Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Evelyn Waugh, one of the greatest English writers of the twentieth century and, according to quite a few contemporaries, the most disagreeable man they ever met. Waugh has already been the subject of three important full-scale biographies and countless critical studies, and has played a signal role in a number of histories and memoirs. Now another biography appears in the shape of Philip Eade’s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited. Aside from having been suggested by Evelyn Waugh’s grandson, Alexander, as an anniversary commemoration, the ostensible reason for the book’s existence is that its author has been able to draw on material not previously seen by earlier biographers, chiefly Waugh’s letters to Teresa “Baby” Jungman — for whom he entertained an unrequited passion — and a brief, unpublished memoir written by his first wife, Evelyn, or “She-Evelyn,” as people liked to say.

Arthur Evelyn St John Waugh was the second son of a publisher, a man who preferred his firstborn son, Alec, over the younger Evelyn to a grotesque extent; and in time Waugh returned the favor by despising his father as a sentimental clown. His schooldays were more unhappy than otherwise, but he found joy at Oxford, where he came into one of his personas — that of the homosexual wit, high liver, wine bibber, friend to the great, and entertaining guest at grand country estates. Eade spends more time than previous biographers poring over questions of whom Waugh slept with, what he did in that regard with whom, when, and for how long. To this end, he includes a photograph of the nude person and nice bottom of Alastair Graham, Waugh’s “friend of [his] heart” and one of the models for Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead Revisited.

Waugh left Oxford with a discreditable Third and a devotion to drink (“There is nothing like the aesthetic pleasure of being drunk . . . That is the greatest thing Oxford has to teach”). With no real plans for making a living, Waugh took a stab at becoming an artist but was finally forced by penury to take a position teaching at a ghastly boys’ school in Wales (the model for Llanabba of Decline and Fall). After a year at the place, his future seemed so bleak that — he claimed — he swam out to sea intending to drown himself, but, encountering jellyfish, promptly swam back to shore. He then took up two further teaching posts, a stint of learning cabinetmaking and writing for a newspaper, Waugh published a well-received biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, married Evelyn Gardner, and emerged as England’s most celebrated young novelist with the publication of Decline and Fall — one of the funniest novels ever written. His marriage lasted only a little over a year before his wife went off with another man. It was a shaming, scarring experience Waugh never got over, and it clearly contributed to his vision of the world as a place of the damned. Indeed, the betrayal occurred as he was writing Vile Bodies, and Eade notes, as others have, that the darker hue of the novel’s second half reflects this. Its effect is even more directly evident in to A Handful of Dust, which some consider his greatest work.

As a young person, Waugh had shown a religious streak that faded in and out of sight through the years, but, after the breakup of his marriage, it concentrated itself in his decision to become a Roman Catholic in 1930. With regard to more earthly matters, he traveled as a newspaper correspondent to Abyssinia for the coronation of Haile Selassie (and later to cover Mussolini’s invasion), to South America, to the Mediterranean, and to Norway for some unsuccessful glacier climbing, all of which eventually produced travel writing and elements of novels (Black Mischief, Scoop). Meanwhile he was pursuing Baby Jungman and besieging her with billets-doux. Though these letters have not been used by previous biographers, it must be said that they do not really add anything and, judging by the snippets included here, they are pretty dull, especially by Waugh’s standards.

After securing an annulment of his first marriage, he married Laura Herbert, thirteen years his junior, with whom he eventually had seven — six surviving — children. Although he had, in his obnoxious way, supported Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, he gave up his Fascist sympathies with the declaration of war in 1939 and after much trouble and string-pulling managed to join a commando unit, taken on, it transpires, because he was entertainingly funny, and, according to his commanding officer, “could not fail to be an asset in the dreary business of war.” The unit was part of the famous “Layforce,” which, among other things, was forced to evacuate from Crete in 1941. This event has given rise to hot controversy over whether Waugh and his commanding officer, Robert Laycock, jumped the queue in escaping the island, reprehensibly leaving a good number of troops behind to be captured or killed by the Germans. Eade shines in his examination of the affair and convincingly exonerates Waugh and Laycock of dishonorable conduct. It is clear from this biography and from the others that while Waugh possessed many vices and failings — snobbery, spite, cruelty, ire, sloth, arrogance, gluttony, boozery, and pigheadedness, to mention only a few — he was no coward. Still, as Eade also notes, Waugh clearly felt a “sense of moral unease” over the whole thing, which unreconciled feelings found expression in his depiction of Ivor Claire’s ignoble flight in Officers and Gentlemen.

Waugh managed to take some time off from military service to devote himself to writing Brideshead Revisited, the novel he considered his masterpiece at the time, a view he later discarded, though it made him a pile of money, dollars especially. After the war, Waugh’s physical and mental condition began to decline badly, propelled by alcohol, bromides, and barbiturates, one result of which was the wildly funny novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Somehow, during these years of despair and disintegration, he also managed to come up with what many, myself included, consider his masterpiece, The Sword of Honor trilogy. Evelyn Waugh died at home after Mass on Easter Sunday, 1966.

How does this biography stack up against the previous ones? It is far less tactful than Waugh’s friend Christopher Sykes’s and necessarily less detailed than Martin Stannard‘s rather plodding 1,000-plus-page, two-volume behemoth. It is not written with the pitch-perfect tone, alertness to irony, and all-around panache of Selina Hastings’s 1994 Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, but that book, like Sykes’s, is out of print. So, this one will have to do. There’s nothing really wrong with it except that, with the exception of Eade’s straightening-out of the Crete affair, there is nothing new. The best parts are, as in every biography of Waugh, the quotations from the letters of the great man himself.

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