10-28-1903

Evelyn Waugh

EVELYN WAUGH British poet and novelist, born (d: 1966); The original “boy named Sue”, Waugh was an English writer, best known for such satirical and darkly humorous novels as Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop, A Handful of Dust, and The Loved One, as well as for broader and more personal works, such as Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honor trilogy, that are influenced by his own experiences and his conservative and Catholic viewpoints.

Many of Waugh’s novels depict British aristocracy and high society, which he satirizes but to which, paradoxically, he was also strongly attracted. In addition, he wrote short stories, three biographies, and the first volume of an unfinished autobiography. His  travel writings and his extensive diaries and correspondence have also been published.

In 1944, American literary critic Edmund Wilson pronounced Waugh “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw,” while Time magazine declared that he had “developed a wickedly hilarious yet fundamentally religious assault on a century that, in his opinion, had ripped up the nourishing taproot of tradition and let wither all the dear things of the world.” Waugh’s works were very successful with the reading public and he was widely admired by critics as a humorist and prose stylist.

In his notes for an unpublished review of Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell declared that Waugh was “about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions.” The American conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. found in Waugh “the greatest English novelist of the century,” while his liberal counterpart Gore Vidal called him “our time’s first satirist.”

After gallantly protecting T. S. Eliot from “the specious assumption that he was homosexual,” T.S. Matthews in Great Tom, suddenly became viciously ungallant: “It is peppery, glaring little men like Evelyn Waugh who are sexually suspect – as his diaries bear witness.”

Aside from the psychologically interesting opposition of “great” Tom and “little” Evelyn, it’s perfectly clear that the former editor of Time magazine has no particularly liking for either homosexuality or Evelyn Waugh. The very word “suspect” is suspect. Many people disliked Waugh personally. He could be unkind, ungenerous and ornery. But he was one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century, if not the greatest, and the idea of using the word “little” on a giant such as he is at best, odd.

Indeed, his diaries do clearly reveal him as a Gay man. But then so do his novels, particularly Brideshead Revisited, in which the friendship of Charles and Sebastian, despite the limitations of what he was allowed to write in the early 1940s, is magnificently drawn.