Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited by Philip Eade review – an anthology of gossip

Rather than shed fresh light on the writer’s life, this biography ignores the literature in favour of titillating whispers

In the life of a great, perhaps the greatest, 20th-century English novelist such as Evelyn Waugh, his books and his biography are so tightly braided together that, to the outside observer, it’s almost impossible to distinguish where fact ends and fiction begins.

Waugh’s genius, from Decline and Fall to A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited, but not forgetting his Sword of Honour trilogy, the finest fiction from the second world war, was to make the painful absurdity of existence both fantastic and real at the same time. Somewhere in the satirical space presided over by the moralist’s imagination was where his art began.

So when, on the second page of his new biography, the first since Selina Hastings’s Evelyn Waugh of 1994, Philip Eade warns the reader that “this is not a ‘critical’ biography… it does not seek to reassess [his] achievement as a writer, but to paint a fresh portrait of the man”, he triggers a cacophony of troubling questions. What does this mean? How “fresh”? Is there an agenda?

The answer is that Eade, a doughty researcher, robustly claims to re-illuminate “many of the key phases and themes of Waugh’s life”. He also wants to redeem his subject from some of the venom he once inspired. Hilaire Belloc, for instance, believed Waugh to be possessed by the devil. Eade’s Waugh bids to be more regular, even conventional. And yet, without more than a passing look at the work that sprang from the life, and its interaction with the biographical narrative, Waugh Revisited falls some way short of the advertised “fresh portrait” of the artist that his friend Graham Greene described as “the greatest novelist of my generation”.

Despite fresh splashes of colour here and there, this is essentially an anthology of old Waugh stories punctuated by some contentious passages of reinterpretation. Take away Waugh’s fiction and the revisionist biographer is left with yellowing bundles of newspaper gossip. Armed with these ephemeral scraps, he invests a familiar narrative with a prurient, sometimes mildly lascivious, interest.

Eade subordinates Waugh’s childhood and education to the boy’s sense of inferiority at home and at school, where he was known as “Wuffles”. The rivalry between Evelyn and his elder brother, Alec, who addressed him as “It”, was intensified by Arthur Waugh, the boys’ father, who made no secret of his adoration for his first-born. The hothouse, homoerotic atmosphere of home morphed into the homosexual hedonism of Oxford of the 20s, in particular Waugh’s “love affair” with his contemporary, Alastair Graham. For Eade, this is quite normal. “Everyone was queer at Oxford in those days!” shrieks John Betjeman on page 69.

Queer or drunk. It was at Hertford College that Waugh acquired his lifelong appetite for champagne and spirits. By late afternoon, reports his biographer, “Evelyn would often be quite sozzled, purple in the face with blotches on the back of his hands”. If this is a fresh portrait, it is also strangely familiar. So, too, is Harold Acton’s depiction of the undergraduate Waugh as “a prancing faun”, a young man whose favourite reading included Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and who longed, like Charles Ryder, to find “that door in the wall which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden”.

Rupert Graves and Judi Dench in the 1988 film adaptation of A Handful of Dust
Rupert Graves and Judi Dench in the 1988 film adaptation of A Handful of Dust, ‘one of Waugh’s greatest novels’. Photograph: www.ronaldgrantarchive.com

Literature, fuelled by Waugh’s competition with Arthur and Alec, soon opened that door. Decline and Fall became one of the most sensational literary debuts of the 20th century. It sent its 25-year-old author into an orbit that would propel him towards Vile Bodies, Scoop, Brideshead Revisited and The Loved One.

Waugh’s non-literary trajectory would immerse a deeply insecure, incorrigibly funny writer deep in the heart of the pre-war establishment. Eade’s narrative takes wing here, though not in the comprehensive way one might want. Untethered to Waugh’s published work, and with just a nod towards the all-important diaries, Waugh’s fascination with the aristocracy reaches the page as a sickly cocktail of high society and sub-literary gossip.

Without a literary dimension, Waugh the writer becomes Waugh the posturing bisexual. Eade makes much of his subject’s “love affair with Alastair Graham”, especially after the failure of his marriage to “She-Evelyn”, Evelyn Gardner. The suspicion that Waugh and Graham “were lovers”, he writes, “was scarcely allayed by Evelyn’s tendency to camp it up with a high-pitched voice... whenever they were together”, and he combines this unedifying picture with some bizarre speculation about how “well-endowed” Waugh might have been.

After this unsettled mid-season, reflected in A Handful of Dust, one of his greatest novels, Waugh’s life came to fruition through his happy marriage to Laura Herbert and his emergence, in the words of the author Henry Green, as the “outstanding writer of our generation”. This verdict was delivered before the publication of Brideshead Revisited, the novel that made Waugh also famous in America, and acclaimed by Edmund Wilson as “a first-class comic genius”.

Thereafter, it’s the familiar tale of encroaching blimpishness. Reporting the writer’s soldiering career, Eade takes issue with those who have claimed that Major Waugh bullied his men and that his conduct during the fall of Crete was disreputable. The truth is that the war was just an opportunity for Waugh to explore another identity, before getting back to business. There’s a telling moment when he confides in his diary: “I dislike the army. I simply want to do my work as an artist”, a vital admission that rather undermines the raison d’être of a biography based on life not literature.

The upshot was Brideshead Revisited, a novel written at extraordinary speed between Candlemas (2 February) and D-day, 6 June 1944. Again, Eade’s biography catches fire briefly, before becoming extinguished in Waugh’s postwar nervous breakdown and the sad retreat towards oblivion. Among so much of the good material uncovered in these pages, there’s one clear message, unintended by Philip Eade. The time is now ripe for a new and comprehensive literary critical life of one of Britain’s great writers.

Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited is published by Weidenfeld (£30). Click here to buy it for £24.60


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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