Evelyn Waugh Waugh, Evelyn - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Decline and Fall: An Illustrated Novelette 1928

Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories 1936

Scott-King's Modern Europe (novella) 1947

Love Among the Ruins (novella) 1953

Tactical Exercise 1954

Charles Ryder's Schooldays, and Other Stories 1982

The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh 1998

The World to Come (poetry) 1916

Rossetti: His Life and Works (biography/criticism) 1928

Vile Bodies (novel) 1930

Black Mischief (novel) 1932

A Handful of Dust (novel) 1934

Ninety-Two Days: An Account of a Tropical Journey Through British Guiana and Part of Brazil 1934

Edmund Campion (biography) 1935

Waugh in Abyssinia (travel essay) 1936

Scoop (novel) 1938

Put Out More Flags (novel) 1942

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (novel) 1945

The Loved One (novel) 1948

Helena (novel) 1950

Men at Arms (novel) 1952

Officers and Gentlemen (novel) 1955

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (novel) 1957

The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox (nonfiction) 1959

A Tourist in Africa (travel essay) 1960

Unconditional Surrender (novel) 1961

Basil Seal Rides Again; or, The Rake's Regress (novel) 1963

A Little Learning (autobiography) 1964

Sword of Honour (trilogy of novels) 1965

A Little Order: A Selection from His Journalism [edited by Donat Gallagher] 1977

The Letters of Evelyn Waugh [edited by Mark Amory] 1980

George Orwell (review date 1949)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Review of ‘Scott-King's Modern Europe,’” in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 1, No. 25, February 20, 1949, pp. 1, 25.

[In the following review of Scott-King's Modern Europe, Orwell argues that Waugh's work is conservative in outlook and lacks necessary elements of political satire.]

Mr. Evelyn Waugh's recent book, The Loved One, was an attack, and by no means a good-natured attack, on American civilization, but in Scott-King's Modern Europe he shows himself willing to handle his native Continent with at least equal rudeness. America worships corpses but Europe mass-produces them, is what he seems to be saying. The two books are indeed in some sense complementary to one another, though Scott-King's Modern Europe is less obviously brilliant than the other.

The book has a general resemblance to Candide, and is perhaps even intended to be a modern counterpart of Candide, with the significant difference that the hero is middle-aged at the start. Nowadays, it is implied, only the middle-aged have scruples or ideals; the young are born hard-boiled. Scott-King, age about 43, ‘slightly bald and slightly corpulent,’ is senior classics master at Granchester, a respectable but not fashionable public school. A dusty, unhonored figure, a praiser of the past, a lover of exact scholarship, he fights a steadily losing battle against what he regards as the debasement of modern education.

‘Dim,’ we are told, is the epithet that describes him. His hobby is the study of a poet even dimmer than himself, a certain Bellorius, who flourished in the seventeenth century in what was then a province of the Habsburg Empire and is now the independent republic of Neutralia.

In an evil hour Scott-King receives an invitation to visit Neutralia, which is celebrating the tercentenary of the death of Bellorius. It is the wet summer of 1946—a summer of austerity—and Scott-King envisions garlicky meals and flasks of red wine. He succumbs to the invitation, although half aware that it is probably a swindle of some kind.

At this point any experienced reader of Waugh's works would predict unpleasant adventures for Scott-King and he would be right. Neutralia, a compound of Yugoslavia and Greece, is ruled over by a ‘Marshal,’ and there is the usual police espionage, banditry, ceremonial banquets and speeches about Youth and Progress. The commemoration of Bellorius is in fact an...

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Munro Beattie (review date 1955)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Tactical Exercise, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XXXV, No. 42, May, 1955, p. 44.

[In the following review of Tactical Exercise, Beattie calls the volume “minor Waugh,” arguing that many of the stories have gimmicky surprise endings. Nevertheless, Beattie concedes the tales are witty and entertaining.]

This collection of stories and sketches is chronologically arranged. The first story Evelyn Waugh wrote when he was aged 7 years 1 month. It need never have been published; the Daisy Ashford aspect of Waugh we might at least have been spared. The other stories, which appeared originally between 1932 and 1953, are all amusing in diverse...

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Frederick J. Stopp (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Four More Entertainments, 1942–1953,” in Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist, Chapman & Hall LTD, 1958, pp. 136–42, 152–57.

[In the following excerpt, Stopp discusses Scott-King's Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins, which he finds to be sad but humorous, and lacking in brutality or sentimentalism.]

