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Evelyn Waugh: A Man At Bay

ISSUE:  Summer 1978

Despite the Palladian gracefulness of the style and the high spirits and charm of many of his novels, Evelyn Waugh’s reputation is under a cloud. His strange behavior and opinions alienated many admirers during his lifetime; since his death in 1966, the ongoing social and moral revolution has so isolated the areas of Waugh’s deepest concern that it becomes increasingly problematical how much to read into him. Cyril Connolly’s description of Waugh’s “bloated, puffed-up face . . .the beady eyes red with wine and anger, his cigar jabbing as he went into the attack. . .”is still the official portrait. It has hidden the earlier, attractive man whose special gift, we have been told, was to make everything seem fresh and exciting. The nearly eight hundred pages of Waugh’s recently published Diaries do little to restore that young man; they merely strengthen the impression that behind the writer of capriccios and romantic elegies there lurked a monster, whose rages were only partly softened by the teachings of the Church. All the same, the volume is essential reading for connoisseurs of a certain kind of English eccentricity, but it is also sad. Through these haphazard notes and jottings we watch a brilliant career turn sour and a man of originality and distinction peter out in misanthropic emptiness.

The general outline of the life is well known; we do not lack books about Waugh, including two by himself. The first, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, contains a searching self-portrait lightly disguised as fiction. Waugh referred to the book as a “novel,” in inverted commas; and it is striking to see the early stages of the delusions that afflicted Waugh-Pinfold recorded matter-of-factly among his social engagements. Nearer the end of his life, Waugh wrote A Little Learning, an autobiography that covered childhood and adolescence. When researching material for this book, Waugh re-read his youthful diaries and recorded his unmixed shame at their tone. After Waugh’s death, his old friend Christopher Sykes was asked to write the official life. He, too, relied heavily on the diaries; and although he was kindly, much of the new material about his subject was not guaranteed to enhance his standing as a human being. A short time before the Sykes book appeared excerpts from Waugh’s diaries were published in London and New York. These selections had been chosen for shock value, and many readers probably formed the opinion that the full private papers would contain more of the same. This is not really so; there is more about church matters in the full Diaries than about brothels.

The problem for the average reader is in coping with Waugh’s ill-natured remarks about his family and friends. The odd thing is that Waugh believed himself to be a loyal man.”I know,” he wrote in his autobiography, “that as a man my affections, though narrow, are strong and constant.” This could well be true; why, then, did he prefer to record the unpleasant side of himself more fully than the other? It’s easy to accept a diary as a safety valve, where the writer may howl and rage against the world and against himself; what disturbs in Waugh’s case is how often his private notes are used for getting even with other people. Waugh understood his own weakness and wrote of the “consistent caddishness” of their tone.

Waugh was referring particularly to the diaries kept at school. Michael Davie, the editor, thinks this material is unique. This could be so; it is also tedious and unmemorable. The travel notes could have been cut, as well: Waugh wrote most of them up into books that make far more comfortable reading. Then, many pages of the Diaries are mere social chitchat, records of dinners and lunches, As many of the people mentioned mean nothing to the general reader, the effect is like that of reading the timetable for a disused railway. Davie has cut out some references to people to avoid libel actions and has blanked out others. Waugh’s son, Auberon, took Davie to task for this and to show how pussy-footed he had been, lifted the veil on certain protected species himself. Despite Davie’s care, the Diaries have given wide offence, and there has been some reaction.

The most noteworthy is A Fragment of Friendship by Dudley Carew, who was close to Waugh at school and later. Carew, shocked by the tone of Waugh’s Diaries, has tried to soften the “hanging judge” comments by suggesting that when Waugh recorded his activities he was always the novelist, turning every event and person into the material for caricature and fiction. Although this implies a fallacy about the way all but a very limited amount of fiction is conceived, there are entries that can support this view. Here is one, written in the summer of 1926, Waugh and his friends were touring Scotland and stopped at a country house to see “a lady called N———” (name blanked out in the text). Waugh goes on:

“She had a thick beard, a bald dog, a drunken husband and a paederastic son. . . . We stayed in a teetotal public house which had once been a castle. It was full of nasty little boys and girls. The food was horrid.”

