Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John W. DonohueSeptember 27, 2022

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in America on April 10, 1993, titled “Portrait of the Artist as a Christian Wayfarer.”

For some years after coming to the United States in 1940, Vladimir Nabokov taught Russian literature at Cornell. About his lectures he once said: “In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that interests me—namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius.”

Although that formula offers no more than an aerial view of the landscape, it suggests a neat pattern for any biographer of Evelyn Waugh, who was born Oct. 28, 1903, and died April 10, 1966.

There can’t be much doubt that Waugh’s art will endure until 20th-century writing has become as inaccessible for readers in the distant future as Chaucer is for most readers today. Nor can there be any doubt that the story of his life, or the course taken by his individual genius, is exceptionally worth studying because it has nearly as much to say about the travails of a pilgrim as about the triumphs of an artist. Biographies of geniuses who, as Auden said of Wagner, behaved like monsters are not uncommon. Much more rare are the biographies of geniuses who struggled against their egoism.

From the time he became a Catholic in 1930, Evelyn Waugh was an earnest Christian who wanted his faith to be reflected both in his work and in his life.

From the time he became a Catholic in 1930, Evelyn Waugh was an earnest Christian who wanted his faith to be reflected both in his work and in his life. In 1957, a young American visitor asked him whether or not, like his friend Graham Greene, he considered himself a writer who happened to be a Catholic rather than a Catholic writer. Waugh answered that it would be foolish to claim he was not a Catholic writer. Martin Stannard, the best of his biographers to date, thinks that after 1930, when his second novel, Vile Bodies, was published, Waugh “always wrote as a Catholic but without propagandizing the Faith.”

He wanted, however, to do more than write as a Catholic. He also wanted to conform his behavior to his belief, but the reverse side of his gifts got in the way. If he had had the temperament of St. Bernadette Soubirous, he would have found it easier to speak charitably of others and to be forgetful of himself, but then he would not have been Evelyn Waugh, with his satiric wit, his pugnacity and his tendency to melancholy. In his diary on April 17, 1947, he wrote: “The gentle effects of Easter have worn thin and my temper has been short, my prayers tepid.... But to aim at anything less than sanctity is not to aim at all.”

Consider first, though, the enduring art, since that was what made him famous during his lifetime. The headstone above his grave says only, “Evelyn Waugh. Writer.” So far as the judgment of this world goes, that says enough.

From any random collection of book reviewers, professors of English and discriminating readers, a unanimous judgment is as unlikely as a moment of contemplative silence at a rock concert. But if such a contentious assortment were asked to pick the 20th century’s best writer of English prose, Evelyn Waugh would be a good bet to win the most votes.

When he wanted to, he could also be supremely funny. He seemed able to draw from his inkwell an inexhaustible supply of sentences elegantly combining style and wit. Take a single example from a multitude of possibilities. In an essay on his 1947 trip to California, from which was to come the matchless satire of U.S. burial customs in The Loved One, he wrote: “Here on the ultimate sunset-shore [Californians] warm their old bodies and believe themselves alive, opening their scaly eyes two or three times a day to browse on salads and fruits.”

In his early 20’s, Waugh thought of becoming a carpenter because he liked the scrupulous fashioning of fine objects. Later on, he transferred that zeal for craftmanship to developing his dazzling power with words— “Literature,” he said in a 1960 letter to a friend, “is simply the appropriate use of language”—and then applying this skill to the production of more than 30 books during a life that was not particularly long and was often deeply troubled.

Waugh seemed able to draw from his inkwell an inexhaustible supply of sentences elegantly combining style and wit.

Besides travel books, short stories, essays and biographies of Edmund Campion, the 16th-century martyr, and Ronald Knox, the 20th-century priest-scholar, Waugh wrote 14 novels. The earlier ones, like Decline and Fall (1929), Black Mischief and Scoop (1938), are wildly comic. In A Handful of Dust (1934) and in such later novels as Brideshead Revisited (1945), Helena (1950) and his war trilogy, Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961), Waugh traversed seas wider and deeper.

