree in history. As a young man whose father and elder brother were firmly established as professional writers and editors, he might have been thought a natural candidate for a literary career himself. Instead, he tried several fields first—including art, to which he was strongly attracted—before turning to letters. He served brief tenures as a schoolmaster at two obscure public schools. The experience was a profoundly unhappy one, which led to Waugh’s attempted suicide by drowning, yet it also furnished the material for his first novel. In the autumn of 1927, Waugh met Evelyn Gardner. The two were soon married, and Waugh’s literary career was launched with two books: Rossetti, a commercial failure published in 1928, and Decline and Fall, a critical and commercial success appearing the same year. Decline and Fall is a madcap satire in the style of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), with an ironic depiction of Oxford, spurious and neurotic schoolmasters, and the penal system (which Waugh likens to an English public school).
In 1930 his Vile Bodies satirized the Bright Young People, the English equivalent of flappers in the United States. This novel, like his first, was wildly funny, and he had found his audience. In contrast, his personal life was in ruins—just as he achieved literary success, his wife of fewer than two years deserted him for another man. That he peppered his novels with faithless young wives for the rest of his career testifies to the depth of his bitterness. In 1929 he had begun traveling in the Mediterranean with his wife. After his divorce, he traveled incessantly for three years—in Abyssinia, Africa, and South America. The results of this compulsive peregrination were the travel books Labels, Remote People, and Ninety-two Days as well as considerable raw material for future novels.
Waugh’s third novel, Black Mischief, appeared in 1932. It is certainly a satire of British...
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