It is easy to accept that there is exaggeration here, partly for humorous effect, partly as a way of throwing off a tedious visit, but when Waugh later turns the same eye on his children the effect is far from comfortable:

“Easter week, the family home in full force. Bron behaving admirably, I had good accounts of him from all at Downside. Margaret in great beauty except for her huge feet. I am taking her to Chantilly in Low Week to avoid Teresa’s first house-party. Poor Harriet very uncouth and shabby. James quaint. I am hoping to get him educated free by the Jesuits.”

Although this entry is not as harsh and wounding as some on the subject of his six children (who seem to have often exasperated and bored their father), it is clearly matter-of-fact in tone with projects mixed up with what Waugh would consider fair assessments. We can admire the honesty but regret it at the same time. Only malevolent adults express themselves with this troublesome and casual honesty. In childhood it is more common, and Waugh has captured the flavor of it well in the conversation of the young heir in A Handful of Dust. What we miss in Waugh are natural kindliness and adult tact.

Although these daily notes may be ill-judged in terms of these qualities, the writing is never sloppy and Waugh often achieves an attractive aphoristic quality:

“Wednesday 28 October 1942: My 39th birthday. A good year. I have begotten a fine daughter, published a successful book, drunk 300 bottles of wine and smoked 300 or more Havana cigars. I have got back to soldiering among friends (. . .)! have about ¥900 in hand and no grave debts except to the government; health excellent except when impaired by wine; a wife I love, agreeable work in surroundings of great beauty. Well this is as much as one can hope for,”

Here is another entry in the same tone:

“Monday 18 July 1955: The joys and sorrows of the simple life. Joys: I found that a pseudo-Sheraton table from Highgate fits perfectly over the radiator of the dining-room window and only needed the knocking away of four wooden bosses. A drop in the temperature. The arrival of the long-awaited mechanic from Atco to put new blades in the lawn mower. The fine close mowing of two of the front lawns. A telephone call from Diana proposing herself for Friday night. A new Agatha Christie story which began well. Sorrows: the failure of the lawn mower after an hour’s use. The staleness of Monday’s bread. The deterioration of Mrs. Christie’s novel a third of the way through into twaddle.”

Sometimes Waugh can simply be the Aubrey, recording events that had amused or charmed him as in this anecdote about the Countess of Rosse:

“Tugboat Annie Rosse, being conducted round the estate at Birr (in Ireland) was taken to a turf cabin where a crone sat in pig dung smoking a pipe and complaining of the roof. “My dear, don’t change a thing. It’s simply you”“ Amusing and gossipy items like this abound.


Davie presents the Diaries in seven sections and provides generous introductions. At the end of the book, he offers the reader notes on the people most often mentioned in the Waugh text; these are sometimes extremely witty.

The Diaries do not begin to wake up until the third section in which Waugh recorded his singularly unimpressive career as a teacher and his debut as a writer. These pages are the background of Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and some of Brideshead Revisited. There is much drinking and vomiting, and the wild conduct of Waugh and his friends is recorded without reticence.

The thirties section takes Waugh’s career up to November 1939, when he joined the army. It was a period of social and literary success, extensive overseas travel, and of Waugh’s acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church. The decade began with his divorce from his first wife and ended with Waugh and his second wife living stylishly in a country house in Gloucestershire. The glimpses we are given of Waugh as landowner, improving his property, planting shrubs, and admiring his wife’s skill in running the home farm, have a coziness we never enjoy again. Domestic life—rationing, the effects of bombing, and the arrival of “evacuees”—as well as military action make the wartime section historically interesting. Waugh served in West Africa, the Mediterranean, and Yugoslavia and kept a diary in defiance of military regulations. The fine set-piece on the campaign in Crete closely resembles the section on this disaster in Sword of Honour. Of particular interest here is an exchange of letters between Waugh and his C.O. giving the background to Waugh’s resignation from the Special Service Brigade (among other things, Waugh was alleged to have been rude). Although Waugh was a man without fear, the Diaries make clear why he found military life disillusioning.

