Lead book review

A familiar life (revisited)

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

A Life Revisited, as the modest, almost nervous, title suggests, mainly concerns Evelyn Waugh’s life with comments on but no analysis of his books. There have been at least three major biographies already, as well as large volumes of diaries, letters and journalism and many slighter volumes. There is more to come. Waugh’s grandson, Alexander, who has defied current trends by writing a fine book on the males of the family, is editor-in-chief of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, with the first of 43 volumes coming out next year. He has also collected an unrivalled archive containing unpublished notes, letters and interviews, and commissioned this book for the 50th anniversary of his grandfather’s death.

All of which presents Philip Eade with a problem. How much knowledge can he assume? Should he include the best known stories and remarks? On the whole he does. I must admit that I read about the second world war hoping to find his reply to a general who complained of his having had a few drinks in the mess: ‘I told him I could not change the habits of a lifetime for a whim of his.’ Also the funniest letter he ever wrote, concerning the blowing up of a tree stump near the castle of the Earl of Glasgow is quoted in full. At the end Waugh wrote, ‘this is quite true’, and Eade commends Waugh’s flair for embellishment, but the present Lord Glasgow confirms that yes, it did actually happen pretty much like that.

So this reader, along with many others, followed a familiar story, nodding at some bits, uncertain whether other details are new or had just been forgotten. To know more turns out to be to forgive more. Yes, Waugh was a snob but a selective snob, not a sucker up to grand bores. Yes, he could be rude and cruel but he could also be kind and generous. He made many warm and lasting friends. Somehow his merciless self-knowledge makes his defects more acceptable. Anything you could say about him, he already knew.

Relations with his respectable publishing father and precociously successful novelist brother were worse than I knew. His loving mother remains a shadow in the background. Being bundled off to Lancing as a second choice was less than perfect, Oxford still merges with the golden glamour of Brideshead Revisited, and goodness they did drink a lot. More homosexual flings and in particular more about his lover Alastair Graham, who sent him a nude photograph of himself, just as people, often MPs, do nowadays. Poverty drove him to teach at a boys’ private preparatory school, where Dick Young, who inspired the character of Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall, an unashamed and indeed boastful paedophile, compels our attention and almost our approval by sheer vitality. That book and its success arrive in the nick of time to save him, but then he plunges into a disastrous and short-lived marriage. That broke up while he was scribbling Vile Bodies, an even greater success. Waugh’s unhappiness is thought by many to have contributed to his becoming a Roman Catholic, which is little discussed. Waugh met and fell in love with Teresa (‘Baby’) Jungman, also a Roman Catholic, and assumed that marriage was impossible. (I approached her in the late 1970s, asking if she still had Waugh’s letters to her. She said that she did not wish anyone to see them. I wrote again, as I do not think I did to anyone else, with all the persuasions I could think of about their interest and importance. She refused again with an otherwise amiable letter that began ‘Dear Blackmailer’.)

These letters and a memoir by Waugh’s first wife were available to Eade and fill out details of important relationships, but do not radically alter what we knew. Waugh’s successful novels continued. I don’t think that I knew that the first name for Lord Copper was ‘Ottercreek’, which made identification with Lord Beaverbrook easier. Travel books mingled with the novels. He was an amusing celebrity and his social circle widened to include Mitfords, Lygons and then Herberts, one of whom, Laura, became his wife, after he had obtained an annulment.

The second world war snapped many people’s lives in two. Waugh welcomed it and joined up in 1939 aged 36, and was called ‘Uncle’. This sounds friendly but Waugh has always been described as unpopular with the men; Eade, however, has found an interview with his loyal batman, who insists that ‘he was everything you’d expect an officer to be’. There have been accusations that Sir Robert Laycock, Waugh’s commander and military hero, disobeyed orders and jumped the queue to get away from Crete, while Waugh falsified his official account to cover up for him. Since then, points out Eade, ‘a substantial body of contrary evidence has been excavated’, which goes a long way towards refuting the accusations against Evelyn and his military mentor. There is another story which involves Laycock. Waugh still yearned for action and very much wanted to go to Syria with him. In the event he was left behind. This was contrived by Lord (Shimi) Lovat, a personal enemy, who said then and later that Laycock had never intended to take him. In fact Laycock was angry when he found out.

Waugh was given leave to write Brideshead Revisited, which was a huge success and remains his most popular book (A Handful of Dust is his most admired in literary circles). Hollywood beckoned and he spent some pleasant weeks there, meeting Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney, ‘the two artists of the place’, though possibly he never intended to allow a film. Instead he studied Forrest Lawns, a cemetery, and chatted with a woman who gave ‘the personality smile to the embalmed corpse’, or The Loved One, as the resulting novel was called. Material for a book was extremely welcome, though the breakdown that led to The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold was frightening for him and his family. When he died in 1966 he was 62 and seemed to be worn out, an old man.

Evelyn Waugh by Ann Pasternak Slater mainly concerns the books, their technique, and how they came from his life. Eade says the books ‘could hardly have been easier to understand’, but this turns out to be not entirely true. Slater notices every word or phrase and has spotted if it is ever repeated. She knows where Waugh had got to in writing Vile Bodies when his marriage broke up and how that affects the style. She observes that a correction by Waugh when Tony Last is asked whether he believes in God has been read as ‘I suppose no’ when it is actually ‘I suppose so’. This leads to her theme: the earlier satiric works before his conversion present a disordered world where apparent chaos is artistically controlled. ‘Scrutinise the kaleidoscope and a perfect pattern is revealed.’ Sometimes he returns to this approach — as in Put Out More Flags and The Loved One. The Catholic novels — Work Suspended, Brideshead Revisited, Helena and The Sword of Honour — have a quite different style, derived from Victorian novels, and are predominantly rational and realistic.

I hesitate to sum up Waugh’s purpose in a phrase but it concerns man’s relationship with God and God’s with man. Slater says an agnostic will struggle to understand this. For instance, in a memorandum explaining Brideshead to Hollywood, Waugh states that the second half shows how the grace of God turns everything in the end to good, though not to conventional prosperity. I, an agnostic, had half noticed most of this and merely thought the second half of Brideshead uncharacteristically boring. I still struggled. Could Vile Bodies, written in such tearing haste, be so complicated? Waugh thought of many titles for A Handful of Dust, including A Handful of Ashes and Fourth Decade, not seeming to care much which was adopted. Is this being meticulous with shades of meaning? But of course Slater knows all that.

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