Skip to content
Evelyn Waugh: A Life in Letters

Evelyn Waugh: A Life in Letters

“Evelyn Waugh: A Life in Letters” is a fascinating collection of correspondence from one of the most celebrated British writers of the 20th century. The book provides a unique insight into Waugh’s personal and professional life, revealing his wit, intelligence, and often acerbic humor. The letters, spanning from his school days to his final years, offer a glimpse into the mind of a complex and often controversial figure, shedding light on his relationships, his writing process, and his views on politics and society. This article explores the significance of the book and what it reveals about Waugh’s life and legacy.

The Early Years

Evelyn Waugh was born on October 28, 1903, in London, England. He was the second son of Arthur Waugh, a publisher and literary critic, and Catherine Charlotte Raban, a talented amateur artist. Waugh’s childhood was marked by frequent moves, as his father’s job required the family to relocate often. Despite this, Waugh was a bright and curious child, with a love for reading and writing that would shape his future career. He attended several schools, including Lancing College and Hertford College, Oxford, where he studied history. It was during his time at Oxford that Waugh began to develop his distinctive writing style, characterized by its wit, irony, and satire. In 1925, he published his first novel, “Decline and Fall,” which was an instant success and established him as a major literary talent. Over the next few years, Waugh continued to write and publish, producing works such as “Vile Bodies” and “A Handful of Dust.” Despite his early success, however, Waugh struggled with personal demons, including alcoholism and depression, which would haunt him throughout his life. Nevertheless, his early years were marked by a remarkable talent and a fierce determination to succeed, qualities that would serve him well in the years to come.

The Oxford Years

During his time at Oxford, Evelyn Waugh became deeply involved in the university’s literary scene. He contributed to various publications, including the Cherwell and the Isis, and was a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. It was also during this time that Waugh began to develop his distinctive writing style, which would later become a hallmark of his work. Despite his literary pursuits, however, Waugh struggled academically and ultimately left Oxford without a degree. Nevertheless, his time at the university proved to be a formative period in his life and career.

The Marriage and Family Life

Evelyn Waugh’s personal life was marked by a tumultuous marriage and a complicated relationship with his children. His marriage to his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, was short-lived and ended in divorce. He later married Laura Herbert, with whom he had seven children. However, Waugh’s relationship with his children was strained, and he often expressed disappointment in their choices and behavior. In his letters, he frequently wrote about his struggles with parenting and his desire for his children to live up to his expectations. Despite these challenges, Waugh remained committed to his family and often wrote about his love for his wife and children. His experiences with marriage and family life undoubtedly influenced his writing, as themes of love, marriage, and family are prominent in many of his novels.

The Writing Career

Evelyn Waugh’s writing career spanned over three decades, during which he produced some of the most celebrated works of English literature. His first novel, “Decline and Fall,” was published in 1928 and was an instant success. This was followed by a string of critically acclaimed novels, including “Vile Bodies,” “A Handful of Dust,” and “Brideshead Revisited.” Waugh’s writing style was characterized by his wit, satire, and dark humor, which often skewered the upper classes and their pretensions. Despite his success, Waugh was known to be a difficult and cantankerous personality, and his personal life was often tumultuous. Nevertheless, his legacy as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century remains secure.

The War Years

During the war years, Evelyn Waugh served in the British military and his experiences greatly influenced his writing. He was initially commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Marines, but later transferred to the Royal Horse Guards. Waugh saw action in Crete and North Africa, and was eventually sent to Yugoslavia as a liaison officer with the Partisans. It was during this time that he began writing his acclaimed novel, “Brideshead Revisited.” Waugh’s letters from this period reveal his frustration with military bureaucracy and his longing for the comforts of home. Despite the challenges he faced, Waugh’s wartime experiences provided him with a wealth of material for his writing and helped shape his literary style.

The Religious Conversion

Evelyn Waugh’s religious conversion was a defining moment in his life and work. In 1930, he converted to Catholicism, a decision that would shape his writing and worldview for the rest of his career. Waugh’s conversion was not a sudden or impulsive act; rather, it was the result of a long period of spiritual searching and reflection. As a young man, Waugh had been drawn to the beauty and ritual of the Catholic Church, but he had also been skeptical of its teachings and practices. However, as he grew older and experienced personal and professional setbacks, he began to see the Catholic faith as a source of comfort and stability. In his letters, Waugh often wrote about his struggles with faith and his efforts to live a more devout life. He also used his writing to explore the themes of sin, redemption, and grace that were central to his Catholic beliefs. Waugh’s religious conversion was not without controversy; many of his friends and colleagues were skeptical of his newfound faith, and some even accused him of using it as a way to advance his career. However, Waugh remained steadfast in his beliefs, and his Catholicism became an integral part of his identity as a writer and a person.

The Later Years

In the later years of his life, Evelyn Waugh continued to write prolifically, but his health began to decline. He suffered from various ailments, including heart problems and depression. Despite this, he remained active in his writing and social life, often entertaining guests at his home in Combe Florey. He also traveled extensively, visiting places such as Africa and the United States. However, his later years were also marked by personal tragedy, including the death of his son, Auberon, in 2001. Despite these challenges, Waugh remained a beloved figure in the literary world until his death in 1966.

The Literary Legacy

Evelyn Waugh’s literary legacy is one that has endured long after his death. His works, which include novels, essays, and travel writing, have been widely read and studied for their wit, satire, and social commentary. Waugh’s most famous novel, “Brideshead Revisited,” is considered a masterpiece of 20th-century literature and has been adapted for both stage and screen. His other novels, such as “A Handful of Dust” and “Scoop,” are also highly regarded for their sharp humor and incisive critiques of society. Waugh’s letters, which have been collected and published in several volumes, offer a fascinating glimpse into his life and work, as well as his relationships with other writers and intellectuals of his time. Overall, Waugh’s literary legacy is one that continues to inspire and entertain readers today.