Disillusion is the keynote of the post-war diaries (1945 to 1956). It was a period of continued literary success and travel (including the visit to Hollywood that inspired The Loved One), but it was also the time when Waugh gradually lost contact with his own period and even with his own country-men: he seriously thought of setting up house in Ireland. The disillusion deepened into despair, and this makes the final section, the “Irregular Notes,” written between 1960 and 1965, in many ways an extraordinary document.

What went wrong? Was Waugh’s unhappiness purely the expression of reactionary spleen or was some deeper physiological or psychological factor at work? The Diaries make clear how Waugh suffered from sleeplessness (so that he recorded a good night’s rest without artifical aids as an especial blessing) and overdrank regularly. Both contributed to his feeling old before his time and produced the irascibility that found an outlet in law suits and splenetic articles. During this period, many literary critics in England attacked his books as they appeared, and there was a general feeling that Waugh had little to offer his contemporaries: his preoccupations were no longer shared except by a minority.

In the late fifties, J. B. Priestley, in reviewing The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, took Waugh to task for identifying with the philistine upper classes rather than with the members of his own profession. The Diaries show that Waugh was always the professional man of letters even though he was incapable of talking about his work in the manner of a Gide or a Virginia Woolf. There are many entries about rewards and the amount of work achieved in a given period. The evidence is there that Waugh wrote easily and with a sure instinct, and he must be one of the very few diarists who actually recorded his decision to become a writer:

“Hampstead, Monday 21 February 1927: Today the 21st I have been trying to do something about getting a job and am tired and discouraged. It is all an infernal nuisance. . . . It seems to me the time has arrived to set about being a man of letters.”

From this decision came Decline and Fall, published late the next year.

An entry written late in August 1939 should answer for all time Priestley’s criticism:

“My inclinations are all to join the army as a private. Laura is better placed than most wives, and if I could let the house for the duration very well placed financially. I have to consider thirty years of novel-writing ahead of me. Nothing would be more likely than work in a government office to finish me as a writer; nothing more likely to stimulate me than a complete change of habit. There is a symbolic difference between fighting as a soldier and serving as a civilian, even if the civilian is more valuable.”

One of the few real insights into Waugh as craftsman is given in an entry for June 1947:

“I have decided to try a new method of work. When I began writing I worked straight on into the void, curious to see what would happen to my characters, with no pre-conceived plan for them, and few technical corrections. Now I waste hours going back over my work. I intend trying in The Loved One to push straight ahead with a rough draft, have it typed and then work over it once, with the conclusion firmly in my mind when I come to give a definite form to the beginning. Eve of Corpus Christi. I decided my new method of work left me with an itch to get things into shape. Accordingly I shall begin rewriting at once what I hastily jotted down.”

While Waugh was capable of revising his methods of writing, he could not broaden his sympathies, and he refused to make any concessions to the spirit of the times. It was a mistake, or a blindness, not to see the changed circumstances of Britain after the war in a global context and to reduce all aspects of postwar political reality to the domestic struggle between the Conservative and Labour Parties. It follows that the Diaries contain more invective against the Labour Party, socialists in general, and the Century of the Common Man than against the Nazis who had almost destroyed European civilization. This is an imbalance not limited to Waugh but characteristic of much right-wing British thinking. Waugh was not a political animal, and his thinking on social matters is usually crude, poster-like, everything in black or white. A note written in 1946 illustrates this:

“Throughout the day constantly recurring thoughts of Ireland. Not so much of what I should find there as what I should shake off here. The luxury of being a foreigner, of completely retiring from further experience and settling in an upstairs library to garner the forty-three-year harvest. The certainty that England as a great power is done for, that the loss of possessions, the claim of the English proletariat to be a privileged race, sloth and envy, must produce increasing poverty; that this time the cutting down will start at the top until only a proletariat and a bureaucracy survive. . . . But how long will Liberty, Diversity, Privacy survive anywhere?”

