Evelyn Arthur St John Waugh (1903-1966)
A short biography of one of the twentieth century's most diverse and prolific writers.
Evelyn Waugh was born in October 1903, the second son of Arthur and Catherine. His father was managing director of the publishers Chapman & Hall, and his brother Alec was also to become a writer; at first, in fact, Alec was considerably better known than Evelyn. Alec was always close to their father and Evelyn felt shut out of their intimate relationship, preferring the company of his quiet and gentle mother, always known as Kate. Although for years considering himself as an artist first and writer only by circumstance, Waugh began producing stories and writing his diary at a very early age.
At thirteen Evelyn became a boarder at the High-Church Lancing College. His father had planned for him to go, like Alec, to his own alma mater of Sherbourne, but this was impossible: in 1915, Alec had left the school in disgrace. The reasons for this are made clear in Alec’s 1917 novel The Loom of Youth, which features the homosexual freindships common in English public schools of the time.
Evelyn experienced his dispatch to Lancing as an exile, and it took him a few years to find his niche. Nevertheless he developed considerable talent in drawing and calligraphy as well as English, and became president of the school debating society. He even founded a few societies of his own. The Corpse Club, for example, served those who were ‘bored stiff’ and its members wrote to one another on black-edged mourning stationery.
Oxford and the 1920s
In January 1922 Evelyn left Lancing for Hertford College, Oxford. There he met a number of aristocratic and upper-class friends who would form the basis of some of his best-loved characters, including Ambrose Silk (modelled on Brian Howard) and Sebastian Flyte (inspired by Alistair Graham and Hugh Lygon). As an undergraduate Evelyn contributed a lot of graphic art to the Oxford journals The Cherwell, The Isis and Harold Acton’s short-lived Oxford Broom. He also drank heavily, ran up huge debts and opted to leave without qualifying for his third-class history degree in 1924.
After Oxford Evelyn enrolled briefly at art school before embarking on an undistinguished career as a schoolmaster. Although personally very unhappy at this point, lonely, frustrated and still drinking too much, Evelyn’s experiences at second-rate English preparatory schools provided him with the raw comedic material for his first novel, Decline and Fall. This was published in 1928, and soon after Evelyn married. His wife was another Evelyn, the Honourable Evelyn Gardner, who left him after just a year for John Heygate. The couple were divorced in 1930.
The year 1930 was also significant for Waugh for two more reasons: firstly, January saw the publication of his second novel, Vile Bodies, begun before his wife’s ‘defection’ and finished afterwards. The book was received with great enthusiasm and consolidated Waugh’s reputation as a talented satirical writer. Secondly, in September, Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism and his new religion became the centre of his world.
Travel and marriage
The nineteen thirties were years of drift for Waugh. He published five volumes of travel writing during the decade, drawn from numerous trips undertaken more to escape England than for any love of adventure for its own sake. He also covered the Italian invasion of Abyssinia for the Daily Mail, one of a very few English newspapers to take a pro-Mussolini stance in the conflict. In 1934 he published A Handful of Dust, which is now widely considered to be Waugh's most accomplished pre-World War Two work, if not his finest novel.
In 1936, Waugh’s first marriage was annulled. A year later, he married the twenty-year-old Laura Herbert. Laura was a Catholic aristocrat (and a cousin of his first wife), and at first her family was horrified by the prospect of her marrying a much older, middle class divorcé. Laura’s mother Mary and her sisters Gabriel and Bridget were eventually won over, but Evelyn could never get on with Laura’s brother Auberon. Laura became pregnant on their honeymoon and gave birth to their first child, Teresa, in March 1938. Two months later, Waugh’s last pre-war novel was published. Scoop draws on its author’s time as a war correspondent in Abyssinia and fictionalises the Herbert family as the Boots of Boot Magna.
World War Two
The thirty-six-year-old Waugh tried hard to join up at the onset of World War Two, and faced multiple rejections until he was finally offered a commission in the Royal Marines. Waugh served in various units and was transferred often during the next six years, and continued to write and publish novels throughout. Put Out More Flags, which Waugh wrote after assisting in the evacuation of Crete, was published in 1942. In 1943, a parachuting accident left Waugh in a position to begin writing what he referred to as his Magnum Opus: Brideshead Revisited.
Waugh’s father died towards the end of the war with, as his son put it, ‘disconcerting suddenness’. Waugh had proved to be a difficult and disruptive officer, and his superiors seized this opportunity to reduce his involvement in active service under the guise of compassionate leave. One of his last missions was to assist Croatian partisans in beating back German forces – during the course of this operation Waugh was involved in a plane crash and suffered burns to his hands, legs and head. After the war, Evelyn returned to Laura and his family home of Piers Court in Gloucestershire. The couple now had five children. A sixth, Mary, had lived for just a day in 1940.
Brideshead and after
In 1945, Brideshead Revisited was published to high praise in both England and America. Waugh’s newfound success in the States prompted several journeys across the Atlantic in the late 1940s, and he developed a keen interest in both American Catholicism and modern American attitudes to death. The latter found expression in Waugh’s short novel The Loved One (1948), the acerbic style of which recalls his earlier dark comedies. Waugh travelled often in the immediate post-war years, visiting friends in France and Spain and even attending a few days of the Nuremburg Trials. Waugh found himself unable to make any professional use of this last experience.
Waugh always considered his best novel to be Helena, an historical fiction about the life of St Helena who, by tradition, located the true cross. However when Helena was published in 1950 reviews were, to Waugh’s bitter disappointment, lukewarm at best. Much better received were his trilogy of wartime novels, Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961), which are still considered to be the masterpieces of Waugh’s mature period.
Waugh became increasingly reclusive in his later years, plagued by persecution mania and depression. He now had a family of six children to support, and perennial huge tax bills. He was also distressed by the Catholic Church’s modernising of the mass service. Waugh had always taken solace from the knowledge that Catholic rites remained unchanging in a chaotic and, it seemed to him, ever more unstable world. Now that comfort was denied him.
Waugh's state of mind during this period is partially captured in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), the most autobiographical of his novels, which features a middle-aged author going out of his mind whilst on board a cruise ship. Waugh’s last published book was A Little Learning (1964), the first volume of a planned autobiography. He died, prematurely aged, of a massive coronary thrombosis on Easter Sunday 1966.