Evelyn Waugh

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Evelyn Waugh (waw) wrote seven travel books, three biographies, an autobiography, and numerous articles and reviews. The only completed section of Waugh’s planned three-volume autobiography, A Little Learning (1964), discusses his life at Oxford and his employment as a schoolmaster in Wales—subjects fictionalized in Brideshead Revisited and Decline and Fall. The autobiographical background for virtually all of Waugh’s novels is evident in his travel books, his diaries, and his letters. His articles and reviews for English and American periodicals include a wide range of topics—politics, religion, and art—and contribute to his reputation as a literary snob, an attitude Waugh himself affected, especially in the 1940’s and 1950’s.


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Evelyn Waugh is esteemed primarily as a satirist, especially for his satires on the absurdly chaotic world of the 1920’s and 1930’s. His ability to make darkly humorous the activities of the British upper class, his comic distance, and his vivid, at times brutal, satire made his early novels very popular among British and American literary circles. His shift to a more sentimental theme in Brideshead Revisited gave Waugh his first real taste of broad popular approval—especially in America—to which he reacted with sometimes real, sometimes exaggerated, snobbishness. Waugh’s conservative bias after the war, his preoccupation with religious themes, and his expressed distaste for the “age of the common man” suggested to a number of critics that he had lost his satiric touch. Although his postwar novels lack the anarchic spirit of his earliest works, he is still regarded, even by those who reject his political attitudes, as a first-rate craftsman of the comic novel.

Discussion Topics

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Evelyn Waugh seems to have taken his title, A Handful of Dust, from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922): “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Is Tony Last a victim of fear?

What causes Tony Last to succumb to such a ridiculous figure as Dr. Messinger?

Is the judgment of some critics that Brideshead Revisited is a “Catholic novel” accurate or meaningful?

Did the prevalence of Waugh’s religious convictions detract from his later fiction?

Is there any reason for believing that the narrators of Waugh’s later novels are presenting his own views?


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Carens, James F., ed. Critical Essays on Evelyn Waugh. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Contains twenty-six essays divided into three sections: general essays, essays on specific novels, and essays on Waugh’s life and works. In his lengthy introduction, Carens provides a chronological overview of Waugh’s literary work and a discussion of Waugh criticism. Includes index and bibliography.

Cook, William J., Jr. Masks, Modes, and Morals: The Art of Evelyn Waugh. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971. Considers Waugh’s novels squarely in the ironic mode, tracing Waugh’s development from satiric denunciation to comic realism to romantic optimism to ironic realism. Cook provides lengthy analyses of the novels, which he suggests move from fantasy to reality and from satire to resignation. Includes index and bibliography.

Crabbe, Katharyn. Evelyn Waugh. New York: Continuum, 1988. Crabbe’s book is most helpful: She provides a chronology of Waugh’s life, a short biography, and five chapters of detailed criticism on Waugh’s major novels. A concluding chapter on style is followed by a bibliography and an index.

Davis, Robert Murray. Evelyn Waugh: Writer. Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1981. Drawing from previously unavailable manuscript materials, Davis examines Waugh’s fiction in terms of his artistic technique, his extensive revisions, and his reworking of his novels. After an opening chapter on Waugh’s biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Davis focuses exclusively on the novels, Brideshead Revisited and Sword of...

(This entire section contains 419 words.)

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Honour in particular. Includes index.

Hastings, Selina. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Hastings notes that hers is not an academic biography such as Stannard has written but a lively attempt to recapture Waugh’s personality as it seemed to him and to his friends.

Lane, Calvin W. Evelyn Waugh. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Indispensable for Waugh scholars, Lane’s relatively short volume contains a detailed chronology, a biography stressing the factors influencing his literary career, and lengthy treatments of Waugh’s novels. Includes a bibliography and four interviews with Waugh.

Stannard, Martin. Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. A scholarly, well-documented account of Waugh’s early literary career, Stannard’s biography provides valuable publication details about the novels and uses Waugh’s diaries and letters. Also contains many photographs and illustrations, a genealogical chart of Waugh’s ancestry, a selected bibliography, and an excellent index.

Stannard, Martin. Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years, 1939-1966. New York: Norton, 1992. The second volume of a meticulous, scholarly biography. Includes notes, bibliography, illustrations, and two indexes: a general index and one of Waugh’s work.


Critical Essays