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Tonight’s topic was borne out of my recent conclusion of a 1981 television series that I suspect many of you watched then or have seen since. It starred Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte, and a few episodes featured Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain. I am talking, of course, about the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, a novel published in 1945 by author Evelyn Waugh. Tonight, we discuss this author and his fascinating life. For those of you who have read and/or seen Brideshead Revisited, you’ll pick up on parallels between the novel and Waugh’s own life as we discuss the author, but I won’t point them out for those listeners who haven’t explored it yet.
Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was born 28 October 1903 to an upper middle class family in the Hampstead area of London. The family’s social status – not poor, but certainly not rich – would influence Waugh (and his writing) for the rest of his life, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Waugh had a happy childhood, fostering a special love for his nanny (quite possibly to the detriment of his relationship with his mother) and a tenuous relationship with his father. With this apparently enjoyable upbringing, it is interesting to consider the fact that Waugh was quite the bully in school at Heath Mount, and Waugh recalled terrorizing one Cecil Beaton: “The tears on his long lashes used to provoke the sadism of youth and my cronies and I tormented him…Our persecution went no further than sticking pins into him and we were soundly beaten for doing so.” When Waugh had completed his education at Heath Mount, he moved on to Lancing College – his second choice, it should be noted. He had hoped to go to the much more prestigious Sherborne, but he was not allowed to attend on account of his brother Alec’s expulsion. Alec had written an apparently rather homoerotic novel and was invited to leave; his younger brother Evelyn was refused entry on those grounds. Waugh knew he was attending a less desirable school and resented it.
Waugh’s next educational institute didn’t suffer from the same social stigma which Waugh had attached to Lancing. He went up to Hertford College at Oxford to read history, but neglected his academic work. Instead Waugh focused on his rip-roaring social life, mixing with various upper-class school mates, aristocrats, and nobility. This undoubtedly lead to Waugh’s developing sense of conservatism in social matters. As a member of the Hypocrites Club Waugh drank heavily (when asked about sport, Waugh would answer “I drank for Hertford.”), and was allegedly involved in numerous homosexual affairs. It was during his time at Oxford that Waugh decided he was an agnostic, saying “There is far too much religion in this University and not enough brains.” The culmination of Waugh’s time at Oxford was qualification for only a third-class degree, which he never even took. His previous priorities of social life over academics obviously came back to plague him. He left Oxford in 1924 and took a teaching job in Wales; while still holding the teaching position, Waugh went through a period of deep depression and even attempted suicide, leaving a note for a friend in Greek. He took the rather odd course of swimming as far out to sea as possible with the intention of drowning, only to turn back due to being stung by a jellyfish!
Evelyn went through a string of jobs, including another teaching position from which he was dismissed after attempting to seduce the matron (Waugh chalked it up to being drunk), apprenticeship to a cabinet-maker, and eventually journalism, a profession at which Waugh excelled. His first novel, a satire of British society, appeared in 1928 entitled Decline and Fall. This was the same year that Waugh married the Honorable Evelyn Margaret Winifred Gardner, granddaughter of Henry Herbert, the 4th Earl Carnarvon. Surely Waugh thought he deserved to be married to such a highly-born woman – let us not forgot his dissatisfaction at having to settle for Lancing College earlier. Unfortunately, the marriage was not a happy one, and Gardner (friends referred to her as She-Evelyn, while Waugh was He-Evelyn) eventually had an affair with a mutual friend. The two were divorced in 1930, providing material for Waugh’s next novel, Handful of Dust.
Waugh’s divorce apparently made him re-think some of his religious beliefs, and that same year he converted to Roman Catholicism. He took his conversion very seriously and dove in headfirst, as it were. He was eventually able to obtain an annulment for his marriage to Evelyn Gardner and was thus able to marry one of the Earl of Carnarvon’s other granddaughters, Laura Herbert. The marriage produced 7 children (one of whom, named Mary, sadly died in infancy). Waugh’s conversion was a watershed in his life, and his newly embraced faith would play a large role in most of his later writings. By this time, Waugh was something of a mover in London social life, and his conversion was widely discussed by higher society, so much so that he eventually responded with an article titled ‘Conversion to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me.’ Contrary to what many were saying about his proverbial swimming of the River Tiber, Waugh insisted that his conversion was neither about the rituals of Catholic worship nor submission to the Catholic hierarchy; rather, he faced a choice between Christianity and chaos, with Catholicism being the most complete form of Christianity. We’ll discuss Waugh’s conversion and its influence on his writing later, after we finish out the discussion of his life.
Before we continue with the life of Evelyn Waugh, I want to take a second to thank Audible.com for sponsoring today’s show. Audible is the Internet’s leading provider of spoken-word entertainment and has over 35,000 titles to choose from to be downloaded and played back anywhere – just like British History 101. Logon to audiblepodcast.com/british101 to a get a FREE audiobook download of your choice when you sign up today. Again, go to audiblepodcast.com/british101 for your FREE audiobook. When I signed up for Audible, it may have taken me all of 5 minutes to do so, and I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to download books for listening. Their selection is simply amazing and I know you’ll find something you like there – I know for a fact they have several of Waugh’s works available.