Taken together, these novels amount to a work of such perfection that Graham Greene, in a memorial notice after Waugh’s death, called him “the greatest novelist of my generation.”

So great an artist deserves a great biography, and that is exactly what Martin Stannard, a 46-year-old lecturer in English at Great Britain’s University of Leicester, has triumphantly provided in two long, richly detailed and shrewdly sympathetic volumes that are as engrossing as a leisurely 19th-century novel.

The first of these, Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939 (Norton, 537p $24.95), was published in Britain in 1986 and in the United States a year later. Its dust jacket confidently predicted that the second volume would appear in 1988, but it actually came out in London last spring and in New York late last summer, Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966 (Norton, 523p $29.95).

Still, that was remarkably speedy for a biography of such length, breadth and overall distinction. In one of his instructive analyses of Waugh’s novelistic techniques, Mr. Stannard quotes from a 1964 BBC interview in which Waugh said: “The feelings should be the reader’s, the customer’s. You tell him or her the facts and if it is properly told, the story, they’ll quickly pick up what the feelings are.”

Graham Greene, in a memorial notice after Waugh’s death, called him “the greatest novelist of my generation.”

To some extent, that’s the way Mr. Stannard himself proceeds. He certainly makes plenty of interpretive asides, but he also gives the facts copiously but not indiscriminately and often quotes Waugh’s own words. He has built what he calls, in a brief lapse into academic jargon, “coherent structures of ‘pure action,’” and from these accounts of what Evelyn Waugh did, said and wrote, readers can draw their own conclusions and experience the appropriate feelings.

These thousand and more pages are teeming with incidents and characters. Waugh had so many friends, both women and men, in what Mr. Stannard calls the upper classes, that it’s hard to keep track of them. Who, for instance, is this Prince Vsevolode who turns up on page 165 in the second volume? With the help of the excellent index, you can check back to discover that the prince worked for wine importers and married Waugh’s friend, Lady Mary Lygon, a member of a family that had some of the traits of the fictional inhabitants of Brideshead.

The general outline of Waugh’s life was pretty well known before this new biography appeared. He himself told the story of his first 21 years in the last book he wrote, A Little Learning (1964). His second novel, Vile Bodies, was a great success when he was 27, and from that time on he was, as Mr. Stannard says, a public figure.

He grew up in a comfortable middle-class home as the second of the two sons of Arthur Waugh, a responsible publisher, who often managed, quite blamelessly, to irritate his sharply intelligent younger child. From June 1922 to September 1924, Evelyn Waugh attended Oxford where, if his own account can be credited, his time was largely spent carousing and wise-cracking. “I do no work here,” he wrote to a friend, “and never go to Chapel.” In fact, the amount of reading and writing he did would be described by a U.S. undergraduate today as “awesome.”

After leaving Oxford, Waugh studied painting for a while, taught in a boys’ school and continued to drink heavily and have as rakish a life as his funds would allow. In 1928, when he was only 25, his first two books were published—a study of Rossetti and his first novel, Decline and Fall. In June of that year, he married Evelyn Gardner, but the union of these “two Evelyns” ended some 12 months later when his wife left him for another man.

In the army, Waugh proved to be a fearless but quite useless warrior who was as pleasing to his commanders as de Gaulle was to Churchill.

When he was received into the Catholic Church in September 1930, Waugh had no hope of ever remarrying. In the summer of 1936, however, his first marriage was annulled, and in April 1937, when he was 33, he married 20-year-old Laura Herbert, the daughter of a devout and aristocratic Catholic family.

This was a successful marriage in its own curious way. Waugh, for example, was never on hand for the births, between 1938 and 1950, of the couple’s four daughters (one of whom died in infancy) and three sons. He was off with the wartime army, or on some restless journey, or secluded in a rural inn for the writing of a book.

All the same, his life after this marriage was, as Mr. Stannard says, centered around his work, his family and the church. Before his second marriage, he had not been chaste, but he was devoted and faithful to Laura. When he was serving in Italy during the war, he wrote to her: “My longing for you is the ghost at every feast.... It is a quite small part of me that is jaunting about. All the rest is with you.”

