The Trouble With Evelyn Waugh

Review: Philip Eade, 'Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited'

Evelyn Waugh / Library of Congress
• October 22, 2016 4:59 am


In his notes for a review of Brideshead Revisited that he never completed, George Orwell remarked that Evelyn Waugh "is about as good a novelist as one can be…while holding untenable opinions." Orwell puts it in the plural but identifies only one such opinion in Waugh’s Brideshead: His belief in God and assent to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. "One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up."

While not defending Waugh’s Catholicism, Christopher Hitchens took exception with Orwell’s couching of Waugh’s accomplishment in a 2003 piece for the Atlantic. Waugh wrote "brilliantly," Hitchens argued, "precisely because he loathed the modern world"—a loathing that preceded his conversion to Catholicism (and was used to great effect in Decline and Fall).

What Hitchens missed in an otherwise entertaining look at Waugh’s satirical gifts was how Waugh’s Catholicism gave his loathing fuel and complexity—the world will be burned, but it will also be made new—while preventing him from writing his most bitter novel, Vile Bodies, over and over again. That Hitchens thought Waugh’s decision to write obliquely about sex in his novels rather than with a schoolboyish relish in mechanical detail was a sign of immaturity tells us more about Hitchens than it does Waugh, who could be unabashedly frank about sex in his letters to his friends and second wife.

Philip Eade’s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited—the first biography of the British novelist in nearly twenty years—provides a fair overview of those trenchant opinions, judiciously colored with Waugh’s best repartees. At 11, for example, Evelyn told a family friend: "Terrible man, my father. He likes Kipling." After he lost out on a possible position with a Major General Ivor Thomas for showing up drunk in his mess hall, Waugh wrote: "I told him I could not change the habits of a lifetime for a whim of his." When John Freeman of the BBC asked Waugh in 1960 why he agreed to be interviewed on television if all he wanted, he claimed, was to be left alone, he replied: "Poverty. We’ve both been hired to talk in this deliriously happy way."

They’re all here. So, too, are the major events of Waugh’s life: His early years at home, where he was known as "Wuffles," and his attachment to his mother and his nanny, Lucy; his increasing bitterness toward his father, publisher and critic Arthur Waugh, for his preferential treatment of his older brother Alexander; his precociousness in academics and bullying at grammar school and Lancing; his dissipation and homosexual trysts at Oxford; his graduation with a humbling "Third" and two-and-a-half years of teaching at increasingly less prestigious secondary schools; his short-lived marriage to Evelyn Gardner; the surprising success of Decline and Fall; his conversion to Rome; a long and happy marriage to Laura Herbert, the granddaughter of Lady Evelyn Charteris de Vesci, and his many years of ambivalent fatherhood to six children; his courageous service in WWII; his trips to Israel, British Guyana, the West Indies, Mexico, California, and elsewhere; his addiction to pain killers and temporary insanity caused by bromide poisoning; his 300-bottles-of-wine-a-year habit; and his purchase of Piers Court and, later, Combe Florey, where he died of a heart attack in his bathroom after Easter Mass.

There are a few new details drawn from new source materials. Eade gives a more accurate account of when the two Evelyns met thanks to the discovery of her 19-page account of her marriage to Waugh, which she left for her children. Otherwise, we don’t learn much we don’t already know. Shevelyn, as Gardner was called while she and Evelyn were married, was from an old, respectable but not particularly wealthy family, good looking and thoroughly modern. She claimed Proust was her favorite author, but always referred to him as "old Prousty-wousty." The marriage was doomed from the start.

More substantially, Eade provides the most detailed portrait to date of Waugh’s failed courtship of Teresa "Baby" Jungman and sets straight Waugh’s military record. While Waugh was generally lauded for his bravery in battle, he and his commanding officer, Bob Laycock, were posthumously accused of disobeying orders, evacuating early from Crete, and lying about it. As Eade shows, drawing from new secondary research and recently discovered documents, including Laycock’s unseen memoir, neither Laycock nor Waugh did anything dishonorable or break or fabricate any orders in leaving Crete when they did.

What’s missing in Eade’s Evelyn Waugh, however, is the man himself. We are told a great deal about Waugh—about what he said and did—but are rarely treated to any exploration of why he said and did those things. Eade chalks most of them up to Waugh’s bitterness at his father’s preference for his brother and Napoleonic competitiveness. (Waugh was short, we are reminded.) As real as Waugh’s bitterness and competitiveness may have been, surely there was more to the man.

Strangely, Eade devotes a mere two pages to Waugh’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, which was so important to him throughout his life and which, as we see above, all critics took seriously in evaluating his work, whatever they thought of the Church itself. This is a man, after all, who told John Freeman that faith in God "isn’t a sort of added amenity of the Welfare State that you say, ‘Well, to all this, having made a good income, now I’ll have a little icing on top of religion.’ It’s the essence of the whole thing." How faith connects to architecture and history, beauty and truth, for Waugh is ignored completely. (Those interested in this can turn to Michael Brennan’s 2013 study Evelyn Waugh: Fictions, Faith, and Family.) While Eade’s life of Waugh is not a "critical" biography, the absence of any extended analysis of his work for what it tells us about the man is puzzling in a biography of a writer whose fiction was so autobiographical.

Eade is a gifted narrator and a master at providing the right quote at the right time at just the right length, avoiding, thankfully, the temptation (which must have been acute in the case of Waugh) of ventriloquism or the overuse of block quotes. With two of Waugh’s three biographies currently out of print and with Waugh’s Complete Works scheduled to be published in 43 volumes (including 12 volumes of Waugh’s letters and diaries) between now and 2020, Eade’s account of Waugh’s life (undertaken at the request of Waugh’s grandson, Alexander) will be a useful starting point for the biographies or more specialized studies of Waugh to follow.

Published under: Book reviews