Evelyn Waugh got his first name on a whim of his mother’s. He disliked the name for the same reason that most of us are puzzled when we first hear it. Man or woman?
“Once during the Italian-Abyssinian war I went to a military outpost many miles from any white woman, preceded by a signal apprising them of the arrival of ‘Evelyn Waugh, English writer.’ The entire small corps of officers, shaven and polished, turned out to greet me each bearing a bouquet. I was disconcerted; they were overcome by consternation.”
Waugh wasn’t traumatized by his first name, but it’s at least amusing that his popular image bears a striking resemblance to that of the “Boy Named Sue” in Johnny Cash’s song. Waugh’s biographers tend to describe him as a heartless, mean-tempered drunk, always itching for a fight. And though it’s true that literary biographers have a penchant for warts, it’s also true that Waugh’s detractors have a lot of evidence on their side. He was certainly a heavy drinker – a drug addict,
too; he was forever resolving to give up opiates for Lent
– and as to heartlessness, try this:
During the German bombing campaign of 1943 Waugh asked that his eldest son be sent to London, while at the same time ordering his library removed to the country for safekeeping. He joked about the decision in his diary as follows, “It would seem from this that I prefer my books to my son. I can argue that firemen rescue children and destroy books, but the truth is that a child is easily replaced while a book destroyed is utterly lost…”
Waugh also had a notoriously short fuse and, mixed with his tiresome notions of social class, he often made hell for those beneath him. In the army, he was so unpopular with his subordinates that a guard had to be posted at his door while he slept. As he once confessed to Graham Greene, he lacked even the modicum of self-control required for eating at a restaurant. “I fall into ungovernable rages with waiters,” he said, “am sorry afterwards, too late.”
But Waugh was more than just a public nuisance, and though you wouldn’t want to have been his waiter, you would have been very pleased to get his letters. In private, Waugh’s boorish self-importance often got turned on its head and he was enormously entertaining. He may have liked to make a show of his contempt for humanity, but it’s hard to read his best books without suspecting there was a wry and thoughtful man behind the bluster.
Waugh was born in 1903. His father was a publisher and frustrated actor; his mother left little impression on anyone. He was raised by a god-fearing young nanny whom he adored. Waugh had an older brother Alec, also a writer, but there was enough distance between them that Evelyn grew up more or less by himself. He was a happy child. “I do not remember a minute’s boredom,” he said. He painted, read, practiced magic tricks, and at the age of seven he began keeping a diary.
The earliest entries are sporadic but they show off an insouciant charm worth pointing out. Two examples: at the age of nine he neatly sums up the school day in a couplet, “Poor old Hayward got the cane / Which gave him tremendous pain.” A little further along, at fifteen and in boarding school, he gives this account of his first attempt at goalkeeping: “I had no idea how big a goal is until I started keeping it. After half-time I began to lose count of the goals I let through but I rather think they reached double figures. I will never make disparaging comments on Gilbey’s performances again.”
Waugh won a scholarship to Oxford and studied English, but not because he had any ambition as a writer. If the thought occurred to him, he probably imagined himself as an artist but he did little work in any direction. He drank; he talked; he made posh friends; he had a brief love affair with a scholar named Richard Pares; and then he drank some more.
It was standard college stuff and Waugh enjoyed it, but there was a nasty shock awaiting him at the end. After three years he returned to his father’s house with a useless degree, no prospects, and a habit of gaiety that he couldn’t afford. It wasn’t long before he scraped bottom and went to work as a schoolmaster in Wales.
“I get a perverse pleasure in making all I teach as dreary to the boys as it is to myself,” said Waugh. He taught at three different schools over the next three years but the Wales job was the most significant. Not only did it end with a half-hearted attempt at suicide (he meant to drown himself but kept getting stung by jellyfish), but it also provided the bulk of the material for his first novel, Decline and Fall.
Decline and Fall , about the teacher’s life, came out in 1928. It sold respectably and earned Waugh sufficient reputation to ensure steady work as a journalist, but its publication also coincided with the great, unmentionable tragedy of his life. Waugh got married and, funnily enough, her name was Evelyn, too.
He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn, as their friends called them, did not so much fall in love as end up together. They ran in the same circle and neither had anything better to do. They bought a marriage license only because the film they were watching was dull. After their elopement, Waugh’s formidable mother-in-law, Lady Burghclere, greeted the news of their marriage with unfeigned horror. “I am inexpressibly pained,” she said.
The Evelyns lived together for less than a year before She-Evelyn ran off with a mutual friend, and one can hardly blame her. They were young, they had different interests, and they didn’t get along. Other husbands might have sighed with relief, but Waugh reacted to his wife’s departure like a Spanish nobleman in a play by Lorca. He raged and seethed, and he was so overwhelmed by the world’s treachery that he converted to Roman Catholicism to escape it.
Waugh remained a Catholic for the rest of his life and, like many converts, he took his new religion too seriously. He badgered friends to convert and wrote a great deal of tripe for the Catholic press, but his sense of humor prevented him from propagandizing in earnest. In 1930 he published Vile Bodies, the comedy that made him a success.
For the next seven years Waugh traveled constantly. He had no home and wrote his books in the houses of friends. He journeyed through Africa, interviewed Mussolini, and had tea with Nancy Mitford at the Ritz where, he said, “I explained to her a lot about sexual shyness in men.”
