Friday, October 28, 2016

Birthday: "Manners are especially the need of the plain. The pretty can get away with anything," Evelyn Waugh said.

Waugh, in 1929, by Henry Lamb

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (1903-1966)

“Evelyn,” he was known- with a long ‘e’- was the son of a publisher and managed to become one of the most skilled writers, and loathed human beings, in 20th-century British literature.

Waugh was raised in the then-rural London suburb of Golders Green; at a boys school he honed his skills as a bully to such an edge that the photographer Cecil Beaton spoke ill of him decades later. He aimed to go to Sherbourne, the public school his father and older brother, Alec, attended, but Sherburne turned him down flat. Alec- who went on to become a successful novelist- had got himself sent down for a homosexual affair and had his revenge on the school by writing a thinly-disguised novel about it. No more Waughs, declared Sherburne, and Waugh went to Lancing, which he considered vastly inferior but where he soon found his footing as an aesthete and budding writer.

He won a history scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford. He viewed the money as an award for past, rather than future achievement, and cultivated various dissipations. “I drank for Hertford,” he said of his interest in college sports. In 1922 he fell in with a gaudy crowd of stylish boozy gay men, led by the future writer Harold Acton, and cheerfully upped his drinking during a series of gay relationships. His behavior got the notice of his tutor, one Crutwell, who called him on the carpet; Waugh, offended by the suggestion, formed a lifelong animus toward his prof and used his surname for a series of “ludicrous, ignominious or odious minor characters” in his future books.

Waugh lost his scholarship, which made it impossible to complete his degree; he left Oxford in 1924 and took up teaching in boys’ schools (In his breakthrough novel, Decline and Fall, the hero, sent down for running, pantsless, across the college commons, is told by the porter as he leaves, “I expect you’ll take up school mastering, sir. That’s what most young men does that gets sent down for depravity.”.

While teaching, he thought he had a line on a cushy new job, and sent his first novel off to Acton for a read-through. The job fell through, Acton was dismissive of the book, and Waugh decided to kill himself by drowning. Wading into the sea, he was stung by a jellyfish, thought better of the enterprise, retrieved his clothes, and moved to London to write.

Starving as a writer, Waugh fell in love with a peer’s daughter, also named Evelyn. They married in 1928, over her parents’ objections- they thought he ran with bad people and lacked moral fibre, and they were right- but he ended up divorcing she-Evelyn for adultery in 1929.

In the meantime, Waugh’s spec bio of Rossetti was a critical success, and Decline and Fall, a financial one. Waugh commanded good fees as a journalist and embarked on decade of constant travel punctuated by dossing down in the country homes of his ever-more prominent friends. After his divorce, Waugh assumed a sharper edge in his satirical writing and hs judgments of people, already pretty savage. In 1930 he converted to Catholicism, becoming a particularly retrograde and condescending sort, and acquiring a new enemy in the process. Almost immediately his 1931 novel, Black Mischief, got him denounced by the church press, The Tablet, for blasphemy. He responded with an open letter to the Archbishop of Westminster so sharp it was suppressed until 1980.

In the ‘30s Waugh traveled a lot in Africa, taking notes for what would become his hilarious novel of journalism and foreign correspondents, Scoop. He married Laura Herbert, daughter of an explorer, in 1937; her grandmother bought them a house in the country. He fell easily into the role of country squire and continued mining his personal experiences for his books.

When the war came, Waugh volunteered for the Royal Marines, then got a transfer to the Horse Guards. He was sent lots of places, but never saw action; he was so naturally insubordinate there was no making a soldier of him. The Guards must have breathed a sigh of relief when he requested a three-month leave to write what became Brideshead Revisited; he managed to continue the leave well into 1944 before being called back and sent to Yugoslavia on a political/military mission with the Prime Minister’s son, Randolph Churchill. The two had a love-hate relationship for decades; Waugh accused Churchill of asking Waugh to autograph books for him so Churchill could resell them; when Churchill had surgery for a non-cancerous growth, Waugh exclaimed that the wonder of modern medicine was that doctors could find the only non-malignant part of Randolph and remove it.

The mission provided Waugh with more material for his books; he wrote a report on the trip that the Foreign Office suppressed to avoid an international incident with the post-war dictator there, Josip Tito.

Brideshead, published in 1945, was probably Waugh’s high point as an author. At fifty he suffered a nervous breakdown, which- with his legendary detachment, he turned into a novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold- and presided, with dismay, over his seven children. In 1956 a tabloid writer appeared on his doorstep, demanding an interview; the subsequent story claimed Waugh was dried up as a writer and barely making any money for his articles. Waugh- thin-skinned as ever- sold the house (“it felt polluted after that”) and got a libel judgment against both paper and reporter. His finances were constantly pressed by the high postwar tax rates; the more books he sold, the more he owed, and his newfound taste for collecting- and writing about- art, pushed his expenses ever upward.

Waugh affected a self-mocking decrepitude even as he took on more work to pay the taxman, keep the kids in private schools, maintain the house, and indulge his fondness for drink as the cure for depression and insomnia. He was having trouble with his hearing, his teeth, his eyesight, he complained. He gave spiky interviews to the BBC, affecting the most cynical and reactionary airs he could (he once posed for a photo using an ear-trumpet). It was not a stretch; posthumous publication of his letters and papers revealed him for an enthusiastic anti-semite, racist and homophobe.

He died after attending Mass in 1963 and was buried outside the Anglican graveyard in the village where he lived. After Waugh’s death, he experienced a career revival; the quality of his work began to be appreciated in the fullness of time, and the publication of his letters in 1980 made for plenty of controversy, full as they were of remarkable mean spiritedness and a goofily antic side most often on display in gossipy reports to his bosom friends, the Mitford sisters. Philip Larkin, reviewing the collection in The Guardian, thought that it demonstrated Waugh's elitism; to receive a letter from him, it seemed, "one would have to have a nursery nickname and be a member of White's, a Roman Catholic, a high-born lady or an Old Etonian novelist".

The BBC production of Brideshead Revisited in 1982 won Waugh a new following among Reagan-era Anglophile conservatives who adopted him- the post-Oxford, no-longer-gay Waugh, that is- as a tutelary figure. No less an embodiment of American Waughism than William F. Buckley, Jr. (whom Waugh dissed in his letters; the thin-skinned Buckley wrote the book’s editor to complain that none saying nice things about Buckley were included, with a copy to Waugh’s son) served as host of the PBS showings of the series.

Waugh’s son, Auberon (1939-2001) made a great career as a writer and journo in own right, inheriting his father’s sharp wit and sense of satire. The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Awards is one of the younger man’s legacies.

Every day is a literary birthday at Drop in; don a party hat!

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