BORN: 1903, West Hampstead, London
DIED: 1966, Somerset, England
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
Decline and Fall (1928)
A Handful of Dust (1934)
Brideshead Revisited (1945)
The Loved One (1947)
Evelyn Waugh. Waugh, Evelyn, photograph by Mark Gerson. Reproduced by permission of Mark Gerson.
Evelyn Waugh ranks as one of the outstanding satiric novelists of the twentieth century. During a four-decade-long career, Waugh was thought by many critics to be England’s most prominent man of letters. Savage wit and an enviable command of the English language were hallmarks of his style. He was admired by critics and the reading public alike for his portrayal of the attitudes, foibles, and virtues of the British aristocracy, but the author also wrote short stories, travel narratives, biographies, and one volume of an unfinished autobiography.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Religion a Prominent Part of Education at Lancing. Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh was born on October 28, 1903, in Hampstead, England. He grew up in a comfortable middle-class London suburb, the son of Arthur Waugh, a well-known literary critic and publisher, and Catherine Charlotte Raban Waugh. Reading and writing were a daily part of the Waugh household, and books were always a major topic of discussion. When Evelyn was seven, he wrote a short story that was published in an adult collection of narratives.
In addition to literature, Waugh showed an early interest in religion. He attended Lancing preparatory school, known for educating sons of Anglican clergymen. At Lancing, chapel attendance every morning and evening was compulsory, and on Sundays, attendance at three services was required. Waugh later recalled that he never thought this requirement excessive. As his education continued, however, Waugh came in contact with more rebellious and undisciplined schoolmates. He and his artistically and literarily inclined companions began to dominate Lancing school life. Before he left Lancing, Waugh realized he had ceased being a Christian. This occurred because of his association with more freethinking companions, because of his considerable reading of philosophy, and, ironically, because one of his Anglican clergyman-instructors instilled in him serious doubts about religious orthodoxy.
Oxford and a True Calling. After Lancing, Waugh continued his studies in 1921 at Oxford. There, Waugh soon became associated with a different crowd, an arty, well-established group at the university that engaged in a considerable amount of socializing, party-going, and drinking. Because Waugh did only a minimal amount of studying at oxford, he was forced to leave the university in his third year (1924) without a degree and saddled with debts.
After oxford, Waugh decided to become a schoolmaster, but he was fired from three schools in less than two years, drank heavily, and gradually became so depressed about his lack of success that he attempted suicide. He noted many years later that during this period of his life, he was really avoiding the vocation that had been his since childhood. In 1927, however, he began to write steadily, and after the publication of a few short pieces, he published his first novel, Decline and Fall, which gained him much attention.
Waugh’s fame as a humorist and prose stylist developed thereafter in the period between the two World Wars. During this time, he produced many of his most well-regarded books written in the same vein of farce and burlesque, including Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), Scoop (1938), and The Loved One (1948). In a more serious mode, he published A Handful of Dust (1934) and Helena (1950).
Conversion to Catholicism. Catholicism, in particular, influenced Waugh’s works after he became a convert in 1930. The conversion created so much fanfare in London society at the time that Waugh responded by writing an article entitled ‘‘Converted to Rome: Why It Happened to Me,’’ in which he claimed his conversion was not about religious orthodoxy but about making a choice between Christianity and chaos. Waugh’s choice had come during his unhappy marriage to aristocrat Evelyn Gardner that lasted from 1928 to 1930. Although Waugh himself denied that his divorce had been an important catalyst behind his conversion, many critics and commentators feel that Waugh’s conversion was a direct result of the end of his first marriage and the personal life crisis that his wife’s adultery (which prompted the divorce) caused him.
After the divorce, Waugh searched for life circumstances in which marriage vows would be taken seriously and moral values constantly emphasized. In 1936, after many years of frustration, he secured an annulment of his first marriage, and then married Laura Herbert, a young woman from a staunch Roman Catholic family. (Roman Catholics are not permitted to marry people who have been divorced; an annulment is a retroactive cancellation of a marriage.)
