Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (28 October 1903 – 10 April 1966) was an English writer of novels, travel books and biographies. He was also a prolific journalist and reviewer. His best-known works include his early satires Decline and Fall (1928) and A Handful of Dust (1934), his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) and his trilogy of Second World War novels collectively known as Sword of Honour (1952–61). Waugh, a conservative Roman Catholic whose views were often trenchantly expressed, is widely recognised as one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century.
The son of a publisher, Waugh born in 1903 was educated at Lancing College and Hertford College, Oxford. Waugh arrived in Oxford in January 1922. The arrival in Oxford in October 1922 of the sophisticated Etonians Harold Acton and Brian Howard changed Waugh’s Oxford life. Acton and Howard rapidly became the centre of an avant-garde circle known as the Hypocrites, whose artistic, social and homosexual values Waugh adopted enthusiastically; he later wrote: “It was the stamping ground of half my Oxford life”. He began drinking heavily, and embarked on the first of several homosexual relationships. He continued to write reviews and short stories for the university journals, and developed a reputation as a talented graphic artist, but formal study largely ceased. He did just enough work to pass his final examinations in the summer of 1924 with a third class degree.
As a young man he acquired many fashionable and aristocratic friends, and developed a taste for country house society that never left him. After leaving Oxford Waugh spent weeks partying in London and Oxford before the overriding need for money led him to apply through an agency for a teaching job.
He also began working on a comic novel; after several temporary working titles this became Decline and Fall. Having given up teaching, he had no regular employment except for a short, unsuccessful stint as a reporter on the Daily Express in April–May 1927.Waugh was at this time dependent on a £4-a-week allowance from his father, and the small sums he could earn from book reviewing and journalism.
In September 1928 Decline and Fall was published to almost unanimous praise. By December the book was into its third printing, and the American publishing rights had been sold for $500.
Vile Bodies, a satire on the Bright Young People of the 1920s, was published on 19 January 1930 and was Waugh’s first major commercial success. Despite its quasi-biblical title, the book is dark, bitter, “a manifesto of disillusionment”. As a best-selling author Waugh could now command larger fees for his journalism.
On 29 September 1930 Waugh was received into the Roman Catholic Church. This shocked his family and surprised some of his friends, but the step had been contemplated for some time.
In 10 October 1930 Waugh, representing several newspapers, departed for Abyssinia to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie. He reported the event as “an elaborate propaganda effort” to convince the world that Abyssinia was a civilised nation, concealing the truth that the emperor had achieved power through barbarous means. A subsequent journey through the British East Africa colonies and the Belgian Congo formed the basis of two books; the travelogue Remote People (1931) and the comic novel Black Mischief (1932). His various adventures and encounters found their way into two further books: his travel account Ninety-two days, and the novel A Handful of Dust, both published in 1934.
He returned to Abyssinia in August 1935, to report the opening stages of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War for the Daily Mail. Waugh, on the basis of his earlier visit, considered Abyssinia “a savage place which Mussolini was doing well to tame”, according to his fellow-reporter William Deedes. Waugh saw little action, and was not wholly serious in his role as a war correspondent. Deedes remarks on the older writer’s snobbery: “None of us quite measured up to the company he liked to keep back at home”. However, in the face of imminent Italian air attacks, Deedes found Waugh’s courage “deeply reassuring”. Waugh wrote up his Abyssinian experiences in a book, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936). A better-known account is his novel Scoop (1938).
At the outbreak of the war in September 1939 sought military employment. In December Waugh was commissioned into the Royal Marines and began training at Chatham naval base. In April he was promoted temporarily to captain and given command of a company. Waugh’s inability to adapt to regimental life meant that he soon lost his command and became the battalion’s Intelligence Officer. In this role he finally saw action, as part of the force sent in August 1940 to Dakar in Western Africa to support an attempt by Free French troops to install General de Gaulle as leader there. Hampered by fog, and misinformed about the extent of the town’s defences, the mission was a failure, and on 26 September the British forces withdrew. Waugh commented that “Bloodshed has been avoided at the cost of honour.”