In the preface to the 1959 edition of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh admitted that his pessimism in the immediate postwar period had been wrong.”It was impossible to foresee . . .the present cult of the English country house. It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century. So I piled it on rather, with passionate sincerity. . . . The English aristocracy has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible.”

Similar misjudgments and prejudices formed Waugh’s political sympathies at almost every phase of his life, In the 1930’s, his admiration for Mussolini led to his condoning Italian aggression against Ethiopia, a country he had visited some years before. Sent back to Addis Ababa as correspondent for the London Daily Mail, one of the few British newspapers friendly to the Fascists, he kept a notebook. The reader searches this in vain for any expression of sympathy for the Ethiopians.

In the late thirties, Waugh was not above accepting a commission to write a political book, and the result was a trip to Mexico, to report on the regime of General Cardenas, paid for by a British family that had large interests in the country. Robbery Under Arms: the Mexican Object-Lesson was not well received and was never reprinted in part or whole.

As he grew older, Waugh tended to dislike politicians as a class, almost irrespective of their color. It would be expected that left-wing ministers infuriated him, but his dislike for Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Anthony Eden is less predictable. Waugh’s hatred of the postwar Labour Government was sharpened by the fact that most of his friends lost their seats in Parliament (or failed to win one). He referred to the Labour Government as “the grey lice” and “the occupying army,” and there can be no doubt that the whole trend of postwar politics profoundly dispirited him. In May 1962, he wrote:

“Abjuring the realm. To make an interior act of renunication and to become a stranger in the world; to watch one’s fellow-countrymen, as one used to watch foreigners, curious of their habits, patient of their absurdities, indifferent to their animosities—that is the secret of happiness in this century of the common man.”


This cry of patrician despair brings us to the very heart of the Waugh personality: his identification with an aristocracy that was as much a work of fiction as any of his novels. George Orwell said Waugh’s driving forces were snobbery and Catholicism, and a friend once said of him that his trouble was “he wants to be a Cavendish.”

Marriage to a member of the Herbert family, membership in exclusive London clubs, and a retired life as a country gentleman helped Waugh to create a new aristocractic persona, and he developed the tastes and attitudes of his adopted class. Two entries for as early as August 1920 reflect the preoccupation with his own image of the budding grandee:

“To my tailors in the morning. My suit is divine. It could hardly be better if it had cost eighteen guineas at Savile Row.”

A little later in the month, Waugh travelled down to Somerset:

“The journey down couldn’t have been better if I had travelled first class. Two bob to the guard got me a lunching car with only one other person.”

This is innocent and disarming. It is during and after his time at Oxford that Waugh’s will-to-be-a-duke produced such ugly symptoms as his contempt for his family and their immediate friends. As a young man, Waugh usually referred to his father as “Chapman and Hall,” the name of the publishers he directed. His brother Alec, who had already made a name for himself as a novelist and introduced Evelyn to a new circle of acquaintances, was given the nickname “Baldhead.” Waugh was not ashamed of his family and continued to receive his upper class friends at his father’s house in North London, but he did despise them for being bookish and middle class.

Waugh’s taste for rich living, often beyond his means, developed, and the Diaries are rich in mouth-watering meals, many eaten in vanished or sadly changed London restaurants. Waugh’s taste in food was decidely Edwardian, and in November 1924, he recalled eating hot lobster, partridge, plum pudding, sherry, mulled claret, and a “strange rum-like liqueur.” A couple of years later, he coped manfully with hors d’oeuvres, chicken broth, grilled salmon, caneton b la presse and omelette surprise. The habit of rich living continued until, in the 1950’s, he began to lose his taste for food. During the war years, on leave in London, he pursued his oysters and champagne with varying degrees of success. The pleasures of the simple life were not for Waugh—although he could endure considerable hardships—and quite early on he gave his credo:

“These stimulating re-encounters with luxury!” he wrote in central Africa in 1931.”How often in London, when satiety breeds scepticism, one has begun to wonder whether luxury is not a put-up job, whether one does not vulgarly confuse expense with excellence. Then, with one’s palate refined by weeks of (comparative) privation, of nameless and dateless wines, cigars from Borneo and the Philippines, one meets again the good things of life and knows certainly that taste, at least in these physical matters, is a genuine and integral thing. Reconciliation.”