Waugh spent much time traveling around the world and writing down his experiences (which were later published as travel books), journeying around the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, South America, and Africa, where he saw the coronation of Haile Selassie. Perhaps the greatest adventure of all, though, was Waugh’s commission during World War II, obtained through Randolph Churchill. Waugh was, unfortunately, not the right man to be put in a position of authority, and many colleagues thought him unsuitable for command. One imagines Waugh, a man who expected to be treated well and fancied himself as good as any aristocrat, rather uncomfortable in a field tent eating undoubtedly less-than-satisfactory food in the middle of a warzone. Waugh requested, and was somehow granted, leave in 1944 (probably through Randolph Churchill), even while the Allies were preparing for the invasion of Normandy. Waugh missed the invasion – he was busy writing Brideshead Revisited, which was published the following year. 1944 did see Waugh back in action, however, having been reassigned to the Royal Horse Guards and on mission to Yugoslavia, where he was very nearly captured by the German army. We recall Evelyn’s enthusiasm for conversion in his writing of a detailed report of the suffering inflicted on the Catholic faithful and clergy by Tito there – a report neatly shelved later as irrelevant. Waugh’s experiences in World War II would later be reflected in his trilogy of books called the Sword of Honour, even today regarded as some of the best writing about the war.
After the war, Waugh spent most of his time back in Somerset, living as country gentleman as he no doubt thought he should. He eventually entered a period of self-induced decline, both in writing and physical health, due to abuse of sleeping medication, heavy drinking, and lack of exercise. 1957’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold chronicles the protagonist’s fall into insanity, a prosaic description of Waugh’s own slipping. While he continued to be an excellent journalist, Waugh was less and less well received as an author, with his Basil Seal Rides Again being regarded with nowhere near the same respect as his earlier works. His declining health lead to his death on 10 April 1966. That day was Easter Sunday, on which he had attended Mass in the beloved rite into which he had converted. He lies buried at the family estate Combe Florey, Somerset.
I think it vital that we discuss three things about Evelyn Waugh, namely his Catholicism, his views of the aristocracy in Britain, and his generation of peers. On the first, I wish to make it clear that this is not intended to be a preaching session, but Waugh is regarded as one of the greatest Catholic writers of the twentieth century, and I want to explain why and the circumstances surrounding that high regard. Waugh was a zealous convert, and even wrote lives of the saintly men Edward Campion and Ronald Knox. When he was writing Brideshead Revisited in 1944, Waugh intended it to be the obituary of the fading British aristocracy; he later realized, after the publication of the Sword of Honour trilogy, that it was, in fact, the obituary of the Catholic Church in England as it had existed for centuries. He was fiercely proud of the Mass and was utterly shocked and dismayed by the Second Vatican Council and the liturgy that many bishops around the world interpreted to have come from the Council. Waugh is later quoted as saying “I am now old but I was young when I was received into the Church…One of the extraneous attractions of the Church which most drew me was the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stumping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do. That is the Mass I have grown to know and love. By all means let the rowdy have their ‘dialogues,’ but let us who value silence not be completely forgotten.” He also said in a letter “Easter used to mean so much to me. Before Pope John and his Council – they destroyed the beauty of the liturgy. I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the Faith doggedly without joy.” One sees something of J.R.R. Tolkien in Evelyn Waugh. I think Waugh offered an unfair assessment of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, but it is important to understand Waugh’s crisis of faith later in life. He wrote prolifically for The Tablet, the Catholic Herald, and Commonweal, forming an important look into the history of the post-Conciliar Catholic Church. Again, none of that was intended to push a religious agenda through to you, the listeners, no matter what belief system you follow, but I think it’s important for understanding Waugh as a whole.
Waugh held rather paradoxical views of the British aristocracy. If you read his “An Open Letter to the Honorable Mrs. Peter Rodd on A Very Serious Subject,” you will see how he understands that the aristocracy is defined not by what it is, but by what it is not. There is no set of clear rules, but everyone knows them anyway. Much of his work satirizes high society, while at the same time he enjoyed being a social mover and shaker and certainly “loved a lord” as one author put it. I think he saw the shortcomings of the aristocratic society but desperately wanted to be a part of it anyway, perhaps seeking to purify it in some way.
The last thing I want to mention is the so-called ‘Waugh generation,’ those men who were too young during World War I to serve or have much memory of it but who so desperately wished they had been old enough. This is an interesting movement in British history, and we would do well to discuss it. Those of you familiar with Brideshead Revisited will recall a scene with a certain character reciting part of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land from a balcony to his friends below, all of whom applaud his recital. These men, this generation, were well aware of the horror and violence of the First World War, but they understood none of it. They felt they had missed out on an opportunity to serve their nation, to fight evil, and be a part of something larger than themselves. It is because of this that many went off to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and enlisted for the Second World War, as their ‘chance’ had finally come to live what they had missed in 1914-1918. Surely, though, many of them learned that war brought a downward spiral of violence that they could never have dreamed of and regretted their jealousy of veterans from the First World War.
Evelyn Waugh was a fascinating man with a fascinating life, and I do hope you will explore his writing, and definitely read Brideshead Revisited if you read nothing else by him. With that suggestion, we will end this episode of British History 101. A transcript of this and past episodes of the show can be found at BritishHistory101.com. Send questions, comments, rants, and raves to BritishHistory101@gmail.com. Check out British History 101 on Facebook and feel free to follow me on Twitter under the name maskaggs. You can also contact me by regular mail at:
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