Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited

By Philip Eade (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30)

Review by Richard Strachan

IN later years, an old friend of Evelyn Waugh’s recalled his impressions of the writer as a schoolboy: "He was courageous and witty and clever but was also an exhibitionist with a cruel nature that cared nothing about humiliating his companions as long as he could expose them to ridicule." This is a description that holds good for Waugh for much of his life; he was physically brave, as shown by his coolness under fire as a serving officer in the Second World War, and as his books amply demonstrate he was certainly witty and clever.

He was a tremendous bully at Heath Mount school, tormenting his fellow pupil Cecil Beaton on a daily basis by sticking him with pins, but as an adult this cruelty manifested itself more as an acerbity and rudeness that could take the breath away. Immediately successful with his first novel, Decline And Fall (published when he was only 25), Waugh’s career as a satirical novelist and surprisingly acute travel writer was facilitated by an almost unmatched command of the English language, and by a prose style that employed a knife-sharp precision of expression with a sense of cosmic indifference and absurdity. Most of his novels are masterpieces of one kind or another, from his early modernist-tinged satires like Vile Bodies and the "exuberantly tasteless" Black Mischief, to the more mature and reflective works such as A Handful Of Dust, which contains one of the most chilling conclusions in English literature. Brideshead Revisited is probably the pinnacle of his achievement; published in 1945, it offered an elegiac glimpse of pre-war luxury in the post-war ruins, and made Waugh very rich.

Despite this unbroken run of success, Waugh was clearly a deeply unhappy man for much of his life, a state unalleviated by his loving second marriage to Laura Herbert or his conversion to Catholicism after the collapse of his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner, following her affair with their mutual friend, John Heygate. That first marriage was eventually annulled, but the break with Gardner (or "Shevelyn" as she was known to their friends) shattered him, and he never really recovered from her betrayal. By the end of his life, corpulent and drunk, and drugging himself to sleep, Waugh was a man merely waiting to die; something he finally achieved on Easter Sunday in 1966.

Philip Eade’s solid and competent biography draws a fairly unreflective portrait of Waugh’s life. He concentrates on Waugh’s north London childhood and his strained relationship with his father Arthur, head of the publishing firm Chapman and Hall that later published Evelyn’s work, as well as his incredibly drunken and sexually experimental Oxford career, but you’ll have at least a third of the book in your left hand before he publishes his first novel. At Oxford, source of many long-lasting friendships (and enmities), Waugh threw himself into the debauched lifestyle familiar to readers of Brideshead Revisited, and had a number of intense homosexual relationships. None of this is new information as such, and Waugh was perfectly open about his Oxford dalliances in later years, but Eade spends an inordinate amount of time trying to pin down precisely if he slept with Hugh Lygon, for example, one of the models for Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte, and later goes into great detail about who Waugh had lunch with on the French Riviera. In contrast, his trip to Abyssinia to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie for the Daily Mail, which produced two books (Black Mischief and the travelogue Remote People) is accounted for in only half a page. There is no mention at all of Waugh’s reporting on the Spanish Civil War, which as a conservative Catholic saw him in the rare position for a British writer of covering events from the nationalist side.

This focus on the life rather than the work is the main flaw of what is otherwise an entertaining book. Eade is upfront about this, and his biography "aims to paint a fresh portrait of the man by revisiting key episodes throughout his life and focusing on his most meaningful relationships".

But nothing in Waugh’s life is more significant than his work as an artist; indeed, his life is demonstrated time and again as providing the raw material for his art. Waugh’s life has hardly been crying out for reassessment in any case, and the conclusion Eade reaches – that Waugh was a complex, difficult man, capable of great kindness and great cruelty – is more or less the one that most people would have had anyway. Where Eade excels is in fleshing out Waugh’s military career, using newly-uncovered archive material to cast light on one of the more controversial events of the war, and in the process exonerating both Waugh and his commanding officer Bob Laycock from precipitately leaving Crete before the British evacuation. This sorry affair was fictionalised to great effect in Waugh’s Sword Of Honour trilogy, the best book to come out of the Second World War, and for years it has cast a pall over Laycock’s reputation, and by extension over Waugh’s.

Much like Gordon Bowker’s recent biography of James Joyce, which labours in the shadow of Richard Ellmann’s monumental work, Eade’s life of Waugh acts as a complement to rather than a replacement of Selina Hastings’s more substantial 1994 biography. It’s a decent, full account of the particulars of Waugh’s life, but by the end of the book he still remains an impenetrable figure, mercurial and enigmatic, and animated by a strange despair.