To get into that World War II army, he had insistently pulled all the strings he could reach. When he succeeded, he proved to be a fearless but quite useless warrior who was as pleasing to his commanders as de Gaulle was to Churchill. Those years gave him, however, some of the materials that went into the making of Brideshead Revisited and the trilogy.

In his youth, Waugh, who was five feet five, had been described as faun-like. In the postwar years, he helped fashion the public image of himself as a short, stout, pugnacious and highly successful writer who with an inscrutably bland countenance aimed blasts of fierce wit and caustic criticism at what he judged to be symptoms of social decay.

Waugh had always been familiar with what Karl Rahner called the experience of life’s darkness.

In the early 1950’s, his neuroses, aggravated by his drinking and an excessive use of chloral to combat insomnia, led to a frightening siege of hallucinations while he was on an ocean voyage designed to lift his spirits.

Yet out of that nightmare came The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), which an American reviewer, L. E. Sissman, described as one of Waugh’s four best novels. That was a somewhat idiosyncratic judgment, but almost any of Waugh’s books is apt to be somebody’s favorite. When John Betjeman, the poet laureate, reviewed Monsignor Ronald Knox for The New Yorker in 1960, he said he thought it “the best and most sympathetic of the many excellent books that Evelyn Waugh has written.”

Waugh had always been familiar with what Karl Rahner called the experience of life’s darkness, but in the 1960’s the weight of his sadness increased. He could still enchant his friends with witty letters, but he had grown deaf, physically diminished and ever more dispirited.

The decline of his health was less painful, however, than his displeasure with the reforms of Vatican II. He thought the Council had “destroyed the beauty of the liturgy.” In a letter less than a fortnight before he died, he wrote: “I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the Faith doggedly without joy.”

As it turned out, he died on Easter Sunday after assisting in a cheerful mood at a Mass said in Latin. She was sure, said his daughter, Margaret, that this was exactly the death he wanted.

During his lifetime, Waugh made a great deal of money, but he spent lavishly and gave freely to needy persons and projects. A few years after his death, his widow, under the mistaken impression that her finances were shaky, sold the manuscript of her husband’s diaries, which covered much of his life from 1915 to 1965. These materials, which neither Laura nor her children had read, are now part of the Waugh Collection at the University of Texas and were published in 1976.

Despite his appetite for bellicose controversy, as he grew older Waugh preferred anonymity to publicity.

The diaries, as Evelyn Waugh’s oldest son, Auberon, himself a writer, said, proved to be “an almost inexhaustible fund of entertainment” for readers familiar with the milieus and people they described. But the diaries, like Waugh’s letters, are stuffed with exaggerations, along with a flood of scandalous anecdotes and sharp, if not outrageous, comments on famous persons. Besides being amusing, these journals also, as Mr. Waugh said, make his father appear to have been “an extremely unpleasant person.”

No doubt Waugh had a negative side, of which he was well aware. Perhaps his most quoted remark is the response he made to his friend, Nancy Mitford, when she rebuked him for an unkindness and asked how he could behave so badly when he was supposed to be a Catholic. “You have no idea,” Waugh replied, “how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”

U.S. book reviewers who never knew either Waugh or his loyal friends take it for granted that he was quite insufferable. They put the worst possible interpretation on the hyperbolic passages in his diaries and letters and pleasantly assume that he was a reactionary snob and fascistic bully who inexplicably happened to be a writer of genius.

If the first virtue of Martin Stannard’s biography is the fullness of its chronicle of Waugh’s life, the second is its appreciation of Waugh’s positive qualities along with an understanding of how profoundly his religious faith influenced both his life and books.

So far as one can tell, Mr. Stannard neither shares Waugh’s Catholicism nor is particularly sympathetic toward it. Because he is a thorough and perceptive scholar, however, he has seen how central the Christian view of human existence was for Evelyn Waugh and how he tried, even if only fitfully, to live up to his faith. “The story of Waugh’s later life,” Martin Stannard writes, “is the story of his agonized spiritual quest towards compassion and contrition.”

