Unexpectedly, yet perhaps inevitably, Evelyn Waugh is becoming more likeable as the years go by. Fifty years dead now, the vile, rude, snobbish, cigar-chomping, ear trumpet-brandishing, banana-gobbling bigot is slowly becoming, in distant memory and from a comfortable distance, a bit of an old sweetheart. The more one reads about him, the more one likes him. Even the banana incident – shortly after the Second World War he ate three precious, strictly rationed bananas intended for his children in front of them, an act that his son Auberon famously found difficult to forgive and even more difficult to stop talking about – seems in retrospect as much a prank as an act of pure unpleasantness, more jolly jape than great evil. Weren’t all 20th-century bourgeois bohemian families equally brutish and strange? That’s certainly what all the books and biographies seem to suggest, isn’t it? And where’s the harm in a bit of a teasing – the children all get over it in the end, don’t they? Auberon’s son Alexander unearthed some years ago a letter from Auberon to Evelyn, never sent, which certainly suggests that even Auberon didn’t really begrudge his old man his eccentricities. The letter begins, ‘Dear Papa, Just a line to tell you what for some reason I was never able to show you in my lifetime, that I admire, revere and love you more than any other man in the world.’ Funny thing, that: as we get older it’s easier to forgive others, since we’re so much in need of forgiveness ourselves.
One can even perhaps begin to forgive the authors of biographies of Evelyn Waugh. Long ago in Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist (1958), Waugh’s first biographer, Frederick Stopp, remarked that the ‘novels are so subtle in technique and structure, and so rich in allusion, that there is no end to the fascinating task of exploring them’. For better or for worse, the endless exploring of the novels has now largely been superseded by the endless exploring of the life – and Philip Eade now adds yet another biography to the vast, teetering pile. The good news is that Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited represents a sort of tipping point: Eade’s even-handedness gently but firmly nudges Waugh’s work centre stage again.
You already know the biographical facts. Arthur Evelyn St John Waugh was born in 1903, the second son of Arthur Waugh, author, literary critic and the managing director of the publishing house Chapman and Hall. He had a favoured older brother, Alec. He went to Oxford and left without a degree (he qualified for a third but failed to complete the requisite number of terms). He dabbled at painting – and homosexuality. His first wife, Evelyn Gardner, known as She-Evelyn to Waugh’s He-Evelyn, ran off with another man. He converted to Catholicism, his marriage was annulled, he married Laura Herbert, worked as a journalist, was commissioned into the Royal Marines, was obsessed with the English aristocracy, had seven children and a nervous breakdown, and somewhere along the way managed to publish sixteen novels, including some very famous ones and some less well-known ones. (The greatest, strangest and still the most underrated of them all is surely The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, published in 1957, the ravings of a man about the ravings of a man who abhors ‘plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz’ and who ‘offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright and antiquated as a cuirass’.) He had a wicked sense of humour and a face like a pug.
You can get all this, of course, from Martin Stannard’s exquisite biography (the first volume was published in 1986, the second in 1992), or from Douglas Lane Patey’s more recent The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography (1998), or indeed from Stopp, or Christopher Sykes, or Selina Hastings, or John Howard Wilson, or half a dozen other biographical and historical accounts (including Duncan McLaren’s recent madcap (auto)biographical Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love, published last year, which rather improbably does for Waugh what Geoff Dyer did for D H Lawrence in Out of Sheer Rage). Basically, there’s no shortage of stuff out there about Evelyn Waugh. So Eade’s Waugh – what is it good for?
There is some new material. Most interested readers will by now be familiar with the details of Waugh’s homosexual relationship with Alastair Graham while at Oxford, a relationship famously transposed to Brideshead Revisited and transmuted into the relationship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. Eade uncovers a few new facts about this intense period in Waugh’s life, including the competing attentions of Harold Acton. But for all the flings and the flightiness, and for all the titillation that these new titbits provide, it remains a sorry tale, with Waugh cutting a rather sad and lonely figure. After the collapse of his first marriage, while working on his third novel, Black Mischief – in Eade’s phrase, ‘an exuberantly tasteless black comedy’ – and staying at Alastair’s family home, Barford House, the model for Brideshead, Waugh confided in a letter, ‘We just sit about sipping sloe gin all day. I am reading all the case histories in Havelock Ellis and frigging too much.’
Everyone knows that too much frigging is bad for you, but Waugh just couldn’t help himself: love and sex were a constant source of fascination and misery to him. Eade is excellent on tracing the sources of Waugh’s delights and horrors, from his life to his work and back again: the failures, the successes, the disappointments, the endless grist to the authorial mill. He quotes, for example, from several of Waugh’s letters to Teresa ‘Baby’ Jungman, one of the brightest of the Bright Young Things and the great inspiration for Vile Bodies, which give some insight into Waugh’s deep reserves of passion and pain: ‘You will say it was sly to go away without saying anything … But please believe it isn’t only selfish – running away from pain (though it has been more painful than you know, all the last months, realising every day I was becoming less attractive and less important to you) – but also I can’t be any good to you without your love and it’s the worst possible thing for you to have to cope with the situation that had come about between us.’ No wonder he developed such a hideous public persona. How else might a man protect himself – from himself and the demands of others? In his famous Face to Face interview with John Freeman in 1960, Waugh set out his stall while carefully erecting a facade:
‘Are you a snob at all?’
‘I don’t think.’
‘Irritability with your family, with strangers?’
‘Absolutely everything. Inanimate objects and people, animals, everything.’
‘Have you ever brooded on what appeared to you to be unjust or adverse criticism?’
‘No. I’m afraid if someone praises me I think “What an ass”, and if they abuse me I think “What an ass”.’
‘And if they say nothing about you at all and take no notice of you?’
‘That’s the best I can hope for.’
‘You like that when it happens?’
The best we can do is leave the poor man alone. But first read this book.