In November 1940 Waugh was posted to a commando unit and after further training became a member of “Layforce” under Brigadier Robert Laycock. In February 1941 the unit sailed to the Mediterranean, where it participated in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Bardia, on the Libyan coast. In May the force was required to assist in the evacuation of Crete; Waugh was shocked by the disorder, loss of discipline and, as he saw it, cowardice of the departing troops. On the roundabout journey home in July by troopship he wrote Put Out More Flags, a novel of the early months of the war written in Waugh’s familiar 1930s style. Back in England, more training and waiting followed, until in May 1942 Waugh was transferred, on Laycock’s recommendation, to the Royal Horse Guards.
Waugh’s elation at his transfer soon descended into disillusion as he failed to find opportunities for active service. Despite his undoubted courage, his unmilitary and insubordinate character was making him effectively unemployable. After spells of idleness at the regimental depot in Windsor, Waugh began parachute training at Tatton Park, landed awkwardly and fractured a fibula. Recovering at Windsor, he applied for three months’ unpaid leave to write the novel that was forming in his mind. His request was granted. The result of his labours was Brideshead Revisited, the first of Waugh’s explicitly “Catholic” novels and, biographer Douglas Lane Patey observes, “the book that seemed to confirm his new sense of his writerly vocation”.
Brideshead Revisited was published in London in May 1945. Waugh had been convinced of the book’s qualities, “my first novel rather than my last”. It was a tremendous success, bringing its author fame, fortune and literary status. In February 1947 he made the first of several trips to the United States, in the first instance to discuss filming of Brideshead. This project collapsed, but Waugh used his time in Hollywood to visit the Forest Lawn cemetery, which provided the basis for his satire on American perspectives on death, The Loved One. Waugh also worked intermittently on Helena, a long-planned novel about the discoverer of the True Cross, “far the best book I have ever written or ever will write”. Its success with the public was limited. In 1952 Waugh published Men at Arms, the first of his semi-autobiographical war trilogy, in which he depicted many of his personal experiences and encounters from the early stages of the war. At 50, Waugh was old for his years, “selectively deaf, rheumatic, irascible”, increasingly dependent on alcohol and on drugs to relieve his insomnia and depression.
By 1953 Waugh’s popularity as a writer was declining. As he approached his sixties, Waugh was in poor health, prematurely aged, “fat, deaf, short of breath, “an exhausted rogue jollied up by drink”. He described himself as “toothless, deaf, melancholic, shaky on my pins, unable to eat, full of dope, quite idle” and expressed the belief that “all fates were worse than death”. In 1965 the three war novels edited into a single volume were published as Sword of Honour.
On Easter Day, 10 April 1966, after attending a Latin Mass in a neighbouring village with members of his family, Waugh died suddenly of heart failure at his Combe Florey home.
In the course of his lifetime Waugh made enemies, and offended many people; writer James Lees-Milne asserted that he was “the nastiest-tempered man in England”. He had been a bully at school, and retained an intimidating presence throughout his life; his son Auberon remarked that the force of his father’s personality was such that, despite his lack of height, “generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quail[ed] in front of him.”
However, the common view of Waugh as a “snobbish misanthrope” is a caricature. How would a man who was so unpleasant be so beloved by such a wide circle of friends? He was generous to individuals and causes, particularly Catholic causes. His belligerence to strangers was not entirely serious but, rather, an attempt at “finding a sparring partner worthy of his own wit and ingenuity”. He mocked himself as well as others. The elderly buffer, “crusty colonel” image he presented in his later life was a comic impersonation, rather than his real self.
Waugh’s Catholicism was fundamental: “The Church … is the normal state of man from which men have disastrously exiled themselves.” Strictly observant, he admitted to Diana Cooper that his most difficult task was how to square the obligations of his faith with his indifference to his fellow men. When asked by Nancy Mitford how he reconciled his often objectionable conduct with being a Christian, he replied that “were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible”.
THEMES AND STYLE
Waugh’s novels reprise and fictionalise the main events of his life, although in an early essay Waugh declares that “Nothing is more insulting to a novelist than to assume that he is incapable of anything but the mere transcription of what he observes”. Nor, Waugh emphasises, should it be taken that the author agreed with the opinions expressed by his characters.
