Evelyn Waugh: addicted to alcohol and sex, haunted by God

Evelyn Waughby Philip Eade

Henry Holt and Co. 432 p, $20

Any biographer of Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) writing 50 years after the writer’s death has to justify competing with major predecessors, such as Christopher Sykes’s 1975 portrait of his friend, Martin Stannard’s two-volume academic study of Waugh’s life and works (1986, 1992) and Douglas Lane Patey’s critical analysis of Waugh’s masterpieces (1992). Unfortunately, Philip Eade’s claim to present a “fresh portrait” of this “life revisited” does not hold up to even a casual reading. The new material is mostly letters from Waugh’s 1930 flame, Teresa “Baby” Jungman, whom he pursued after the failure of his first marriage, but these letters reveal more about Jungman’s refusal to marry him than about Waugh himself.

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Eade admits that he is not writing a “critical” biography, so he includes newspaper reviews of Waugh’s books but little literary analysis of the writer whom novelists Graham Greene and Henry Green called “the greatest novelist” of their generation. When Eade does spend time on the characters in the novels, it is primarily to speculate about the real-life models for the most highly satirized victims, a guessing game played by most previous biographers of Waugh. Disappointingly, A Life Revisited provides few insights into Waugh’s motivation for giving up his youthful dedication to high Anglicanism in favor of the Catholic Church in 1930, which made him one of the most notable converts of the 20th century. Eade’s account shows little of how Waugh’s spiritual renewal helped him deal with addictions to alcohol and sex, and with issues of fidelity in his marriage to Laura Herbert and their family, not to mention with his lifelong search for God and meaning in the modern secularized world. Eades mentions the influence of Waugh’s many Catholic friends (and of his Jesuit instructor Martin D’Arcy), his reading in theology and his writings on Catholicism and on the lives of St. Helena, Edmund Campion and Msgr. Ronald Knox, but he fails to explore them for their significance to Waugh’s own life and thought.

In fact, several English reviewers of Eade’s biography dismiss it as the work of someone with “a predilection for snobbish and salacious gossip.” One reason is that the author never finds a way to distinguish between accurate stories and false allegations by Waugh’s friends and enemies. Throughout the biography, various assertions about Waugh are qualified with a quiet “may have.” For instance, after gossiping about Waugh’s sexual wanderings for many chapters, Eade admits that a visit to France in 1927 with his brother “may have occasioned Evelyn’s first sexual encounter with a woman.”

Sometime Eades merely cites contradictory opinions about Waugh without providing a criterion for judging their value. And while admitting that Waugh called his own diary a mixture of fact and fiction, Eade cites it as if it were trustworthy when the author is admitting his flaws. At times, Eades does not pick up on the irony and humor in many of Waugh’s letters and conversations, some of which are as hilarious as his satirical novels. Indeed, Waugh’s satires on the roaring twenties were implicitly as critical of himself as of the fictional characters in Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust and Scoop.

Most of Eade’s biography repeats the well-known accounts of influences on Waugh from his family, friends and fellow authors. His father Arthur’s pompous theatricality and sentimentality, and his favoritism for his eldest son, Alec, are analyzed for their psychological pressure on Evelyn, and how they led the younger son into pugnaciousness, bullying and caustic criticism of others. The years at Lancing, a second-level boarding school, show Evelyn gaining notoriety for wit, writing prizes and crude behavior toward both boys and girls. The years at Oxford portray him as neglecting his history studies and earning humiliating grades as he lapsed into a decade of heavy drinking and what his friend Christopher Hollis called “a passing phase” of homosexual crushes on Richard Pares and Alistair Graham. Eade also notes Waugh’s introduction to the world of art (he spent a year after Oxford studying art in London), to the writers in the Bloomsbury group (T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Lytton Strachey and Clive Bell) and to academics whom he later caricatured in his novels (F. A. Philbrick, C. R. M. F. Cruttwell). In his 20s, he also made lifelong literary friends with Henry Green, Rebecca West, Nancy Mitford and Graham Greene, among many others.