Throughout this period Waugh had a number of less than happy affairs, all of which might be summed up in one heartbreaking line from his diary: “I waited for hours to sleep with Audrey but she was too tired.” Eventually Waugh grew tired of waiting and wanted to marry again. He settled on a young Catholic girl named Laura Herbert, but getting married wasn’t so easy the second time around. Being Catholic, Waugh had to wait more than four years to have his first marriage officially annulled (a decision Waugh tried to help along by writing a Church-friendly biography of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion.)
Evelyn and Laura Waugh were married in 1937. They settled in a large country house called Piers Court and immediately started on children, but their lives were soon interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. The country house went to a school run by nuns and Waugh joined the army in 1940.
His military achievements were spotty. He served bravely during a disastrous retreat in Crete, but he spent most of the war in Britain. He had trouble finding commissions. He was too headstrong to be trustworthy and his career as an officer stagnated. As a writer, however, he seems to have flourished.
Waugh wrote two novels during the war and stored up the memories for three others. The first of these was Put Out More Flags, notable mostly for the timing of its publication – few writers would dare put out a cheeky war comedy in 1942 - but the other four books Waugh got out of the Second War are markedly better than anything else he ever wrote. I am fond of Scoop (1938), other people admire The Loved One (1947), but many of Waugh’s books are poorly put together. Were it not for Brideshead Revisited and his trio of soldiering novels – Men At Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender – he would not still be in print.
Brideshead Revisited was produced in a mad dash while on special leave from the army in 1944. He wrote the first 62,000 words in less than three weeks and had consciously to force himself not to work faster: “It is always my temptation in writing to make everything happen in one day, in one hour on one page and so lose its drama and suspense. So all today I have been rewriting and stretching until I am cramped.”
The entire novel was finished in just four months and it was published a year later, shortly before Waugh was demobilized, in 1945. Brideshead made him internationally famous and much richer than he was used to: “This morning,” he noted dryly, “I received the offer of £50 for fifty words from America. It is the price I had for writing the life of Rossetti twenty years ago.” But while it’s always nice to have money, the war also turned Waugh into an old man.
The painful sense of nostalgia Waugh captured in Brideshead stayed with him, and when he returned to his family at Piers Court he settled into a pattern of life that he never quite managed to enjoy. He worked in the country until the yearning for society drove him to London; he socialized in London until the strain sent him back home; and twice a week he went to the movies, irrespective of what was showing.
A day in the country (1953): “By the time I have written my letters the papers come and when I have read them it is nearly noon so I do little work before luncheon and then don’t get out after luncheon and then have tired eyes by 8 o’clock and don’t want to sit up reading and not sleepy so take drugs at 11. A flaw somewhere.”
A day in town (1955): “I spent the morning drinking at White’s. Lunched at Brooks’ again with Jack MacDougall. Jack Donaldson was there. Back to White’s with him, more drinking. To the train. More drinking on the train. Rather drunk and very weary. Home to find my letters…”
Over the years Waugh became increasingly dependent on narcotics, and by 1954 he was taking so much chloral bromide he began to lose his mind. “My memory is not hazy,” he told a friend, “just sharp, detailed & dead wrong.” The end result was a remarkable two-week period of thoroughgoing dementia – paranoia, voices, the works - brought on by bromide poisoning.
Waugh’s sanity returned soon after he stopped taking chloral bromide and he told a brilliant dinner story of the whole affair afterwards; his novel based on the same episode, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, was less successful (“O the flat boredom of writing compared with the exhilaration of telling events”). What is perhaps most striking about Waugh’s madness, though, is that no one thought to notice it until he started screaming at the rafters.
Waugh was evidently a difficult man even when sound of mind. His temper was sufficiently violent and unpredictable that his children avoided him and his wife Laura took to spending long days in the fields with her beloved cows: “…she loved them extravagantly,” wrote the eldest son Auberon, “as other women love their dogs or, so I have been told, their children.”
Auberon’s joke is a good one but pretty awful, too. It reflects not only the tragedy of Laura’s life, but that of Waugh’s as well. In the end, he alienated almost everyone and it’s easy to picture him in his last twenty years as a sort of middle class King Lear. He ranted about income taxes and couldn’t even sit down to a simple lunch at home without constant sighing complaints: “‘Laura, shouldn’t there be two salt cellars when there are more than four people?’ or ‘sponge cakes with gooseberry fool?’” Waugh’s life after the war seems to have been lived in a twilit fury, running downhill towards desperation.
But there’s one thing about this picture of Waugh that doesn’t make sense. As nasty crazy as he might have been, the nasty craziness is largely absent from his work. His diary and letters are funny and self-knowing to the very end. This from 1963: “We cherish our friends not for their ability to amuse us but for ours to amuse them – a diminishing number in my case.”
And Waugh continued to write very good books until shortly before he died. Unconditional Surrender was published in 1961 and his good-natured memoir, A Little Learning, came out in 1964. Which is to say that if Waugh really was a middle class Lear then he pulled off an unusual feat. Because it’s next to impossible to have hatred in one’s heart without it showing up on the page.
Evelyn Waugh died on Easter Sunday, 1966. His wife Laura drank enormous amounts of Cyprus sherry until she died in 1973. His eldest son Auberon wrote for Private Eye and published an excellent autobiography called Will This Do? He died in 2001.