By Andrew Shelden
July 15th, 2009
Evelyn Waugh worked as an apprentice to a cabinet-maker before he decided to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Alec, and embark on a career in writing in the late 1920s. Soon after, he began producing books at a frenetic pace with his characteristic wit and social insight almost fully formed. His debut novel, Decline and Fall, appeared in 1928 and the next decade-and-a-half saw him publish nearly a book a year. He alternated between comic novels devoted to the lives of comfy-living Englishmen that built his reputation (and were plainly modeled after the work of P. G. Wodehouse) and travel memoirs of his trips to Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, and the West Indies, for which he was paid a healthy living wage (Waugh once wrote: “Though most of us would not write except for money, we would not write any differently for more money.”). His foreign excursions frequently informed his fiction. The settings of his stories and novels grew increasingly exotic—sometimes to good effect (Scoop, for example), while other times to the point of self-absorption. (Wodehouse, in a review of A Handful of Dust, wrote: “He goes to some blasted jungle or other and imagines that everybody will be interested in it.”)
Most critics point to the confluence of the end of the Second World War and the publication of Brideshead Revisited—Waugh’s chronicle of British Army Captain Charles Ryder and his association with the tragic Marchmain family of Brideshead Manor—as the turning point in Waugh’s career: the pre-Brideshead comic Waugh was replaced by a post-Brideshead religious Waugh, whose worldview was rigorously shaped by his conversion to Catholicism and the dissolution of his first marriage. The author himself confirmed this view by calling Brideshead his “magnum opus” and by stating that it represented the end of his youth as a writer:
“I had found a much more abiding interest [then]—the English language. So in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to reproduce man more fully, which, to me, means only one thing, man in his relation to God.”
The truth, though, is that by 1945 Waugh had already been recognized as a master stylist for a decade or more. Graham Greene wrote that Waugh’s prose was “like the Mediterranean before the war, so clear you could see to the bottom.” To paint Waugh as two things and two things alone—the whimsical pre-Brideshead wag and the increasingly dour post-Brideshead preacher—is an oversimplification. Characters like Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, for example, or Adam Fenwick-Symes in Vile Bodies embody both the comic manners and the predilection for meditation that characterize the two Waughs. Brideshead Revisited, then, is more a literary culmination of Waugh’s attitudes on humanity, grace, and devotion than a bold demarcation between before and after.
Evelyn Waugh’s association with VQR began in the latter half of 1933, in the midst of one of the more prolific periods of his career. Waugh spent most of 1933 traveling abroad in South America, in what was then known as British Guiana (modern-day Suriname and northern Brazil). In August, his American representation, Brandt & Brandt, fed VQR editor Stringfellow Barr an “amusing and provocative” piece titled “Debunking the Bush,” in which Waugh playfully exposed the myths of exotic travel—that food tastes sweeter after a hiking a marathon through the jungle, that true freedom is only found in the wild and that the best sleep can only be had when the body is tired from a hard day’s labor. Barr liked the essay immediately and accepted it for publication in the Winter 1934 issue, contingent upon a change of title. Waugh acceded to this request, and the essay was renamed “The Rough Life.” At that time, Barr noted that it was a light essay, but not “too light for filling.” This assertion holds true today; “The Rough Life,” is not the most acerbic piece of prose Waugh ever published—it is roundly ignored in the myriad collections of Waugh’s essays—but it does have its share of well-turned comic phrases. Its humor comes mainly from Waugh’s outsider status to the “cult of roughing it,” as a mannered Englishman hardly belongs in the wilds of South America, and the manner in which he indignantly questions those who think that life in the bush is at all idyllic.
There is a minor controversy surrounding the publication of “The Rough Life” that has only now come to light. When Stringfellow Barr accepted the essay for publication, he wanted to be certain that VQR was the first periodical to publish the essay in Europe or America. Brandt & Brandt assured Mr. Barr that the essay was not being published simultaneously overseas, and the matter was settled. Waugh’s article was published in January, 1934 alongside essays by former VQR editor James Southall Wilson and T. S. Eliot, among others. However, we now know that “The Rough Life” was published abroad simultaneously; it actually debuted in the Oxford & Cambridge Magazine under its original title “Debunking the Bush” in December 1933. Whether that fact ever came to light in the offices of the VQR is uncertain.
The Winter 1934 issue was the last under the editorial stewardship of Stringfellow Barr and although Barr wrote a long note to Waugh upon payment for “The Rough Life” that expressed optimism that the VQR would continue to publish his writing, Evelyn Waugh never again appeared in the pages of the Quarterly.
- View the original manuscript of “The Rough Life.” (Papers of the Virginia Quarterly Review, 1925-1935, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library)
- Read full text of “The Rough Life”
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