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Evelyn Waugh


With the possible exception of J G Ballard, England has not produced a truly great writer this century. Five Englishmen (and no Englishwomen) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the twentieth century – Kipling, Galsworthy, Russell, Churchill and Golding. Two were not novelists, two were novelists of frankly limited qualities and not considered worthy (by me) of inclusion in this site while the fifth, produced one pretty good work and a bunch of competent work. Compare that to Ireland who had four winners – two great poets (Yeats and Heaney) and two great playwrights (Shaw and Beckett, who was also a great novelist). Their greatest novelist – James Joyce, who did not get the prize – summed it up perfectly: In spite of everything, Ireland remains the brain of the United Kingdom. The English, judiciously practical and ponderous, furnish the over-stuffed stomach of humanity with a perfect gadget — the water closet. The Irish, condemned to express themselves in a language not their own, have stamped on it the mark of their own genius and compete for glory with the civilised nations. The result is then called English literature. And we haven’t even mentioned those other three great playwrights – Synge, O’Casey and Wilde. England produced any number of highly competent and readable writers in the twentieth century but no really great ones. Indeed its greatest twentieth century writer was really a foreigner – Conrad.

So where does this leave us with Evelyn Waugh? Defenders of English literature like to trot out Waugh as one of the greats. (They also like to trot out the likes of Orwell, Lawrence, Huxley and Forster.) However, that really won’t do. Waugh was certainly a very fine satirist but, as we know, satire is the lowest form of humour. The great satirists – another great Irish writer, Jonathan Swift is an obvious example – seek to make the world a better world. In the words of Swift’s own epitaph, freely translated into English by Yeats, he served human liberty. No-one could accuse Waugh of serving human liberty. What did Waugh aim to do with his satire? To savage, to vex, to attack, to defend his own narrow view of England and to make us laugh, along with him, at his chosen targets. No more and no less. This is highly enjoyable, both for the writer and his readers, but it is not the stuff of great literature.

Evelyn Arthur St John Waugh was born in Hampstead in 1903. His father was a publisher. He went to Oxford University where his main activities were drinking and socialising. He worked – unhappily – as an assistant schoolmaster, which gave him the material for his first book, Decline and Fall, which had considerable success. The same year he married Evelyn Gardner. He divorced her two years later and was then admitted into the Roman Catholic Church. He continued to have considerable success, with his novels, with journalism and with his travel writing. In 1937, he married Laura Herbert, who was a first cousin of his first wife. They moved to Somerset where Waugh became a stern Victorian country squire, feared by his six children.

During the war he served in the Royal Marines and his experiences were the basis for his Sword of Honour trilogy. At the end of the war, his most famous novel – Brideshead Revisited – appeared. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, published in 1957, was written as a result of a nervous breakdown he had and can best be described as a self-caricature. He died in 1966.

Books about Evelyn Waugh

Selina Hastings: Evelyn Waugh: A Biography
Douglas Lane Patey: The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography
Martin Stannard: Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years (1903-1939)
Martin Stannard: Evelyn Waugh: No Abiding City (1939-1966)
Christopher Sykes: Evelyn Waugh

Other links

Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)
Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse
Evelyn Waugh’s Ear Trumpet
Evelyn Waugh ‘had three homosexual affairs at Oxford’
St. Evelyn Waugh
Like Boot of the Beast I was off to war with 600 lb of luggage (William Deedes and Evelyn Waugh in Abyssinia)
Evelyn Waugh: The Height of His Powers (primarily praise for Put Out More Flags)
Evelyn Waugh: The Best and The Worst
The Permanent Adolescent – Christopher Hitchens on Waugh
The Capture of Campion by Evelyn Waugh
The Literary and Political Catholicism of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh
The Evelyn Waugh Society


1928 Decline and Fall (novel)
1928 Rossetti, His Life and Works (biography)
1930 Labels, A Mediterranean Journal (travel)
1930 Vile Bodies (novel)
1931 Remote People (travel)
1932 Black Mischief (novel)
1934 A Handful of Dust (novel)
1934 Ninety-Two Days (travel)
1935 Edmund Campion (biography)
1936 Mr Loveday’s Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (short stories)
1936 Waugh in Abyssinia (travel)
1938 Scoop (novel)
1939 Robbery Under Law (travel)
1942 Put Out More Flags (novel)
1942 Work Suspended (novel)
1945 Brideshead Revisited (novel)
1947 Scott-King’s Modern Europe (short story)
1948 The Loved One (novel)
1950 Helena (novel)
1952 Men at Arms (novel)
1952 The Holy Places (travel)
1953 Love Among The Ruins (short story)
1955 Officers and Gentlemen (novel)
1957 The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (novel)
1959 The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox (biography)
1960 A Tourist in Africa (travel)
1961 Unconditional Surrender (US: The End of the Battle) (novel)
1963 Basil Seal Rides Again (short story)
1964 A Little Learning (autobiography)
1976 The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Michael Davie
1977 A Little Order, edited by Donat Gallagher
1980 The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Mark Amory
1983 The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Donat Gallagher
1991 Mr Wu & Mrs Stitch: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper, edited by Artemis Cooper
1996 The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley
1998 The Complete Short Stories (short stories)
2011 Labels (journal)