Reviewed by Liz Dexter
When approaching a biography of Evelyn Waugh, one can’t help but assume it’s going to be a portrait of quite a nasty man who was mean to his friends and savaged friends and enemies alike in his novels. There have of course been quite a few biographical works on Waugh over the years, with his own autobiography being a major source, and there was Selina Hastings’ major work in 1994. But this is indeed a ‘Life Revisited’, as Philip Eade had access to quite a few sources that no one else has seen. He also seems to have a mission to save Waugh from this reputation of nastiness, and does indeed go some way towards doing this.
So, what are these new sources? He handily describes them in the Preface. First off, Alexander Waugh, Evelyn’s grandson, suggested the book as it came to the 50-year anniversary of Waugh’s death, and gave Eade full access to the study archive that he has built up as part of his own researches. This includes, critically, unpublished letters to Baby Jungman, Waugh’s great unrequited love, ‘long regarded as the holy grail of Waugh biography’ (p. xxiii) and a short and unpublished memoir by ‘Shevelyn’, Waugh’s first wife, and other sources about her and other since-deceased members of Waugh’s circles collected by Michael Davie for his edition of Waugh’s diaries. Eade also acknowledges a debt to Selina Hastings herself, as he was able to access her research materials and she gave him some stories that she hadn’t included in her own book.
A lot of time is given to Waugh’s early years, perhaps because Eade found so many new materials to work on. A good deal is made of his father’s rather obvious and hurtful favouritism towards the older Alec, and it seems natural for Evelyn to make his way towards other figures to worship, such as the hermit-like writer Crease and J.F. (Roxburgh), a famous master at his school. His early relationships with other boys are also treated in detail, with a poignant moment described when late in life he says he always preferred women but got a pang when seeing a pretty young man. Eade is convinced of the higher importance of some of these affairs than has been previously given to them, and perhaps it’s easier to go into more detail with the passing of time.
There was quite a bit I found unfamiliar and fascinating: for example, Waugh did some Arctic travelling including dangerous sledging of the kind more often found in the exploration books of which I’m very fond. His relationships with other authors are also brought out very well, and are very interesting.
Eade goes to some pains to bolster Waugh’s Second World War reputation, as he has been considered not a good soldier, certainly not a great leader of men, and to have been mixed up in a scandal during the Allied evacuation of Crete in 1941. Using records from other participants as well as old interviews with Waugh’s men, he does manage to rebuild a picture of a good and brave soldier who was good to, and in turn admired by, the men under his command. There is quite a lot of detail about the events in Crete which might perhaps have done better in an appendix as it does slow things down a bit.
I’m not sure that Eade entirely manages to redeem Waugh from the general perception of nastiness. He does provide plenty of examples of his support of other writers, for instance, and a kinder side in his letters with Baby (but his letters to his wife often seem to castigate her for not writing interesting letters back!). This effort does lead Eade to second-guess Waugh on occasion, for example suggesting that his unromantic proposal to Shevelyn was down to nerves. But then we have a three generation hatred of Waugh’s Oxford tutor, Cruttwell, whose memory is insulted at a feast by Waugh’s grandson! He was also demonstrably and documentedly foul to his children, and when he turned against people, as he did Diana Guinness (née Mitford) he could be savage in the extreme, all of which is covered here. He also claims Waugh was not snobbish, racist or anti-Semitic, calling for remarks suggesting these characteristics to be taken as being of their time.
There is a large cast of characters in this book, and Eade does well to keep them all under control and clear in his and the reader’s head, reminding us periodically of their main claim to fame. There are certainly a too few many Dianas, especially with multiple marriages going on. Eade is an intelligent and critical writer, too, drawing out differences of opinion between introductions to Waugh’s books and undoing a criticism of A Handful of Dust made by William Boyd by careful reference to the Letters.
The book is extremely well referenced, with comprehensive notes plus starred footnotes for anything requiring immediate explanation, a good solid bibliography and a good index. There are two sets of photographic plates covering all of the main people in the story, and in the right place in the book, too, which doesn’t always happen. Although it’s made clear that this is not a literary biography, Eade weaves the writing of the books and the influences on their characters, as well as their reception by friends and critics, into the narrative.
This is an approachable but intelligent and well-referenced book which stands well as a monument to Waugh and is even-handed without venturing into hero-worship or name-calling. It sets the novels and non-fiction works well in their context and would serve as a good introduction to Waugh’s life, times and works.
Liz Dexter has recently started doing more work for ghost writers and is becoming fascinated at how ‘autobiographies’ get themselves written. She blogs about books at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com and runs her first marathon in August.
Philip Eade, Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016). 978-0297869207. 403 pp., ill. hardback.
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