Evelyn Waugh

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Evelyn Waugh, as photographed in 1940 by Carl Van Vechten

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (October 28, 1903 – April 10, 1966) was an English writer known for his acute satire and acerbic, dark humor. Waugh is best known for his novel, Brideshead Revisited, along with several other successful works.

Evelyn Waugh's life can be divided into two very distinct stages, that of a lost and disillusioned youth and that of a faithful, religious family man. During his college days, he partied constantly and participated in acts for which he later felt very penitent. His life changed when he met and married his second wife, Laura Herbert. It was his marriage to her that increased his newfound Catholic faith, that gave him purpose as a father, and that fostered his extremely successful writing career, interrupted by his distinguished military service during World War II. His novels deal with the universal themes that most people find themselves facing in this world: The choice between confronting the trials of life with bitterness and harshness, or head-on, relying on a loving and ever present God. Evelyn Waugh chose the latter.

Edmund Wilson, the famous literary critic, said that Waugh was "the only first-rate comic genius the English have produced since George Bernard Shaw." George Orwell declared that Waugh was "about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions." The American conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. considered Waugh "the greatest English novelist of the century." Time magazine declared that he had "developed a wickedly hilarious yet fundamentally religious assault on a century that, in his opinion, had ripped up the nourishing taproot of tradition and let wither all the dear things of the world."

Early life

Evelyn Waugh was born to Arthur and Catherine (Raban) Waugh in London on October 28, 1903. He was the youngest of two children, having an elder brother named Alec. His childhood was one of comfort. His mother, born in India, but raised in England, adored Evelyn. His mother's doting over him contrasted to his father's lack of attention. Arthur Waugh, a highly recognized editor, literary critic, and publisher, clearly favored his eldest son. Arthur raised his family in an upper middle class environment in Hampstead with an emphasis on obtaining an elite education and the proper reputation.

Arthur Waugh attended an English public school called Sherborne and expected his sons to attend as well. Alec was accepted and attended Sherborne, but he was expelled permanently when it was discovered that Alec had participated in a homosexual relationship. Then, to solidify Evelyn's fate at the school, Alec Waugh wrote his autobiographical account of the event. The novel, The Loom of Youth, although controversial, was published and circulated immediately. This act prevented Evelyn from attending Sherborne.

Arthur then had to send Evelyn to a less prestigious school, called Lancing College. The curriculum at Lancing was twofold, one facet focused on academics while the other facet concentrated on religion, in particular High Church Anglican values. The focus on religion influenced him beneficially, though he may have felt that it was a negative influence at first. Many of his upper-class, religious classmates teased and tormented him. He had thought that his fellow classmates would be learned and sophisticated, but instead found them amoral, violent, and careless. This marked the beginning of his satirical writings, and several of his personal experiences at Lancing would later be captured in his novels. While he was a student there, Waugh lost faith in the religion he had been raised with and declared himself an agnostic. After graduating from Lancing, Waugh went on to attend Hertford College, Oxford, studying modern history. This education in history prepared him, among other things, for the biographies he would later write.

Although Waugh was a highly intelligent individual, his early academic experiences did little to motivate him. He often neglected his studies and pursued artwork, writing, and most of all, socializing. After his unpopularity at Lancing College, he found that he was able to make several friends at Hertford. This was a new and exciting experience for Waugh, one that he may have taken to the extreme.

His intense participation in the social scene at Hertford threw him into the company of other aesthetes, like Harold Acton and Brian Howard. He found himself in the company of the British aristocracy and the upper classes. This new popularity was the catalyst for Waugh's growing reputation as a snob. It also inspired several of the accounts he wrote about in his novels. The vigorous social scene led Waugh to experiment with various relationships, including two known homosexual romances. In the late 1920s, he began dating women. When he was asked if he had competed in any sport for his College, Waugh famously replied "I drank for Hertford."