Patriotism and Disillusionment. Always patriotic, no matter how much he may have satirized and ridiculed British follies, Waugh took the earliest opportunity when war broke out in 1939 to join the military and defend his country. Although his age was against him (he had passed his midthirties), Waugh finally succeeded in getting the Royal Marines to accept him in December 1939. He saw service in West Africa and Crete, and as a British liaison officer he parachuted into Yugoslavia, where he narrowly escaped death in the crash of a transport plane. Later, during a period of leave and transition, he completed the most controversial of his novels, Brideshead Revisited (1945), and it immediately made him famous. The book became a best-seller in England and the United States, but by this time, Waugh had become severely disillusioned by the war and deeply disturbed by the evil he saw in contemporary society. He grew unhappy and introverted, characteristics that lasted until his death of a heart attack on April 10, 1966.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Waugh's famous contemporaries include:
D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930): A prolific and diverse writer whose collected works illustrated the vile effects of modernity and industrialization.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): Regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century, Woolf's novels explored the nature of history, identity, and gender.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): As one of the most famous figures in twentieth-century art, this Spanish painter, draftsman, and sculptor is best known for having helped establish the Cubist movement and for the wide variety of styles embodied in his work.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955): This German-born, Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist is best known for his theory of relativity.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965): This Nobel Prize-winning author, orator, and statesman is best known for his leadership of Great Britain as the nation's Prime Minister during World War II.
Works in Literary Context
Many critics declared Waugh’s first book, Decline and Fall, to be central to the modern movement in literature. Modernism was a cultural and artistic movement affirming the power of human progress, often through scientific knowledge and practical experimentation. Other modernists were more pessimistic, but as a group, they embraced the idea that the World Wars clearly meant that it was now time to disrupt old approaches and replace them with new ones. Waugh’s brand of modernism manifested as cynicism, savage fantasy, and satire. Critics past and present have described his novels as funny, witty, and inventive in their attacks on vice and hypocrisy.
Satire is a form of writing in which the author criticizes elements of society or human nature, often in a way that on the surface seems to support the very thing the author is criticizing. Satirists usually rely on humor as a way to make their criticisms entertaining and therefore more likely to be accepted by readers. Decline and Fall is a good example of Waugh’s satiric prose style. Through the novel’s innocent main character, Paul Pennyfeather, Waugh draws a comic portrait of British high society in the 1920s. Pennyfeather is expelled from Oxford because of a lack of aristocratic connections and money to pay a fine he does not deserve, while those who committed a dishonorable act against him are wealthy students who can easily afford to pay their fines. Pennyfeather’s discoveries during his subsequent tenure as a schoolmaster emphasize that most of the teachers are either not interested in their profession or are unqualified for their jobs. The glorious tradition of sports as a character-building occupation that induces fair play is disgraced by a track- and-field day dominated by cheating, injury (even an eventual death), arguments, and racial hostilities. As the novel progresses, old burglars are transformed into members of Parliament, hypocrisy abounds, and the wealthy owe their fortunes to their corruption.
Throughout the presentation of disorder and evil in Decline and Fall, Waugh added two additional features to the detachment of his prose: black humor and disjointed dialogue, which years later became identified with the theater of the absurd. Indeed Waugh is one of the first, if not the first, to blend these two elements successfully in one book. Yet, as several scholars have noted, Waugh drew his inspiration from an earlier, lesser-known author named Ronald Firbank. Firbank had been effective in using fragmentary and exceptionally concise dialogue in a fresh, comic way. He was also talented in handling sly innuendos and revelations of characterization presented in a cold, detached manner so that no moral judgment appeared to be operative. Waugh took Firbank’s techniques, perfected them, and added his own ingredients. Influenced as well by Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, John Ruskin, and Saki (H. H. Munro), Waugh added a polished classical style, a greater subtlety of phrasing than Firbank was capable of, and a rare flamboyant comic touch.
The other great influence on Waugh’s writing was Catholicism following his conversion in 1930. This newfound religious purpose is first reflected in A Handful of Dust (1934). Largely autobiographical, the novel traces the collapse of Tony and Brenda Last’s marriage after Brenda has an affair with John Beaver. Brenda’s affair is encouraged by her sophisticated London friends. The novel ends in tragicomedy. A despairing Tony travels to the Brazilian jungle to forget his troubles but is taken prisoner by Mr. Todd. Todd, a devotee of Charles Dickens, forces Tony into reading to him from Dickens’s novels, presumably for the rest of his life. On a deeper level, the novel is an intense and bitter examination of humanism and modern society. The wild satire of Waugh’s previous novels has gone; in its place is a more subtle satire and biting irony. Critics noted that the novel deals with the horror of modern amorality, calling it a classic portrayal of contemporary savagery. While A Handful of Dust was strongly Catholic in tone, it was not until Brideshead Revisited that Waugh wrote an overtly Catholic novel.
Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s most successful novel, chronicles twenty years in the lives of the Marchmains, a wealthy English Catholic family. It is narrated by Charles Ryder, who befriends Sebastian Marchmain while attending Oxford University in the 1920s and is later engaged to Sebastian’s sister, Julia. Sebastian is an alcoholic; Julia has her first marriage annulled; and their father, long separated from his wife, returns to the Church only on his deathbed.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
A major theme common to many of Waugh's novels is the horror of twentieth-century amorality and the modern "wasteland," where people give only lip service to principles. Here are some other works that share this theme:
In Our Time (1925), a collection of stories and vignettes by Ernest Hemingway. This collection was American author Ernest Hemingway's breakthrough work. The story ''Big Two-Hearted River'' is about a man looking for consolation in the world that to him seems wrecked and desolate.
The Waste Land (1922), a poem by T. S. Eliot. This highly influential modernist poem is about personal isolation and decaying contemporary life.
Endgame (1957), a play by Samuel Beckett. This play is about four characters locked in a room in a postapocalyptic world and how they deal with their mundane existence.
Less than Zero (1985), a novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Easton's debut novel examines the empty lives of rich, spoiled young college students.
Works in Critical Context
In addition to some who do not relate well to his often sardonic comic touches, there are those critics who fault Waugh for not having a ‘‘social consciousness’’ and for being too conservative. His emphasis on religion in his later works has also not been well received in secular humanistic circles. Nevertheless, Waugh’s overall literary achievement is considerable. He has presented an arresting historical portrait of British society and manners from the early 1920s to the end of the World War II era.
Decline and Fall
It is difficult to imagine a novel today that publishers would require the author to preface with a disclaimer such as Waugh’s: ‘‘Please bear in mind throughout that it is meant to be funny.’’ Yet Decline and Fall was so detached in its presentation of injustice and immorality and outrageous occurrences that parts of the book were censored and the prefatory note was required before publication could be permitted. It did appear that Waugh was allowing all seven deadly sins to hold sway and was enjoying the triumph of evil and decadence in the novel with the most carefree attitude possible.
Critic Anthony Burgess argued that Decline and Falls continuing power is due to its underlying moral purpose. ‘‘Waugh’s humour,” Burgess wrote, ‘‘is never flippant. Decline and Fall would not have maintained its freshness for nearly forty years if it had not been based on one of the big themes of our Western literature—the right of the decent man to find decency in the world.''
Because of its essentially Catholic message and its alleged idealization of the English upper classes, Brideshead Revisited proved to be Waugh’s most controversial novel. Many critics attacked the book for its sentimentality and seeming affection for English gentry. According to L. E. Sissman in the New Yorker, the Catholicism and conservatism in Brideshead Revisited made the book nearly unpalatable to critics. Critic Bernard Bergonzi attacked the book because, as he wrote, ‘‘the aristocracy—particularly the Catholic aristocracy—were seen as the unique custodians of the traditional values in a world increasingly threatened by the barbarians.’’ At the same time, other important critics rejected such statements and lauded the book as Waugh's greatest. Brad Leithauser of the New Republic, for example, argued that Waugh’s Catholicism ‘‘gives Brideshead Revisited, the most unfairly denigrated of his novels, its submerged power: Brideshead was... the book in which Waugh invested the most of himself: in some ways, it was the book of his life.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Waugh was a harsh critic of the upper-class youth of his time. What do you think his opinion would be of today’s youth? What about today’s youth might he satirize?
2. Waugh was one of many British writers who lived for a time in Los Angeles and worked for the film industry. Many expatriate Brits belonged to the Hollywood Cricket Club, which Waugh satirizes in The Loved One. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the Hollywood Cricket Club. Write a paper tracing its history.
3. Waugh was hurt by his first wife’s adultery and seems almost preoccupied with the idea of adultery in some of his novels. Do you think general attitudes toward adultery have changed since Waugh's time? If so, how?
Doyle, Paul A. Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969.
Hastings, Selena. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Lodge, David. Evelyn Waugh. Columbia Essays on Modern Writers 58. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.
Pryce-Jones, David, ed. Evelyn Waugh and His World. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973.
Stannard, Martin. Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939. New York: Norton, 1987.
________. Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966. New York: Norton, 1992.
Stannard, Martin, ed. Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.
Stopp, Frederick J. Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist. London: Chapman & Hall, 1958.
Four BBC Audio Interviews with Evelyn Waugh. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/audiointerviews/profilepages/waughe1.shtml.
Pearce, Joseph. Evelyn Waugh. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www.catholicauthors.com/waugh.html.