Evelyn Waugh was born in London and educated at Lancing School and Hertford College, Oxford. On his own admission he wasted his time at Oxford. After university he taught for a brief period in private schools and was dismissed from one of them for drunkenness. He worked for the Daily Express, and studied arts and crafts in a desultory way. His first work, privately printed when he was 13, was The World to Come: A Poem in Three Cantos (1916). The next, also privately printed, was PRB: An Essay on The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1847-1854 (1926). His first novel, Decline and Fall, was based on his experiences as a teacher and was published in 1928. In the same year came Rossetti: His Life and Works.Decline and Fallintroduced a considerable comic novelist and Vile Bodies (1930) sealed his reputation and brought him financial success.
Acknowledged as England’s leading satirical novelist in the 1930s, Waugh continued his brilliant career with Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), Mr Loveday’s Little Outing, and Other Sad Stories (1936), Scoop(1938), and Put Out More Flags (1942). In these novels he catches the mood of upper-class life in the 1920s and 1930s and his merciless satire conveys a feeling of revulsion at its inanity and irresponsibility. His novels are a continuing, perfectly judged comedy, occasionally farce, of the innocent abroad in an amoral world: moral considerations do not exist for Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, for the mother of Constantine in Helena, or for Guy Crouchback in the trilogy Sword of Honour (1965), though latterly the scene changes and the novelist looks at the characters with more sympathy.
During the 1930s Evelyn Waugh travelled extensively and used his gifts as a writer of fine, lucid prose to describe his journeys in Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (1930), Remote People (1931), and Ninety-Two Days: The Account of a Tropical Journey through British Guiana and Part of Brazil (1934). He became a Roman Catholic in 1930 and published a biography of the English martyr Edmund Campion (1935). Further travel books were Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) and Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object-Lesson (1939). Two chapters of an unfinished novel were published as Work Suspended (1942). He served in the Royal Marines during World War II and was a member of the British Military Mission to Yugoslavia in 1944.
Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (1945) is a complex story about an old Catholic family and for many critics it is Waugh’s best non-satirical novel. The author’s preface to the revised edition of 1960 states that the novel is ‘an attempt to trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world’. But some critics, dismayed by the way the finely balanced prose in this novel sometimes degenerates into rhetoric, see it as an account of emotional surrender by a man who finds reality too harsh to deal with. Whatever the author’s claims for the divine purpose the hero, Ryder, is indeed an innocent when he enters the world of the great Catholic family, and his behaviour is conditioned by his response to them. His acquaintance with them begins at Oxford, when Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the Marquis of Marchmain of Brideshead Castle, becomes his friend. He is a frequent visitor to Brideshead, where Sebastian’s mother is a fervent Catholic. Sebastian’s father has departed to settle abroad with his mistress. Sebastian becomes an alcoholic as the story progresses, ending his life as a humble servant in a North African monastery. Ryder continues to visit Brideshead, where his feelings are centred on Sebastian’s sister, Julia. But she marries a non-Catholic, a vulgar politician who fails to qualify as a Catholic convert. The marchioness dies and the marquis returns home, and on his deathbed is restored to the faith. Julia, who might have married Ryder after her divorce from the politician, witnesses her father’s reconciliation and she too returns to the faith. Ryder’s doubts about his own faith are resolved by Julia’s renunciation of him. The outline of the story cannot, of course, take account of the fine things in the book: the superb Oxford chapters, the character drawing, or Sebastian’s flight from his restrictive heritage.
After the war Evelyn Waugh’s only satire was based on his experience of Hollywood, The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948). The target is the American commercialization of bereavement and the point is overworked even in a short book. Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947) was a short novel reflecting the author’s uneasiness in the modern world and its sense of values, and Helena (1950) an interesting and little-known treatment of the finding of the True Cross. His next novel, Men at Arms (1952), was the first of a trilogy. Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future (1953) followed, and the second novel of the trilogy, Officers and Gentlemen, in 1955. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) is a striking account of a middle-aged writer who suffers a nervous breakdown. Frankly autobiographical, it is for many readers Waugh’s best novel. A biography, The Life of Ronald Knox (1959), and a travel book, A Tourist in Africa (1960), were followed by Unconditional Surrender (1961), the conclusion of the trilogy called Sword of Honour (1965). A Little Learning (1964) is a chapter of autobiography.
Sword of Honour presents Guy Crouchback, an honourable man with no place in the modern world. He receives no consolation from personal relationships or from his religion but World War II gives him opportunities to establish some sort of identity. The setting is of course upper-class and complaints of snobbery are not valid. Waugh was writing about the world he knew – and he could be vicious about it. By the end of the second volume Crouchback has been stripped of his illusions about the army. He has also remarried his shallow, bird-brained ex-wife Virginia, who is pregnant by another man. His charity to her is the only sort of disinterested action possible in a corrupted world. In the last volume Crouchback volunteers for service in Italy with the military government and eventually goes to Yugoslavia as a liaison officer with the Partisans. By the end of the book he has again asserted himself, in the rescue of a group of Jewish refugees. The words of one of them, a woman, bring him to a devastating realization of the kind of man he used to be:
“It is too simple to say that only the Nazis wanted war. These Communists wanted it too. It was the only way in which they could come to power. Many of my people wanted it, to be revenged on the Germans, to hasten the creation of the national state … Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians – not very many perhaps – who felt this. Were there none in England?” “God forgive me,” said Guy, “I was one of them.”