The English author Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh (1903-1966) ranks as one of the outstanding satiric novelists of the 20th century. Hilariously savage wit and complete command of the English language were hallmarks of his style.
Evelyn Waugh was born in London on Oct. 28, 1903. He was the son of Arthur Waugh, critic, author, and editor of many books, who was the influential chairman of the London publishing firm Chapman and Hall. Evelyn's elder brother, Alec, became a novelist and writer of travel books. Evelyn was educated at Lancing and at Oxford University, where his deeply religious temperament and literary abilities, which had manifested themselves early, received encouragement. He became a convert to the Roman Catholic Church in 1930.
Waugh enlisted in the Royal Marines in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II. He later shifted to the commandos, with the rank of major, and served until 1945. 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. After the war he settled in Gloucestershire, with his wife and their three sons and three daughters. In 1946 he wrote: "I live in a shabby stone house in the country, where nothing is under a hundred years old except the plumbing and that does not work. I collect old books in an inexpensive, desultory way. I have a fast-emptying cellar of wine and gardens fast reverting to the jungle. I am very contentedly married. I have numerous children whom I see once a day for ten, I hope, awe-inspiring minutes."
In 1946 Waugh made a widely acclaimed lecture tour in the United States. One interviewer described him as looking "a little like a boyish Winston Churchill." Another wrote of him: "Conservatively dressed, bland and cherubic in appearance, his manner sardonic, he brought to life the spirit of his work." At this time Waugh announced that in his future work he had two primary concerns: "a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which, to me, means only one thing, man in his relation to God."
The English critic Philip Toynbee, in reviewing a biographical portrait of Waugh written by a country neighbor, Frances Donaldson, wrote in the Observer in 1968: "What does emerge with great freshness is that Waugh was a man who could charm the birds off a tree; that he could be the best possible company—witty, extravagant, ebullient; that his aggressiveness, exclusiveness, fear of boredom and fierce love of privacy were all far stronger emotions than his 'soft-centred' (Mrs. Donaldson's good phrase) regard for the upper classes. What emerges, too, is that he was exceptionally kind and considerate to unknown writers—a great and rare quality in a successful author—and that he was capable of the most notable self-sacrifice." Waugh died in Taunton, Somerset, on April 10, 1966.
Waugh's literary production divides into three categories: novels, travel books, and biographies (the latter category including his incomplete autobiography). He also wrote a small number of short stories.
Waugh burst upon the literary scene, taking the British public by storm and making his youthful reputation, with his first novel, Decline and Fall, in 1928. In the same vein of farce and burlesque, always mordant, Waugh published Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), Scoop (1938), Put Out More Flags (1942), Scott-King's Modern Europe (1947), The Loved One (1948), and Love among the Ruins (1953). In a more serious vein he published A Handful of Dust (1934), Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel (1942), and Helena (1950).
In his novels of the 1920s and 1930s Waugh looked coldly through very conservative eyes on modern technology and encroaching democracy as the ancient British class system began to atrophy. Seeing his disenchanted world clearly, he expressed his cynicism with savage fantasy and satire. His early novels were brilliantly funny, attacking real follies. His satire was sharp, unencumbered, and to the point; his stories were furiously witty and inventive. His later novels became petulant at the disintegration of the staid, stable, snobbish, values of the England he knew.
Waugh's greatest popular success was Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Charles Ryder (1945). It was a frankly serious novel about the decline of an aristocratic English Catholic family. Many critics consider it his finest book. John K. Hutchens wrote of it: "Brideshead Revisited has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime, in the full powers of an eager, good mind and a skilled hand, retaining the best of what he has already learned. It tells an absorbing story in imaginative terms." Other critics, particularly English ones, complained that the book was a Catholic tract.
The Loved One, displaying Waugh's satiric brilliance, was a farce set in a deluxe funeral park in Hollywood. It was based upon burial customs at Forest Lawn Cemetery there. Orville Prescott described it as "brilliantly amusing satire, " and Wolcott Gibbs wrote that it was "as rich and subtle and unnerving as anything its author has ever done."
The Men at Arms trilogy—Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and The End of the Battle (1961)—was based on Waugh's experiences in World War II. The final text of the trilogy, revised to be read as a single story, was published as Sword of Honor (1966). Other fiction of the 1950s included Tactical Exercise (1954), a collection of shorter satiric works that contained Love among the Ruins. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) reveals much about Waugh's attitudes toward his own work and personality.
Aside from an early biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1928), Waugh wrote two other biographies: Edmund Campion, Jesuit and Martyr (1935) and The Life of Ronald Knox (1959). The first volume of his projected three-volume autobiography appeared in 1964. Entitled A Little Learning: The Early Years, it is an amusing and thoughtful chronicle of the author's early life.
Waugh traveled extensively throughout the 1930s and 1940s and he recorded his impressions of the impact of Western civilization on indigenous social patterns in a series of travel books. They include Labels (1930), Remote People (1932), Ninety-two Days (1934), When the Going Was Good (1947), and A Tourist in Africa (1960).
Biographical works on Waugh include Christopher Hollis's pamphlet, Evelyn Waugh (1954); Frances Donaldson, Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbour (1967); and Alec Waugh, My Brother Evelyn, and Other Portraits (1968). The best overall general survey of Waugh's career is James Francis Carens, The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh (1966), although it lacks the acute insights into Waugh's comedy found in Malcolm Bradbury, Evelyn Waugh (1964), and the perceptions of Waugh's artistry in Frederick J. Stopp, Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist (1958). □