Book review: A contrary genius, Philip Eade’s study of Evelyn Waugh

Philip Eade may have an eye for juicy quotations but his fresh look at the controversial author's life is let down by ignoring his work.
Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), pictured in a 1955 edition of the Picture Post, was an acute social observer who chronicled the lives of the 'bright young things' and experiences of war. Kurt Hutton / Getty Images.
Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), pictured in a 1955 edition of the Picture Post, was an acute social observer who chronicled the lives of the 'bright young things' and experiences of war. Kurt Hutton / Getty Images.

One of Evelyn Waugh’s sharpest observers, this new biography insists, was the socialite Lady Diana Cooper. “Poor Wu,” she can be found observing in a letter to Conrad Russell, “he does everything he can to alienate himself from the affection he is yearning for.”

Elsewhere she makes an astute and somewhat wounding comparison between the author of Brideshead Revisited (1945) and his fellow Catholic convert Graham Greene. The latter, Lady Diana maintains, is “a good man possessed of a devil”. Waugh, on the other hand, is “a bad man for whom an angel is struggling”.

Published to mark the half-century of its subject’s death, Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited is an odd book altogether. The standard view of Waugh is that he was a novelist of genius, but also a kind of comic monster, who used his (Catholic) religion not as a means of aligning himself with his fellow man (and woman) but to buttress a highly conservative and well-nigh misanthropic view of the landscape in which he had the misfortune to find himself. An arriviste, too, bent on elbowing his way into high society, of whom his close friend, the novelist Anthony Powell, remarked that he “made no bones about advancing himself socially” come the lucrative late-1920s onset of his career.

To Powell, Waugh was a classic example of upward social mobility, with all the terrible sense of doubt and dissimulation that this progress traditionally implies, a man who until he felt he had succeeded “assumed for daily use what he imagined to be the persona of a Duke”.

To Philip Eade, alternatively, he is a (mainly) good egg, prone to occasional frets and fractures, but an uxorious husband, an intrepid traveller, and – when the occasion demanded it – a possessor of the common touch.

The detonations of bad behaviour that strew his path can be glossed as mischief-making, while his real enemy was boredom – the source of those much-quoted late period diary entries in which our man sits in the library, has some gin, attempts The Times crossword, has some gin, picks at his lunch and then has some more gin.

This latest attempt at unpicking some of the thorny realities of life on Planet Waugh suffers from two handicaps. The first is that it was commissioned by the subject’s family, meaning that politeness and some rather gratuitous compliments to surviving members of the clan are the order of the day.

The second is that so many previous biographers have staked out the territory: Christopher Sykes’s early foray, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography from 1975; Martin Stannard’s two compendious volumes (1986 and 1992); Selina Hastings’s doorstopper from 1994. And this is to ignore a well-nigh unquenchable tide of letters to friends and considerations of, as it may be, Waugh at war, or the “Brideshead Generation” of writers who cut such a swathe through the English literary 20th century.

Such new gleanings from this well-tilled field as Eade has come up with are, naturally, very well advertised. The “holy grail of Waugh biography” has, he tells us, been made available to him in the shape of his subject’s letters to Teresa “Baby” Jungman, for whom he nurtured a hopeless passion after the collapse of his first marriage in 1929.

The marriage itself is re-examined by way of a previously unseen memorandum written by the absconding wife, and there are some new witnesses to the wartime career as a marine and ambassador to the Yugoslav Partisans; largely used to dispel the legend that Waugh was unpopular in the mess, hated by the ordinary soldiers he commanded and allowed the periods of leave that enabled him to write Put Out More Flags (1942) and Brideshead so that a notorious military liability could be got safely out of the way while the real business of the war proceeded without him.

Eade uses this material well, and is perfectly entitled to crow over it – what biographer wouldn’t? At the same time, he can do little to shift the well-established outline of Waugh’s career, in which a middle-class publisher’s son from Hampstead adroitly capitalises on the early success of Decline and Fall (1928), loses a wife but finds God and ultimately reinvents himself as a philoprogenitive West Country gentleman, settling for cantankerous old age even before his fifties were upon him and lapsing into a world-weary inertia that led his second wife to observe to a friend – this remark goes unquoted by Eade – “Look at that old bore. And he used to be so witty.”

The stones may have been tinkered with, but the pattern of the mosaic remains the same.

What about the work? Curiously, Eade doesn’t have much to say about this. His aim, he tells us, is “not to reassess Evelyn Waugh’s achievements as a writer”, but to paint a “fresh portrait of the man”.

This is a pity, as many of the novels offer a way into the personality, and even an early book such as Vile Bodies (1930) can be ransacked for evidence of the writer’s creeping conservatism.

On the credit side, Eade writes neatly and has an eye for a quotation. While always determined to do his best by his subject, Eade is fully alert to the awfulness of a man who, while staying in Hollywood, could publicly refer to his host’s black servant as “your native bearer”, but this long-term Waugh-fancier wasn’t convinced.

DJ Taylor is a novelist and critic whose journalism also appears in The Independent on Sunday and The Guardian.

Published: July 6, 2016 04:00 AM

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