Evelyn Waugh Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 107) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The World to Come (poetry) 1916
Decline and Fall (novel) 1928
Vile Bodies (novel) 1930
Black Mischief (novel) 1932
A Handful of Dust (novel) 1934
Edmund Campion: Scholar, Priest, Hero, and Martyr (biography) 1935
Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (short stories) 1936; expanded edition published as Charles Ryder's Schooldays and Other Stories, 1982
Scoop (novel) 1938; published in England as Scoop: A Novel about Journalists, 1938
Mexico: An Object Lesson (travel essay) 1939; published in England as Robbery under Law: The Mexican Object Lesson, 1939
Put Out More Flags...

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Dudley Fitts (review date 21 May 1930)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "O Bright Young People!," in The Nation, Vol. 130, No. 3385, May 21, 1930, p. 602.

[Fitts was an American poet, critic, and translator. In the following review, he calls Waugh's novel Vile Bodies a "failure," noting that the use of satire is heavy-handed and derivative.]

[Vile Bodies] is the kind of book that assures you, in a desperate sort of way, that it is funny. It is modeled, pretty consciously, upon the early Aldous Huxley—the Huxley, that is to say, of Crome Yellow and, more noticeably, Antic Hay; not the sad Huxley of the moment, whose touch has become so oppressive since he borrowed Mr. Wells's ouija board and achieved...

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Robert Cantwell (review date 12 October 1932)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mr. Waugh's Humor," in The Nation, Vol. 135, No. 3510, October 12, 1932, p. 335.

[Cantwell was an American editor and fiction writer. In the following review, he objects to Waugh's light treatment of imperialism in Black Mischief.]

Like Hindoo Holiday, published a few months ago with considerable success, Black Mischief is a study of some of the more droll results of European imperialism. Hindoo Holiday revolved around the activities of an engaging, homo-sexual Indian ruler, and the humor had its source in his misuse of the English language and in his baffled attempts to understand European history and customs. The appeal of Black...

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Frank Kermode (essay date November 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mr. Waugh's Cities," in Encounter, Vol. XV, No. 5, November 1960, pp. 63-66, 68-70.

[Kermode is an English educator, literary critic, essayist, and editor. In the following essay, he examines Waugh's depiction of religious faith in England after the Reformation, particularly the place of Catholicism among the upper classes in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries as represented in Brideshead Revisited.]

It is probably safe to assume that most readers of Brideshead Revisited know and care as much about Papist history and theology as Charles Ryder did before he became intimate with the Flytes; and although the novel contains a fair amount of...

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James W. Nichols (essay date October 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Romantic and Realistic: The Tone of Evelyn Waugh's Early Novels," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 1, October 1962, pp. 46-56.

[In the following essay, Nichols discusses Waugh's use of satire in his early novels, focusing on what he considers Waugh's often contradictory ideals of romanticism and realism.]

Evelyn Waugh has been asked, "Are your books meant to be satirical?" He replied, "No. Satire is a matter of period. It flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous moral standards—the early Roman Empire and 18th Century Europe. It is aimed at inconsistency and hypocrisy. It exposes polite cruelty and folly by exaggerating them. It seeks...

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D. J. Dooley (essay date Autumn 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Waugh and Black Humor," in Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 2, Autumn 1968, pp. 1-3.

[Dooley is a Canadian writer and educator. In the following essay, Dooley examines instances of black humor in Waugh's writing and suggests possible influences to Waugh's comic sensibility.]

In an article in the Kenyon Review in 1961, C. P. Snow referred to the transmission of a particular vein of personal and capricious comedy from Russian to English fiction as one of the clearest examples of literary ancestry which he knew. He described the agent of transmission, William Gerhardi, as the chief progenitor of modern English prose comedy, and said that he had a very...

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Barry Ulanov (essay date 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ordeal of Evelyn Waugh," in The Vision Obscured: Perceptions of Some Twentieth-Century Catholic Novelists, edited by Melvin J. Friedman, New York: Fordham University Press, 1970, pp. 79-93.

[Ulanov is an American writer, educator, and editor. In the following essay, he analyzes the "underlying structure" of the world-view that infused Waugh's novels and gave meaning to his allegorical writings.]

It is all but a fixed convention in the critical presentation of the work of Evelyn Waugh to date his decline, in mid-career, with the appearance of Brideshead Revisited in 1945. The novels written before it are comic masterpieces. Those that come after,...

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Robert Barnard (essay date April 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "What the Whispering Glades Whispered: Dennis Barlow's Quest in The Loved One," in English Studies, Vol. 60, No. 2, April 1979, pp. 176-82.

[Barnard is an English writer and educator. In the following essay, he analyzes Waugh's satirical attack on superficiality and illusion in The Loved One.]

