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Evelyn Waugh

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (1903-1966) is an English novelist and satirist. Throughout his career, he worked in various genres, from travel books to biographies. Waugh's conversion to Catholicism greatly influenced his moral outlook and helped to shape his later work. He is best known for his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945).

Evelyn Waugh: Biography

Evelyn Waugh was born in Somerset, England, on October 28, 1903. His father, Arthur Waugh (1866-1843), was a published author, and his older brother, Alec Waugh (1898-1981), also became a novelist and literary critic. Waugh wrote his first piece of fiction at age seven and continued to dabble in writing and art throughout adolescence with dreams of becoming a painter.

Waugh's father worked for the printing company that first published Charles Dickens's worlds (1812-1870). Ironically, Evelyn disliked Dickens's writing!

While at boarding school, Waugh grew to resent the institute's religious underpinning and turned his back on organized religion. At age 18, he earned a scholarship to Oxford University to study history. He settled into campus life, joining the debate society and submitting pieces to the campus magazine. Waugh also became involved in a student group called the Hypocrites' club. A debauched drinking club, the Hypocrites was a collection of artists and intellectuals who staged plays and threw decadent parties. During Waugh's time in the club, he experimented with same-sex relationships and developed a dependency on alcohol.

Evelyn Waugh, Oxford University, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Waugh's experience at Oxford positively and negatively influenced the rest of his life.

After graduating in 1924, Waugh briefly attended art school but soon dropped out. Aimless and unsure of what to do in life, he tried several jobs, including school teacher and carpentry but struggled and continued to drink heavily. He made early attempts at novel writing but was once so crushed by a friend's criticism that he attempted suicide by drowning.

How did Waugh's background and time at Oxford influence his view of Britain's class system?

After being contracted to write a biography of the artist Gabriel Dante Rossetti, Waugh was able to find a publisher for his first novel, Decline and Fall (1928). The comic tale of a wealthy young gentleman who loses his inheritance and is forced to work in a boarding school was partially autobiographical. The book was received warmly, and Waugh followed it up with a series of satirical novels, which established himself as a writer able to cast a critical eye on English society.

As his career took off, he fell in love with a young woman named Evelyn Gardener. The couple married in 1928 and quickly divorced in 1929.

Since Waugh went by the same first name as his wife, their friend's nicknamed the pair "She-Evelyn" and "He-Evelyn."

When several close friends converted to Catholicism, Waugh began to explore the Church's teachings. He found himself drawn to faith and converted in 1930. As a famous writer, his conversion caused a media frenzy, with Waugh responding to his critics in the article "Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me, "1 where he described Catholicism as an antidote to the chaos of modern life.

Waugh's early novels established him as a quick-witted satirist and brought the writer fame and fortune. He became a prominent feature on the English party scene and was part of a group the English press dubbed the "Bright Young People." Also known as "Bright Young Things," this collection of artists and socialites dominated the social scene in 1920s London.

Much like the Roaring Twenties in America, the post-war generation in Britain wanted to shake off the collective misery of WWI and enjoy their youth. The "Bright Young Things" enjoyed jazz music and scandalous fashion choices. They challenged gender norms, participated in same-sex relationships, and became a tabloid sensation for their lavish parties and indulgent lifestyles. Journalists, photographers, and gossip columnists chronicled the wild adventures of the "Bright Young Things" as the group became an early example of celebrity culture.

Though Waugh found himself lumped in with this set, he was critical of their shallow behavior. His 1930 novel Vile Bodies is a satirical critique of the "Bright Young Things" and the emptiness of celebrity. Waugh was ahead of his time in criticizing the group. During the economic depression of the 1930s, the press and public became disgusted by the decadence of the "Bright Young People."

Throughout the 1930s, Waugh traveled the world working as a journalist. He covered stories in Africa and South America for major British publications. He used his experiences in foreign cultures as material for travel books like Remote People (1931) and Waugh in Abyssinia (1936).

WWII and Brideshead Revisited

At the outbreak of WWII, Waugh was eager to see active service. He enlisted, at the age of 36, in the Royal Marines and endured a brutal training regime. Though his unit was deployed on several missions throughout Africa and the Middle East, Waugh saw little combat. This was exacerbated by his un-military demeanor. Frustrated by the lack of action, Waugh requested a three-month absence to work on what became his most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited (1945).

The novel explored Waugh's relationship with religion through the saga of a wealthy Catholic family in England. The book received rave reviews and became the writer's first international success. In his next book, The Loved One (1948), he satirized the American funeral industry and Hollywood.

Waugh's visited America after WWII to meet with Hollywood executives interested in adapting some of his works into movies. During the trip, Waugh suffered a great deal of culture shock and was unimpressed by the representatives, dubbing them "Californian Savages." 2

Following his success, Waugh's work became increasingly focused on themes of faith and Catholicism. In 1950, he dramatized the life of Saint Helena in Helena and continued to publish essays on the theme of faith. These works lacked Waugh's sharp humor and accessibility. As the decade wore on, his popularity started to wane.

