Angry Old Man - Evelyn Waugh

It often seems that we are willing to forgive a talented artist almost anything except being part of the establishment. This certainly appears to be true of Evelyn Waugh, who is typically portrayed as a bilious, reactionary snob, not to mention an aspiring aristocrat. (Testing this unscientific hypothesis, I entered the words “Evelyn Waugh” and “snob” into Google, which returned a not insignificant 23,000 results.) As the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald put it: “No one condemns Robert Louis Stevenson for playing king in Samoa, but Evelyn Waugh, it seems, can hardly be forgiven for his nineteen years as the tyrannous squire of Piers Court, his country home.” In fairness, Waugh did little to dispel this image, even if he didn’t actively encourage it. During an interview on BBC’s Face to Face programme in 1960, the presenter, John Freeman, put it to Waugh directly:

“Are you a snob at all?”
“I don’t think.”

This is scarcely an emphatic rebuttal. But strong reputations of this kind have a tendency to attract revisionists, keen to readjust a skewed portrait. Philip Eade, in his new book Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, attempts to provide something of a corrective to the received view of Waugh. Early on in the book, he recounts the story of an American named Paul Moor who wrote a fan letter to the author of Brideshead Revisited. Much to Moor’s surprise, he received an invitation to stay at Piers Court. During the visit Waugh teased him mercilessly all weekend, yet Moor thought Waugh “an essentially kind man”. This unpredictable mix of sociability and hauteur, tenderness and malice was typical of Waugh throughout his life. But Eade is a sympathetic biographer and suggests that “the eccentric and sometimes frightening façades [Waugh] adopted in person were more often designed as defences against the boredom and despair of everyday life”.

Taken as a whole, however, Waugh’s life can scarcely be said to have been boring. After the usual terrors and tyrannies typical of boarding schools at the time, he went up to Oxford, where he fell in with a like-minded group of hellraisers. While there he drank like a fish, had his heart broken and generally found time to pursue every interest except studying. Eade deftly manages Waugh’s expanding social circle by providing many striking pen portraits and honing in on the illuminating detail. One of his Oxford contemporaries, “Baz” Murray, is, for example, introduced and dispatched in a single memorable passage:
Murray was renowned at Oxford for his intellectual brilliance (he was the son of a well-known Classics don and himself a scholar), but equally for his casual approach to sex, money and personal hygiene … [H]e later covered the Spanish Civil War as a journalist … on the Republican side and died there in the kind of bizarre circumstances that might easily have featured in an early Waugh novel ‑ having caught a deadly virus from a female ape he had bought in Valencia docks and reportedly cavorted with in his hotel room in a state of drunken disillusionment after a series of failed love affairs.
Given this skill at condensing entire lives, it is hardly surprising that Eade spent time as an obituarist for the Daily Telegraph.

Waugh would end up leaving Oxford without a degree, and had little idea of what do next. Yet his time at university wasn’t entirely in vain: while there he wrote short stories, helped design books and magazines but most importantly his experiences would provide a rich seam of gold to mine for his future novels. Eade dutifully guides the reader through the bleak early years, when Waugh had to endure grinding loneliness as a teacher in remote prep schools, as well as such failures as his abandoned first novel (The Temple at Thatch, consigned to a school furnace) and his disastrous marriage to Evelyn Gardner (referred to by their friends as “Shevelyn”). The index entries give an idea of the somewhat undirected course Waugh was pursuing at the time: “social life and carousing in London”, “contemplates suicide”, “considers becoming a clergyman”. It is difficult all the same to feel entirely sorry for Waugh: his behaviour could still be petulant, abominably cruel and even violent. He was an accomplished bully as a child, never hesitating to get into a scrap (he took particular delight in tormenting his younger schoolmate Cecil Beaton); when Olivia Plunket-Greene, with whom he was completed infatuated, continued to spurn his advances he finally lost his temper and burnt her on the wrist with a cigarette. Eade can be a little too sympathetic: whenever Waugh makes a mess of things, he rushes in, like a fussy nanny, to make apologies for his bad behaviour (“Evelyn’s rudeness often began as a tease to help liven things up, or else it was a bracingly forthright statement of how he actually felt.”) The result is that, like all rude people, Waugh is disproportionately praised for being merely civil.

Personal disasters spurred on his attraction to Catholicism, which came to many as a surprise. It wasn’t just that he had come from an Anglican background, but he had been more or less an atheist for his adult life up to that point. Gradually however, his faith became not just a wellspring of succour, but a fundamental part of his life and artistic vision. On September 29th, 1930, at the age of twenty-six, Waugh was received into the Catholic Church. Reading Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, one couldn’t be blamed for wondering how a devout Christian could square his continually unpleasant conduct with his deep sense of faith. The writer (and fellow Catholic) Simon Leys put it another way:
For all his gluttony and drunkenness, his passionate attachment to all things of beauty, his selfishness, his impatience, his unkindness and anger (a close friend once asked how he could reconcile his generally beastly behaviour and his Christianity; Waugh replied: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being”), what he derived from his Catholicism was a fundamental ability not to take this world too seriously.
Ultimately, Waugh’s Catholicism was an integral part of his comic vision, allowing him not just to endure the darker side of life but to transcend it through laughter: the meaningless suffering and cruelty that we experience no longer held any terror for him. Eade writes: “[T]he first ten years of his adult life as an atheist had proved to him that life was ‘unintelligible and unendurable without God’.”

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