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Crabby & Evelyn

John Banville reviews Selina Hastings's 'Evelyn Waugh: A Biography.'

Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

At the very core of the English national character, the secret worm of despair gnaws constantly. This heartsickness may be disguised by rosy cheeks and well-cut tweeds, by displays of joviality and truculent common sense, but it will not be gainsaid. Some of the best of England’s writers have chosen, with much profit, to explore this anguish at the center: Blake, and Keats and Hardy, and in our time Philip Larkin and Graham Greene. Yet it is perhaps the so-called comic writers who best capture the anomie that haunts the English soul: Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Chesterbelloc, John Betjeman and, especially, Evelyn Waugh.

Here is Waugh’s portrait of himself shortly before he died:

My life is roughly speaking over. I sleep badly except occasionally in the morning. I get up late. I try to read my letters. I try to read the paper. I have some gin. I try to read the paper again. I have some more gin. I try to think about my autobiography. Then I have some more gin and it’s lunch time. That’s my life. It’s ghastly.

The falling off was not sudden. From childhood on, Waugh’s days had been spent in constant, terrified and vain flight from boredom. He was a lonely child (“Ascension Day never passes,” he wrote in 1947, “without my thinking of the day now thirty years ago at Lancing [his public school] which was the most miserable of my life”) and a troubled adolescent. After a few brief years of bliss as a student at Oxford he married young and disastrously, a mistake that left his soul permanently scarred and that may, indeed, have unhinged his mind. There was a mad tinge to Waugh’s anger and grief at this time, a hint of the serious bout of delusional paranoia he would suffer in middle age, which is chronicled in the surprisingly autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. When he was in his 30s he married again, successfully, this time, and for a period in his middle years he was almost happy; and then his creativity deserted him.

The loss of his ability as an artist was fatal. Henry James wrote in his notebooks, “In literature we move through a blest world in which we know nothing except by style, but in which everything is saved by it.” Waugh would have adapted the maxim by substituting the word “life” for “literature” and “curst” for “blest.” He put his faith, and even his Faith, in the generative and redemptive power of words, and when words went dead on him, in his 60s, he ceased to be, in Oscar Wilde’s grand formulation, a “lord of language.” The world turned gray and he found himself, as Selina Hastings puts it, “drowning in melancholy, ill, aimless and miserable. He did no work, spending the day, he said, breathing on the library window, playing noughts and crosses and drinking gin.”

How to explain the continuing fascination that Waugh holds for us, as a man and a writer? Martin Stannard’s recent two-volume biography, a superb work written in a clean, vigorous style befitting its subject, seemed the last word, but now here is Selina Hastings’s hefty Life. Has she unearthed new material on Waugh, or found new things to say about him and his world? The answer is: not really. All the same her book is a valuable and fascinating biography, not displacing Stannard’s but complementing it. Hastings has drawn a remarkable portrait of a remarkable figure.

Where Hastings is original is in her tone. All his life Waugh was in equal measure fascinated and frightened by women. He loved women, their looks, their manner, their conversation (he was not, I think, a great admirer of their minds), yet in his relations with them he encountered mostly failure, from the humiliating collapse of his first marriage through his hopeless pursuit of society beauties such as Olivia Plunkett Greene, Diana Guinness, and “Baby” Jungman, in the frenetic London of the ‘20s, to his clumsy, lovelorn dealings in middle age with his growing daughters. Posthumously, however, he has found in Selina Hastings a woman determined to do right by him, despite his attempts to hide behind the mask of a reactionary and a buffoon.

To those areas of Waugh’s life where Stannard was impatient or condemnatory, Hastings brings an almost maternal considerateness. She is very good on his solitary and unhappy childhood, and devotes much attention to his relationships with his father Arthur, whom he despised, and his older brother Alec, the favorite of the family, whose academic and sporting success put Evelyn in the shade. (In adulthood, the critically acclaimed Evelyn would have his revenge on Alec the merely “popular” novelist.) Hastings is scrupulously fair in the matter of Waugh’s first marriage, seeing clearly that the disaster was no one’s fault, but the result of a hopeless immaturity on both sides. She is wise, too, in her portrait of Laura Herbert, Waugh’s second wife, who pretended always to be the “white mouse” whom Waugh first spotted when he was over 30 and she was still in her teens, but who was in reality a tough, humorous and resourceful woman, and every bit a match for her increasingly eccentric and irascible husband.