The Correspondence with Friends and Family

Evelyn Waugh was a prolific letter writer, and his correspondence with friends and family provides a fascinating insight into his life and personality. His letters are often witty, acerbic, and full of the kind of dry humor for which he is famous. Waugh was a keen observer of human nature, and his letters are full of observations on the people he encountered, both famous and obscure. He was also a devoted family man, and his letters to his wife and children are full of affection and concern. Overall, Waugh’s correspondence with friends and family is a valuable resource for anyone interested in his life and work.

The Travel Letters

In “Evelyn Waugh: A Life in Letters,” readers are treated to a glimpse into the travels and adventures of the acclaimed author. Waugh’s travel letters are particularly fascinating, as they showcase his wit, humor, and keen observations of the world around him. From his travels in Africa to his time in America, Waugh’s letters provide a unique perspective on the places he visited and the people he encountered. Whether he was describing the beauty of the African landscape or the quirks of American culture, Waugh’s travel letters are a testament to his skill as a writer and his love of exploration.

The Political Views

Evelyn Waugh’s political views were complex and often controversial. He was a staunch conservative and a devout Catholic, which informed his opinions on a wide range of issues. Waugh was a vocal critic of socialism and communism, and he believed that the welfare state was a threat to individual freedom. He was also opposed to the idea of a united Europe, arguing that it would lead to the loss of national identity and sovereignty. Despite his conservative leanings, Waugh was not a fan of the Conservative Party, which he saw as too moderate and lacking in conviction. Instead, he supported the more radical and reactionary views of figures like Enoch Powell. Waugh’s political views were often reflected in his writing, particularly in his satirical novels, which skewered the political and social mores of his time.

The Personal Relationships

Evelyn Waugh’s personal relationships were complex and often tumultuous. His marriage to his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, was marked by infidelity and arguments, and ultimately ended in divorce. Waugh’s second marriage to Laura Herbert was more stable, but still had its challenges. Waugh was known for his sharp tongue and biting wit, which could sometimes cause rifts in his friendships. However, he also had many close and loyal friends, including fellow writers like Graham Greene and Nancy Mitford. Waugh’s letters reveal the depth of his relationships and the impact they had on his life and work.

The Humor and Satire

Evelyn Waugh was known for his sharp wit and biting satire, which he often employed in his writing. His letters are no exception, as they are filled with humorous anecdotes and sarcastic commentary on the world around him. In one letter to his friend Nancy Mitford, Waugh describes a visit to a country estate where he was served a meal of “cold mutton and tepid cabbage water.” He goes on to quip, “I have never tasted anything so delicious in my life.” This kind of dry humor is typical of Waugh’s writing, and it is one of the reasons why his work continues to be beloved by readers today.

The Criticisms and Controversies

One of the main criticisms of Evelyn Waugh’s work is his portrayal of women. Many have accused him of being misogynistic and portraying female characters as one-dimensional and subservient to men. This criticism is particularly evident in his early novels, such as “Decline and Fall” and “Vile Bodies.” However, some argue that Waugh’s later works, such as “Brideshead Revisited,” show a more nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of women.

Another controversy surrounding Waugh is his political views. He was a staunch conservative and a vocal supporter of the British aristocracy. This has led some to accuse him of being elitist and out of touch with the struggles of the working class. However, others argue that Waugh’s conservatism was rooted in a deep respect for tradition and a desire to preserve the best of British culture.

Finally, Waugh’s personal life has also been the subject of controversy. He was known for his acerbic wit and his tendency to offend others with his comments. He was also a heavy drinker and struggled with depression throughout his life. Some have criticized him for his behavior, while others argue that his personal struggles only add to the complexity of his work.

The Adaptations and Screenplays

Evelyn Waugh’s literary works have been adapted into various screenplays and films over the years. One of the most notable adaptations is the 1981 television series “Brideshead Revisited,” which was based on Waugh’s novel of the same name. The series was a critical and commercial success, and it helped to cement Waugh’s reputation as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Other notable adaptations of Waugh’s works include the 1945 film “Brief Encounter,” which was based on his short story “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing,” and the 2008 film “Brideshead Revisited,” which was a new adaptation of the novel. Despite the success of these adaptations, many fans of Waugh’s work argue that his writing is best experienced in its original form, as his prose is often too complex and nuanced to be fully captured on screen.

The Final Days

In the final days of his life, Evelyn Waugh was plagued by ill health and a sense of loneliness. He had outlived many of his contemporaries and was estranged from some of his closest friends and family members. Despite this, he continued to write and correspond with those he still held dear. In one of his last letters, he wrote to his son, “I am very tired and very old, but I still have a few words left in me.” Waugh passed away on April 10, 1966, leaving behind a legacy of literary works that continue to captivate readers to this day.

The Posthumous Reputation

Evelyn Waugh’s posthumous reputation has been a mixed bag. While he is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, his personal life and controversial views have also been scrutinized. Some critics have accused him of being a snob and a misogynist, while others have praised his wit and satire. Despite the controversies, Waugh’s works continue to be read and studied, and his influence on modern literature cannot be denied. His letters, in particular, offer a unique insight into his life and work, and have been praised for their honesty and humor. Overall, Waugh’s posthumous reputation is a testament to his enduring legacy as a writer and cultural icon.