Evelyn Waugh 1903–1966
(Full name Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh) English novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, travel writer, biographer, journalist, and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Waugh's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 8, 13, 19, 27, and 44.
Waugh has been called one of the greatest prose stylists in twentieth-century literature for his satirical writings on the foibles of modern society. In such works as A Handful of Dust (1934), Brideshead Revisited (1945), and The Loved One (1948), Waugh's graceful use of minimalist language coupled with his acidic exposure of hypocrisy and superficiality among England's upper classes have led many critics to classify him alongside modern literature's preeminent men of letters.
Waugh was born in London in 1903. His father, Arthur Waugh, was a prominent editor and publisher at Chapman-Hall, while his older brother Alec was a novelist and travel writer. Waugh initially resisted his family's literary leanings, concentrating on art and design at Hertford College, Oxford. The period at Oxford was turbulent for Waugh. He entrenched himself in the group he later sharply satirized in his writings as the "Bright Young Things," drank excessively, and experimented with homosexuality, which he unequivocally renounced years later. Waugh was forced to leave Oxford in 1924 because of poor grades. He went on to study for a brief period at Heatherley's Art School, where he first became acquainted with the design principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, and later was drawn to the modernist movements Vorticism and Futurism. He left the school a year later and became a teacher, but was fired from all three of his posts. At that point Waugh reluctantly turned to writing as a career, working as a journalist for the London Daily Express and producing his first novel, Decline and Fall, in 1928. The book was well-received, but due to its scathing satire, Waugh's publisher insisted that he remove certain scenes and add a note of disclaimer as a preface. Also in 1928, Waugh married Evelyn Gardner; two years later the marriage dissolved in divorce, an event which, along with his overall disillusionment with modern society, many critics and biographers believe led to Waugh's conversion to and staunch defense of Roman Catholicism. In 1936, his marriage to Gardner was annulled, and he subsequently married Laura Herbert in 1937. During World War II, Waugh had a successful military stint, rising to the rank of major in the Royal Marines. By this time Waugh had earned a place among the foremost literati of England, having published some of his most important and respected novels, essays, short stories, and criticism. He traveled extensively, often as a correspondent, and his experiences around the world frequently turn up in his work. Waugh continued, however, to become more deeply disgusted by what he considered the widespread loss of honor, integrity, and traditional mores, particularly during and after World War II. Perhaps because of his increasing sense of alienation and nostalgia for what he thought of as a more moral past, Waugh created for himself a public persona of haughty reserve and conservatism and guarded his personal life fiercely. Little is known, for example, of the circumstances surrounding the nervous breakdown he suffered in the 1950s, aside from his fictionalized account of that period of his life in his novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). Shortly before his death, Waugh published the first part of a projected multi-volume autobiography, A Little Learning. He died, leaving the work unfinished, in 1966.
Waugh's body of work is marked by two predominant themes: satire of the vulgarity of modern society and, after his conversion, the redemptive promise of traditional Catholicism. In Decline and Fall, the narrator, Paul Pennyfeather, is a hapless naif recently dismissed from Oxford University and mercilessly victimized by the scoundrels he encounters. In his second novel, Vile Bodies (1930), Waugh again found inspiration in his own university experience. Containing Waugh's famous satirical treatment of the "Bright Young Things" from his days at Oxford, Vile Bodies is the story of Adam Symes, an innocent who unwittingly commits detestable crimes in an unstable and amoral world, and Waugh emphasized the feeling of instability by providing little coherence to the plot or scene structure. In his third novel, Black Mischief (1932), Waugh took on imperialism and the veiled savagery of Western culture. In an attempt to bring his country into the twentieth century, the Emperor Seth of Azania—a fictional African nation—enlists the help of the Englishman Basil Seal, whose directives for civilizing the country result in tragedy for its citizens. A Handful of Dust (1934) was the first novel into which Waugh incorporated Catholic themes, as well as his first departure from his earlier farcical style of satire. Based largely on the failure of his own marriage, the novel follows the collapse of the marriage of the upper-class English couple Tony and Brenda Last as they seek refuge from the cruelties and absurdities of their social rank. While Brenda has an affair with the crass and shallow John Beaver, becoming increasingly emotionally detached as she is absorbed into the cocktail society of London, Tony clings to what he considers the more genteel world of pre-twentieth-century England, engaging in a futile restoration of his outdated ancestral home. Searching for meaning in his life, Tony embarks on a South American expedition, where he is stranded indefinitely with an elderly madman who forces him to read aloud the works of the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. While many critics consider A Handful of Dust to be one of Waugh's most relentlessly grim satires, they nonetheless point out that Tony and Brenda's search for shelter in an unkind world, though deeply misguided, is symbolic of the retreat Waugh believed he had found in Catholicism. After A Handful of Dust, Waugh published Scoop (1938)—a satire on journalists—and Put Out More Flags (1942)—which most critics consider a precursor to his later war trilogy, Sword of Honour. In 1945 Waugh published his most overtly Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, which was both his greatest commercial success and his most controversial work. Brideshead Revisited traces events in the lives of a wealthy English Catholic family, the Marchmains, and their involvement with Charles Ryder—a non-Catholic. The family indulges in every conceivable form of decadence but returns to itsfaith in the end. Brideshead Revisited was a departure for Waugh in several ways. In addition to its strong Catholic message, the novel is characterized by a more lush, romantic style of prose, an idealization of nostalgia, and a non-critical tone regarding the lifestyles of aristocratic English families. Despite the popular success it enjoyed, Brideshead Revisited was excoriated by many critics, who found its romanticized depiction of upper-class life and nostalgia for a past "golden age" an unwelcome change from the brilliant social commentary of Waugh's earlier works. Waugh returned to satire in 1948 with The Loved One, which is often cited as one of his best, and bitterest, critiques of modern life. In The Loved One Waugh parodied Hollywood in the 1940s, in particular the English expatriates who set up "colonies" there seeking fortunes and the American ideal of success. Much of the novel takes place in the hyper-sanitized arena of the Whispering Glades cemetery and its counterpart, the animal cemetery Happier Hunting Grounds, and concerns the doomed relationship between Dennis Barlow, described as a "poet and pet mortician," and Aimee Thanatogenos, hostess of the cemetery and an embalming intern. While Aimee is in search of spiritual truth and genuine cultural enrichment, Dennis uses his poetry to win women and advance socially. As Dennis introduces her to the English poets, Aimee becomes increasingly disenchanted, and finally commits suicide on an embalming table as a result of her inability to reconcile her American notions of good citizenship and ethics with her deep sense of alienation. Generally considered Waugh's most successful black comedy, The Loved One has been called dystopic in tone, and has even been compared to science fiction. The year before his death, Waugh published his war trilogy, Sword of Honour (1965), as a single volume for the first time. Comprising Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (also published as The End of the Battle; 1961), Sword of Honour tells the story of Guy Crouchback, who is considered Waugh's only real hero, as he enters World War II a romantic idealist and ends up a bleak pessimist at the war's conclusion. A decent man seeking decency in the world, Guy concludes that only personal good works can provide spiritual comfort and communion amid a secular wasteland.
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. Some critics contend that Waugh's books are timeless because their worlds transcend current history. Others believe his writing 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. Edmund Wilson wrote of Waugh's novels: "[They are] the only things written in England that are comparable to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. They are not so poetic; they are perhaps less intense; they belong to a more classical tradition. But I think that they are likely to last and that Waugh, in fact, is likely to figure as the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in England since Bernard Shaw."