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by Bamber Gascoigne

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)


English writer, regarded by many as the leading satirical novelist of his day. Among Emelyn Waugh's most popular books is Brideshead Revisited (1945), depicting the Oxford world of the late 1920s. It was made into a celebrated television series, starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, and shown on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1981. Waugh wrote sixteen novels. He also published travel books and biographies.

"I have been here before," I said ; I had been there before ; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fools' parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer ; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as is given us once or twice in a life-time, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God ; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest." (from Brideshead Revisited, Chapman & Hall, 1945, p. 20)

Evelyn Waugh was born in London into a comfortable middle-class family. Catherine (Raban) Waugh, his mother, was born in India, but grew up in England. Evelyn had a better relationship with her than with his his father, Arthur Waugh (1866-1943), a publisher and literary critic, who preferred Evelyn's older brother Alec. "I am lacking in love," he concluded. Waugh's grandfather Dr. Alexander Waugh (1840-1906), known by his family as 'the Brute,' invented Waugh's Long Fine Dissecting Forceps.

Waugh was educated at Lancing College, Sussex, and at Hertford College, Oxford, where he read modern history. For his disappointment, the behavior of the upper-class student was not especially sophisticated - it was savage and amoral, and at Lancing College Waugh was was bullied by his classmates. Later he returned to his experiences in his novels. His college years Waugh spent in drinking alcohol.

Alec, his brother, had an homosexual relationship at the Sherborn College. After being dismissed, Alec Waugh wrote an autobiographical book of the event, which in practice had prevented Evelyn from entering the same college. Waugh studied in London at Heatherley's Art School. He then worked for a short time as a schoolmaster at Arnold House in North Wales, and then devoted himself to writing. Three years before starting his career in literature, Waugh attempted suicide. He walked out into the water and began swimming but decided to return. "A swarn of jellyfish turned him back." (Evelyn Waugh by Ann Pasternak Slater, 2016, p. 7) Fuelled with admiration for Pre-Raphaelites, Waugh wrote his first book on Rossetti.

His literary reputation Waugh established with the novel Decline and Fall, loosely based on his experiences while he worked as a schoolmaster at Arnold House. In The Times Literary Supplement review of the book Waugh was referred to throughout as "Miss Waugh." (The Wordsworth Book of Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, 1997, p. 294)

The episodic story tells of Paul Pennyfeather who is expelled from Oxford, and gets involved with the wealthy socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde, bound by no law. Eventually Paul takes a new turn in his life, goes to prison, escpes, and decides to enter a clerical career. "So Peter went out, and Paul settled down again in his chair. So the ascetic Ebionites used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed. Paul made a note of it. Quite right to suppress them. Then he tuned out the light and went into his bedroom to sleep."  (Ibid., Chapman & Hall, 1928, p. 239) Waugh's comic commentary and flippant remarks continued the tradition of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw: ""The Welsh," said the Doctor, "are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama. They just sing," he said with disgust, "sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver."" (Ibid., p. 75)

Waugh's next novel, Vile Bodies (1930), which the author described as "a welter of sex and snobbery", caricatured the world of the Bright Young Things of London Society. Vile Bodies gained a huge success, and contributed to the end of "the freak parties." Black Mischief (1932) was inspired by the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie in Abyssinia. A Handful of Dust was an embittered story of adultery. The hero,Tony Last, is betrayed maritally, and ends up in the jungle of British Guyana, where he is forced to read out the novels of Dickens, on an endless loop, to his insane captor. "What I have done is excellent. I don't think it could be better," Waugh stated on his own achievement in a letter to his friend, Diana Cooper. (Evelyn Waugh by Ann Pasternak Slater, 2016, pp. 47-48) Virginia Woolf complained that he did not show interest in social matters as they really were. Scoop (1937), which mocked foreign correspondents, was set in Africa, this time in a fictitious country called Ishmaeliah.

The "happy ending" of Vile Bodies was not in tune with Waugh's own life, which was falling apart. He had fallen in love with Diana Guinness (later Diana Mosley), and his wife Evelyn Gardner had left him for a BBC news editor. The marriage had lasted just over a year. In September 1930 Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism. After the collapse of his marriage, Waugh travelled in Africa and South America. During his career, Waugh published several travel books, and worked as a foreign correspondent, notably in Abessinia to cover the Italian invasion in 1936.

