Popular English comic novelist. Key themes: Catholicism and decline of the aristocracy. Writings include: Sword of Honour, Brideshead Revisited, Black Mischief. Volume covers the period 1926-1980.
‘Evelyn Waugh…,’ the ‘Sunday Express’ once remarked, ‘was quite simply exceedingly unpleasant’ (Graham Lord, 28 September 1975, 6). This view of his character is not uncommon, especially since the first appearance of sections from the ‘Diaries’ in the ‘Observer Magazine’ (1973). Christopher Sykes’s ‘official’ biography (1975) did little to rectify the impression. Despite his loyal attempt to stitch up a suit of virtue for his subject the bile still, apparently, spilled through the seams. Waugh’s enemies saw in the book what they had always suspected: he had been pompous, snobbish, sadistic; there was something of the Fascist and the philistine about him. The ‘Letters’ (1980) offered more ammunition. ‘It is impossible to imagine getting a letter from Evelyn Waugh,’ wrote Philip Larkin, ‘unless it were of the “Mr Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed” sort. In the first place, 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’ (No. 194). In an age of egalitarianism, Waugh has often seemed a redundant elitist.
The reader will find several instances of displeasure at Waugh’s ostensible political and social attitudes in the post-war reviews. But he will, perhaps, be surprised that their number is not greater. In fact, the mythology of Waugh’s ogreish temperament was something largely constructed, with his help, through the popular press. Certainly, he was a right-wing Catholic apologist who sincerely lamented what he saw as the rape of European culture. The real Mr Waugh, however, would never stand up before the microphone or camera. There was always a melodramatic disguise, a parodied prejudice, to defend his privacy.