Waugh might very well have agreed with that condensation. In a letter to the critic, Lord David Cecil, he wrote: “I can’t think of a single Saint who attached much importance to Art…”

No doubt, there have not been many, if any, such saints. On the other hand, there have not been many artists who attached much importance to sanctity. Evelyn Waugh was one who did.

He considered the best of his novels to be Helena, which is the story of the making of a saint— Constantine’s mother, who is credited with having found the remains of the True Cross in Jerusalem. When the book appeared in 1950, John Betjeman praised it but wrote to say he was puzzled to know just why Helena should be called a saint.

“Saints are simply souls in heaven,” Waugh replied. “We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own peculiar form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good my saying: ‘I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.’ I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh—after God knows what experiences in purgatory.”

On the evidence Mr. Stannard has accumulated, Waugh made some advance toward his goal even this side of purgatory and did so in the only way that counts—in deeds rather than mere aspirations.

Not that he became as genial as a country pastor, or even imagined that he could. In November 1955, he noted in his diary: “Resolved: to regard humankind with benevolence and detachment, like an elderly host whose young and indulged wife has asked a lot of people to the house whose names he does not know.”

He had no intention of keeping that resolution, but his friends cherished him because he was, as Mr. Stannard says, “essentially kind.” He went out of his way to help young writers or those who were not recognized. He gave generously to friends down on their luck and to charitable causes. He demanded high fees for articles in Life, but wrote without payment for British Catholic magazines like The Month and The Tablet.

In its own unusual way Waugh’s life was exemplary because it was the story of one pilgrim’s halting progress.

Even more remarkably, Waugh was neither vain nor jealous of other writers. His children may have sometimes found his wit too sharp, but he was a devoted father as well as a most rare one. Despite his appetite for bellicose controversy, as he grew older he preferred anonymity to publicity. Mr. Stannard thinks that by 1945, when Brideshead Revisited was published, Waugh had “outgrown worldly ambition.” He reports that according to Harold Acton, a friend of both writers, Graham Greene thought Evelyn Waugh a saint.

If Greene ever gave that impression, he could hardly have been accused of anticipating the judgment of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, since there is no possibility that this congregation will ever be petitioned to examine the case for Evelyn Waugh. Yet in its own unusual way Waugh’s life was exemplary because it was the story of one pilgrim’s halting progress.

In 1952, the Queen Anne Press in London published in an elegant, limited edition Waugh’s essay, The Holy Places. It opens with a sentence so stamped with his style that even if it had appeared with no name attached to it, his admirers would have recognized it as his, just as connoisseurs recognize a fine vintage from a single sip.

“My first visit to Jerusalem,” Waugh wrote, “was at Christmastide, 1935.... The Zionists had not then thrown off their disguise; they showed themselves to the ingenuous as decent, rather cranky young people, innocently occupied in the cultivation of grapefruit.”

Then, without breaking stride, he sounded a deeper note: “I was of an age then—thirty-two—when, after I had struck lucky with three or four light novels, it did not seem entirely absurd, at any rate to myself, to look about for a suitable ‘life’s work’; (one learns later that life itself is work enough).”

Martin Stannard’s biography succeeds so brilliantly because it honors that distinction Evelyn Waugh drew. As the study of how a great artist developed, it is absorbing. As the story of how this gifted man toiled to be a Christian, it is, in the best sense of the word, edifying.

The latest from america

A Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent, by James T. Keane
James T. KeaneDecember 02, 2022
A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Francis Xavier, by J.D. Long-García
J.D. Long-GarcíaDecember 02, 2022
The graces of the sacraments of Anointing of the Sick, Ordination, Baptism, Matrimony and Eucharist compounded as they were being lived out.
Michael StrandeDecember 02, 2022
A group of young adults draw on windows with markers
This imaginary scene depicts the dreams of many Catholics: a church that welcomes LGBTQ people, allows women to be ordained and gives young Catholics a platform for their ideas.
Religion News ServiceDecember 02, 2022