Captivating portrait of Evelyn Waugh
Biography: Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, Philip Eade, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hdbk, 432 pages, €39.50
Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30
A biography to mark the 50th anniversary of the notoriously cantankerous writer's death is a gloriously entertaining indulgence, writes our reviewer.
Evelyn Waugh's fatal weakness was an inability to resist a cutting line. Even at Oxford, he was ready to savagely skewer his dearest friends' pretensions if it made for a witty paragraph in the university magazine. This notorious indiscretion resulted in a rich seam of letters and diaries which a long line of grateful biographers have mined ever since.
This latest addition has been published to mark the 50th anniversary of the novelist's death and draws extensively on material in the Waugh family's own archive. What emerges is a captivating portrait of a man who went out of his way to appear much more cantankerous, cold and intolerant than he really was, ever since leaving Oxford with a Third in Modern History - "not even a good one", as his scornful tutor wrote to him afterwards - having found better ways to spend his time.
Brideshead Revisited later immortalised this period, the identity of his drinking friends barely disguised. In one escapade, he was arrested for drunkenness and "made a bad impression as he appeared in court in pink trousers and a green high-necked jumper, and cheeked the police".
After university, he visited Dublin ("a most unattractive place, full of barbed wire and ruins and soldiers and unemployed"), before going to work as a schoolmaster in Wales, though he was soon dismissed from that job, ending up at another school in London where "all the masters drop their aitches and spit in the fire and scratch their genitals" and the boys "pick their noses and scream at each other in a cockney accent".
The roaring success of his first novel, Decline and Fall, published when Waugh was only 25, offered a way out, and he grasped it eagerly, relishing his new-found celebrity and the chance to earn huge sums of money writing travel and opinion features for newspapers.
His love life was simultaneously disastrous, but, a lingering longing for pretty young men aside, he was desperate to settle down, and, after falling in love with Evelyn Gardner, daughter of a Liberal Lord, proposed to her with the words: "Let's get married and see how it goes".
The union between Waugh and "Shevelyn", as she became known to their friends, was doomed from the start. She'd previously gone for "solid 100pc he-men", and thought Waugh would be more diverting company, but it turned out that she preferred sex appeal to intellectual stimulation after all, and soon left him for another man.
Waugh was devastated, famously converting to Catholicism, though piety didn't stop him pursuing carnal appetites that justifiably seem abhorrent to modern sensibilities, writing home from one foreign trip of finding "little Arab girls of 15 and 16 for 10 francs each & a cup of mint tea, so I bought one but I didn't enjoy".
By this time, he was already in love again - with Laura Herbert, Catholic youngest daughter of an explorer. When the annulment of his first marriage finally came through, he delivered his second proposal: "I can't advise you in my favour, because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact it's a lousy proposition."
Laura accepted. They bought a large house in Somerset, and children soon followed, who all bored Waugh mightily when they were young, and he made no effort to hide it. When the house was full of his offspring, he would wander about, singing "oh the hell of it, oh the smell of it, oh the hell of the family life". One senses that he enlisted to fight in World War II partly to escape the horror of domesticity.
Huge sales of Brideshead Revisited brought a certain financial stability, but there was a downside: "My book has been a great success in the United States, which is upsetting because I thought it in good taste and now I know it can't be."
Waugh headed across the Atlantic to be feted, warned beforehand that he had the reputation there of "being a difficult, tetchy, irritating and rude customer". He was cautioned to treat Americans like children. Waugh's reply was typical: "I believe little boys should be very frequently whipped and sent to bed supperless."
In New York, he hated the talkative cab drivers ("it's an outrage to be charged for such boredom"), and much of his humour was lost on his hosts; but he had an unexpectedly good time in California, and returned with "a great shapeless chunk of experience", which he duly put to good use in his next novel, The Loved One. Its US success again appalled him.
Waugh found himself increasingly at odds with the modern world. He hated the welfare state and the "Age of the Common Man", and was forced to defend his barbed humour against censorious TV interviewers who accused him of racism and snobbery.
Philip Eade deftly rallies round his subject on this score, concluding that his most outrageous statements were simply "self parody and mischievous provocation, or stemmed from a compulsion to say the unsayable"; but for Waugh it was a losing battle.
The world had changed, and he was sick, unable to work, thinking "all fates worse than death", and he died in 1966 at the age of only 62, surely much to his satisfaction, on Easter Sunday after attending Latin Mass.
There have been many biographies of Evelyn Waugh, and A Life Revisited is up there with the best of them. It's exhaustively indexed and annotated, featuring 37 pages of notes and a bibliography running to nearly 200 titles, but at heart it's a gloriously entertaining indulgence. There isn't a single dull page in the whole book, and it could easily be twice as long without overstaying its welcome. After all, who could resist any book whose photographs bear titles such as "Evelyn with Penelope Betjeman and her horse in the drawing room at Faringdon House"?