If there’s one thing writers and readers love, it’s satire. Since the dawn of time, people have been laughing at each other, at society, at their leaders, and at their values. So it’s no surprise that this was going on in, arguably, the most chaotic and fast-paced century in recorded human history. Into this context enters Evelyn Waugh: the horny, Catholic, bisexual satirist with incredible drive and a biting sense of humor.
As a former Londoner, I was shocked that Waugh grew up in the “semi-rural” Golders Green. Waugh decided to immortalize parts of his childhood in this apparently sensuous and haunting area, which I only really associate with good bagels and the Northern Line. To be fair, bagels are a moving experience in their own way…
As much as we talk about “nepo babies” now, we need to understand that this is not a new idea. Talented as Waugh was, he doubtless benefitted from the station of his uncle, a lord, and the fact that his father and older brother were also published and well-regarded authors. However, Waugh’s father was not a straightforward asset and was, in fact, nicknamed “the brute” because of his treatment of others. This may have influenced Eveyln’s behavior, as he began to bully other children. Although his victims were usually younger and smaller, Waugh took the time to establish his first magazine, The Cynic, so he could mock others as he saw fit.
An artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand out against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along; he must offer some little opposition.
Waugh was born in 1903, which meant he became increasingly aware of politics and social movements as the First World War began. Then a boy scout, Waugh was employed by the War Office to carry messages around. Incidentally, the War Office later switched to using Brownies and Girl Guides because they were found to be more reliable. Waugh’s job fed into his ethos: he had written plays about a fictitious German invasion of England, organized his friends into a bit of a militia, and worshipped Senior Army Officer Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener.
It was expected that Evelyn would follow in his brother’s footsteps and attend Sherborne School, but Alec Waugh was expelled because of a same-sex relationship and a cutting depiction of the place in one of his novels. Therefore, Evelyn was sent to Lancing College, where he established the “corpse club” for those who were bored stiff, and then went on to attend Oxford University. Waugh found Oxford easy, he spoke against prohibition and joined the Hypocrites’ Club. This was named so because their motto is Latin for “water is best,” but the members drank a lot of booze. They also encouraged same-sex relationships, and Waugh had several boyfriends. Unsurprisingly, Waugh failed his exams, leaving Oxford with no qualifications but probably a sizable hangover.
Anyone in their early to mid-20s will tell you what a strange — mad and fun — time it is. For example, Waugh took teaching jobs and wrote the start of a novel that received such bad feedback that he burnt it and then attempted suicide. He was stopped only by a jellyfish; it stung him so badly that he decided to stay alive. What else? He was fired once for trying to seduce a school matron (he was drunk) and even thought about becoming a carpenter.
Waugh later fell in love with a woman named Evelyn Gardner, and their friends referred to them as “He-Evelyn” and “She-Evelyn” to avoid confusion. In 1927, the Evelyns’ got married; in 1928, Waugh published his first novel, Decline and Fall, and in the same year, he filed for divorce after finding out his wife was having an affair.
For Waugh, his 30s were no less turbulent. He had no clear home for eight years and simply stayed with friends. Prepared to do odd jobs for money, Waugh was hired by the Daily Mail and wrote an ironic column about the significance of wedding ceremonies. He was restless, he traveled to Africa and the Arctic, converted to Catholicism, had his first marriage annulled, and proposed to a 17-year-old girl, who happened to be the cousin of his first wife.
And you thought you knew trashy!
The couple went on to have seven children…
Unsurprisingly, when the Second World War broke out, Waugh signed up for military service. He was unpopular with his men, stopped writing, and eventually tried his hand as an Intelligence Officer. This was also a disaster, and Waugh’s superior officers became increasingly aware that he did not have the correct temperament for the army. After hurting his leg on a parachute drill, Waugh asked for three months’ unpaid leave, which was granted to him. Well… while I might have used the time to evaluate different brands of frozen peas in my freezer, Waugh wrote his most iconic work, Brideshead Revisited. So fast it was!
Waugh eventually returned to active duty after being approached by another nepo baby, Winston Churchill’s son Randolph. Their exploits would make the basis of an excellent slapstick film: they crashed an airplane and worked out of an abandoned farmhouse where they rarely communicated with the two parties they were supposed to improve relationships between. At that time, Waugh also wrote a lengthy report about the tensions between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. This was suppressed to avoid a diplomatic incident.
SOMETIMES, I FEEL THE PAST AND THE FUTURE PRESSING SO HARD ON EITHER SIDE THAT THERE’S NO ROOM FOR THE PRESENT AT ALL. Evelyn Waugh
After an event as seismic as the Second World War, it makes sense that people would take some time to readjust. One of Waugh’s more random forays — like his time as a carpenter or his training with parachutes — was his collection of Victorian memorabilia. Apparently, he became quite knowledgeable and liked to visit Portobello Road in London, known for its antique markets. Other things were less quaint. Waugh started using drugs, got bromine poisoning, and started hearing voices. His doctor realized what was happening, so after complete treatment, Waugh got sober and later said that he was “clean off [his] onion!”
During the 1950s, Waugh continued to write, avoided tax by pretending to be a charity, and refused a CBE because he thought he should have been made a knight. Increasingly, his health failed, and he drank more and more before he died in 1965 on Easter Sunday — a fate that Waugh, as a staunch Catholic (as well as a satirist), would probably have found amusing had it only come two days earlier.
We are all, in some way or another, influenced by the world around us as artists. Waugh was no exception, and many people, including Waugh’s biographer, believe he was inspired to put a cartoonish spin on events he had experienced in his novels. Towards the end of his life, he became increasingly overblown and ridiculous, taking the jingoism of his youth to a farcical level. Some critics have commented on this and claimed that he was simply putting on a character and attempting to find someone who could match his wits; others said he was racist. His novels show levels of nuance beyond this.
IT WOULD BE A DULL WORLD IF WE ALL THOUGHT ALIKE…
Without a doubt, Waugh’s most famous work is Brideshead Revisited (1945). The novel is a memoir written as the main character prepares for a battle in the Second World War. The narrator, Charles Ryder, experiences same-sex relationships, divorce, alcoholism, infidelity, a connection with a former paramour’s relation, a world war, and religious confusion — just like Waugh himself. It was controversial, and an American bill from 2005 wanted to ban the book for its depiction of homosexuality, despite neither of the queer characters getting a happy ending and therefore following the Hays Code.
Also worth noting is Decline and Fall (1928), Waugh’s first novel. It’s a dark comedy/satire of England in the 1920s and draws on Waugh’s experiences at school as a pupil and then teacher. The humor is so deadpan that the publisher had to include a note in the book to remind readers that “IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.” Although Decline and Fall isn’t as well-known as Brideshead Revisited, it was discussed by comedian David Mitchell who said he would take it with him to a desert island and was adapted by the BBC in 2017.
Waugh was a strange man. Accounts from his friends and family say that he could be intimidating, perhaps never fully growing out of his phase as a bullying child. Yet there is part of him that feels thoroughly familiar to anyone who’s studied 20th Century Britain, as a witty, religious tory who wouldn’t mind punching down because he’s at the top of the social pyramid. Perhaps he was not unlike John Cleese, Roald Dahl, or Winston Churchill. If he were alive today, he would doubtless have a dedicated following on Twitter and a Wikipedia page full of scandals that he would lovingly update. Waugh’s father was described as “pompously theatrical,” and Waugh himself once said, “Don’t hold your parents up to contempt. After all, you are their son, and it is just possible that you may take after them”.
I would say that he did.
Written by Clara Godwin-Suttie
More info: Evelyn Waugh and Getting Old