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The novelist, journalist, and essayist Evelyn Waugh—the man who writer Graham Greene would call “the greatest writer of my generation” up his death—was born as Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh in London in 1903 to a family with a background as publishers and literary critics. He attended Hertford College at Oxford University, where he studied history and journalism, but his focus on his social life led to him leaving without formally graduating. He became a teacher for a short period of time before turning to writing.
Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall in 1928 is a satire with the theme that great civilizations (such as Britain) inevitably wane over time and received great acclaim. Over the next ten years, Waugh followed up with a series of equally successful satirical novels including Vile Bodies (1930), a hilarious send up of the party-obsessed “Bright Young Things” of British society (who are discussed below under “Background on Brideshead Revisited”); A Handful of Dust (1934), which has elements of satire as well as of the seriousness that would characterize Waugh’s post-World War II output; and Scoop (1938), a lampooning of the bombastic sensationalist style of journalism that was popular in Britain. In 1942, Waugh published another novel, Put Out More Flags, that depicts the same set of people who populated his earlier novels (and even some of the same characters) coming to terms with the fact that the harsh realities of the new world war meaning that they can no longer behave in the flippant manner they had in the years between the wars. With Waugh’s subsequent novels becoming more serious—though certainly not without their moments of humor and wit.
During this period in which Waugh’s novels gradually shift from biting satire to being more serious and philosophical, his personal life was evolving as well. In 1927, he married his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, who was one of the “Bright Young Things.” (Friends called the couple “He-Evelyn” and “She-Evelyn.”) Gardner’ infidelity led to divorce in 1929. In 1930, Waugh converted to Catholicism. He distrusted change and modernity, and he believed the Catholic Church was humanity’s best hope to survive what he saw as an oncoming dark age. Waugh married his second wife, Laura Herbert, in 1937 after obtaining an annulment from his first marriage in 1936 (as required by the Catholic Church, which does not recognize civil divorces). There is no question that Waugh’s conversion can be detected in his writing. Indeed, critics have dubbed his later more serious and philosophical writing, which certainly includes Brideshead Revisited (1945), his “Catholic” works.
Throughout the 1930s, Waugh traveled as a journalist, famously reporting on the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. He served in the Royal Marines during World War II, but, like his Brideshead Revisited protagonist Charles Ryder, became disillusioned when his platoon was never deployed abroad. He transferred to a commando unit in 1940, but in 1944, he had to take sick leave after landing badly during parachute training. Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited on this break from active duty, publishing the novel in 1945. Despite the novel’s favorable reception, Waugh released a revised edition in 1959. He felt that because of the grimness of World War II, he had made some of the descriptions more elaborate than necessary, and he found them overwrought. Despite Waugh’s acclaim as a novelist, he had a reputation for rudeness and misanthropy, in addition to expressing extremely conservative views. Nevertheless, he had many loyal friends who described him as incredibly generous and claimed his notoriety stemmed from his tendency to caricature himself.
Waugh continued to publish steadily after Brideshead Revisited and World War II although his popularity had dimmed somewhat from the pre-war period. This steadiness belies the fact that he suffered a serious mental breakdown in the mid-1950s, which seems to have been the result of drugs he had been prescribed. His best-known works from this period include The Loved One (1948), Men at Arms (1952), Love Among the Ruins (1954), and a retelling of the events surrounding his mental breakdown called The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1954). During this time he also published a trilogy based on his experiences during the war: Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961). He re-published these three books in a single volume called Sword of Honor in 1965.
Waugh died of heart failure in 1966 at the age of sixty-two, leaving behind an impressive collection of work. There have been periodic revivals of strong interest in Waugh since his death, with most of the attention going to what is generally considered his best work, Brideshead Revisited.
Brideshead Revisited is Waugh’s best-known and most endurring novel, and many critics have noted its autobiographical parallels to his life. Like Charles Ryder, Waugh fell in with a raucous, bohemian set at Oxford, known as the Hypocrites’ Club, which overrode his academic studies. He also dated men during this time. In addition, Waugh suffered a failed first marriage marked by infidelity that led to a conversion to Catholicism. Finally, Waugh, too, had a disappointing military career. However, Waugh discouraged critics from seeing too much autobiography in any of his novels. In his letters to his publisher, Waugh discusses Brideshead Revisited as a novel about theology and divine grace, the Catholic idea that God will offer unconditional forgiveness to even the unworthy if they repent with a sincere heart. (Tellingly, Waugh’s subtitle for the novel is The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.)
Some of Waugh’s contemporaries found the overt Catholicism of the ending of Brideshead Revisited saccharine and unconvincing. In 1981, Granada Television produced a miniseries rendering of the novel, which aired on the UK’s ITV and on PBS in the United States. The faithful adaptation, in which memorably Jeremey Irons portrays Charles Ryder, renewed popularity, bringing it to a new generation of readers. A 2008 film adaptation did reasonably well and also caused an uptick in interest in Waugh in spite of not achieving the impossibly high standards of fervently devoted fans of the book and the Granada series.
Waugh was part of the British aristocratic party set of the 1920s known as the “Bright Young Things” or “Bright Young People.” Newspapers and tabloids followed the exploits of this group of unconventional youths because of their penchant for wild parties, acceptance of homosexuality, and love of jazz music and Black musicians. In addition to Waugh, many famous writers, artists, and intellectuals of the day were considered members of this group, including writer Harold Acton (also a member of the Hypocrites’ Club), novelist Nancy Mitford, and photographer Cecil Beaton. Waugh viciously satirized this social scene in his 1930 novel, Vile Bodies. In Brideshead Revisited he provides a glimpse of the Bright Young People through Charles’s social life at Oxford. In addition to wild partying and sexual freedom, Boy Mulcaster, Sebastian, and Charles also speak about what it means to have been too young to fight in World War I. Many historians blame the wildness of this generation on a reaction to the grim realities of World War I, in which 700,000 British soldiers died.
Throughout Brideshead Revisited, Waugh reveals his distrust of the growing social mobility within English society. He references with disdain the General Strike of 1926. The strike began with British miners protesting mass pay cuts, and unionized laborers across Britain joined in solidarity. The government fought the strike by pulling together middle- and upper-class volunteers to keep the country running. They formed a militia called the Organization for Maintenance of Supplies to ensure that the protests did not hamper counter-strike efforts. As a result, the unions capitulated. Although the strike did not ultimately disrupt the social order of Britain, Waugh was staunchly anti-communist and viewed the decline of the aristocracy as representing a loss of history and values. Throughout Brideshead Revisited, Charles portrays the men he associates with modernity—Hooper and Rex Mottram—as seeing the world solely in terms of money without a sense of beauty, spirit, or soul.
The decline of Brideshead Castle, the ancestoral home of the Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited, reflects the 20th-century sale and demolition of English country estates owned by members of the British nobility. Initially, country estates earned revenue for noble families in the form of tenant farmers, who paid the landowners a certain percentage of their income on the land they farmed. As tenant farming fell out of practice, country estates no longer produced income except as tourist attractions. Adding to the decline of country estates, Britain introduced death duties, taxes on inherited wealth over a certain value, in the late 19th century, which increased the taxes the nobility paid on their estates. Staffing the manors also became difficult because of the number of former servants who died during World War I. In addition, many servants sought higher paying jobs in other industries. All these factors contributed to country estates becoming difficult to maintain, and many financially ruined noble families sold them for development to help maintain their standard of living. For Waugh and others, the decline of these houses became emblematic of a lost Britain.