If you want to be disillusioned, meet your idols. If the idol concerned is long dead, read the biography. Better still, read an unsatisfactory biography. For British Catholics, Evelyn Waugh along with Graham Greene occupies a permanent place in the literary firmament. These two names are cited (usually as a pair) as examples of a golden age of Catholic cultural flourishing, when works such as Brideshead Revisited and The Power and the Glory dominated London’s bestseller lists. The influence of Waugh and Greene upon subsequent generations of Catholic writer is still very much in evidence, and since Waugh has been such an influence on my own writing, I was delighted to read that a new biography of the great man was coming out in time for the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
In fairness to Philip Eade, writing a biography of Waugh with anything remotely unique to say was always going to be a challenge, as there have already been a number of authoritative biographies of Waugh published as well as his own private papers. We are told at the start that the author “aims to paint a fresh portrait of the man” but what we are treated to instead is the Evelyn Waugh with which much of the reading public is already familiar—a ‘bad lad’ with a sex-and-alcohol-fuelled youth, an English eccentric, hilariously if cruelly satirical, a bit of a social climber.
What the biographer fails to provide in originality, he attempts to make up for by indulging his apparent obsession with the Waugh family’s seedy sex lives. As I waded through a lengthy excerpt from a letter by Waugh’s father on the subject of his elder son Alec’s masturbation problems, I found myself longing to be immersed in some meaningful exploration of Waugh’s literary legacy, the inspiration behind the plots of his novels and their more colourful characters, the Waugh family’s connections with the finest British writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, anything, anything at all rather than be bored witless by an Edwardian father’s sex advice to a famous author’s brother.
There are references to the inspiration behind certain characters and settings, with Captain Grimes and the setting of Brideshead getting a mention, but the strongest sense throughout the biography is that the author is too distracted by a squalid subplot to deal with the rich central narrative—that of Waugh the writer and the vanished world he immortalised in his ever-popular books.
There are some very readable parts to the biography. I actually burst out laughing in a public place reading about Waugh’s disastrous trip to the States to discuss a possible film of Brideshead Revisited, during which he appears to have offended pretty much every resident of Pasadena. His hare-brained travels to the back of beyond make for some of the most enjoyable passages in the entire biography, with Waugh’s glorious satire permitted to take over: “I don’t like Norwegians at all,” he wrote to a friend. “The sun never sets, the bar never opens, and the whole country smells of kippers.”
My abiding impression, reading Eade’s work is that, in the end, the only true way to get to know this colourful, flawed genius is to read and reread his novels. No biography will be as revealing, as outrageous or as entertaining as the words of the great man himself.
Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited
by Philip Eade
UK: W&N, July 2016
North America: Henry Holt and Co., October, 2016
Hardcover, 432 pages
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!