Scott-King's Modern Europe is a sad little story, finely wrought and economical in its effects, but sad. Superficially it owed its origin to a visit to Spain, where Mr Waugh joined in the celebrations in the summer of 1945 for the tercentenary of Vittoria, at Salamanca, and had his first experience of the machinery of official...

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James F. Carens (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Africa, Europe, and the Dreary Future,” in The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh, University of Washington Press, 1966, pp. 148–56.

[In the following excerpt, Carens examines the postwar novellas Scott-King's Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins, noting their bleak pessimism and defeatist sentiments.]

Two grim, short political satires with none of Scoop's ebullience or consolation—Scott-King's Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins—followed the Second World War. The first of these recounts the visit of Scott-King, Classical Master at Granchester for twenty-one years, to a mythical totalitarian state called Neutralia....

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Christopher Hollis (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: In an introduction to Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh, Heinemann Educational Books LTD, 1966, pp. ix–xx.

[In the following introduction to Decline and Fall, Hollis places the novella in the context of Waugh's life and writings.]

The younger generation came in his last years to think of Evelyn Waugh as the very symbol of reaction. He appeared to them as a champion of a vanishing order, of whose survival he despaired. He wrote about peers and county families. He jeered at the crudities of Hoopers of lowly birth or of transatlantic adventurers like Rex Mottram who had invaded and annexed for themselves the privileges of British life. All foreigners were...

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Christopher Sykes (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: In Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, Little, Brown and Company, 1975, pp. 78–82, 162–64.

[In the following excerpt from his biography of Waugh, Sykes discusses Waugh's short stories as well as Mr. Loveday's Outing and Other Sad Stories, which Sykes believes is “not an important feature in Evelyn's literary life.”]

[Waugh's] earliest work had not only shown little promise but no firm indication of what sort of writer, if a writer at all, he was likely to become. The greatest literary critic imaginable would be unable to identify from the text alone the authorship of Anthony Who Sought The Things That Were Lost as that of Evelyn Waugh. The only...

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Alain Blayac (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Bella Fleace Gave a Party’ or, The Archetypal Image of Waugh's Sense of Decay,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 69–73.

[In the following essay, Blayac argues that as a metaphor for changing social conditions “Bella Fleace Gave a Party” ranks among Waugh's best works of short fiction.]

In his somewhat controversial biography of Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Sykes tentatively discards some of the writer's early novels as uneven and immature;1 he is even more censorious of the short stories which, except for “Mr. Loveday's Little Outing” and “Period Piece,” he repeatedly finds fault with.2...

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Robert Murray Davis (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: In Evelyn Waugh, Writer, Pilgrim Books, Inc., 1981, pp. 32–9, 70–2.

[In the following excerpt, Davis compares and contrasts Waugh's early short fiction, exploring his techniques and influences.]

Waugh's undergraduate fiction, except for “Anthony: Who Sought Things That Were Lost,” was written in first person and consisted largely of parochial anecdotes. “The Balance,” sub-titled “A Yarn of the Good Old Days of Broad Trousers and High Necked Jumpers,” shows him working toward but not entirely trusting a technique by which he could present as objectively as possible his own subjective reactions and thus transmute autobiography into fiction. From...

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Frances Donaldson (review date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Old Young Waugh,” in The New York Times, November 14, 1982, p. 25.

[In the following review of Charles Ryder's School Days and Other Stories, Donaldson states that while the collection is of mixed quality, “Mr. Loveday's Little Outing,” and “Bella Fleace Gives a Party” deserve praise.]

There is a story told by Max Beerbohm of how, on his way to his club to find a review that contained a new story by Henry James, he ran into the great man himself. James asked him to accompany him to some art exhibition and instinctively Beerbohm refused. Trying to decide afterwards why he had done so, he came to the conclusion that even for the company of the...

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Anatole Broyard (review date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Books of the Times,” in The New York Times, November 22, 1982, p. 16.

[In the following review of Charles Ryder's Schooldays and Other Stories, Broyard finds the work completely without merit.]

With the exception of Put Out More Flags, I think I've liked all of Evelyn Waugh's fiction, and so it saddens me to report that Charles Ryder's School Days and Other Stories, most of which were published in a limited edition in 1936, is not very good.

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the difference between Waugh at his best and worst is the piece called “By Special Request,” which is an alternative ending to A...

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Robert Murray Davis (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Waugh Reshapes ‘Period Piece,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1984, pp. 65–8.