Because of Waugh's social over-extension, he ended up failing academically. During his final exams, he only qualified for a third-class degree. To raise the status of this degree would have required Waugh to stay at Hertford for another semester to study and retake the exam. He refused to stay and left Hertford and Oxford for good in 1924. He did not qualify for his degree, and instead, he moved to Wales the following year to teach at a private school. Feeling disheartened at this point in his life, Waugh tried to commit suicide. He went out swimming in the sea, determined to swim out until he drowned, but he turned back after a jellyfish stung him. (He relates this story in his autobiography.)

He went on to another teaching position, but he did not have much success at this school because of his conduct towards the school matron (attempting at various times to seduce her). The matron called for his immediate dismissal. When questioned as to the reasons behind his leaving the post, Waugh claimed that he had been asked to leave because of "inebriation." Waugh went into cabinet-making and journalism to support himself before he found literary success.

Writing career

In 1928, Waugh's novel, Decline and Fall. was published. The title was taken from Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that he wrote in six volumes. Gibbon's work was characterized by irony as he outlined the bankruptcy and dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the corresponding disintegration of religion. In contrast, Waugh's novel was a completely modern and upbeat tale. His writing was characterized by humor, wit, and satire; it dealt with a dissolution of a different kind than that addressed by Gibbon. Decline and Fall tells of a young divinity student, Paul Pennyfeather and his accidental expulsion from Oxford because of indecency. Pennyfeather rises socially through his acquaintances in the upper class of London society. Eventually, the main character learns that life outside the elite social world is a much happier place.

"Aim high has been my motto," said Sir Humphrey, "all through my life. You probably won't get what you want, but you may get something; aim low, and you get nothing at all. It's like throwing a stone at a cat. When I was a kid that used to be great sport in our yard; I daresay you were throwing cricket-balls when you were that age, but it's the same thing. If you throw straight at it, you fall short; aim above, and with luck you score. Every kid knows that. I'll tell you the story of my life" (Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall).

In 1930, Vile Bodies followed and Waugh's literary popularity became solidified. Waugh described his novel about "Bright Young People" as "a welter of sex and snobbery." Waugh followed up his success with Black Mischief in 1932, A Handful of Dust in 1934, and Scoop in 1937.


Waugh married twice, first in 1928 to the Hon. Evelyn Gardner (the irony of their names was not lost on their friends). They were lovingly called He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn, and it seemed to be a lovely romance, until Evelyn proved to be unfaithful. Her adultery prompted Waugh to write A Handful of Dust (a story dealing with adultery). The marriage ended in divorce and eventual annulment in 1930.

With the annulment confirmed, and Waugh's heart broken, he turned back to religion, converting to Catholicism. He traveled extensively in Africa and South America, writing several travel books along the way and also working as a foreign correspondent. With his new religion helping him to heal, Waugh met and married a fellow Catholic, Laura Herbert. Laura was the daughter of Aubrey Herbert, and granddaughter of Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon. Waugh and Laura were faithful to each other and enjoyed family life. The couple had seven children, one of whom, Auberon Waugh also had a successful writing and journalism career.

The thirties

The 1930s were a decade of happiness and success for Evelyn Waugh. He had a happy marriage, he had children, he traveled the world, and book after successful book was being published. It was the calm before World War II, which would change his life dramatically. Readers in England and America could not get enough of the brilliant satires he wrote about contemporary upper class English society. Ironically, he was on his way to becoming a well-known figure in aristocratic and fashionable circles of the very society he often mocked. Waugh's writing style was very appealing, reaching wide audiences. It was not challenging to read, was simple and elegant, and yet, highly innovative and inventive. His stories were full of idiosyncratic traits, like entire chapters being written as a phone call dialog. The 1930s also represented a change in his writings; no longer was he writing about the irreligious, but instead, his writing became an advocacy for Catholic themes. His writings were still witty and humorous, but they also encompassed deep issues of faith in the face of temptation and trial.

Waugh's extensive travels around the Mediterranean and Red Sea, Spitsbergen, Africa, and South America opened up a new world to Waugh as he was introduced to different people and cultures. These experiences added flavor to his writings. His excellent travel books written during this time are often seen as being among the best in this genre. A compendium of Waugh's favorite travel writing has been issued under the title, When The Going Was Good.

