Evelyn Waugh (1903 - 1966)

Introduction to the life and work of the author of Brideshead Revisited

By Stephen Colbourn and Ian Mackean

Particularly against books the Home Secretary is. If we can't stamp out literature in the country, we can at least stop it being brought in from outside. [Vile Bodies]


Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh’s reputation as a prose stylist is due to the elegance and wit of his early novels, which remain highly readable; though his general fame may be credited to cinema and TV versions of his works.  In 1981 a critically-acclaimed 13-part ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited drew popular attention to the novel, The Loved One and Decline and Fall were filmed in 1965, The Sword of Honour was adapted for TV in 1967, and a film of Vile Bodies, directed by Stephen Fry and renamed Bright Young Things, appeared in 2003.

Waugh attended Hertford College, Oxford, in the 1920s, by which time his brother Alec, who  had been expelled from his public school for homosexuality, had already gained notoriety as a writer with his novel The Loom of Youth (1917).  Evelyn attempted to imitate the sexual undertones of his brother's successful book in Decline and Fall (1928), in which a student, Paul Pennyfeather, is expelled from Oxford and becomes a private school-master. An aristocratic mother of one of his pupils then employs him in her business.  The woman keeps an American Negro lover, (very risqué for 1928), and her business turns out to be a prostitution racket.  When Pennyfeather is arrested in the lady's service for procuring female 'entertainers' and sending them to South America, his lady sponsor arranges with the Home Secretary for him to be certified dead in a prison hospital; after which he returns to Oxford in the guise of his own cousin.

The book, which was based, loosely, on Waugh’s experience of working as a school master at Arnold House in North Wales, was considered immoral and flippant, but it gained attention and earned him a name.  He attached himself to the fringe of smart society in London and fell in love with Diana Guinness, one of the Mitford sisters, who was to marry the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, while her sister Unity admired and supported Adolf Hitler.  Waugh later married Evelyn Gardner but divorced within two years.  His second wife was Laura Herbert, by whom he had six children though he was believed to be a homosexual.  In 1930 he became a Roman Catholic.

Vile Bodies (1930) depicts a world of sex and snobbish society, and achieved success, as did most of Waugh’s books, despite criticism from Virginia Woolf that it lacked realism.  Waugh, however, lived beyond his income and was always short of money.  He accepted an offer of free passage from a shipping company to write travel articles, with appropriate mention of his sponsor, and visited Europe and Africa.  He wrote Black Mischief (1932) following the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie in Abyssinia.

Waugh’s travels also provided material for Scoop (1938), set in a fictitious African country called Ishmaeliah.  The novel lampoons foreign correspondents and their invention of news, and, like Decline and Fall, shows a naive man discovering the tricks and turns of the real world.  The unfortunate William Boot is mistaken by the Managing Editor of The Daily Beast for a travel writer, John Boot

‘He’s supposed to have a particularly high class style: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole” . . . would that be it?’
‘Yes,’ said the Managing Editor.  ‘That must be good style.’

Boot of The Beast is sent to cover an African civil war, where he learns the trade of reportage.

Waugh enlisted for military service during World War II and in 1944 was parachuted into Yugoslavia along with Randolph Churchill – son of the Prime Minister.  While recovering from an injury he wrote Brideshead Revisited, depicting members of an upper-class family who live in a vast country house.  Its subtitle is The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, and the religious, Catholic, theme prompted George Orwell to write:

Analyse "Brideshead Revisited." (Note faults due to being written in first person.) Studiously detached attitude. Not puritanical. Priests not superhuman . . . But. Last scene, where the unconscious man makes the sign of the Cross. Note that after all the veneer is bound to crack sooner or later. One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up.

Conclude. Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions. [1]

A Hollywood studio wished to make a film based on the novel and invited Waugh to California in 1947.  Waugh refused to accept proposed changes to the storyline and the film project was abandoned, but he used this trip to create a satire on Californian funeral customs in The Loved One (1948).

Waugh wrote Put Out More Flags while serving in the military in 1942.  In this work he satirised W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood for avoiding military service and emigrating to the USA, calling them ‘Parsnip and Pimpernell.’  His trilogy of novels about military life was reissued in 1965 as The Sword of Honour, the original titles being Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961).  Two other well-known works of these later years were Helena (1950) in which he credits a British woman from Colchester as being mother of Constantine – the first Christian Emperor of Rome - and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), a painful description of Waugh’s nervous breakdown.

Waugh became increasingly eccentric towards the end of his life. He affected the manners of an Eighteenth century country squire, and was notoriously rude.  He also claimed to be going deaf and used an exaggeratedly large ear trumpet rather than a hearing aid.  He died of heart failure in 1966, soon after hearing mass on Easter Sunday.

1. George Orwell, quoted in Hitchens, Christopher. The Permanent Adolescent. His vices made Evelyn Waugh a king of comedy and of tragedy. The Atlantic Monthly, May 2003.

Selected Works: Decline and Fall (1928); Vile Bodies (1930); Labels (1930); Remote People (1930); Black Mischief (1932); A Handful of Dust (1934); Ninety-two Days (1934); Edmund Campion (1935); Waugh in Abyssinia (1936); Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and other sad stories (1936); Scoop (1938); Robbery Under Law (1939); Put Out More Flags (1942); Work Suspended (1942); Brideshead Revisited (1945); When the Going was Good (1946); The Loved One (1948); Helena (1950); Men at Arms (1952); Love Among the Ruins (1953); Officers and Gentlemen (1955); The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957); The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox (1959); Unconditional Surrender (1961); A Tourist in Africa (1960); Basil Seal Rides Again (1963); A Little Learning (1964); The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (1976); A Little Order – A Selection From His Journalism (1977); The letters of Evelyn Waugh (1980); The essays, articles and reviews of Evelyn Waugh (1984); Mr. Wu and Mrs. Stitch: the letters of Evelyn Waugh and Lady Diana Cooper (1991); The letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1997).

Further Reading

Sykes, Christopher. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. Little Brown. 1975.
Patey, Douglas Lane. The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography: Blackwell. 2001.

© Stephen Colbourn and Ian Mackean 2005

See also: British and Irish Books on Film >

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