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A Biography of Evelyn Waugh

2 years ago
Commended by mizal on 1/7/2020 1:08:42 PM

A man who achieves any degree of public success and personal fulfilment whilst also being named Evelyn is well worthy of commendation. That being said, it is not only nominal fortitude for which Arthur Evelyn St John Waugh is commendable. Rather, it is the indelible and visceral impact that the traditionalist converted Catholic, Abyssinian war correspondent and prosaic novelist made on the character of English literature and culture over the first half of the 20th century.

Evelyn Waugh was born, before the doctor could arrive in time, on the 28th of October 1903 to Mr and Mrs Arthur Waugh of Hillfield Road, Hampstead. Mr Waugh intended to send him to the Sherborne School, in Dorset, but an earlier homosexual tryst of Evelyn’s brother’s at the school having been described in great detail in Alec Waugh’s 'The Loom of Youth' made such a fraternal progression impossible. He was instead sent to Lancing College, a school more than three hundred years younger than Sherborne, and an institution that young Evelyn thus saw as vastly unacceptable. The young aesthete became accustomed to his change in circumstances however, and achieved success as a house captain, president of the debating society and editor of the college magazine. He was also awarded various art and literature prizes, although the biography prize always eluded him.

Having become an avowed atheist and deeply “weary of life”, Waugh was awarded a scholarship to Hertford College, and went up to Oxford to read modern history in December of 1921. Rather importantly as regards an examination of the writer’s fascination with the world of aristocracy, and the decadent yet restrained culture of high Catholicism, he fell in with a group of old Etonians at Hertford. Prominent dilettante, Roman Catholic and homosexual Harold Acton was amongst them, as was writer Brian Howard, with whom Waugh formed the Hypocrites’ Society, a playground for aesthetes and drunkards. His almost complete disengagement with formal education won him no friends with Hertford’s academic institution, particularly the ludicrously-named C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, principal of his college. Cruttwell rather reasonably viewed a scholarship to Oxford as an opportunity for hard work and scholastic attainment as opposed to the no-strings-attached reward Waugh felt himself to have received, this disagreement forming a great vendetta between the two. Later in life, Waugh began a tradition of naming unpleasant characters in his works after Crutwell, the litany of degenerates bearing his name including a psychopathic burglar, a salesman with a fake tropical tan, a homicidal maniac and perhaps most viciously of all, a Conservative MP.

After leaving Oxford with a dubiously-attained third class degree, Waugh was listless. He took up art lessons, dropped them and became transiently involved with some university friends, though they all eventually left him to take up their lives and careers. His funds having run dry, he accepted a post as a teacher at Arnold House in North Wales, where he began work on his novel, 'The Temple at Thatch'. In the summer of his first year, Waugh’s prospects picked up a little, with the offer of a secretarial position in Italy, assisting Charles Scott Moncrieff in his pioneering translation of Proust’s 'À la recherche du temps perdu', later published under the Shakespearean title 'Remembrance of Things Past'. He was so confident that he had secured the position that he resigned his job at Arnold House. At around the same time, he sent a first manuscript of 'The Temple at Thatch' to his Oxford friend, the aforementioned Harold Acton. Within the space of a week, Waugh received Acton’s dismissive and unimpressed reply, and the news that the job with Moncrieff had fallen through, leaving him unemployed and unnecessarily in Wales. Both were enormous blows to the young writer.

In his adolescent spirit of being avowedly “weary of life”, Waugh left a suicide note with his piled clothes on the shore of a cold and stony beach in Wales. He records in 'A Little Learning' that he walked out to sea, before almost immediately forsaking his attempt after being stung by a jellyfish. It is not presumptuous to say that the particular jellyfish in question probably made the greatest contribution a free-swimming marine coelenterate has ever made to the progress of mid-century English literature. Waugh recovered from his despondency, however, and entered a period of two years in London, during which he was dismissed from a teaching post for attempting to drunkenly seduce a school matron, began training to be a printer, successfully became a carpenter, published a book on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and finally fell in love with Evelyn Gardner, the daughter of Lord and Lady Burghclere. Ludicrous names appearing to be the signature of Waugh’s trip across the mortal coil, the newly-engaged couple were quickly dubbed by their friends “He-Evelyn” and “She-Evelyn”. Despite their poverty and the firm opposition of Lord and Lady Burghclere (who had been advised by C.R.M.F Crutwell that Waugh was a degenerate), the pair were married, taking up a flat in Islington. Several months later, She-Evelyn announced that she had fallen in love with another, and the pair were promptly divorced a little over a year after their wedding.

The following years of Waugh’s life could be effectively summarised by one of his letters to Acton, in which he told his friend that he “did not think it was possible to be so miserable and still live”. He wrote 'Vile Bodies', a “manifesto of disillusionment” with the Bright Young People of the 1920s. He converted to Catholicism and travelled to Abyssinia to write propaganda for the British government, before finally falling in love with She-Evelyn’s aristocratic Catholic cousin, Laura Herbert. They married in 1937. Waugh joined up as an officer when the Second World War broke out, describing it later as “a sweaty tugof-war between teams of indistinguishable louts”, and served in Yugoslavia, France and Crete. After a long seclusion in Devon, he returned with his magnum opus, 'Brideshead Revisited'.

'Brideshead Revisited' is perhaps the most distilled examination of the fall from grace witnessed by the literary world since 'Candide', or perhaps 'Macbeth'. It is highly autobiographical, and thus one of the shining examples of the roman à clef. The work brought Waugh great literary success and personal acclaim, marking, the beginning of Waugh’s greatest spiral into degradation, depression and poverty, in a life characterised by such great spirals. He became addicted to bromide, which sent him briefly mad, insisting once to his friends that he was possessed by devils. Thankfully for Waugh, ceasing to take it ended his hallucinations immediately. In 1960 he was offered a CBE, but declined on the basis that he believed he deserved a knighthood. After his tax-avoidance scheme, which involved a fictional Save the Children charity, was reported, he fell finally into sickness, depression, and finally death on Easter Sunday, 1966. He was buried outside an Anglican graveyard, his funeral celebrated in Latin in Westminster Cathedral.

Waugh could hardly be described as a good man. He once confided to a friend that his greatest struggle in life was the reconciliation of his religious obligations and goodwill with complete personal indifference to his fellow man. He was openly racist, anti-semitic, and believed firmly that the Catholic Church in Rome stood as the last barrier to the oncoming swarm of working-class culture and equality. He was a bully, a belligerent, and a liar. But the fact remains that, despite his personal failings, he was one of the most prosaically powerful artists of the 20th century. He left in his legacy one of the most memorable visions of the world he saw crumbling around him. One should remember him not for the person he was, but rather the things he created, which were noble, original, and incontrovertibly lasting.

A Biography of Evelyn Waugh

2 years ago

Trying my hand at something different. If you've got any feedback on biographical writing then I'd be hip hip happy.