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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Waugh, Evelyn (1903 - 1966)
"The better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh uncooked in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop."

-- Evelyn Waugh


Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was an English writer, best known for such satirical and darkly humorous novels as Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop, A Handful of Dust, and The Loved One, as well as for more serious works, such as Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy, that are influenced by his own conservative and Catholic outlook.

Many of Waugh's novels depict the British aristocracy and high society, which he savagely satirizes but to which he was also strongly attracted. In addition, he wrote short stories, three biographies, and the first volume of an unfinished autobiography. His travel accounts and his extensive diaries and correspondence have also been published.

Famously anglophobic critic Edmund Wilson pronounced Waugh "the only first-rate comic genius the English have produced since George Bernard Shaw," while Time magazine declared that he had "developed a wickedly hilarious yet fundamentally religious assault on a century that, in his opinion, had ripped up the nourishing taproot of tradition and let wither all the dear things of the world."

Waugh's works were very successful with the reading public and he was widely admired by critics as a humorist and prose stylist, but his later, more overtly religious works have attracted much controversy. In an unpublished review of Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell declared that Waugh was "about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions." Conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. found in Waugh "the greatest English novelist of the century."

Born in London, Evelyn Waugh was the son of a noted editor and publisher Arthur Waugh. He was brought up in upper middle class circumstances in the London suburb of Hampstead. His only sibling was his older brother Alec Waugh, who also became a writer. Both Arthur and Alec had been educated at Sherborne, a not quite top English public school, but Alec had been expelled during his final year and had then published a very controversial novel, The Loom of Youth, based on his school life.

Sherborne therefore refused to take Evelyn and his father sent him to Lancing College, a school of lesser social prestige with a strong High Church Anglican character. This circumstance would rankle the status-conscious Evelyn for the rest of his life but may have contributed to his interest in religion, even though at Lancing he lost his childhood faith and became an agnostic. After Lancing, he attended Hertford College, Oxford as a history scholar. At Oxford, Waugh neglected academic work and was known as much for his artwork as for his writing.

He also threw himself into a vigorous social scene populated by both aesthetes such as Harold Acton and Brian Howard, as well as members of the British aristocracy and the upper classes. His social life at Oxford influenced Waugh's personal transformation into something of a snob and provided the background for some of his most characteristic later writing. Waugh had at least two homosexual romances at Oxford (whether they had a physical dimension is unclear) before he began to date women in the late 1920s. Asked if he had competed in any sport for his College, Waugh famously replied "I drank for Hertford."

Waugh's final exam results qualified him only for a third-class degree. He refused to remain in residence for the extra term that would have been required of him and he left Oxford in 1924 without taking his degree. In 1925 he taught at a private school in Wales. In his autobiography, Waugh claims that he attempted suicide at the time by swimming out to sea, only to turn back after being stung by jellyfish. He was later dismissed from another teaching post for attempting to seduce the matron, telling his father he had been dismissed for "inebriation".

He was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker and worked briefly as a journalist, before he had his first great literary success in 1928 with his first completed novel, Decline and Fall. The title is from Gibbon, but whereas Gibbon charted the bankruptcy and dissolution of Rome, Waugh's was a hilariously witty account of quite a different sort of dissolution, following the career of the harmless Paul Pennyfeather, a student of divinity, as he is accidentally expelled from Oxford for indecency ("I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir," says the College porter to Paul, "That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour") and enters into the worlds of schoolmastering, high society, and the white slave trade. Other novels about England's "Bright Young Things" followed, and all were well received by both critics and the general public.

Waugh entered into a brief, unsuccessful marriage in 1928 to the Hon. Evelyn Gardner. (Their friends called them he-Evelyn and she-Evelyn.) Gardner's infidelity would provide the background for Waugh's novel A Handful of Dust. The marriage ended in divorce in 1930. Waugh converted to Catholicism and, after his marriage to Gardner was annulled by the Church, he married the Catholic Laura Herbert, daughter of Aubrey Herbert. His second marriage was more successful, lasting for the rest of his life and producing seven children. One of his sons was Auberon Waugh, who would achieve recognition in his own right as a writer and journalist.

The Thirties
Waugh's fame continued to grow between the wars, based on his satires of contemporary upper middle class English society, written in a prose which was both approachable and innovative. (A chapter, for example, written entirely in the form of a dialogue of telephone calls). His conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930 introduced a more serious undertone to his writing, and his faith, whether implicit or explicit, underlies all of his later work.

The period between the wars also saw extensive travels around the Mediterranean and Red Sea, Spitsbergen, Africa and South America. Sections of the numerous travel books which resulted are often cited as among the best writing in this genre. A compendium of Waugh's favourite travel writing has been issued under the title When The Going Was Good.

