Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939 Analysis

Martin Stannard

Evelyn Waugh

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.)

Evelyn Waugh

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In a preface to the first volume of this intricately researched two-volume biography, Martin Stannard claims he is attempting “something which no other biographical study of Waugh has done: to forge a relationship between the crucial events of Waugh’s life and his developing aesthetic.” Certainly Stannard, a lecturer in English at the University of Leicester and editor of a collection of critical essays on Evelyn Waugh (Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage, 1984) offers insights into Waugh’s “developing aesthetic.” Among the many valuable things this biography provides is a rich context for Waugh’s writings that can help readers to a fuller appreciation of his work, especially of such novels as A Handful of Dust (1934), Brideshead Revisited (1945), and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). Another attraction of this biography is the glimpses it affords of the many well-known people who were in Waugh’s circle—Graham Greene, Henry Yorke, Ian and Ann Fleming, Nancy Mitford, Lady Diana Cooper, and a number of other luminaries. What is most likely to engage readers of this volume is not the “developing aesthetic” mentioned by Stannard but rather the developing portrait of the artist as obnoxious human being—or is the sometimes truly odious person who emerges from these pages merely (as some have claimed) another of Waugh’s masks adopted for self-protection, or perhaps out of boredom? The only certainty is that Stannard has produced a complex and controversial study of one of the twentieth century’s masters of English prose. As biography, it is of the kind known as exhaustive; it is also of the kind known as unauthorized and is in fact regarded by Waugh’s son Auberon as offensive to his father’s memory.

Two authorized biographies exist. Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist, published by Frederick J. Stopp in 1958, is too early to be comprehensive. The second, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1975), written by Waugh’s friend Christopher Sykes, is also partial in several senses. As an intimate friend, Sykes was unable or unwilling to take a candid picture of his famous subject, and his book has been criticized therefore as being inaccurate. In addition, the sheer quantity of research materials has increased greatly since Sykes’s writing. Even if Sykes had wished to write the kind of carefully researched biography that Stannard has produced, he would have been unable to do so. Waugh increasingly withdrew from the world, refusing to answer his telephone and conducting his friendships and his life through correspondence. As Waugh’s friends have published their own letters, diaries, memoirs, and biographies, a wealth of material has become available. Stannard has been able to draw on these materials as well as on the large number of unpublished sources to produce this doubtlessly definitive biography.

Stannard’s first volume, Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939 (1986), covered Waugh’s upper-middle-class childhood, his career as rebel and aesthete at Oxford, his early literary successes (as biographer, novelist, and travel writer), his brief and disastrous marriage to Evelyn Gardner, his conversion to Catholicism, his second marriage to Laura Herbert, and throughout it all, his shameless social climbing and snobbery. The second volume begins with Waugh at the age of thirty-six, an aging although idealistic volunteer officer-trainee in the Royal Marines during World War II, determined to repulse the barbarians at the gates in order to conserve the best of Western civilization: monarchy, aristocracy, and the authoritarianism of a privileged (mainly Catholic) elite. He soon realized that he was not cut out to be a soldier, the barbarians were inside the gates, and the “cause” for which he fought was something other than what he thought. In fact, the end of the war ushered in all that Waugh abhorred—democracy, socialism, and the age of the common man, for him a new dark age.

According to Stannard, Waugh’s political views...

(The entire section is 1653 words.)

Evelyn Waugh

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The past decade has witnessed important developments in Waugh scholarship: the publication of Waugh’s diaries in 1976 and a large selection of his letters in 1980; the completion of the catalog for the Waugh archive at the University of Texas in 1981; and the discovery of the manuscript of VILE BODIES in 1984. Stannard’s definitive life, the first volume just published and the second scheduled to appear in 1988, marks another important contribution to the understanding of a brilliant but often-enigmatic author.

Stannard’s detailed study of Waugh’s early years reveals a man constantly at odds with his world and, at times, with himself. Born into a solidly middle-class family, Waugh sought admission to...

(The entire section is 390 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIII, March 15, 1987, p. 1089.

Chicago Tribune. September 20, 1992, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 11, 1992, p. 12.

Commonweal. CXIX, August 14, 1992, p. 32.

Commonweal. CXIV, October 23, 1987, p. 602.

Contemporary Review. CCXLIX, November 1986, p. 278.

Library Journal. CXII, April 1, 1987, p. 150.

London Review of Books. VIII, December 4, 1986, p. 14.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 27, 1992, p. 3.

National Review....

(The entire section is 110 words.)