Waugh is widely regarded as a master of style. In the view of critic Clive James, “Nobody ever wrote a more unaffectedly elegant English … its hundreds of years of steady development culminate in him”. As his talent developed and matured he maintained “an exquisite sense of the ludicrous, and a fine aptitude for exposing false attitudes”. In the first stages of his 40-year writing career, before his conversion to Catholicism in 1930, Waugh was the novelist of the Bright Young People generation. His first two novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, comically reflect a society of utter futility, peopled by two-dimensional, basically unbelievable characters in circumstances too fantastic to evoke the reader’s emotions. Much use is made of what Slater describes as a typical Waugh trademark: rapid, unattributed dialogue in which the participants can still be easily identified. Alongside these works Waugh mixed into his journalism a few serious essays, such as “The War and the Younger Generation”, in which he castigates his own “crazy and sterile” generation.
Waugh’s conversion did not significantly change the nature of his next two novels, Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust although, in the latter at least, the farcical elements are muted. From the mid 1930s his journalism and non-fiction writings were increasingly concerned with Catholicism and conservative politics, before he reverted to his former manner with Scoop, published in 1939.
Brideshead, which questions the meaning of human existence without God, is the first of Waugh’s novels in which his political and religious views come clearly into view. His next novel was Helena, the most uncompromisingly Christian of his books.
In Brideshead, through the person of the proletarian junior officer Hooper, Waugh introduces a further theme that persists in his post-war fiction: the rise of mediocrity in the Age of the Common Man. In the Sword of Honour trilogy this process is depicted through the semi-comical figure of Trimmer, a sloven and fraud who through contrivance emerges triumphant.
Of Waugh’s early books, Decline and Fall was hailed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard as “an uncompromising and brilliantly malicious satire”. The critical reception of Vile Bodies two years later was even more enthusiastic, with Rebecca West predicting that Waugh was “destined to be the dazzling figure of his age”. However, A Handful of Dust, later widely regarded as Waugh’s masterpiece, received a more muted welcome from critics, despite Waugh’s own high estimation of the work.
In the latter 1930s Waugh’s inclination to Catholic and conservative polemics affected his standing with the general reading public. The pro-fascist tone in parts of Waugh in Abyssinia offended readers and critics, and prevented its publication in America. There was general relief among critics when Scoop, in 1939, indicated a return to Waugh’s earlier comic style; critics had begun to think that his wit had been displaced by partisanship and propaganda.
Waugh maintained his reputation in 1942 with Put Out More Flags, which sold well, despite wartime restrictions on paper and printing. Its public reception, however, did not compare with that accorded to Brideshead Revisited three years later, on both sides of the Atlantic. Brideshead’s selection as the American Book of the Month swelled its US sales to an extent that dwarfed those in Britain, which was affected by paper shortages. Despite the public’s enthusiasm, critical opinion was split. Brideshead’s Catholic standpoint offended some critics who had greeted Waugh’s earlier novels with warm praise Its perceived snobbery and its deference to the aristocracy were attacked by, among others, Conor Cruise O’Brien who, in the Irish literary magazine The Bell, wrote of Waugh’s “almost mystical veneration” for the upper classes. Fellow-writer Rose Macaulay believed that Waugh’s genius had been adversely affected by the intrusion of his right-wing partisan alter ego, and that he had lost his detachment. Conversely, the book was praised by Graham Greene, and in glowing terms by Harold Acton, who was particularly impressed by its evocation of 1920s Oxford. In 1959, at the request of publishers Chapman and Hall and in some deference to his critics, Waugh revised the book and wrote in a preface: “I have modified the grosser passages but not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book”.
In “Fan Fare”, Waugh forecasts that his future books will be unpopular because of their religious theme. On publication in 1950, Helena was received indifferently by the public and by critics, who disparaged the awkward mixing of 20th-century schoolgirl slang with otherwise reverential prose. Otherwise, Waugh’s prediction proved unfounded; all the fiction remained in print and sales stayed healthy. Men at Arms, the first volume of his war trilogy, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1953; initial critical comment was lukewarm, with Connolly likening Men at Arms to beer rather than champagne. Connolly changed his view later, calling the completed trilogy “the finest novel to come out of the war”.