In creating his aristocratic persona, Waugh was helped by a theatrical sense, almost certainly inherited from his father, who had once been described as being always an actor. There were misjudgments—such as the loud check suits and the eartrumpet—but these were the absurd side of a passion that had much feeling for poetry, history, and works of art in it. Waugh enjoyed painting and architecture, fine bindings, Victorian pictures, and furniture; he liked visiting old country houses; he had a deep feeling for the continuity of old families. In many ways, he recalls the poet Yeats, who identified as a poet with the Anglo-Irish land-owners and at the same time inflated the extent of their culture and capacity for wise, enlightened thinking. Waugh, in his later days, might not have quarrelled with Yeats when he wrote, “We were the last romantics—chose for theme traditional sanctity and loveliness.”

In the later pessimism, Waugh comes close to the Yeats of the prophetic vision who claimed that his people had been “. . .born into that ancient sect But thrown upon this filthy modern tide And by its formless spawning fury wrecked . . .”

The great difference between them, of course, was that Waugh loathed the ordinary people; Yeats, at the deepest level, identified with them.

Waugh’s romanticism is sick and vulgar and became a breeding ground for almost irrational prejudices and hatred. The number of people he took down a peg or two, as the saying is, or insulted has still not been computed. The Diaries show how random the hatred and contempt was. Moravia was called “a wop highbrow,” there is reference to an “insignificant Yank named Edmund Wilson”; the daughter of a good friend is said to be of “grossly proletarian appearance and manner.” In addition to the individuals to whom Waugh took an instant dislike, whole groups of people get the treatment: the working class in England, the Welsh, Americans; and, in keeping with the upper class image, Waugh had a special feeling against Jews. The references to them are nearly always slighting. For example, travelling by the ferry to Dublin, Waugh noted his fellow passengers: “This time a number of Jews, presumably tax-evaders.”

More strange, because Britain until quite recently had a minute Black population, Waugh was anti-Negro. In A Little Learning, he described how his own set at Oxford treated foreigners:

“There were very few, if any, Negro undergraduates, but Asiatics abounded, and these were usually referred to as “black men” whether they were pale Egyptians or dusky Tamils. . . . It struck us as whimsical to impute cannibalism to these earnest vegetarians.” Then he added with Pecksniffian cheek, “We may have caused offence.” The Diaries do nothing to improve the situation and when Paul Robeson visited London, Waugh noted, “I liked his great black booby face.”

Someone ought to write a thesis about Waugh and Africa and try to explain how this man who had such contempt for Blacks and always wrote of them as figures of contempt or fun should have spent so much time traveling in their territories. Little wonder, on the evidence of the Diaries, that Waugh-Pinfold was haunted by Blacks and Lascars.


Finally, in the consideration of the ugliest of Waugh’s prejudices, there is the question of how much his own homosexual affairs had colored Waugh’s attitude to other homosexuals. The diary for the twenties records a visit to a male brothel in Paris and also shows that Waugh befriended a man who was expelled from several private schools for offences against the boys in his charge (the original of Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall). Waugh knew this but was not moved by the plight of the children, He seems to have regarded the whole thing as a joke. In later life, once he had become the father of a large family, Waugh’s homophile tendencies modified into a hostile vigilance for other homosexuals. According to evidence of the Diaries, Waugh could spot a “pansy” or a “queer” where none existed. Tom Driberg, Waugh’s fellow-pupil at Lancing, has suggested that Waugh’s suppression of his bisexual nature contributed to the mental breakdown described in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

Waugh’s charity seems to have been limited, and he claimed that had it not been for his Christian faith it would have been even more so. Waugh’s religious beliefs have created an aura of pseudo-profundity about some of his books, and it could be, as James Lees-Milne has said (in Ancestral Voices) that Waugh’s Catholicism was “sectarian, superior, exclusive and smug”; nevertheless, his faith sustained him, and he was involved in church affairs as a prominent layman.