From 1928 to 1937 Waugh travelled widely in Europe, Near East, Africa, and America. In the 1930s, he became a well known figure in aristocratic and fashionable circles, and gradually developed his grandiose vision of aristocracy. His friends and acquaintances provided him with materials for his fiction. In 1937 he married Laura Herbert; the Herberts were all Catholic converts. When he first time met Laura, he described her as a "white mouse". They had six children, though he was believed to be a homosexual.

During the early part of World War II, Waugh served in the Middle East. His commanding officer in Crete, a British base since October 1940, was Robert Laycock. After arriving in Crete in May 1941 they faced chaos and a leadership vacuum.  The fiasco of the Battle of Crete changed Waugh's view of the war, he felt guilty and disillusioned. Waugh described his experience as "tedious & futile & fatiguing". Officers and Gentlemen (1955), the second volume of his WW II trilogy Sword and Honor, is dedicated to Laycock. Its Cretan episode has stirred up considerable debate.

Put Out More Flags (1942) satirized W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who did not serve in the army, but emigrated to the United States. Waugh called them "Parsnip and Pimpernell." Disenchantment with the war, Waugh planned to join MI5, but he was turned down without an interview. In January 1944 took leave in order to write Brideshead Revisited (1945), a nostalgic story about beauty and corruption. Waugh settled in a small hotel in Devonshire, where he completed the manuscript in five months.

This work, which took readers out of the chaos of wartime Britain, gained a great popular success but was also criticized for its admiration of the upper classes. Disappointed in the author's decision to break away from his comic territory, the American writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson said in January 1946 in The New Yorker that "Waugh’s snobbery, hitherto held in check by his satirical point of view, has here emerged shameless and rampant." Benjamin Hart, one of the founders of the conservative Dartmouth Review, said of the book that it "was the stylebook upon which my generation modeled itself.  (Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship by Christopher Hitchens, 2006, p. 39)

Subtitled 'The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder,' the novel tells of the wealthy Roman Catholic Marchmain family. Ryder, the narrator, is a friend of the family. At Oxford he meets Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the Marquis of Marchmain, and his sister Julia. Sebastian flees to North Africa and becomes a menial in an African monastery and Julia marries a non-Catholic politician. By the end of the novel, each has shown some sign of acceptance of the faith. Anthony Blanche, one of the minor characters, was modelled on Brian Howard, a poet and aesthete, who worked for MI5 during World War II. (see 'An Oxford Spy' by John Branston, Morning Star, Tuesday 22 March 2005) The acclaimed Granada television drama from 1981, based on the novel, was more homosexually oriented than the novel.

With his friend, Randolph Churchill, Waugh joined in 1944 a British military mission into Yugoslavia and was injured in a plane accident in July. Most of his company died in the flames - Churchill and Philip Jordan were among the other fortunates. Badly burnt, Waugh was sent to hospotal in Bari. His hands were so badly damaged that he could not hold a pen. The Scottish writer Eric Linklater, who met Waugh in Rome, was shocked to see his colleague's frail and shrunken look, different from his ordinary compact and hardy appeareance. Waugh was then posted to Dubrovnik, where he served as intermediary between the Allies and the Partisans, who were hostile to British.

After the war, Waugh spent much time at Combe Florey in Somerset, sporting exaggeratedly in Edwardian suits, and using a very large ear-trumpet. One of his favorite suits was made of checked cloth. Waugh's major work was the trilogy Sword of Honour (1952-1961). Its central character, Guy Crouchback, enlists in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers to establish his identity. He loses his illusions and departs for action in Alexandria. In the last volume Guy volunteers for service in Italy. Eventually he goes to Yugoslavia as a liaison officer with the partisans and rescues a group of Jewish refuges. In the Epilogue Guy has remarried and he is surrounded with a family.

In 1947 Waugh visited Hollywood as a guest of MGM to discuss a possible film version of Brideshead Revisited. "We drove for a long time down autobahns and boulevards full of vacant lots and filling stations and nondescript buildings and palm trees with a warm hazy light. It was more like Egypt—the suburbs of Cairo or Alexandria—than anything in Europe. We arrived at the Bel Air Hotel—very Egyptian with a hint of Addis Ababa in the smell of the blue gums. . . ." (Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018, edited by David Kipen, 2018, p. 50) Hollywood saw Brideshead purely as a love story. Waugh refused to accept proposed changes and confessed in his diary that he was relieved when the project failed. Next year he made fun of the work of morticians in California in The Loved One (1948).

The biography of Ronald A. Knox (1959) was about Waugh's friend, Father Knox, who was a priest and scholar and prolific essayist, satirist, and novelist. Knox's translation of the Bible, for which he devoted his later life, appeared in 1955. He also published detective novels.

