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 produced a portrait of “the artist as obnoxious human being,” as the critic Karen Kildahl observes, and he is often impatient or condemnatory, as John Banville points out. Hastings has been able to show why Waugh behaved as he did, by expertly re-creating the social milieu in which he often felt awkward or out of place; without excusing his frequent displays of disagreeable behavior, she is also able to reveal the complexity of the psychological process that produced these strategies of self-protection.
Her basic method is to develop, through a masterful control of relevant data, the social, political and cultural circumstances of Waugh’s world. With complete access to the Waugh family papers, including the journals, notes, and letters of both of Waugh’s parents, her description of the turn-of-the-century life of the professional class that carried out the operations of the mighty British Empire becomes a vision of an idyllic childhood—a view of a relatively comfortable, satisfying existence with nannies, governesses, parties, foreign travel, amateur theatricals, and many other pleasures of an unreflective bourgeois life. Hastings has covered this ground before in her solid biography of Nancy Mitford (1986), and she is so at home here that her writing seems more like an account of an unfolding tableau in the present than a recollection of another era.
The Waughs’ pattern of living, while dependent on the income that Arthur Waugh earned as a bookman, suited everyone—except Evelyn, who from the time he became aware of another, higher level of social discourse in prep school felt himself estranged from everything that was familiar (except his mother’s unqualified love and support). Gifted (or afflicted) with a genius for language, an unsettling self-awareness and instinctive aspirations to monarchical or hierarchical privilege, Waugh was jolted by his initial contact with members of the real ruling class at public school and then at Oxford University. Thereafter he was tormented by his affinity for many of their modes of socializing, since he was generally rejected as “not quite a gentleman . . . not quite,” if tolerated as an amusing, witty guest in great houses. While harboring the notion that he should have been born of royalty and recognized as nobility, his disdain for the vacuity of moneyed oafs obviously his inferiors in artistic sensitivity worked toward the formulation of his singular satiric perspective. He suffered an agony of frustration over his struggles to earn a living as a working journalist. His excessive drinking begun at Oxford and continued intermittently through his life, his youthful hyper-romantic, fundamentally narcissistic liaisons with young men, and his acidic dismissal of the myriad poseurs who earned his scorn were aspects of the public persona that contributed to the view Stannard presents of Waugh as a “brilliant but awkward, isolated, and neurotic man . . . dispossessed, alienated.” Hastings does not dispute this characterization, but convincingly argues that there was more to the man.
As Banville, literary editor of The Irish Times, explains, Hastings brings “an almost maternal considerateness” to her investigation, appreciating (as other women friends did) Waugh’s delightful verbal dexterity, youthful enthusiasms, precocious exhibitions of...
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