Waugh’s approach to religion was aesthetic. “When I first came into the church,” he wrote shortly before the Diaries end, “I was drawn not by splendid ceremonies but by the spectacle of the priest as craftsman.” He deplored the reform movement in the church and noted that “A kind of anti-clericalism is abroad which seeks to reduce the priest’s unique sacramental position. The Mass is written of as a “social meal” in which the “people of God” perform the consecration. Pray God I will never apostatize but I can only now go to church as an act of duty and obedience. . . .” He added, “I shall not live to see things righted.”

And so the Diaries of this strange, complex man come to an end; and the reader feels that, somehow, there must be another truth about Waugh, something more heartwarming than his own words can offer. Until the very end, the balance between sober statement and cruel exaggeration is in doubt, but a very strong feeling remains that Waugh’s dominant impulse was to inflict pain or insult and to enjoy grotesque situations. In 1930, he faulted Ruth Draper for being “too humane and philanthropic” and criticized a party on a Thames steamer because it was “not enough of an orgy,” despite the presence of “masses of little Lesbian tarts and joy boys.” Then there is Waugh’s hatred for President Tito of Yugoslavia. When he first saw him in Yugoslavia in 1944, Waugh noted cryptically, “Tito like Lesbian.” Some years later, while Tito was in London, Waugh persuaded Malcolm Muggeridge, then the editor of a paper, to commission an article in which Waugh was to advance the thesis that Tito was a woman. Muggeridge agreed but refused to print the piece while the Yugoslav leader was in town. The project fell through. Is this a taste for the discomfiture of others or is it a peculiar sense of fun?

Waugh’s own attitude to rudeness in others is best illustrated by his longstanding love/hate relationship with Randolph Churchill. The two men were well-matched in arrogance and in the art of bullying their inferiors. Yet Churchill invited Waugh to accompany him on a mission to Yugoslavia, where they got on one another’s nerves. But to get the full flavor of this knockabout friendship one has to return to the summer of 1930 when the two men enjoyed bullying a woman guest at a cocktail party:

“There was one row. Randolph Churchill threw a cocktail in Wanda’s face. I came up after it happened and made things no better by saying, “Dear Wanda, how hot you look.” She left the party in a rage.”

Fourteen years later, in Yugoslavia, Waugh noted, “Randolph and I at dinner—I wondering how long I could bear his company, even he I think fairly conscious of strain. . . .”

Later that same year: “Further “tiffs” with Randolph resulting in his making a further appeal to me for kinder treatment. It left me unmoved for in these matters he is simply a flabby bully who rejoices in blustering and shouting down anyone weaker than himself and starts squealing as soon as he meets anyone as strong. . . . I have felt less inclination to hide my scorn since his loss of self-control during the air-raid on Sunday.”

There is much more of this, and later entries noted that Randolph was either drunk, shamming illness, or trying to get credit for himself where none was due. It is a portrait in vitriol. The final note on Randolph is dated March 1964:

“Randolph Churchill went into hospital. . . to have a lung removed. It was announced that the trouble was not “malignant”. . . . I remarked that it was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.”

Some time in the same month the two men met and Waugh wrote: “He looked so pale and feeble and was so breathless that we there and then made up our estrangement of some twelve years.”

This mood of reconciliation is one of the few mellow moments in Waugh’s later life. Two final quotes from the “Irregular Notes” will give the flavor of this period of heartbreak and world-weariness:

“3 Sept 1963 Re-reading Robert Byron. It was fun 35 years ago to travel far and in great discomfort to meet people whose entire conception of life and manner of expression were alien. Now one has only to leave one’s gates.”

And another:

“The Church, in our last agony, anoints the organs of sense, sealing the ears against the assaults of sound, But nature, in God’s Providence, does this long before. One has heard all the world has to say, and wants no more of it.”

One last question: was Waugh big enough as a man and as a writer to be thought of as a tragic case or was he, despite wonderful gifts, merely pathetic?


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