Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, by Philip Eade, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 432 pp, £30.00, ISBN: 978-0297869207
It often seems that we are willing to forgive a talented artist almost anything except being part of the establishment. This certainly appears to be true of Evelyn Waugh, who is typically portrayed as a bilious, reactionary snob, not to mention an aspiring aristocrat. (Testing this unscientific hypothesis, I entered the words “Evelyn Waugh” and “snob” into Google, which returned a not insignificant 23,000 results.) As the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald put it: “No one condemns Robert Louis Stevenson for playing king in Samoa, but Evelyn Waugh, it seems, can hardly be forgiven for his nineteen years as the tyrannous squire of Piers Court, his country home.” In fairness, Waugh did little to dispel this image, even if he didn’t actively encourage it. During an interview on BBC’s Face to Face programme in 1960, the presenter, John Freeman, put it to Waugh directly:
“Are you a snob at all?”
“I don’t think.”
This is scarcely an emphatic rebuttal. But strong reputations of this kind have a tendency to attract revisionists, keen to readjust a skewed portrait. Philip Eade, in his new book Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, attempts to provide something of a corrective to the received view of Waugh. Early on in the book, he recounts the story of an American named Paul Moor who wrote a fan letter to the author of Brideshead Revisited. Much to Moor’s surprise, he received an invitation to stay at Piers Court. During the visit Waugh teased him mercilessly all weekend, yet Moor thought Waugh “an essentially kind man”. This unpredictable mix of sociability and hauteur, tenderness and malice was typical of Waugh throughout his life. But Eade is a sympathetic biographer and suggests that “the eccentric and sometimes frightening façades [Waugh] adopted in person were more often designed as defences against the boredom and despair of everyday life”.
Taken as a whole, however, Waugh’s life can scarcely be said to have been boring. After the usual terrors and tyrannies typical of boarding schools at the time, he went up to Oxford, where he fell in with a like-minded group of hellraisers. While there he drank like a fish, had his heart broken and generally found time to pursue every interest except studying. Eade deftly manages Waugh’s expanding social circle by providing many striking pen portraits and honing in on the illuminating detail. One of his Oxford contemporaries, “Baz” Murray, is, for example, introduced and dispatched in a single memorable passage:
Murray was renowned at Oxford for his intellectual brilliance (he was the son of a well-known Classics don and himself a scholar), but equally for his casual approach to sex, money and personal hygiene … [H]e later covered the Spanish Civil War as a journalist … on the Republican side and died there in the kind of bizarre circumstances that might easily have featured in an early Waugh novel ‑ having caught a deadly virus from a female ape he had bought in Valencia docks and reportedly cavorted with in his hotel room in a state of drunken disillusionment after a series of failed love affairs.
Given this skill at condensing entire lives, it is hardly surprising that Eade spent time as an obituarist for the Daily Telegraph.
Waugh would end up leaving Oxford without a degree, and had little idea of what do next. Yet his time at university wasn’t entirely in vain: while there he wrote short stories, helped design books and magazines but most importantly his experiences would provide a rich seam of gold to mine for his future novels. Eade dutifully guides the reader through the bleak early years, when Waugh had to endure grinding loneliness as a teacher in remote prep schools, as well as such failures as his abandoned first novel (The Temple at Thatch, consigned to a school furnace) and his disastrous marriage to Evelyn Gardner (referred to by their friends as “Shevelyn”). The index entries give an idea of the somewhat undirected course Waugh was pursuing at the time: “social life and carousing in London”, “contemplates suicide”, “considers becoming a clergyman”.
It is difficult all the same to feel entirely sorry for Waugh: his behaviour could still be petulant, abominably cruel and even violent. He was an accomplished bully as a child, never hesitating to get into a scrap (he took particular delight in tormenting his younger schoolmate Cecil Beaton); when Olivia Plunket-Greene, with whom he was completed infatuated, continued to spurn his advances he finally lost his temper and burnt her on the wrist with a cigarette. Eade can be a little too sympathetic: whenever Waugh makes a mess of things, he rushes in, like a fussy nanny, to make apologies for his bad behaviour (“Evelyn’s rudeness often began as a tease to help liven things up, or else it was a bracingly forthright statement of how he actually felt.”) The result is that, like all rude people, Waugh is disproportionately praised for being merely civil.