The young Waugh has always been seen as misanthropic, loutish, drunken and cold. Certainly this is how he liked to present himself. Hastings does not waste much time, however, on this elaborately assembled disguise, pushing it aside without comment to reveal the sensitive creature hiding behind it. She quotes at length a very beautiful and heartbreaking love letter from Joyce Gill, a woman whom Waugh had known from his student days at Oxford, written after he had married for the second time:

I think of you all the time when I am making love, until the word and Evelyn are almost synonymous! And in the darkness each night & in the greyness of each morning when I wake I remember your face—& your voice and your body and everything about you so earnestly and intensely that you become almost tangibly beside me.

A man who could provoke such love cannot have been the intolerant drunkard and religious reactionary of legend.

Waugh was born in London in 1903. His parents came from solid middle-class families of doctors and churchmen. Arthur Waugh was a cautious though successful publisher, a good and decent man whom Evelyn would come to despise precisely for his goodness and decency. Waugh liked people to be tough and single-minded and merciless, which is how he wished to see himself. In later years he compared his early home life to that described in The Diary of a Nobody, with his parents as Mr. and Mrs. Pooter and himself as their reprehensible son Lupin. He was sent to Lancing, a good though not first-rank public school, which he hated. There were compensations, though, notably the remarkable teacher J. F. Roxburgh:

It was Roxburgh who exercised the greatest influence on that generation of Lancing boys. At 31 he had returned to teaching [from the Great War] a hero, having been mentioned in dispatches and recommended for a Military Cross. He enthralled his pupils with his handsome, sardonic features, his flamboyance and panache. He was a dandy with an extensive wardrobe of no less than fourteen suits, some of them in most unusual colors, and his many silk ties, it was widely believed, were specially woven for him in Spitalfields. Striding into chapel a carefully planned few minutes late, the gorgeous gown of his Licenciat ès Lettres from the Sorbonne billowing behind him, he flowed down the aisle, as one of his admirers remarked, like the Prince of Glory passing on his way.

After Lancing, Waugh went on to Oxford, which he adored, as Brideshead Revisited shows. “I can say little because I am too happy,” he wrote to a friend who was still at school. “Life is good and Oxford is all that one dreams.” He made exquisite friends, among them the aesthetes Brian Howard and Harold Acton, and was received into the Hypocrites Club, the membership of which consisted mainly of rowdy gays. Like most young Englishmen of his class and time, Waugh went through a not very serious homosexual phase. Tom Driberg, an enthusiastic homosexual who was later to become a Labor member of Parliament, recalled seeing Waugh at a club meeting rolling on a couch with another young man “with (as one of them said later) their tongues licking each other’s tonsils,” and the first time Anthony Powell saw Evelyn Waugh he was sitting on the knee of his friend Christopher Hollis. What larks.

Waugh’s first Oxford love was Richard Pares, who was studying history at Balliol. They had a short but intensely passionate affair, until Pares left Waugh for Cyril Connolly. (Pares, like Connolly and Waugh, was later to return to a conventional heterosexuality.) Waugh’s next affair, and one of the most important relationships of his life, was with Alastair Graham, a dreamy minor aristocrat. Graham was “both indolent and reclusive, indifferent to the material world, ascetic but at the same time profoundly sensual.... His sweet nature and a tone of flirtatious whimsy which he adopted when amorous made him all the more irresistible.” He was the model, of course, for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, and the Grahams’ house at Barford in Warwickshire, though it was “not a noble pile in a landscaped park,” did have “claims to elegance and a kind of shabby, small scale grandeur with which Evelyn was not familiar and which served to provide him with a form of transition, an ideal introduction to the sort of upper class, country house life which ... was to exercise a potent and lifelong fascination.”