Evelyn Waugh, Saint Helena Statue, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Waugh believed that Helena was the best book he ever wrote.

Extravagant spending habits and escalating drug problems left Waugh broke and increasingly unstable. At the advice of his doctors, he traveled to Egypt for a change of scenery. However, during the journey, he struggled with bouts of paranoia and reported hearing voices inside his head. He returned home, where doctors diagnosed his symptoms as a form of bromide poisoning brought on by excessive drug use. Waugh used this frightening experience as the basis for his 1957 novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

Final Works and Death

Waugh focused most of his remaining energy on completing his set of war novels, commonly known as The Sword of Honour Trilogy, which contained Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961). In the last decade of his life, he continued to publish non-fiction articles, but by his sixties, decades of alcohol and drug dependency were showing their toll on his body and mind. Waugh's health steadily deteriorated, and he found himself unable to write. He died of a heart attack on April 10, 1966, at 62.

Evelyn Waugh: Books

Waugh published 15 novels, dozens of short stories, and hundreds of non-fiction essays and articles during his career. Here is a look at his most famous books.

Brideshead Revisited (1945)

Waugh's most well-known and personal work is the expansive story of the Flyte family. Charles Ryder, a commander in the British army, finds his unit stationed at a large mansion in the countryside. He recalls visiting the house years ago when he befriended Sebastian Flyte at university. Sebastian had taken Charles home to the estate, Brideshead Castle, to meet his rich and powerful family. Through flashbacks, Charles recounts his experiences with the Flytes and details the family's eventual decline.

The novel deals with themes of religion and looks at the descent of the British noble class between WWI and WWII. Brideshead Revisited is widely understood as an allegory for Waugh's conversion to Catholicism.

The Loved One (1948)

Set in Hollywood shortly after WWII, The Loved One tells the story of Dennis Barlow, a British screenwriter who suddenly finds himself out of work. Forced to work at a pet cemetery and a funeral home, Dennis becomes embroiled in a love triangle and learns about the commercialization of death.

Much like Waugh's early novels, The Loved One is a sharp satire that employs dark humor to expose uncomfortable truths about American culture. After the success of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh visited America and was shocked by the shallowness of both Hollywood and the British ex-pat community.

Evelyn Waugh: Themes

In 1930, Evelyn Waugh converted to Catholicism. This spiritual transformation profoundly impacted the writer's work, and the teaching of Catholicism became a recurring theme in his work.

Catholicism

Shortly after his conversion, Waugh started using his essays and articles to espouse the benefits of Catholicism. His religious beliefs were closely tied to a sense of social and political conservatism. Waugh believed Western civilization was under attack by the secular values of political movements like Communism and Fascism. He saw Catholicism as a way to protect traditional values from modernity. As a thinker and a writer, Waugh was wary of progressive art and politics. He argued for a return to time-honored values and aesthetics. He was even critical of the Vatican's attempt to modernize Catholicism in the 1960s.

Many of Waugh's works have a distinctly Catholic perspective. In Brideshead Revisited, members of the Flyte family struggle with sin and temptation before finding salvation in the Church. In 1950 he published Helena, a historical fiction work based on Saint Helena's life. Most of his later works are informed by Catholic teachings on good and evil, with many of his characters searching for grace. Waugh stood out from most of his contemporaries, who were concerned with capturing the internal workings of the mind. He was focused on the soul's struggle and sought to illustrate God's influence.

Evelyn Waugh: Writing Style and Techniques

Stylistically, Waugh is difficult to pin down. His early satirical novels contain elements of Modernism; however, as his career progressed, he became critical of the Modern style. While many other writers of his era embraced experimentation, Waugh was a conservative writer who stuck to traditional forms and techniques. Many Modernist works deal with the decline or absence of religion; however, Waugh's novels deal explicitly with God's presence. In his essay "Literary Style in England and America"3, Waugh is highly critical of modernist writers like James Joyce (1882-1941) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). He complains that modernist writers can become too wrapped up in style. Waugh believed writing is about communication, evident through his direct prose. By avoiding overly complex passages, Waugh mastered an easy-to-read style that contributed to his widespread popularity.

Satire

Throughout his career, Waugh remained committed to satirizing many powerful targets. Quick to use humor to undermine important social institutions, Waugh often wrote characters who tried to hide behind the trappings of wealth or rank. These characters are inflated in their sense of importance, only for Waugh to reveal their failings.

