Some of you may be wondering what I’ve been reading lately?
Christopher Sykes’s Evelyn Waugh: A Biography.
Before reading this book, I had a good idea who Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was, but now I’ve got a lovely, full, and ferocious picture him. He was no sweet pastel painting of flowers either. No. I’d compare him to a Jackson Polluck, which he’d probably hate, as he detested modern art, but maybe I could say he was like Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire?
Now I’ve always liked Waugh, as I was introduced to him in grad school with Brideshead Revisited and some of his short stories. I knew that he had a fiery personality and was a bit eccentric, but wow did I underestimate him.
Prior to converting to Catholicism, he was a rowdy, drunken homosexual. After his conversion, he was a rowdy, drunken Intellectual.
Let me quote a passage from the book:
‘Do let me’, he [Waugh] wrote to his young friend, ‘most seriously advise you to take to drink. There is nothing like the aesthetic pleasure of being drunk, and if you do it in the right way you can avoid being ill the next day. That is the greatest thing Oxford has to teach.’
Not only did Waugh drink excessively and raucously in Oxford and beyond, he was also a melancholic insomniac. In fact, it was likely the drugs he was taking for insomnia that killed him at the fairly young age of 63. For you see, these medications were not to be mixed with alcohol, and he just couldn’t not drink.
And then, can you imagine how cranky he was after not sleeping? (I know how cranky I am after nights of insomnia.) His friends remember him saying repeatedly, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”
But for all his raw and rough behavior, he really was a good man. He fought in WWII, traveled all over the world, spoke multiple languages, and did a lot of good. For example, he would go out of his way to help fallen-away Catholic friends recover their faith. He also quietly, and unknown to anyone at the time, gave all the profits from his book on Edmund Campion to Oxford specifically for the building of Campion Hall.
Waugh was also funny and witty. When he was courting his wife, he wrote the following in an attempt to convince her to marry him:
I can’t advise you in my favor because I think it would be beastly for you but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact its a lousy proposition. On the other hand I think I could do a Grant and reform & become quite strict about not getting drunk and I am pretty sure I shall be faithful…
In the end, she did marry him, and they had seven children, with one dying in infancy. But this biography doesn’t get into a whole lot of family life; rather, this biography focuses more on his literary life.
If you’d like a good picture of what kind of man produced such famous novels as Brideshead Revisited or A Handful of Dust, check out Sykes’s book. But be warned. Most of the novel discusses Waugh’s literary endeavors.