Evelyn (Arthur St. John) Waugh 1903–1966
English novelist, short story writer, travel writer, essayist, critic, biographer, journalist, and poet.
Evelyn Waugh has been called one of the greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century for his novels of social satire on the failures of modern society. Although probably best known for Brideshead Revisited (1945), and most highly praised for A Handful of Dust (1934), Waugh also produced a substantial body of influential writing in other genres.
Waugh came from a literary family which included his father, editor-publisher Arthur; his brother, novelist Alec; and later, two of his own children, writers Auberon and Harriet. As an indifferent student at Oxford, Waugh became involved in the fast-paced, fashionably decadent world of the "Bright Young Things" (the rich young "flappers" of Britain). He eventually satirized his experiences at Oxford in Vile Bodies (1930). That book followed Decline and Fall (1928), an attack on the corrupt modern world which victimizes the innocents who live in it. Decline and Fall exemplifies Waugh's steadfast reaction against institutions which were fraudulent or abused power. This early work, the chief characteristic of which was farce, introduced some of his important themes, one of them being a desire to return to a past that he considered morally superior to the present.
Many of Waugh's ideas concerning betrayal and morality seemed to be the result of the dissolution of his first marriage. Another important influence on his writing was his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism in his search for stability and refuge from the secular world he found so distasteful. Among his so-called "Catholic novels," was his greatest commercial success, Brideshead Revisited, a novel about moral decay, religious conviction, nostalgia, and the British aristocracy. Much of the significance of Brideshead has been credited to Waugh's new direction in his writing, particularly in the more optimistic religious overtones. Although some critics praised the novel as his greatest success, others condemn it for its ponderous and sentimental writing. Some point out that the plot does not meld well with the theology and that the religious message is lost. The lushness and the romanticism which attracted many readers led others to complain that it conflicted with the satire. Brideshead served as a turning point in yet another matter besides religion—it allowed Waugh to show his skill as a stylist and as a deft manipulator of characterization, rather than simply a clever satirist. Two others of his Catholic books are Edmund Campion (1935) and Helena (1950), factual and fictional biographies, respectively, of a martyr and a saint.
A Handful of Dust (1934), Waugh's statement on soulless contemporary society, is also a caution about the pitfalls of over-idealizing the past. The book is considered by many critics to be the best of his early work, and perhaps his writing as a whole. It is his first use of a theme which recurs throughout his subsequent work: the plight of the genteel Christian (read aristocratic Catholic) man as the inevitable victim of the corrupt present. His characters believe in the Myth of Decline and, in order to escape this era's decadence, they seek mean-ing, beauty, and "rightness" in the past, a Golden Age which actually exists only in their minds. This preoccupation results, however, in the same neglect of responsibility, the same selfishness and insensitivity to immediate crises that these people condemn in others. Many critics believe that Waugh's characterizations become rounder and his satire more subtle in A Handful of Dust. Still others, however, see it as a satisfying continuation of the farcical treatment and the two-dimensional portrayals of the earlier works.
After his divorce, Waugh traveled constantly, often as a correspondent. During this period he produced fiction, reviews, articles, a biography, and a number of outstanding travel books. Among the latter are Labels (1930), Remote People (1931), Ninety-Two Days (1934), and Waugh in Abyssinia (1936). In them, he sheds the "London Waugh" and allows himself to be charming, tolerant, and sympathetic. Even in these, however, he comments in a humorous vein on the eccentricities he finds throughout the world. His travels in Africa also served as material for two novels: Black Mischief (1932), a look at the failure of imposing European standards upon African nations, and Scoop (1938), a satire on journalism.
Waugh also served in the Royal Marines during World War II and the experiences of those years appear in a number of his books. Put Out More Flags (1942) looks at the unreality of the early months of the war, the bungling bureaucracy of the military establishment in organizing the war effort, and the lives which would be destroyed by the catastrophe. It is often considered an introduction to the three novels which constitute the Sword of Honour trilogy: Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961). These books, published as one volume in 1965, comprise his final long work. The trilogy is yet another which has been hailed as containing his best and most compassionate writing. It features his first real hero, Guy Crouchback, and traces Guy's romantic idealism at the beginning of the war through his bleak pessimism at its conclusion. A decent man seeking decency in the world, Guy decides that only personal good works can provide spiritual comfort and communion amid a secular wasteland. An underlying theme in the trilogy is Waugh's own disillusionment with England's betrayal of its traditional standards of honor and integrity as a result of the war.
In addition to fiction and travel, Waugh was a prodigious letter writer. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh (1980) have recently been published—approximately 800 out of some 4,500 which were available—and the result has produced a picture of a compassionate, loyal, humane person. This contrasts sharply with the image presented in his Diaries (1976) of a misanthropic snob with an exaggerated disregard for the rest of humanity. Waugh began a projected three volume autobiography, but only one volume, A Little Learning (1964), was ever published. Two other pieces of his writing, however, are also regarded as autobiographical: Work Suspended (1942), an unfinished book which reflects Waugh's increasing feelings of alienation at the time and which portrays an artist who is isolated from contemporary society; and, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), the story of a middle-aged writer who experiences a nervous breakdown, paralleling a time in Waugh's own life. Two other recently published works are A Little Order (1977), the only collection of some of his journalism, and a fragment of a "prequel" to Brideshead, "Charles Ryder's Schooldays" (1945), published together with eleven other stories which had a limited printing in 1936 under the title Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories. One of these, "By Special Request," is an alternate ending to A Handful of Dust.
Waugh's importance to modern English literature owes much to his style and craftsmanship. Earlier works were characterized by clever phrasing and broadly humorous plots, but in later works, he translated his observations into complex ironic structures, unifying content with form. Waugh also managed, for the most part, to maintain a balance between involvement and detachment toward his characters. Some critics contend that Waugh's books are timeless because their worlds transcend current history. Others, however, believe that his books will not endure because of his nostalgic preoccupations, the rigidity of his opinions and outlook, and the restricted range of his intellectual and political focus. The assessments of his writing skills are, nevertheless, virtually uniform in their recognition of his comic inventiveness, his highly individualistic style, his devotion to clarity and precision, and his ability to entertain.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 13, 19; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15.)