Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (28 October 1903 – 10 April 1966) was an English writer, best known for such darkly humorous and satirical novels as Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop, A Handful of Dust, and The Loved One, as well as for serious works, such as Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy, that convey his conservative and Catholic opinions. Many of Waugh's novels depict British aristocracy and high society, which he savagely satirizes but to which he was also strongly attracted. In addition, he wrote short stories, three biographies, and the first volume of an unfinished autobiography. His travel writings and his extensive diaries and correspondence have also been published.
Waugh's works were very successful with the reading public and he was widely admired as a humorist and as a prose stylist, but as his social conservatism and religiosity became more overt, his works grew more controversial with critics. In his notes for an unpublished review of Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell declared that Waugh was "about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions. Martin Amis found that the snobbery of Brideshead was "a failure of imagination, an artistic failure. On the other hand, American literary critic Edmund Wilson pronounced Waugh "the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw. Time magazine, in a 1966 obituary, summarized his oeuvre by claiming that Waugh had "developed a wickedly hilarious yet fundamentally religious assault on a century that, in his opinion, had ripped up the nourishing taproot of tradition and let wither all the dear things of the world.
After Lancing, he attended Hertford College, Oxford as a history scholar. There, Waugh neglected academic work and was known as much for his artwork as for his writing. He also threw himself into a vigorous social scene populated by both aesthetes such as Harold Acton, Brian Howard and David Talbot Rice, as well as members of the British aristocracy and the upper classes. His social life at Oxford would provide the background for some of his most characteristic later writing. Asked if he had competed in any sport for his College, Waugh famously replied "I drank for Hertford." It has been claimed but not proven that he had homosexual relationships during his college years. (In his diary Waugh refers in retrospect to "my homosexual lover".)
Waugh's final exam results qualified him only for a third-class degree. He refused to remain in residence for the extra term that would have been required of him and he left Oxford in 1924 without taking his degree. In 1925 he taught at a private school in Wales. In his autobiography, Waugh claims that he attempted suicide at the time by swimming out to sea, only to turn back after being stung by jellyfish. He was later dismissed from another teaching post for attempting to seduce the matron, telling his father he had been dismissed for "inebriation".
He was briefly apprenticed to a cabinet-maker and afterwards maintained an interest in marquetry, to which his novels have been compared in their intricate inlaid subplots. He also worked as a journalist, before he published his first novel in 1928, Decline and Fall. The title is from Gibbon, but whereas Gibbon charted the bankruptcy and dissolution of Rome, Waugh's was a witty account of quite a different sort of dissolution, following the career of the harmless Paul Pennyfeather, a student of divinity, as he is accidentally expelled from Oxford for indecency ("I expect you'll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir," says the College porter to Paul, "That's what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour") and enters into the worlds of schoolmastering, high society, and the white slave trade. Other novels about England's "bright young things" followed, and all were well received by both critics and the general public.
Waugh entered into a brief, unhappy marriage in 1928 to the Hon. Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred Gardner, youngest daughter of Lord Burghclere and Lady Winifred Herbert, and granddaughter of Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon. Their friends called them "He-Evelyn" and "She-Evelyn." Gardner's infidelity would provide the background for Waugh's novel A Handful of Dust, but in fact her husband had made little effort to make her happy, choosing to spend much time on his own. The marriage ended in divorce in 1930.
Waugh converted to Catholicism and, after his marriage was annulled by the Church, he married Laura Herbert, a Catholic, daughter of Aubrey Herbert, and, like Waugh's first wife, a granddaughter of the 4th Earl of Carnarvon. This marriage was successful, lasting the rest of his life, producing seven children, one of whom, Mary, died in infancy. His son Auberon Waugh followed in his footsteps as a notable writer and journalist.
Waugh's conversion to Catholicism was widely discussed in London society and newspapers in September 1930. In response to the gossip, Waugh made his own contribution in article entitled, "Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me." It wasn't about ritual, said Waugh, nor about submission to the views of others. The essential issue, he believed, was making a choice between Christianity or chaos. Waugh saw in Europe's increasing materialization a major decline in what he felt created Western Civilization in the first place. "It is no longer possible ... ," he wrote, "to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it is based." He added that Catholicism was the "most complete and vital form" of Christianity. His faith and his conviction persisted throughout all the chapters of his life.
At the same time (and perhaps because it integrated both his beliefs and his natural "dark humour"), Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust contain episodes of the most savage farce. In some of his fiction Waugh derives comedy from the cruelty of mischance; ingenuous characters are subject to bizarre calamities in a universe that seems to lack a shaping and protecting God, or any other source of order and comfort. The period between the wars also saw extensive travels around the Mediterranean and Red Sea, Spitsbergen, Africa (most famously Ethiopia) and South America. Sections of the numerous travel books which resulted are often cited as among the best writing in this genre. A compendium of Waugh's favourite travel writing has been issued under the title When The Going Was Good.