One of the most haunting images one retains of Evelyn Waugh's life, a life rich in incongruities and contrasts, is the author's own account of how, during his brief and abortive visit to Hollywood in 1947, he was driven daily (in the car that was supposed to take him to the studio) to the cemetery called Forest Lawn, and how he spent hour after fascinated hour...

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Alain Blayac (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Evelyn Waugh and Humour," in Evelyn Waugh: New Directions, London: Macmillan, 1992, pp. 112-32.

[In the following essay, Blayac explains the classical meaning of "humor," rooted in the theory of the four humors of the human body, and applies it to Waugh's novels.]

Humour, English humour, has always been a subject of interest (and puzzlement) for the French who have always had the utmost difficulties in understanding their neighbours, hence the number of French essays devoted to the analysis and explanation of the concept. Across the Channel, the notion strikes deep roots in the British collective unconscious. Born of the medical 'theory of humours', it still...

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David Leon Higdon (essay date October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gay Sebastian and Cheerful Charles: Homoeroticism in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature," Vol. 25, No. 4, October 1994, pp. 77-89.

[Higdon is an American writer and educator. In the following essay, he argues that Brideshead Revisited depicts very deliberate homosexual relationships, contrary to the opinions of other critics, whom Higdon considers deeply in denial.]

There is a highly visible homosexual population in the novels of Evelyn Waugh, ranging from the "smooth young men of uncertain tastes" in Decline and Fall (1928) to the hallucinatory visions and encounters in The Ordeal of...

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Charles Hallett (essay date November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Twitch upon the Thread," in New Oxford Review, Vol. 61, No. 9, November 1994, pp. 19-20.

[In the following essay, Hallett examines Charles Ryder's reaction in Brideshead Revisited to the Catholicism of the Flyte family.]

"Is Evelyn Waugh a Catholic novelist?" a friend of mine asked. "I am thinking," he explained, "of Brideshead Revisited. That book has a compelling quality; every few years it draws me back to it. But its mystery escapes me."

In a way my friend is sensing the very mystery that draws the book's narrator, Charles Ryder, to write about the family that lived at Brideshead. Charles, a non-Catholic, is both repulsed...

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Brooke Allen (essay date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Vile Bodies: A Futurist Fantasy," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall 1994, pp. 318-28.

[In the following essay, Allen contends that Waugh satirizes the principles of the Futurist movement in art and literature of the 1920s and 1930s in Vile Bodies.]

One of Evelyn Waugh's most perceptive critics, Robert Murray Davis, has commented that "like many writers more obviously committed to modernist experiment, Waugh took great care to guide his readers by means of external form" [Evelyn Waugh, Writer, 1981]. It is true that Waugh was not "obviously" committed to experiment, but close readings of his early novels show that such...

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Richard P. Lynch (essay date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Evelyn Waugh's Early Novels: The Limits of Fiction," in Papers on Language & Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall 1994, pp. 373-86.

[In the following essay, Lynch contends that Waugh's lack of didacticism in his early novels points to his view of the limited ability of fiction to express permanent, meaningful ideas.]

Apart from his own willingness to classify himself as an entertainer, one of the major reasons for the general view of Evelyn Waugh's early novels as frivolous is that they betray little in the way of overt philosophical content. While it is true that the didactic novel has fallen into...

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T. J. Ross (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reconsidering Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One," in Modern Age, Vol. 37, No. 2, Winter 1995, pp. 156-62.

[Ross is an American educator, literary critic, and writer. In the following essay, Ross claims that The Loved One is Waugh's only truly satiric novel and notes that Waugh displays in it his deft understanding of the American character.]

If we were to grade British authors of this century according to the degree of compassion manifest in their works, one novelist sure to flunk would be Evelyn Waugh. In recent years "compassion" has become a buzz word and it is precisely the overtones carried in its buzz that may account in part for Waugh's...

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Joan Didion (review date 11 December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gentlemen in Battle," in National Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 23, December 11, 1995, pp. 128, 130-31.

[Didion is a prominent American novelist, essayist, and screenplay writer. In the following, originally published in National Review in 1962, she reviews The End of the Battle, the final novel in Waugh's Men at War trilogy, noting what she considers Waugh's excellent depiction in the book of utter futility in the modern-post-World War II-world.]

Distinctively dolorous by nature, I have to date been saved from my own instincts mostly by the relentless interference of my acquaintances, one or two of whom seem to have perfect pitch for my...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Wölk, Gerhard. "Evelyn Waugh: A Supplementary Checklist of Criticism." Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies 25, No. 2 (Autumn 1991): 7-8.

Compiles significant criticism on Waugh published since 1989.

Wölk, Gerhard. "Evelyn Waugh: A Supplementary Checklist of Criticism." Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies 26, No. 2 (Autumn 1992): 5-6.

Compiles significant criticism on Waugh published since 1990.


Babiak, Peter R. "A Brief Philosophy of Stoneless Peaches." Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and...

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