Personal disasters spurred on his attraction to Catholicism, which came to many as a surprise. It wasn’t just that he had come from an Anglican background, but he had been more or less an atheist for his adult life up to that point. Gradually however, his faith became not just a wellspring of succour, but a fundamental part of his life and artistic vision. On September 29th, 1930, at the age of twenty-six, Waugh was received into the Catholic Church.
Reading Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, one couldn’t be blamed for wondering how a devout Christian could square his continually unpleasant conduct with his deep sense of faith. The writer (and fellow Catholic) Simon Leys put it another way:
For all his gluttony and drunkenness, his passionate attachment to all things of beauty, his selfishness, his impatience, his unkindness and anger (a close friend once asked how he could reconcile his generally beastly behaviour and his Christianity; Waugh replied: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being”), what he derived from his Catholicism was a fundamental ability not to take this world too seriously.
Ultimately, Waugh’s Catholicism was an integral part of his comic vision, allowing him not just to endure the darker side of life but to transcend it through laughter: the meaningless suffering and cruelty that we experience no longer held any terror for him. Eade writes: “[T]he first ten years of his adult life as an atheist had proved to him that life was ‘unintelligible and unendurable without God’.”
In a diary entry written towards the end of his life, Waugh outlines the experience that solidified his fascination with Catholicism:
When I first came into the Church I was drawn, not by splendid ceremonies but by the spectacle of the priest as a craftsman. He had an important job to do which none but he was qualified for. He and his apprentice stumped up to the altar with their tools and set to work without a glance to those behind them, still less with any intention to make a personal impression on them.
As someone who seldom felt the need to explain himself, it’s easy to see why this image appealed to Waugh. But he was also someone who respected the labour of craftsmen and, prior to his novel-writing, was inspired enough by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood to train as a cabinetmaker, as well as to write a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This industrious attitude would serve him well in his writing career when he was able to rattle off reams of journalism and produce highly polished books (even some classics) at great speed. Waugh wrote some of his most remarkable novels (Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust and Scoop) within a single decade and composed Put Out More Flags while on a two-month trip back to England during the Second World War. “Although Evelyn dismissed it in a letter to his father as ‘minor work dashed off to occupy a tedious voyage’, it promptly sold 18,000 copies early the next year, despite wartime paper restrictions,” Eade notes.
Reading this biography, one sometimes gets the impression that writing came a little too easily for Waugh. However, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether this is down to his rapid method of composition or Eade’s decision to focus on the man rather than the books (he states that this is “not a ‘critical’ biography in the sense that it does not seek to reassess Evelyn Waugh’s achievements as a writer, but aims to paint a fresh portrait of the man”). The upshot is that even Waugh’s most significant novels seem to simply materialise without much effort. One of his most outstanding books, for example, A Handful of Dust, is conceived of, written, and evaluated in a little over two pages. Eade serenely glides over the work that went into Waugh’s literary output like an ice-skater over a frozen lake. This is a curious decision, as Waugh without the mitigating element of his comic novels can be an unpleasant prospect. Without a fuller picture of his achievements we are left, at times, with a silhouette portrait rather than a true likeness.
One of Waugh’s most overlooked novels, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, does however, offer an interesting, oblique portrait of its author. Written in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown, the book’s hero hates “plastics, Picasso, sun bathing and jazz ‑ everything, in fact, that had happened in his own lifetime”. Unsurprisingly, Waugh himself was hostile to much of modern life and literature. Joyce wrote a load of “gibberish”; he refused to believe that Mrs Dalloway had any merit, and Proust was “mentally defective”. While reading À la recherche du temps perdu for the first time, Waugh wrote to a friend:“[T]he chap was plain barmy. He never tells you the age of the hero and on one page he is being taken into the W.C. in the Champs Elysées by his nurse & the next page he is going to a brothel. Such a load of nonsense.” Waugh, ever the practical craftsman, was disdainful of “nonsense”. For him, intelligibility in literary (not to mention spiritual) terms was of supreme importance.
