Evelyn Waugh, as photographed in 1940 by Carl Van Vechten
Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh (October 28 1903 – April 10 1966) was an English satirical novelist, brother of Alec Waugh and father of Auberon Waugh.
Born in London, Waugh was the son of a noted editor and publisher, Arthur Waugh , and was brought up in middle class circumstances in London. His only brother was the writer Alec Waugh.He left Oxford University (Hertford College) in 1924 with a third-class degree. In 1925 he taught at a private school in Wales and attempted suicide by swimming out to sea (turning back, however, when stung by a jellyfish).
He was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker and worked briefly as a journalist, before he had his first great literary success in 1928 with Decline and Fall. Other novels about England's "Bright Young Things" followed, and all were well received by both critics and the general public. He entered into a rather brief and unsuccessful marriage in 1929 to the Hon. Evelyn Gardner. It was annulled in 1936. His second marriage, in 1937, to Laura Herbert, daughter of Aubrey Herbert, was more successful, lasting for the rest of his life and producing six children.
Particularly in the period between his two marriages, Waugh travelled restlessly and from these experiences came some of the best travel literature in the English language. It is, in its own way, comparable to the best of other travel writing masters such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, D.H. Lawrence and John Steinbeck. A compendium of his best travel writing has been issued under the title, When The Going Was Good. His travels took him around the Mediterranean, and to Spitsbergen, Africa and South America.
In his pre-World War II novels Waugh satirized contemporary English society, especially the aristocracy and the upper middle classes . In later years, his novels were more serious, although still witty and full of comic invention.
In 1930 he was converted to Roman Catholicism, and his religious ideas are manifest in most of his later work, especially in Brideshead Revisited which, as he himself stated, is an account of the intervention of God's Grace in a family.
World War Two
With the advent of World War II, Waugh entreated "friends in high places", such as Randolph Churchill - son of Winston - to find him a service commission. Though thirty six with poor eyesight, he was commissioned in the Royal Marines in 1940. It would be difficult to imagine anyone less suited to command troops. He did not have the common touch and though personally brave, did not suffer fools gladly. There was some concern that the men under his command might shoot him instead of the enemy. He was promoted to Captain but found life in the Marines dull.
Waugh participated in the failed attempt to take Dakar from the Vichy French in late 1940. Following a joint exercise with No.8 Commando (Army), he applied to join them and was accepted. Waugh took part in an ill fated commando raid on the coast of Libya. He showed conspicuous bravery during the fighting in Crete, supervising the evacuation of troops while under attack by Stuka dive bombers.
Later, Waugh was placed on extended leave for several years and reassigned to the Royal Horse Guards. During this period he wrote Brideshead Revisited. He was recalled for a military/diplomatic mission to Yugoslavia at the request of his old friend Randolph Churchill. An outcome was a formidable report detailing Tito's persecution of the clergy which was "buried" by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (who also attempted to discredit Waugh) to save diplomatic embarrassment as Tito was then a required ally of Britain and an official "friend".
Much of Waugh's war experience is reflected in his Sword of Honour Trilogy. This work is one of his finest achievements, showing the author at his best. Some of his portraits are unforgettable, and a few show striking resemblances to noted real life personalities. Many feel that the fire eating general, Brig. Ben Ritchie-Hook, was based on Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton De Wiart, V.C., whom Waugh knew somewhat from his club. The commando leader, Tommy Blackhouse, was based on Major-General Sir Robert Laycock , the famous commando leader and a friend of Waugh's.
The period after the war saw Waugh living with his family in the West Country at his rural homes, Piers Court, and from 1956 onwards, at Combe Florey. He made his living through writing.
His travels to California yielded The Loved One, a satire on the American funeral industry. Trips to Africa and the Middle East provided background for travel literature.
But, most especially, this was the period when the Sword of Honour Triolgy was written.
Waugh grew fat, and the sleeping pills he took, combined with a heavy intake of alcohol and not enough exercise, weakened his health. His writing productivity gradually ran down.
Evelyn Waugh died on 10 April 1966, at the age of 62.
List of Works
Sword of Honour Trilogy
Men at Arms (1952)
Love Among the Ruins. A Romance of the Near Future (1953)
Officers and Gentlemen (1955)
Unconditional Surrender (1961)
- Saint Edmund Campion: Priest and Martyr
- The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox
- "Dante Gabriel Rosetti"