After Oxford, which he left with a poor degree, and the withering of his affair with Graham, Waugh moved to London and enrolled in an art course, which was not a success. He fell in love with Olivia Plunkett Greene, the 18-year-old sister of two of his Oxford fellow-students, and this also was not a success. Olivia was a strange, ethereal creature devoted to sexual adventure and drink; an acquaintance described her as “a ghost with a glass of gin in her hand.” Later in life she turned morbidly religious. Though she was promiscuous, especially so when drunk, she did not find Waugh attractive.

This was a very low period for Waugh. There was an urgent necessity for him to find a way of making a living, and eventually, with deep foreboding, he took a post as a teacher at Arnold House Preparatory School on the north coast of Wales. This grotesque establishment was the model for the hilariously awful Llanabba Castle in Decline and Fall. He did not stay there for long, and found another teaching job at a more nearly normal school in Buckinghamshire, from which eventually he was sacked, apparently for drunkenness. Waugh was not cut out to be a teacher.

He did not really know what he was cut out to be. He had started to write, and some short stories had been published, but he had not yet given up hope of being a painter. He also spent a brief, happy few months taking carpentry lessons with a view to embarking on a career as a cabinetmaker. He did some journalistic work, and began his first book, a life of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but the most important event of these years was his meeting Evelyn Gardner on April 7, 1927. (They would come to be known to their friends as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn.)

A daughter of the late first Lord Burghclere, a Liberal politician, She-Evelyn was a quintessential ‘20s flapper: “like a china doll with a head full of sawdust,” according to her friend Diana Guinness. Waugh fell for her straight off, and in defiance of opposition from She-Evelyn’s mother, the formidable Dowager Lady Burghclere (“It never occurred to me to think I wasn’t a gentleman until Lady Burghclere pointed it out,” Waugh wrote), they married, on June 17, 1928.

“Neither Evelyn Waugh nor Evelyn Gardner had any realistic conception of what married life entailed,” Hastings writes. “They were playing at marriage, and their flat and its cheerful accoutrements were their toys.” They were both physically small, delicate, almost androgynous; a friend likened them to “a pair of squirrels—round-eyed and reddish nutkin colouring.” They were inexperienced in love, and it seems that sex was a problem from the start, though Hastings is properly discreet on the matter. The marriage lasted little more than a year, and although its collapse caused great pain, at least to He-Evelyn, it is clear that they were well rid of each other.

It was in this time of uncertainty and misery, ironically, that Waugh was at last finding himself as a writer. With the Rossetti biography out of the way, in 1928 he embarked on, and quickly finished, what remains one of his finest novels, Decline and Fall, the brilliant, brittle and cruelly funny tale of Paul Pennyfeather, a modern Candide, making his perilous way through English high society and getting involved along with the way with crooks, cheats, murderers and the white slave trade. It was an immediate success, with reviewers and with readers. It was followed by Vile Bodies, another dazzling comedy, though not as successful, artistically or commercially, as its predecessor. Waugh had arrived.

With the collapse of his marriage, Waugh began what Hastings calls a “nomadic existence,” which was to last for seven years. His restless travels took him to Africa and South America, and provided him with material for two travel books and a number of novels, notably Scoop, the savage satire on journalism, and Black Mischief, funny, grotesque and deeply reactionary. At this time, too, his thoughts were turning ever more strongly to religion, and especially to the Catholic Church. The question of Waugh’s Catholicism has always been something of a puzzle, especially for those who were not brought up in that creed. Waugh viewed existence with a Manichean eye, and feared for himself and his soul in a fallen and still falling world. The Church, Hastings points out, “offered a safe and solid structure, a discipline, an ordered way of life, which once adopted held out a clear prospect of salvation.” As he himself wrote, “the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and Chaos.”

Waugh entered the Church in 1930, like a wounded son falling into his mother’s arms. In the end, however, he withdrew from this embrace which, to him, had grown cold. Although he retained his faith, he disapproved deeply of the changes brought about during the liberalizing papacy of John XXIII. There is a story, not detailed in this biography, of Waugh meeting Pope John and haranguing him about the pernicious effects of the Second Vatican Council, until the Pope put a gently restraining hand on his arm and said, “But Mr. Waugh, I, too, am a Catholic.”