Waugh’s breakthrough to the English literary scene with Decline and Fall (1929) is clearly portrayed by Eade, both in the novel’s sources from Waugh’s disastrous year of teaching in a boarding school (Arnold house in Wales) and its inclusion of hilarious descriptions of teachers and local gentry. Waugh’s marriage to Evelyn Gardner and her subsequent affair and divorce lead into a gossipy section containing excerpts from his correspondence with “Baby” Jungman and flirtations with other women. His eventual courtship and marriage to Laura Herbert after he received a delayed annulment of his first marriage are given adequate treatment, but his conversion to Catholicism in this period is not explored in any depth. Their marriage is described as a tension between his constant affection for Laura and his efforts to continue the solitary task of writing novels, travel literature and journalism in the 1930s and ’40s, highlighted by the publication of Brideshead Revisited in 1944—which he considered his masterpiece but which received a disappointingly wide range of reviews. (It is known today to many viewers primarily from the exquisite television adaption in the 1980s.)       

Meanwhile, he joined the Royal Marines early in World War II, spending time in a commando unit under the leadership of his friend Robert Laycock. In the war, Waugh showed bravery in several tense retreats in north Africa and on Crete, but he had conflicted relationships with other officers and, at times, with the unit under his charge. As in many of his social relationships, his humor and assertiveness garnered a circle of loyal friends but also several enemies.

From these war experiences, during which his wife did more than her share of raising their large family of children, Waugh was able to fashion his final fictional masterpiece, Sword of Honour, a trilogy published in three volumes from 1952 to 1962. It has been called the best novel to come out of World War II. Unfortunately for Waugh, although he published a few other works that received critical acclaim after the war, such as The Loved One (a satire on Hollywood burial customs that he wrote after a successful visit with Laura to the United States), his last years were often troubled. After having tensions with some of his children, he took a cruise to Ceylon, during which he suffered fits of delusion and paranoia that were eventually traced to a poison in his system from which he was eventually cured. The happy result of this episode “off his rocker” was the autobiographical novel The Ordeal of Gordon Pinfield (1957), which Eade tells us most critics consider one of Waugh’s “finest works.”

Eade portrays the subsequent declining years with some sympathy, although not with a full understanding of Waugh’s resistance (as a staunch convert to Catholicism) to the changes that emerged from the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the year before he died. He was never reconciled to the use of vernacular in the Catholic liturgy, for which he had gained great devotion for 30 years. In the words of his daughter Margaret (on the final page of this biography) from a letter to his friend Diana Cooper, “You know that [Papa] longed to die and dying as he did on Easter Sunday, when all the liturgy is about death and resurrection, after a Latin mass and holy communion, would be exactly what he wanted…. I am very, very happy for him.”

In brief, readers of Evelyn Waugh, whose 43-volume complete works are currently being published by Oxford University Press (under the editorship of his grandson Alexander Waugh), will still be looking for a full critical and personal biography of this great stylist and author of fiction, biography, satire and travel literature.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tony Phillips
1 year 3 months ago

Waugh's correspondence with Cardinal Heenan about the Novus Ordo has been published under the title "A Bitter Trial".

Heenan, despite his displeasure with the Novus Ordo, nevertheless didn't have the trousers to stand up to it. Nor did the vast majority of other bishops--I'm only aware of 2 who had the courage to do so and resist. Interestingly, that's the same number who had the nerve to stick around and vote 'non placet' at Vatican One.

The issue of Paul VI's new liturgy, though, isn't really one of Latin versus vernacular at all. The point is we had a pope who actually believed he had the authority to change the mass, and a crowd of bishops who wouldn't stand up to him. The empty pews and closed churches that abound today are the result. Waugh was very prescient in this regard.

Richard Greene
1 year 3 months ago

I suggest a tip of the hat to Selena Hastings, whose biography is widely admired.

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