Evelyn Waugh 1903–-1966
(Full name Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh) English novelist, short story writer, travel writer, essayist, poet, critic, biographer, and journalist. See also Evelyn Waugh Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 3, 8, 13, 107.
Evelyn Waugh is considered by many scholars to be one of the most talented and significant British writers of the twentieth century. Waugh is primarily known for his novels such as Brideshead Revisited and The Loved One, but also earned acclaim for his short stories. Waugh's novella, Decline and Fall, is his best-known work of short fiction.
Waugh was born in 1903 in Hampstead, London, to a literary family. His father, Arthur, was an editor and publisher; his older brother, Alec, also became a novelist. Waugh began attending Oxford in 1921 and started writing stories for literary magazines. The author, however, was forced to leave Oxford in 1924 without earning a degree. Following his departure from Oxford, Waugh taught briefly in private schools and also worked for awhile as a journalist for the Daily Express. In 1928, Waugh married Evelyn Gardener. During the same year, he also published a biography of the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, as well as his novella, Decline and Fall, which marked the beginning of his career as a writer. In 1930 Waugh divorced his wife, traveled to Africa, and published his novel Vile Bodies, which earned critical acclaim. Waugh's extensive travels are reflected in some of his novels, including Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust, and Scoop. In 1936 Waugh received the Hawthornden Prize for his biography of the Elizabethan Jesuit martyr, Edmund Campion. By the early 1940s, Waugh had earned the reputation as one of the most respected satirists of his age. Shortly after the start of World War II, Waugh enlisted in the Royal Marines. Waugh continued writing during and after the war, but his works grew increasingly somber and reflected his increasing sense of despair about the decay of the modern world. Waugh's most famous and controversial work, Brideshead Revisited, which is about the decadence of a wealthy Catholic family during the 1920s, was published in 1945 and earned great critical acclaim. While on a voyage to Ceylon in 1954 he suffered a mental breakdown, which is detailed in his semi-autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Waugh died in 1966 following a sudden heart attack at the age of 63.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Waugh's first collection of stories, Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories, was published in 1936. The title story—a witty tale with elements of the grotesque—is about an elderly asylum inmate who is released by a social reformer. Throughout the story, Waugh uses satire and black humor to mock pretensions of social scientists and experimenters. Waugh's satirical touch also is reflected throughout other stories in the volume. The stories include “Bella Fleace Gave a Party,” which is about an elderly aristocrat who throws an elaborate Christmas party that no one attends, and “Winner Takes All,” which deals with the misfortunes of a young man who is always overlooked due to favoritism shown to his elder brother. Waugh's next volume of short stories, Work Suspended, and Other Stories Written Before the Second World War, was most likely published for financial rather than artistic reasons. The collection includes seven stories that appeared in Mr. Loveday, “An Englishman's Home,” as well as the title story—a fragment of an unfinished novel. Many of these stories reappeared again in Tactical Exercise and in the 1982 collection Charles Ryder's Schooldays, and Other Stories. In 1998 all of Waugh's thirty-nine stories were issued in one volume.
In addition to short stories, Waugh also penned three novellas, Decline and Fall: An Illustrated Novelette, Scott-King's Modern Europe, and Love Among the Ruins. Decline and Fall, the story of a young innocent dismissed from Oxford, contains a similar brand of satire used in his early stories. Scott-King's Modern Europe is a satirical fable about a middle-aged classics master who clings to forgotten values in the postwar world of Neutralia. Love Among the Ruins, which details disappointments in the life of Miles Plastic, is a harsh attack against state interference in people's personal lives in the postwar world.
During his lifetime Waugh's short stories enjoyed a measure of commercial and critical success. Contemporary reviewers admired the style and wit of his stories, but many considered his short works to be minor efforts from the pen of a great novelist. Some later critics dismissed the stories as insignificant. Waugh's biographer, Christopher Sykes, for example, considered them an unimportant literary feature in the author's life. Others consider the stories insightful because they anticipate themes and ideas developed in his longer fiction. Waugh's stories continue to be praised by readers for their cleverness, stylistic elegance, and ability to entertain. Waugh's novellas, however, have enjoyed more sustained critical attention. Decline and Fall is considered Waugh's first serious literary work. The work continues to elicit interest from scholars for the insight it provides into Waugh's development as an artist and for its literary merit. Some reviewers criticized Waugh's postwar novellas for their sharp satire. Novelist George Orwell, for example, found Scott-King's Modern Europe “lacking the touch of affection that political satire ought to have.” These late novellas are not considered Waugh's best works, but are noted for their dystopian quality and biting criticism of the corruption, decay, and moral and intellectual sterility of postwar Europe.