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Evelyn (Arthur St. John) Waugh 1903–1966

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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,...

(The entire section contains 10763 words.)

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