In 1973 Waugh’s diaries were serialised in The Observer, prior to publication in book form in 1976. The revelations on his private life, thoughts and attitudes created controversy. Although Waugh had removed embarrassing entries relating to his Oxford years and his first marriage, there was sufficient left on the record to enable enemies to project a negative image of the writer as intolerant, snobbish and sadistic, with pronounced fascist leanings. Some of this picture, it was maintained by Waugh’s supporters, arose from poor editing of the diaries, and a desire to transform Waugh from a writer to a “character”. Nevertheless, a popular conception developed of Waugh as a monster When, in 1980, a selection of his letters was published, his reputation became the subject of further discussion.
The publication of the diaries and letters promoted increased interest in Waugh and his works, and the publication of much new material. Christopher Sykes’s biography had appeared in 1975; between 1980 and 1998 three more full biographies were issued, and other biographical and critical studies have continued to be produced. A collection of Waugh’s journalism and reviews was published in 1983, revealing a fuller range of his ideas and beliefs. This new material provided further grounds for debate between Waugh’s supporters and detractors. The 1982 Granada Television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited introduced a new generation to Waugh’s works, in Britain and in America. There had been earlier television treatment of Waugh’s fiction—Sword of Honour had been serialised by the BBC in 1967—but the impact of Granada’s Brideshead was much wider. Its nostalgic depiction of a vanished form of Englishness appealed to the American mass market; Time magazine’s TV critic described the series as “a novel … made into a poem”, and listed it among the “100 Best TV Shows of All Time”. There have been further cinematic Waugh adaptations: A Handful of Dust in 1988, Vile Bodies (filmed as Bright Young Things) in 2003 and Brideshead again in 2008. These popular treatments have maintained the public’s appetite for Waugh’s novels, all of which remain in print and continue to sell. Several have been listed among various compiled lists of the world’s greatest novels.
Beneath his public mask, Stannard concludes, Waugh was “a dedicated artist and a man of earnest faith, struggling against the dryness of his soul.” Graham Greene, in a letter to The Times shortly after Waugh’s death, acknowledged him as “the greatest novelist of my generation” while Time magazine’s obituarist called him “the grand old mandarin of modern British prose”, and asserted that his novels “will continue to survive as long as there are readers who can savor what critic V. S. Pritchett calls ‘the beauty of his malice’ “. Nancy Mitford said of him in a television interview; “What nobody remembers about Evelyn is that everything with him was jokes. Everything. That’s what none of the people who wrote about him seem to have taken into account at all.”
The novel is partly based on Waugh’s own experience working for the Daily Mail, when he was sent to cover Benito Mussolini’s expected invasion of Abyssinia – what was later known as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. When he got his own scoop on the invasion he telegraphed the story back in Latin for secrecy, but they discarded it. Waugh wrote up his travels more factually in Waugh in Abyssinia (1936), which complements Scoop.
Lord Copper, the newspaper magnate, has been said to be based on an amalgam of Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook: a character so fearsome that his obsequious foreign editor, Mr Salter, can never openly disagree with any statement he makes, answering “Definitely, Lord Copper” and ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper” in place of “yes” or “no”. Lord Copper’s idea of the lowliest of his employees is a book reviewer. The historian A.J.P. Taylor, however, writes: “I have Evelyn Waugh’s authority for stating that Lord Beaverbrook was not the original of Lord Copper.” Bill Deedes thought the portrait of Copper exhibited the folie de grandeur of both Rothermere and Beaverbrook and included ” the ghost of Rothermere’s elder brother, Lord Northcliffe. Before he died tragically, mentally deranged and attended by nurses, Northcliffe was already exhibiting some of Copper’s eccentricities – his megalomania, his habit of giving ridiculous orders to underlings.”
