Evelyn Waugh

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The reputation of Evelyn Waugh as a major literary artist continues to grow. The wildly inventive comic novels and the more heartfelt fiction of his later years have been established as landmarks of twentieth century English literature. Waugh’s importance will be further enhanced by this excellent study of the life of the artist.

The major accomplishment of the work is that it lays to rest the vision of Waugh as an improbable clown, turning out witty but shallow satires. Waugh insisted that he was not a writer of satire, because satire could only flourish “in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous moral standards.” He maintained, rather, that he was creating “little independent systems of order of his own.” This serious purpose in the creation of his fiction has often been ignored, partially because of the similarities of the works to the light comedy of such writers as Ronald Firbank and P. G. Wodehouse, but also because of Waugh’s own deliberate transformation in his later years into an eccentric Colonel Blimp-like character. Stannard’s biography uncovers the depths in the man. Here, Waugh emerges as a man possessed by a monklike devotion to his craft while driven by a revulsion to the isolated act of writing into the bright whirl of society, a world where he could never be at home, for he loathed everything modern that that social banquet offered.

Stannard begins with a discussion of Waugh’s ancestry and of his early childhood days and complicated relationship to his parents. His mother represented devotion, care, and predictability. Arthur Waugh on the other hand, was often histrionic, devoted to the publishing business of Chapman and Hall and absorbed in cricket and the manly world it represented. In short, he was the embodiment of those qualities of the upper-middle-class Edwardian gentleman that Waugh came to loathe. The young Evelyn felt isolated when sent to school at Lancing College, an establishment he viewed as inferior and somehow demeaning. He never shook this sense of social stigma, but these early school days did provide him with the models of two different ways of life that would dominate his later years.

During his years at Lancing he came under the influence of Francis Crease and J. F. Roxburgh. In his autobiography, A Little Learning (1964), Waugh states that these two men were his “mentors,” and they stood for the widely divergent lives of the isolated aesthetic craftsman and the flamboyantly extroverted man of the world. Francis Crease lived near Lancing and worked as an illustrator and book designer. In 1919, the young Evelyn had won first prize in the school’s art exhibition for an illustrated missal. As a result of this demonstrated talent, Evelyn became a pupil of Crease, and a friendship developed between the older, delicate, and artistic man and the isolated schoolboy. From Crease, Evelyn received a profound lesson in the essential nature of craft and design, structure and form. For the rest of his life, Waugh insisted that structure defined true art.

At about the same time as the lessons with Crease began, J. F. Roxburgh returned to the school with a distinguished war record. Roxburgh and his personality dominated Lancing. He was a classical scholar of impeccable taste—elegant, refined, worldly. Waugh came to appreciate Roxburgh’s outgoing personality and individual charm. He began to create a “personality” for himself—disdainful, sharp, critical. These two figures and what they represented drove Waugh along contradictory paths.

Waugh’s Oxford years, from 1922 to 1924, were not years of intense scholarly endeavor. In fact, his tutor at Oxford, C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, became his nemesis and in later years was pilloried in novel after novel, as a succession of unpleasant characters appeared under the name of Cruttwell. As Stannard notes, at Oxford Waugh again faced the prospect of two ways of life, neither of them concerned with the traditional pursuit of learning. One side of his nature tempted him to make the best use of his “faun-like appearance” and become a wise clown, amusing his friends and annoying the authorities. The other side of him sought to become the serious artist, respected by friends and the Oxford world at large for his genius and craft. Close friendships with men such as Sir Harold Acton, Henry Yorke, and Brian Howard developed his aesthetic sense and gave him an abiding respect for the artistic life.

Leaving Oxford behind him after years of revelry and further artistic refinement, Waugh found himself unsure of his purpose, unclear as to his future. The years after Oxford were filled with failures as a schoolmaster and a socialite, even a failure at suicide. Waugh lacked concern for the majority of his pupils, lacked the resources for a life in society, and even lacked the determination to end it all when his attempt to drown himself was foiled by a school of jellyfish. Waugh later stated that he turned to writing reluctantly because he was a failure at everything else.

Having met and become entranced with a young woman named Evelyn Gardner, Waugh married her. He and his wife (“He-Evelyn” and “She-Evelyn”) shone as stars in the world of the Bright Young People who dominated the London panorama—beautiful,...

(The entire section is 2161 words.)