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), about a novelist who abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz, was based on the Waugh's bout of hallucinations, on a sea cruise to Sri Lanka, caused by his use of both alcohol and a drug cocktail consisting of bromide, chroral hydrate, paraldehyde, and Sodium Amytal. ('Evelyn’s Waugh Pinfold Ordeal: Psychosis and sleeping tablets' by Robert M Kaplan, in JOSHA - Journal of Science, Humanities and Arts, March 2022) A Little Learning, the first volume of Waugh's unfinished autobiography, came out in 1964. His letters were published in 1980. Waugh died on April 10, 1966, in Combe Florey, Somerset - he collapsed and died in the toilet. Auberon Waugh described the posthumously published Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (1976) as showing that the world of Evelyn Waugh's novels did in fact exist.

According to an literary anecdote, the author Nancy Mitford had asked Waugh how he could behave so abominably and yet still consider himself a practicing Catholic. "You have no idea," had Waugh replied, "how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being." (The Wordsworth Book of Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, 1997, p. 294)

For further reading: Roman Holiday by A.A. DeVitis (1956); Evelyn Waugh by M. Bradbury (1964); The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh by J.F. Carens (1966); My Brother Evelyn, and Other Profiles by A. Waugh (1967); Evelyn Waugh by D. Lodge (1971); Evelyn Waugh by Christopher Sykes (1975, rev. 1977); Evelyn Waugh by C.W. Lane (1981); The Picturesque Prison by J. Heath (1982); Evelyn Waugh by Martin Stannard (1986); Evelyn Waugh by Selina Hastings (1994); The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography by Douglas Lane Patey (2001); The Autobiography of a Family by Alexander Waugh (2005); Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne (2009); "A Handful of Mischief" - New Essays on Evelyn Waugh, edited by Donat Gallagher, Ann Pasternak Slater, John Howard Wilson (2011) ; Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited by Philip Eade (2016); The Queer Cultures of 1930s Prose: Language, Identity and Performance in Interwar Britain by Charlotte Charteris (2019); Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited: A reader's Companion by Ronald R. Gray (2023) - Note 1: The Finnish writer Anja Kauranen used Brideshead Revisited as a basis for her novel Arabian Lauri (1997). The structure of story, characterizations of central persons and the general nostalgic atmosphere are similar. Kauranen set the events in the 1980s Helsinki. The novel can be read as an independent piece of art, but it was not until the question of plagiarism arose, Kauranen acknowledged her source.  Note 2: Evelyn Waugh's father was head of the publishers, Chapman and Hall, and had contributed to The Yellow Book. Alec Waugh's (1898-1981) works include The Loom of Youth (1917), Island in the Sun (1956), The Mule on the Minaret (1965), My Brother Evelyn and Other Profiles (1967), A Spy in the Family (1970), A Year to Remember (1975). Evelyn Waugh's eldest son Auberon Waugh (d. 2001) published his first book, The Foxglove Saga, in 1960. Among his other works are Country Topics (1974), The Diaries of Auberon Waugh: A Turbulent Decade 1976-85 (1985), Another Voices (1986).