It is widely believed that Waugh based his hapless protagonist, William Boot, on Bill Deedes, a junior reporter who arrived in Addis Ababa aged 22 with “quarter of a ton of baggage”. In his memoir At War with Waugh, Deedes wrote that; “Waugh like most good novelists drew on more than one person for each of his characters. He drew on me for my excessive baggage – and perhaps for my naivety..” He further observed that Waugh was reluctant to acknowledge real life models , so that with Black Mischiefs portrait of a young ruler, “Waugh insisted, as he usually did, that his portrait of Seth, Emperor of Azania, was not drawn from any real person such as Haile Selassie.” According to Peter Stothard, a more direct model for Boot may have been William Beach Thomas , “a quietly successful countryside columnist and literary gent who became a calamitous Daily Mail war correspondent”.
The novel is full of all but identical opposites: Lord Copper of the Daily Beast, Lord Zinc of the Daily Brute (the Daily Mail and Daily Express); the CumReds and the White Shirts, parodies of Communists (comrades) and Black Shirts (fascists) etc.
Other real life models for characters (again, according to Deedes): “Jakes is drawn from John Gunther of the Chicago Daily News – In [one] excerpt, Jakes is found writing, ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury who, it is well known, is behind Imperial Chemicals..’ Authentic Gunther.” The most recognizable figure from Fleet Street is Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock, Waugh’s portrait of Sir Percival Phillips, working then for the Daily Telegraph.
“Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole”, a line from one of Boot’s countryside columns, has become a famous comic example of overblown prose style. It inspired the name of the environmentalist magazine Vole, which was originally titled The Questing Vole.
One of the points of the novel is that even if there is little news happening, the world’s media descending upon a place requires that something happen to please their editors and owners back home, and so they will create news.
Christopher Hitchens, introducing the 2000 Penguin Classics edition of Scoop, said “In the pages of Scoop we encounter Waugh at the mid-season point of his perfect pitch; youthful and limber and light as a feather”, and noted: “The manners and mores of the press, are the recurrent motif of the book and the chief reason for its enduring magic…this world of callousness and vulgarity and philistinism…Scoop endures because it is a novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps, as no other narrative has ever done save Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page.”
Scoop was included in The Observer’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Scoop #75 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
MONTHLY BOOK GROUP DISCUSSION 31 March 2011
The reaction to the book was most positive. It was acclaimed as very funny and well constructed with some most amusing characters. One participant described Scoop as the funniest novel he had read. Waugh’s mastery of language was praised though some argued that the language might appear dated particularly to the younger generation.
Waugh’s use of satire, farce, irony and caricature were widely praised. He was clearly writing in the tradition of the great English comic novel- from Fielding and Smollet through Dickens. His satire seemed to have little overt political purpose, unlike Dickens. Newspapers were seen as beyond reform, as did the characters. They were simply absurd or ridiculous but treated affectionately and uncritically. This perhaps reflected Waugh’s pessimistic conservatism about the improvement of human nature. There was no sense of impending World War for a novel written in 1939, unlike say The Mask of Dimitrios.
Scoop was a good example of a plot that changed direction shortly after a good opening – as with Psycho. The structure looked odd at first but worked well when completed. The only criticism was that the English sections were better than the African.
The proposer of Scoop had chosen it as a good representative of Waugh’s ouvre but also because it was highly topical particularly in the context of Libya and the Arab spring. There was wide agreement to this proposition. How little had changed re the media with over mighty newspaper proprietors such as Murdoch and the BBC sending too many journalists to natural and war disaster zones using up scarce food and travel resources. And how little had changed with western countries wading in and stirring up problems in African and Muslim countries. The clash between such different cultures added to the humour in Scoop.
With so much agreement about the merits of the book discussion ranged more widely. One of our number told an amusing anecdote about a stay at Waugh’s house in Combe Florey which included a walk along a plank across the stairwell to ascertain if one was sober enough for another drink.
There was also a discussion about the role of humour in British (or should that be English) life and literature. People racked their brains for great Scottish as opposed to English humorous writers. Irvine Welsh was not remembered until afterwards. There was some self satisfaction that our book group had chosen a series of humorous books unlike, we thought, most book groups.