Waugh participated in the failed attempt to take Dakar from the Vichy French in late 1940. Following a joint exercise with No.3 Commando (Army), he applied to join them and was accepted. Waugh took part in an ill-fated commando raid on the coast of Libya. As special assistant to the famed commando leader Robert Laycock, Waugh showed conspicuous bravery during the fighting in Crete in 1941, supervising the evacuation of troops while under attack by Stuka dive bombers.
Later, Waugh was placed on extended leave and later reassigned to the Royal Horse Guards. During this period he wrote Brideshead Revisited. He was recalled for a military/diplomatic mission to Yugoslavia in 1944 at the request of his old friend Randolph Churchill. He and Churchill narrowly escaped capture or death when the Germans undertook Operation Rösselsprung, and paratroops and glider-borne storm troops attacked the partisans' headquarters where they were staying. During his time in Yugoslavia Waugh produced a formidable report detailing Tito's persecution of Catholics and the clergy. It was "buried" by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden as being largely irrelevant.
Some of Waugh's best-loved and best-known novels come from this period. Brideshead Revisited (1945) is an evocation of a vanished pre-war England. It is an extraordinary work which in many ways has come to define Waugh and his view of his world. It not only painted a rich picture of life in England and at Oxford University at a time (before World War II) which Waugh himself loved and embellished in the novel, but it allowed him to share his feelings about his Catholic faith, principally through the actions of his characters. Amazingly, he was granted leave from the war to write it. The book was applauded by his friends, not just for an evocation of a time now — and then — long gone, but also for its examination of the manifold pressures within a traditional Catholic family. It was a huge success in Britain and in the United States. Decades later a television adaptation (1981) achieved popularity and acclaim in both countries, and around the world; a film adaptation has been released in 2008. Waugh revised the novel in the late 1950s because he found parts of it "distasteful on a full stomach" by which he meant that he wrote the novel during the gray privations of the latter war years.
Much of Waugh's war experience is reflected in the Sword of Honour trilogy. It consists of three novels, Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961), which loosely parallel his wartime experiences. His trilogy, along with his other work after the 1930s, became some of the best books written about the Second World War. Many of his portraits are unforgettable, and often show striking resemblances to noted real personalities. Waugh biographer Christopher Sykes, felt that the fire-eating officer in the Sword of Honour trilogy, Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook, "...bears a very strong resemblance to..." Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart VC, a friend of the author's father-in-law. Waugh was familiar with Carton de Wiart through the club to which he belonged. The fictional commando leader, Tommy Blackhouse, is based on Major-General Sir Robert Laycock, a real-life commando leader and friend of Waugh's, whom he greatly admired.
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) depicts its hero's steady descent into madness — the experience was actually Waugh's own, the result of mixing sleeping medication with alcohol that induced a severe bout of paranoia that reached its peak on a sea voyage to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). During this period he wrote Helena (1953), a fictional account of the Empress Helena and the finding of the True Cross, which he regarded as his best work.
Waugh's health declined in later life. He put on weight, and the sleeping draughts he continued to take, combined with alcohol, cigars and little exercise, weakened his health. His productivity also declined, and his output was uneven. His last published work, Basil Seal Rides Again, revisiting the characters of his earliest satirical works, did not meet critical or popular approval, but is still read today. At the same time, he continued as a journalist and was well received.
He appeared in two television interviews with the BBC in the early 1960s, the only time his appearance was recorded publicly, during which the interviewers sought to corner him as an anachronistic figure. He overcame them, particularly in the second interview with novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard on the Monitor programme in 1964. (The other interview was on John Freeman's Face to Face series broadcast on 18 June 1960.) An earlier radio interview on the BBC Home Service in 1953 was somewhat less convivial.
Waugh's diaries, published in the 1970s, were widely acclaimed. His correspondence with lifelong friends, such as Nancy Mitford, is still published today. He is a fruitful source for biographers; three major works have been produced since Christopher Sykes's friendly and familiar account of Waugh's life was published in the 1970s.
Evelyn Waugh died, aged 62, on 10 April 1966, after attending a Latin Mass on Easter Sunday. He suffered a heart attack in the lavatory of his home, Combe Florey. His estate at probate was valued at £20,068. This did not include the value of his lucrative copyrights, which Waugh put in a trust (humorously named the 'Save the Children Fund') for his children. He is buried at Combe Florey, Somerset.
If the beliefs of critics such as Myers are true (and there are many who think they are mistaken), then Waugh's work might best be described as anarchic humour rather than satire. From this perspective, Waugh seems to skewer everything, not just the aspects of society that err from his ideal.