Second World War

England's entrance into World War II marked a serious turn in the tide of Waugh's life. Thirty-six years old and with poor eyesight, he sought to secure a place in the war effort. Unlike most men entering the war, he used his "friends in high places" to help him find a favorable position. Friends like Randolph Churchill, son of Winston Churchill, helped find Waugh a place with the Royal Marines in 1940. When people thought of Waugh, the last thing they thought of was a commander of military troops. In fact, as he led the troops, sentiments were that some might just take aim at Waugh himself, instead of the enemy. Some felt he lacked the personality to rally morale and bring people together. Somehow Waugh was made a captain, even though he detested most aspects of military life.

During the war, Waugh took part in various famous battles and missions. Among them was the attempt to take Dakar from the Vichy French in late 1940, a mission that failed. After joining the No. 8 British Commandos (Army) he also took part in the raid on Libya. An intense adventure, it too was an ill-fated mission. He served as assistant to the famous Robert Laycock, and during this time he fought in the Battle of Crete in 1941. He showed exceptional valor and courage in leading an evacuation of the troops from the area.

During an extended leave of service, Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited, his most famous novel, and considered by some to be one of the best novels of all time. The novel gave readers Waugh's view of the world, and the book has come to personify Waugh's beliefs and values. It concentrated on the ideal life before the war, his characters being a medium for Waugh to share his Catholic beliefs. It depicted the trials and pressures facing the traditional Catholic family. It was Waugh's biggest success in both England and America, and it was made into a popular TV mini-series. After finishing the novel, Waugh again met with his friend, Randolph Churchill, who asked him to take part in a mission to Yugoslavia in 1944. The mission was the most dangerous one yet. Waugh and Churchill barely escaped death when the Germans put into action Operation Rösselsprung, and storm troopers attacked the Partisan headquarters where the two were staying.

The trials Waugh faced during the battles of World War II gave him material for several novels, including his famous Sword of Honour trilogy, which consists of three novels, Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961). Waugh created characters that were real and memorable. In fact, it wasn't a stretch to see many real people Waugh interacted with in his fictional characters. Christopher Sykes, Waugh's biographer, decided that the fearsome officer in the Sword of Honour trilogy, Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook, "…bears a very strong resemblance to…" Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton De Wiart (Victoria Cross). His trilogy is considered to be among the best works written about the war.

Later years

After the war, Waugh settled down with his family in a country style home in Combe Florey in Somerset, where he lived as a country gentleman. He enjoyed wearing Edwardian suits (his favorite a very posh checkered one). He took a brief vacation to see Hollywood and discuss the possibility of a movie version of Brideshead Revisited. In commenting on the experience, Waugh said:

We drove for a long time down autobahns and boulevards full of vacant lots and filling stations and nondescript buildings and palm trees with a warm hazy light. It was more like Egypt—the suburbs of Cairo or Alexandria—than anything in Europe. We arrived at the Bel Air Hotel—very Egyptian with a hint of Addis Ababa in the smell of the blue gums (Evelyn Waugh).

Waugh was very disappointed in MGM's proposal, as they wanted to make the novel strictly a love story, a proposal which Waugh refused. At the end of his life, Waugh left all of the estate at Combe Florey to his firstborn son, Auberon. Waugh also became dissatisfied with the religion he had loved for so long, as he saw the church bending its traditions and values to accommodate a crumbling world.

The last few years of Waugh's life were marked with declining health. He gained weight, he was dependent on a sleeping draught, he ingested too much alcohol, and he refused to exercise. These factors, along with his heavy dependence on cigars, all contributed to his decline. His later writings never equaled the genius, clarity, and vibrance of his earlier work.

Evelyn Waugh died on April 10, 1966, after returning home from Mass on Easter Sunday. He was 62 years old. He made sure to provide for all of his children by creating trusts in each of their names with the funds he received from the copyrights of his novels. Waugh was buried in Somerset.

List of works




ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Frances Donaldson. Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbour. 1967.
  • Stannard, Martin. Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939. 1987. ISBN 0393306054
  • —. Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966. 1994. ISBN 0393034127
  • Sykes, Christopher. Evelyn Waugh. 1975.

External links

All links retrieved March 23, 2024.


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