Why You Should Get to Know Evelyn Waugh

“Sebastian drinks too much.”

“I think we both do.”

A number of years ago, during a particularly Arcadian era of my young professional career, an Anglican colleague recommended Brideshead Revisited to a non-practicing colleague of Jewish descent. Upon reading the first few chapters, my Jewish colleague approached the Anglican at a cocktail party. “Matthew!” he said, “You are Sebastian Flyte!”, to which Matthew* responded, “My God, I hope not!” Given my general knowledge that the novel in question was considered by many to be a distinctly Catholic work, and that it was one of Matthew’s favorite books, the situational uniqueness of such an exchange piqued my interest, and Brideshead Revisited was filed away on my sundry reading list.

(*The name has been changed to protect identity, and friendship. As he is responsible for introducing me to Waugh’s work, amidst many other feats of friendship, please join me in keeping him in prayer, that God’s grace will continue to develop to fruition within him in his journey.)

As the list was already rather long (and life rather busy) I only picked up a copy of Brideshead from Bookmans Phoenix years after that exchange. So that you are aware, if you have not visited Bookmans before, my fellow Phoenicians, be warned: it is a wonderfully dangerous place to visit on pay-day.

Eventually summer break came, I began reading, and the above conversation became much more intelligible to me. In the space of a few short days, I was entranced by the scenes and “twitches upon the thread” that enmeshed the character of Charles Ryder with the family of House Flyte. Secular decadence, Baroque Catholic architecture, family strife, adultery, alcoholism, sin, and redemption (and Catholic guilt) are just a few of the thematic shades that Evelyn Waugh knits together, in a fashion that brings to mind the master-craftsmanship of Fyodor Dostoevsky, while remaining distinctly English. Such was the profound impact of this work, that, after I had finished it and returned to work at the end of summer, I made a distinct point of searching out Matthew at yet another party, and thanked him for introducing me to the novel, while also explaining to him my own incredulity as to the fact that I could scarcely believe that I had not read it before then.

Matthew proceeded to nod, and to pour another cocktail.

So began my ongoing love of the literature of Evelyn Waugh. And so did my own interest in the life of the man himself. When I did my own research into his life, I discovered that the man himself was in many ways as fascinating as the characters he constructed. To wit, some highlights regarding Evelyn Waugh:

  • Was educated at Oxford.
  • Rejected Christianity.
  • Was a practicing homosexual at Oxford.
  • Became a writer.
  • Was chastised for obscenity by The Tablet — chief newspaper of the Catholic press in England.
  • Reverted to Christianity.
  • Married a woman named Evelyn. Yes, that happened. Really. It did.
  • Divorced a woman named Evelyn…
  • Became Roman Catholic.
  • Had his previous conjugal state declared null.
  • Worked as a journalist abroad.
  • Married a woman not named Evelyn and had 7 kids.
  • Joined the British Army during World War Two.
  • Became a Royal Marine and served with the British Commandos — and jumped out of perfectly good airplanes as part of that.
  • Got hurt jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.
  • Wrote one of the greatest novels of the English language of the 20th century — while on temporary leave from military service.
  • Was in a plane crash with Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph.
  • Survived the plane crash.
  • Struggled with alcoholism. Though he might not have willingly admitted it was a struggle.
  • Battled great pain from injuries incurred in military service.
  • Battled opioid addiction later in life.
  • Was a general critic of the Modern World, and a rather cranky one at that.
  • Died a Roman Catholic…
  • …hours after attending a specially arranged Post-Vatican II Latin Rite Mass. On Easter Sunday. Really, what a way to go.

Any given handful of such striking life events would provide more than enough fodder for a writer, or any human being, to productively ruminate upon for the duration of his or her life — that Eveyln Waugh lived through/survived all of these various episodes (save the last), makes him highly intriguing, not simply as a writer, but also as a Catholic in the 20th century.

Part of my interest in Waugh himself stems from the fact that we Catholics are too often faced with rather boring, if not carpingly sanctimonious pictures of the luminaries in our literary patrimony from the 20th century (not to mention white-washed accounts of our saints). Granted, when we dig deeper into the lives of our literary heroes, we typically find out more than we realized. Still, with radical ideas of liturgy, marriage, hedonistic pleasure and liberty becoming increasingly in-one’s-face, Waugh’s wild and hedonistic adventures as a young man, his conversion and his struggles as a Catholic, become a kind of hopeful iconography (in the sort of “He-embraced-Catholicism-and-was-not-always-good-at-it-but-stuck-with-it-hey!-wouldn’t-it-be-great-if-I-could too?” category of iconography). From what I can tell, the life of Evelyn Waugh serves as a striking reminder of how relentless the “Hound of Heaven” can be, amidst our own attempts to treat It as a cur. (Ref. Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven” (1859-1907). If you haven’t read it, check it out.)

While such a reminder is all the more fitting, given the confusion of our current Modern milieu, let me be absolutely clear that I would certainly not use it to endorse all of Waugh’s personal actions, even after he became a Catholic — to put it mildly, he was frequently unnecessarily offensive, sarcastic and rude, and was once described as “the nastiest-tempered man in England.”

Still, with such an endearing sentiment in mind, I would encourage you to stop by Bookmans to pick up a copy of Brideshead Revisited (if it is not already on your bookshelf), or to dive into his Sword of Honor trilogy. If Catholics behaving badly (and realizing they are behaving badly, and all the guilt that implies), or military misanthropy combined with round-about spiritual redemption is not your style of literature, then I recommend the bizarre mad-cap humor of Decline and Fall.

I particularly recommend this last book if you are a teacher. On those bleaker days, you can take solace in the fact that you have it better than Paul Pennyfeather.

If you are interested in any biographies on the life of Evelyn Waugh, Selina Hastings’s Evelyn Waugh – A Biography covers the entirety of Waugh’s life and career in one volume. For a more in-depth consideration, Martin Stannard’s account of Waugh’s life stretches two volumes (the first of which is over 500 pages).

In the end, looking at the stories and characters that Waugh conjures upon the printed page, as well as in encountering Waugh’s own story, one will come across an incredible cross-spectrum of humanity, where the “twitches upon the thread” of Divine grace are worked out in soul-wrenching fashion. In encountering his works, one might even end up self-identifying with Waugh’s pithy comment, that “were [he] not a Christian [he] would be even more horrible.”

Will Bertain