Waugh was able to satirize his own experiences and background. Born into the British upper class, Waugh lampooned his background to expose the hollow nature of the class system. With Scoop (1938), he draws on his experience as a journalist to attack the exploitative nature of the media. Even The Sword of Honour Trilogy, a profound meditation on war and death, satirizes the disorganization of military life and the insanity of war.

Evelyn Waugh: Quotes

Evelyn Waugh started his writing career as a satirist, best known for poking fun at the stuffy English upper classes. As he progressed as a writer, he turned to weightier subjects of faith and morality. Here is a look at some meaningful quotes from the novels of Evelyn Waugh.

"Lord Copper quite often gave banquets; it would be an understatement to say that no one enjoyed them more than the host, for no one else enjoyed them at all, while Lord Copper positively exulted in every minute." (Scoop, ch. 3)

As a figure on the English party scene of the 1920s and 1930s, Waugh could cast a rye eye on the shallowness of the aristocratic hosts. The author humorously deconstructs the emerging celebrity culture with novels like Vile Bodies and Scoop.

“I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy.” (Brideshead Revisited, Book Three, ch. 5)

Although Waugh was critical of Brideshead Revisited, it remains his most successful and personal work. Much like Waugh himself, the novel's narrator has lived without faith but finds himself drawn to the teachings of Catholicism. Waugh tackled these complex issues with direct prose, contributing to his widespread success.

Evelyn Waugh - Key takeaways

  • Evelyn Waugh is an English author and satirist.
  • Waugh's early novels are satirical takedowns of the English upper classes and celebrity culture.
  • In 1930, Waugh converted to Catholicism, and his spiritual beliefs profoundly influenced his later works.
  • His most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited, tells the story of an aristocratic English family and deals with themes of faith and the decline of the noble classes.
  • Waugh was critical of modernist techniques and embraced traditional forms of writing.

1 Evelyn Waugh, Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me,” Daily Express, 1930.

2Giles Foden, "Waugh versus Hollywood," The Guardian, 2004.

3 Evelyn Waugh, Books on Trial, 1955.

Frequently Asked Questions about Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh is an English novelist and satirist best known for his novel Brideshead Revisited.

The Loved One is a darkly comic tale about a young British screenwriter in Hollywood who works in a funeral home and learns about the commercialization of death. 

Brideshead Revisited is considered Evelyn Waugh's best book. 

Evelyn Waugh's later works dealt with faith and Catholicism. A famous quote from Brideshead Revisited is "I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy.”

Evelyn Waugh's writing style is characterized by direct, simple prose, which contributed to his readability. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he avoided the experimentation associated with modernism. 

Final Evelyn Waugh Quiz

Question

Evelyn Waugh is closely associated with the modernist style. 

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False

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Evelyn Waugh's first novel is titled ________. 

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Answer

Decline and Fall

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Which university did Evelyn Waugh attend?

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Oxford

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What was the name of Evelyn Waugh's first wife? 

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Evelyn Gardener 

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In 1930, Evelyn Waugh converted to which religion? 

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Catholicism 

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During the late 1920s, Evelyn Waugh was a part of a social set known as the ________. 

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"Bright Young Things"

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Evelyn Waugh's most successful and personal novel is titled ___________. 

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Brideshead Revisited

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Brideshead Revisited tells the story of the ________ family. 

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Flyte

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The Loved One is a satrical look at which business? 

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Funeral services

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Evelyn Waugh's novels Men at Arms Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender  are collectively known as the ________________ Trilogy. 

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Sword of Honour

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Who is the protagonist of The Loved One

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Dennis Barlow

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In which city is The Loved One set?

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Los Angeles 

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At which funeral home does Dennis Barlow work? 

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Happier Hunting Ground

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Dennis Barlow moved to Los Angeles to become a _____________. 

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Screenwriter

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Dennis' job at a pet funeral home is deeply embarrassing to the British community. 

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True

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Dennis expresses an interest in becoming a _________. 

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Pastor

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How does Aimee commit suicide? 

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Injecting herself with embalming fluid

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Who is the narrator of Brideshead Revisited?

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Charles Ryder

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Where does Charles first meet Sebastian? 

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Oxford University 

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Brideshead Revisited deals with which religion?

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Catholicism 

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Brideshead Revisited is not a satire.

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False

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Charles eventually finds career success as a ________. 

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Painter

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The Flyte family's ancestral home is known as ________________. 

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Brideshead Castle

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After returning to England, Charles begins an affair with Julia. 

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True

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Which character abandons his family and moves to Italy? 

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Lord Marchmain

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One of Brideshead Revisited's main themes is _________.

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Redemption

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At the end of Brideshead Revisited, the Flyte family return to Brideshead Castle.

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False

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Which genre best describes The Loved One

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Satire

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Evelyn Waugh believed that American culture has a healthy attitude towards death.  

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False

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Who does Aimee turn to for life advice? 

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Relationship columnist 

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