  • Rossetti: His Life and Works, 1928
  • Decline and Fall: An Illustrated Novelette, 1928
    - film: 1965, dir. by John Krish, starring Robin Phillips, Colin Blakely, Leon McKern, Genevieve Page; 2017 (TV mini series), starring Jack Whitehall (Paul Pennyfeather), Douglas Hodge, Stephen Graham, David Suchet
  • Edmund Campion: Jesuit and Martyr
  • Vile Bodies, 1930
    - films: 1970 (TV film), dir. by Alan Cooke, adaptation by Michael Ashe, prod. by BBC; Bright Young Things, 2003, dir. by Stephen Fry, starring Emily Mortimer, Stockard Channing, Hugh Laurie, Dan Ackroyd
  • Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, 1930 (US title: A Bachelor Abroad, 1930)
  • Remote People, 1930 (US title: They Were Still Dancing, 1932)
  • Black Mischief: A Novel, 1932
    - Pimeitä voimia (suom. Niilo Wadenström, 1944)
  • A Handful of Dust, 1934
    - Kourallinen tomua (suom. Tuija Rovamo, 1989)
    - film 1988, dir. by Charles Sturridge, starring James Wilby, Kristin Scott Thomas, Rupert Graves, Anjelica Huston, Judi Dench, Alec Guinness
  • Ninety-two Days: The Account of a Tropical Journey Through British Guiana and Part of Brazil, 1934
  • Edmund Campion: Jesuit and Martyr, 1935 (Hawthornden Prize in 1936)
  • Waugh in Abyssinia, 1936
  • Mr Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories, 1936
    - TV film 2006, Mr. Loveday's Little Outing, prod. by BBC Four, dir. Sam Hobkinson
  • Scoop: A Novel About Journalists, 1938
    - Jymyjuttu: romaani lehtimiehistä (suom. Heikki Salojärvi, 1991)
    - films: 1972, "Scoop" (TV series), adapted by Barry Took et. al., starring Harry Worth, 7 episodes; 1987 (TV film), dir. Gavin Millar, cast: Denholm Elliott, Michael Hordern, Herbert Lom, Nicola Pagett, Donald Pleasence
  • Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object-Lesson, 1939 (US title: Mexico: An Object-Lesson, 1939)
  • Put Out More Flags, 1942
  • Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel, 1942
    - Työ hyllytetty ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Terhi Takanen)
  • Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, 1945
    - Mennyt maailma: kapteeni Charles Ryderin hengelliset ja maalliset muistelmat (suom. Pentti Lehtinen, 1949)
    - film versions: 1981 (TV drama), starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, Granada TV's production, 13 parts; 2008, dir. by Julian Jarrold, starring Matthew Goode, Thomas Morrison, Anna Madeley
  • When the Going Was Good, 1946
  • Scott-King's Modern Europe, 1947 (as A Sojourn in Neutralia, 1947)
  • Wine in Peace and War, 1947 (with decorations by Rex Whistler)
  • The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy, 1948
    - Rakkaamme: angloamerikkalainen tragedia (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1981)
    - film: 1965, dir. by Tony Richardson, starring Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Anjanette Comer, Rod Steiger, script by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood
  • Work Suspended and Other Stories, 1949
    - Työ hyllytetty ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Terhi Takanen, 2004)
  • Helena: A Novel, 1950
  • Men at Arms: A Novel, 1952 (Sword of Honour -trilogy 1952-61)
    - films: 1967 (TV series, in three parts), prod. by BBC, dir. by Donald McWhinnie, adaptation by Giles Cooper; 2001 (TV film), prod. by TalkBack Productions, dir. by Bill Anderson, adaptation by William Boyd
  • The Holy Places, 1952 (with wood engravings by Reynolds Stone)
  • Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future, 1953 (with decorations by various eminent hands including the author’s)
  • Tactical Exercise, 1954
  • Officers and Gentlemen, 1955 (Sword of Honour -trilogy)
  • The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: A Conversation Piece, 1957
  • The World of Evelyn Waugh, 1958 (elected and edited by Charles J. Rolo)
  • The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox: Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and Pronotary Apostolic to His Holiness Pope Pius XII, 1959
  • Unconditional Surrender: The Conclusion of Men at Arms, and, Officers and Gentlemen, 1961 (Sword of Honour -trilogy)
  • A Tourist in Africa, 1960
  • Basil Seal Rides Again; or, The Rake's Regress, 1963
  • A Little Learning:  An Autobiography: The Early Years, 1964
  • The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, 1976 (edited by Michael Davie)
  • A Little Order: A Selection from His Journalism, 1977 (edited by Donat Gallagher)
  • The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, 1980 (edited by Mark Amory)
  • PRB: An Essay on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1847-54, 1982
  • The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, 1984 (edited by Donat Gallagher)
  • Evelyn Waugh, Apprentice: The Early Writings, 1910-1927, 1985 (edited and with an introduction by Robert Murray Davis)
  • Mr. Wu and Mrs. Stitch: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper, 1991 (edited by Artemis Cooper)
  • The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, 1997 (edited by Charlotte Mosley)
  • The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh, 1999
  • A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes, 2000 (edited by Scott M.P. Reid)
  • The Complete Short Stories and Selected Drawings, 2000 (edited and introduced by Ann Pasternak Slater)
  • Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writing, 2003 (with an introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare)
  • The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, 2017- 
  • Helena, 2020 (edited by Sara Haslam)
  • Ninety-two Days, 2021 (edited by Douglas Lane Patey)
  • A Tourist in Africa, 2021 (edited by Patrick R. Query)
  • A Handful of Dust, 2022 (edited by H.R. Woudhuysen)
  • The Loved One, 2023 (edited by Adrian Poole)
  • The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: Conversation Piece, 2023 (The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, Volume 14; edited by Barbara Cooke)

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