[In the following essay, Davis argues that a comparison of the original typescript and the final version of Waugh's frame story “Period Piece” reveals that his revisions, extended the story and added depth and resonance to it.]

Evelyn Waugh's story “Period Piece” is one of his most complex in narrative method—it uses a frame tale, a narratee, and a literary and social context in which the most cynical narrative and social monstrosities are accepted as the norm—and one of his most interesting thematically, for it anticipates by a quarter of...

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Jerome Meckier (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evelyn Waugh's ‘Ryder by Gaslight’: A Postmortem,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 399–409.

[In the following essay, Meckier posits that, although “Ryder by Gaslight” is well-written, Waugh was correct not to publish it.]

Truly posthumous writings, by the author himself, raise different questions than writings about him issued after his death.1 One could ask, for example, which, if any, of the strictly posthumous materials—letters, diaries, and a chapter of Charles Ryder's Schooldays—did Waugh wish succeeding generations to see?2 “Ryder by Gaslight” poses...

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Martin Stannard (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: In Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903–1939, W. W. Norton & Company, 1986, pp. 114–19, 296–99, 344–49.

[In the following excerpt, Stannard discusses some of the short stories as they relate to Waugh's development as a writer and his career as a novelist.]

The ‘novel’ which had begun as a ‘cinema film’ was knocked into shape as a long, avant-garde short story. ‘I have finished my story’, [Waugh] noted on 26th August, ‘which I have called “The Balance” and took it to be typed. It is odd but, I think, quite good.’1 Christopher Sykes states that it was, in fact, rather bad. That is unfair. The tale, of course, lacks...

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Katharyn W. Crabbe (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Decline and Fall,” in Evelyn Waugh, Continuum, 1988, pp. 25–36.

[In the following excerpt, Crabbe praises Decline and Fall as hysterically funny and very appealing, while exploring the depth and complexity of Waugh's plot and structure.]

Decline and Fall, Waugh's first novel, is for those who love farce, one of the funniest of English novels. The constant appearance, disappearance, and reappearance in another identity of the characters puts one immediately in mind of the opening and closing doors and the circular structures of plot that characterize farce. Although Waugh's approach is often oblique and ironic rather than straightforward and...

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Robert Murray Davis (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Failure of Imagination: Waugh's School Stories,” in Evelyn Waugh and the Forms of His Time, edited by Virgil Nemoianu, The Catholic University of American Press, 1989, pp. 178–88.

[In the following excerpt, Davis examines an untitled early fragment of a story and “Charles Ryder's Schooldays” in an attempt to discern the autobiographical nature of Waugh's stories.]

The publication of Evelyn Waugh's biography, diaries, letters, and collected journalism over the past ten years had confirmed without much altering the suspicion of earlier readers that there is in his novels a very clear and at the same time uneasy relationship between what he lived...

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Robert R. Garrett (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Decline and Fall: ‘Grimes, You Wretch!’” in From Grimes to Brideshead: The Early Novels of Evelyn Waugh, Bucknell University Press, 1990, pp. 37–57.

[In the following excerpt, Garrett explores the nature of the humor in Decline and Fall, praising Waugh's use of language and narrative structure.]

In September 1927, staying with his parents at Underhill and still working on Rossetti, Waugh observed in his diary: “How I detest this house and how ill I feel in it. The whole place volleys and thunders with traffic. I can't sleep or work. I … have begun on a comic novel.”1 Sometime later he read the first ten thousand words...

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Frederick L. Beaty (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Decline and Fall,” in The Ironic World of Evelyn Waugh: A Study of Eight Novels, Northern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. 32–51.

[In the following essay, Beaty analyzes the ironic tone of Decline and Fall.]

For Decline and Fall, in manuscript subtitled “The Making of an Englishman,” Waugh invents a complex of shocking disparities through which to demonstrate the reeducation of his central character, Paul Pennyfeather, whose initial beliefs about the world are shattered by his experiential discoveries of its actual nature. The series of riotous picaresque adventures that strip away Paul's illusions about honor, love, society, education,...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Hastings, Selina. Evelyn Waugh. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994, 723 p.

Regarded as one of the most reliable and factually accurate biographies about Waugh.


McCartney, George. Confused Roaring: Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. 191 p.

Consideration of Waugh's interest in modernism, along with discussions about Waugh's novellas and short stories.

Stannard, Martin. Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years (1903–1939). New York: Norton, 1986. 330 p.

Includes discussions of...

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