In the end, Waugh found aging difficult to bear and feared that he was becoming the thing he dreaded most: a bore. Like each of us as we get older, he began to seek greater refuge in the past and longed for a time of greater order. Everywhere he looked, he saw only chaos and disarray. In his autobiography, A Little Learning, he admits how much, after reading HG Well’s novel, he longed for a spin in the time:
What a waste of this magical vehicle to take it prying into the future, as had the hero of the book! The future, dreariest of prospects! Were I in the saddle I should set the engine Slow Astern. To hover gently back through centuries (not more than thirty of them) would be the most exquisite pleasure of which I can conceive. Ever in my own brief life I feel the need of some such device as a failing memory alienates me daily further from my origins and experience.
As the modern world crowded in on Waugh from all sides he cast around for portals into this romantic past. One idea was to decamp to Ireland: he went as far as investigating the possible purchase of a castle. This conjures up an amusing image of a red-faced Tory in tweeds, ear-trumpet in one hand and cigar in the other, continually vexed by his neighbours. Since his wife, Laura, put paid to the plan when she heard of it, we shall never know what comedy he might have mined from rural life in mid-twentieth Ireland.
Waugh died on Easter Sunday 1966 after attending Mass in Latin. He was found in his downstairs lavatory. This seems a fitting end for a man whose life, like his work, was a mixture of sanctity and bleak comedy.
Brian Davey is a writer and reviewer who currently lives in Dublin. His work has appeared in Dublin Inquirer, Headstuff and Earthlines Magazine.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is “Angel of the North” by Éamon Ó Cléirigh, a review, from 2006, of a biography of the eccentric Irish film producer Brian Desmond Hurst. Here is an extract:
[Biographer Christopher] Robbins proved to be a good listener and careful observer, who provides an amusing and informative portrait of a corner of late bohemian London. The milieu in question, presided over by the aging BDH, might be characterised as gay-artistic with occasional visitors – such as Siobhan McKenna – from more normal places. Although lower in creative vitality, it recalls the Soho world of Francis Bacon as described in Daniel Farson’s Never a Normal Man or Anthony Cronin’s evocation in Dead as Doornails of the doomed lives of the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, also acted out against a Soho background. Apart from an undoubted eccentricity, inevitable perhaps in milieus from which women are absent, all three settings were linked by the shared centrality of alcohol.
In gay terms the world which Christopher Robbins entered was utterly out of date, indeed by the 1970s almost archaic. Gay liberation had arrived and the young were elsewhere, in bars in Earl’s Court, discos in Islington and Notting Hill and holidays in Mykonos. This was not for Robbins’s host who, by the time the author met him, was an old man and not about to change the habits and associates of a lifetime. Hurst’s Belgravia can best be seen as a fragment of earlier blendings of bohemia and sexual heterodoxy, dating back to the 1930s if not earlier. Nowhere is this line of descent more evident than in its deeply English linkage of homosexual desire and social class. At an early stage in their friendship, when he may have felt some signposting was required, Hurst remarked to his biographer: “Some people have asked me over the years whether I’m bisexual. In fact I’m trisexual. The Army, the Navy and the Household Cavalry.”
This might be seen as a translation into commercial terms of the world of longing which animates AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, EM Forster’s Maurice and JR Ackerly’s My Father and Myself. What resulted may in part have been opportunism, as working class young men were more available than those of other classes. Nonetheless, for these late Victorians and Edwardians, as for their successors until as late as the 1950s, it seems to have been part of the yin and yang of desire that lover and beloved should come from different social backgrounds. One consequence of the availability of mass travel in the 1960s was that the gay need for differentiation could assume forms other than social class. This, however, was too late for BDH, who well into old age continued to be sexually active with traditional partners. Something of the flavour of these transactions, and of their immense quaintness, is suggested at one point by Hurst’s request to the author: “Run out and buy a half-dozen bottles of Newcastle Brown, will you Christopher? Terry’s coming round and the corporal gets most upset if there’s only champagne to drink.”