From the 1940’s until his death in 1966, Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh (waw) served as bête noire for left-wing critics on both sides of the Atlantic, a role he seemed to enjoy. He was born in London on October 28, 1903, the second son of Arthur Waugh, author and managing director of the publishing firm of Chapman and Hall, and Catherine Charlotte Raban. Evelyn’s father and brother, Alec, had attended Sherborne School, but Alec had been expelled and shortly thereafter published The Loom of Youth (1917), a sensational exposé of public school life. Sherborne was thus out of the question for Evelyn, so he attended Lancing College before going up to Oxford University.
In 1925 Waugh left Hertford College, Oxford, with a modest third-class degree in history. As a young man whose father and elder brother were firmly established as professional writers and editors, he might have been thought a natural candidate for a literary career himself. Instead, he tried several fields first–including art, to which he was strongly attracted–before turning to letters. He served brief tenures as a schoolmaster at two obscure public schools. The experience was a profoundly unhappy one, which led to Waugh’s attempted suicide by drowning, yet it also furnished the material for his first novel. In the autumn of 1927, Waugh met Evelyn Gardner. The two were soon married, and Waugh’s literary career was launched with two books: Rossetti, a commercial failure published in 1928, and Decline and Fall, a critical and commercial success appearing the same year. Decline and Fall is a madcap satire in the style of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), with an ironic depiction of Oxford, spurious and neurotic schoolmasters, and the penal system (which Waugh likens to an English public school).
In 1930 his Vile Bodies satirized the Bright Young People, the English equivalent of flappers in the United States. This novel, like his first, was wildly funny, and he had found his audience. In contrast, his personal life was in ruins–just as he achieved literary success, his wife of fewer than two years deserted him for another man. That he peppered his novels with faithless young wives for the rest of his career testifies to the depth of his bitterness. In 1929 he had begun traveling in the Mediterranean with his wife. After his divorce, he traveled incessantly for three years–in Abyssinia, Africa, and South America. The results of this compulsive peregrination were the travel books Labels, Remote People, and Ninety-two Days as well as considerable raw material for future novels.
Waugh’s third novel, Black Mischief, appeared in 1932. It is certainly a satire of British colonialism, concluding with a scene in which the strains of a Gilbert and Sullivan composition go wafting out over the wacky African kingdom of Azania. A number of critics, though, purport to find the book racist and are extremely hostile to it. Black Mischief introduces Basil Seal, a lovable–and sometimes not so lovable–young rogue, who reappears in subsequent novels. Two years later, Waugh published his most pessimistic novel, A Handful of Dust. Its protagonist, Tony Last, like Paul Pennyfeather of Decline and Fall and Adam Fenwick-Symes of Vile Bodies, is an innocent wandering through a world of ravenous beasts. Tony’s fate, unlike that of his predecessors, is tragic, while the novel’s comedy is dark and its irony heavy. In 1935 Waugh was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Edmund Campion, his study of Oxford’s Jesuit martyr in the reign of Elizabeth I.
In 1937, after a long and anxious wait for a dispensation from Rome, Waugh was finally free to marry Laura Herbert. Two years earlier, he had covered the Abyssinian war as a newspaper correspondent. The result was Waugh in Abyssinia, a book whose punning title he did not choose. His last novel of the 1930’s, Scoop, recounts the hilarious adventures of unscrupulous journalists as they cover an absurd war in the primitive African nation of Ishmaelia.
At the outbreak of World War II, Waugh secured an army commission, only after encountering considerable difficulty as a result of his age. In 1942 Put Out More Flags was published. Brideshead Revisited, written while its author was on leave from active service, was published in May, 1945. The novel was easily Waugh’s most popular. It also, for the first time, tied Waugh inextricably to the flaws of his first-person narrator. Charles Ryder is perceived as smug, snobbish, superficially attracted to the aristocracy, and contemptuous of the common man. Finally, Brideshead Revisited was the first novel in which Waugh placed the practice of Catholicism at the very heart of the narrative. It sold widely, especially in the United States, but most critics attacked its structure, its sentiments, or both.
Waugh published several novellas during the postwar period. Scott-King’s Modern Europe reflects Waugh’s dismay at the postwar Europe that Great Britain had helped to fashion. The Loved One, which is on the surface a spoof of the American funeral industry, is, beyond that, a Juvenalian attack upon Anglo-American materialism in general. Love Among the Ruins is the bitter portrait of an arid and soulless Great Britain of the future. Helena is the only historical novel in the Waugh canon. Helena, fiction based upon scanty historical data, is the story of the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. She was canonized for her legendary discovery of the true cross. In the years following his return to civilian life, Waugh settled his family in the country, first at Piers Court, Stinchcombe, in Gloucestershire, later at Combe Florey in Somerset.
Four novels mark the final phase of Waugh’s career. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is an autobiographical novel based upon a psychotic episode Waugh had recently experienced. His war trilogy, Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender, roughly parallels the author’s military service: the sometimes awkward training period of an aging subaltern, combat in the disastrous campaign on Crete, and service as liaison to partisans in Yugoslavia. Waugh’s American publisher changed the title of the third novel to The End of the Battle, doubtless due to his awareness that the surrender cited was as much Great Britain’s surrender to expediency as the Axis Powers’ surrender to the Allies. The trilogy was subsequently revised slightly and published in one volume under the title Sword of Honour. Waugh’s last work of fiction was Basil Seal Rides Again, a very slight novella treating Basil in middle age.
On Easter Sunday, April 10, 1966, shortly after returning home from Mass, Waugh fell dead from a massive heart attack. Even those critics who do not share his love for the past and his revulsion for the present have judged him one of the finest novelists and probably the foremost satirist of the twentieth century.