World War II
With the advent of World War II, Waugh used "friends in high places", such as Randolph Churchill - son of Winston - to find him a service commission. Though thirty-six years of age with poor eyesight, he was commissioned in the Royal Marines in 1940. Few can have been less suited to command troops. He lacked a common touch. Though personally brave, he did not suffer fools gladly. There was some concern that the men under his command might shoot him instead of the enemy. Promoted to Captain, Waugh 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. As special assistant to the famed commando leader, Robert Laycock, Waugh showed conspicuous bravery during the fighting in Crete in 1941, 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 in 1944 at the request of his old friend Randolph Churchill. He and Churchill narrowly escaped capture/death when the Germans undertook Operation Rösselsprung, and paratroops and glider borne storm troops attacked the Partisan headquarters where they were staying. An outcome was a formidable report detailing Tito's persecution of the clergy. It was "buried" by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden as being largely irrelevant.

Much of Waugh's war experience is reflected in the Sword of Honour trilogy. His trilogy, along with his other work after the 1930's, became some of the best books written about World War II. Many of his portraits are unforgettable, and often show striking resemblances to noted real personalities. Many feel that the fire eating officer in the Sword of Honour trilogy, Brig. Ben Ritchie-Hook, was based on Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton De Wiart, V.C., a friend of the author's father-in-law. Waugh was familiar with Carton De Wiart through the club to which he belonged. The fictional commando leader, Tommy Blackhouse, is based on Major-General Sir Robert Laycock, a real-life commando leader and friend of Waugh's.

Later years
The period after the war saw Waugh living with his family in the West Country at his country homes, Piers Court, and from 1956 onwards, at Combe Florey in Somerset, where he lived as a country squire. He bequeathed the latter to his son, the writer and journalist Auberon Waugh. He made his living through writing and became a self-parodying reactionary figure. He was bitterly disappointed when the Roman Catholic Church, which he in part loved for what he perceived as its timelessness, began to adopt modern vernacular liturgy and other changes.

Some of Waugh's best-loved and best-known novels come from this period. Brideshead Revisted (1945), is a brilliant evocation of a vanished pre-War England. Waugh revised the novel in the late 'fifties because he found parts of it 'distasteful on a full stomach' by which he meant that he wrote the novel during the grey privations of the latter war years (though his Diaries reveal that he made plenty of wartime visits to his club and to the Ritz for champagne and amusement). He described the novel as being about the effect of the grace of God on a diverse group of people. At the same time it was an elegy to an England he believed was being destroyed by Socialism.

He partially retracted this view in his preface to the revised Brideshead; he said he didn't foresee when he wrote it, the 'cult of the English country house' which grew up after the war; after admitting this he concluded that in some ways the novel was 'a panygeric preached over an empty coffin'. Brideshead is a distinct halfway mark in Waugh's career. Though his work had become darker and more Catholic from the second half of Vile Bodies onwards, Brideshead represents the beginning of a more serious and middle-aged period for Waugh: when it was published he said he felt it to be 'his first real novel'.

It divides critics and writers. Anthony Burgess said he was seduced by it and that he'd read it a dozen times and had 'never failed to be charmed or moved'; he also praised it for its 'superb comedy' (we might speculate that Burgess, being a Catholic, was more open to the book). On the other hand Kingsley Amis (whose Lucky Jim twits Waugh within its pages and, in Jim Dixon, gives an answering voice to the despised Hooper in Brideshead) condemned the book with 'there are few things I detest more than Roman Catholic baronial snobbery'. (Interestingly, Amis became Waugh-like as he grew older, taking a reactionary stance to modern life.

He also calls Waugh a very rude name in his letters and says that Waugh only ever wrote one good book: Decline and Fall.) The Australian critic Robert Hughes called it 'the only vulgar novel Waugh ever wrote'. The American critic Edmund Wilson had similar distaste for Brideshead and the works that followed. The objections are legitimate but are directed almost entirely at the novel's politically Conservative and religiously Catholic content; judged as a piece of fiction, it is a great production by one of the best prose stylists in English.

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) is amazing for its dispassionate recounting of the hero's steady descent into madness - the experience was actually Waugh's own, the result of taking medication which induced a bout of severe paranoia on a sea-voyage to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Less successful was Helena, (1953), a fictional account of the Empress Helena and the finding of the True Cross. Waugh regarded this novel as his best work, a verdict which few others have ever shared.

Latterly Waugh put on a lot of weight, and the sleeping pills he took, combined with a heavy intake of alcohol, cigars and little exercise, weakened his health. His writing productivity gradually ran down, and there was a very noticeable falling off in the quality of what fiction he did write (his last published work, Basil Seal Rides Again, taking up some of the characters from his very earliest satirical works, fails to reach any dramatic climax). At the same time, he continued to produce valuable journalism, where the demands of sustained construction were less severe; and his power of delivering fearsome insults remained intact.

Upon hearing that Randolph Churchill had had a non-malignant tumour removed, Waugh complained: "It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it." His duties as paterfamilias brought him little pleasure: "My unhealthy affection for my second daughter has waned. Now I despise all my seven children equally."

He died, aged 62, on 10 April 1966, on returning home from Mass on Easter Sunday. His estate at probate was valued at £20,068. This did not include the value of his lucrative copyrights, which Waugh put in a trust for his children. He is buried at Combe Florey, Somerset.

Quotations

"The better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh uncooked in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop."

"There is a species of person called a "Modern Churchman" who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief."

"The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors; it is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish."

 
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