Another strongly sustaining force in Waugh’s middle years was his marriage to Laura Herbert. In 1934, on a trip to Morocco, he began work on A Handful of Dust, which many, among whom I am not included, consider his masterpiece. The story of the gullible Tony Last and his betrayal by his wife Brenda is, as Hastings says, “rooted in Waugh’s rage at the annihilation of his own happiness by Evelyn Gardner.” When that novel was finished, he found himself staying as a guest at Pixton, the Somerset home of the Herberts, a family of Anglo-Irish aristocrats. The house was jolly and warmly chaotic, and Waugh fell for it at once. He also, he told a friend, “took a great fancy to a young lady named Laura.”

She was 18, he was 31. He began seriously to woo her, while waiting for Rome to free him from his marriage to Evelyn. The annulment was a long time coming. The delay was increased by Laura’s mother, who had grave doubts about the prospect of this strange, fierce little man—a Mr. Hyde with no Dr. Jekyll to curb him—taking away her teenage daughter. But the wedding finally took place in April 1937. The marriage was probably the saving of Waugh. Laura was everything he wanted in a woman: retiring though capable, slyly humorous, apparently docile though tough and honorable as only he believed an aristocrat could be. At once she began to bear him children, and continued to do so, to his mingled happiness and dismay, for many years; they had six. Waugh bought a beautiful house called Piers Court in the Cotswold Hills, and settled down to the life of a successful author and country gentleman.

Then war came. Waugh regarded the battle against Hitler as a modern version of one of the great Christian crusades. Although he was firmly a man of the right, and he feared communism as much as fascism, Waugh saw clearly the threat of barbarism that Nazism represented. He used whatever influence he could to get himself into the army, though he was too old for soldiering and had no gift for it. (At one point his superiors curbed his activities for fear that the men under his command might murder him.) He had a “bad war,” spent mostly in futile training for campaigns that never materialized, and ending up in Yugoslavia along with Randolph Churchill, the two men acting as military liaison between the British Army and Tito’s partisans. (He loathed Tito, and at one stage of dealings with him put it about that Tito was in fact a woman in drag. Tito was not amused.) His experiences in the army, however farcical or dishonorable, formed the basis for one of the greatest works of literature to come out of the Second World War, the Sword of Honour trilogy: Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender, which together provide an account of the war that is at once hilarious, elegiac, farcical and moving.

The postwar world was not to Waugh’s taste. He mourned the lost hegemony of the upper classes, and despised the spread of democracy as represented by the new Labor government that swept to power in 1945. Brideshead Revisited, which he began in 1940, was his threnody for the Golden Age of his youth. The war trilogy, on the other hand, is a beautifully wrought expression of disgust at what he considered the shameful compromises of the war and the collapse of values that followed it. He continued to write, to travel—notably, and profitably, to the United States; but his heart was increasingly troubled. Gradually, irremediably, he gave way to despair. Late on the morning of Easter Sunday, 1966, he collapsed and died at his home, Combe Florey, in Somerset. He was 63.

How will Waugh be remembered as an artist? He was a superb minor novelist, in a great tradition produced by English life, which is essentially domestic and middle class, as is the novel form itself. He assembled the elements of his books with the diligence and the care for detail of the craftsman that he always considered himself to be. “Do remember,” he said to a fellow writer, “it is much harder to write a book than to make a watch. There are many more good watches in the world than good books. You must give the same intent care to writing Patek Phillippe gives to watchmaking.” His deep concern was with language: “I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me.” Although the poised aloofness of this may owe more to his aristocratic pretensions than to his aesthetics, I believe it is a fair if incomplete characterization of his methods and of his work. Like all literary artists, as distinct from novelists (and there is a distinction), he knew that the psychological interest of fiction is always secondary to the artist’s covert aim, which is to produce not social documents or moral tracts, but molded, burnished and finished works of art. Although he probably never read any of his works, Waugh would have understood precisely what Kafka meant by the gnomic aphorism: “Never again psychology!”

Will Waugh’s work live? One or two of the comedies, I believe, will survive—Decline and Fall and Put Out More Flags—and the war trilogy. As a man, he was quintessentially English—stubborn, class-obsessed, honorable, detached and despairing. And he was unfathomably strange.