Evelyn Waugh (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The publication of Selina Hastings’ compendious biography of Evelyn Waugh, a venture that enjoyed the full cooperation of Waugh’s son Auberon, who regarded Martin Stannard’s two-volume (1987-1992) life as “offensive” to his father’s memory, is a reminder of the perils involved in declaring any biographical project “definitive.” While not challenging Stannard’s conclusions or pointedly offering a revisionist position with respect to the numerous incidents in life and letters that have established the public perception of Waugh as a gifted but unpleasant person, Hastings has widened and deepened the picture so that it is less easy to dismiss Waugh as a talented monster. Stating that her aim was “to give as close an impression as possible of what it was like to know Evelyn Waugh”—the reasonable aim of any competent biographer—Hastings goes further, with authoritative confidence, to say that her true goal is to convey “even something of what it was like to be Evelyn Waugh.” To operate in this close proximity to the soul and sensibility of any artist requires at least respect, if not affection (or even love) for the subject. Thus Hastings places herself in diametric opposition to the horde of biographers (or pathographers, in Joyce Carol Oates’s salient formation) in recent times who gleefully unearth information or rumor that belittles or debases figures once admired. Stannard had no intention of insulting Waugh, but his presentation...
(The entire section is 1963 words.)
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Evelyn Waugh (Magill Book Reviews)
Although he has been widely respected as one of the most penetrating satirists of the twentieth century, Evelyn Waugh’s public image as a reactionary curmudgeon, uncaring father and drunken sot has tended to deflect attention from his complex character and from his serious commitment to his craft. Appearing shortly after the two-volume life (published in 1987 and 1992) by Martin Stannard, which many critics assumed would be the definitive work, Hastings’ biography does not dispute Stannard’s depiction of Waugh as an often unpleasant person but alters the picture to add important dimensions to a serious artist and complex human being.
Hastings, the biographer of Nancy Mitford (one of Waugh’s closest friends), uses her impressive understanding of British social life during the first half of the twentieth century to create a living context in which Waugh developed as a writer. Tracing his life from an almost idyllic childhood in the protected sanctuary of an upper-middle-class family secure in the comforts and certainty of Edwardian England, and then on to Oxford, where Waugh discovered the attractions of the company of very wealthy, titled, often vacuous young men, Hastings shows Waugh becoming enamored with the upper reaches of British social strata. Waugh’s compulsive fascination with power and privilege leading to the construction of a public persona of supercilious wit which resulted in his uneasy relationship with those who thought him “not...
(The entire section is 532 words.)