Vile body

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, By Selina Hastings, Sinclair Stevenson #163;20. 0 85619 223 7.

Frances Spalding praises a biography that does justice to Evelyn Waugh. It is hard to understand how a writer, mentally so agile, meticulous, witty, skilful and so acutely attuned to the rhythm and fall of a sentence,allowed himself to become such a rigid, irascible old buffer, the victim of drink, boredom and bad temper.

"I can only be funny when I am complaining about something," Evelyn Waugh admitted. Selina Hastings makes more vivid than ever before the belligerence that animated Waugh but she balances this by allowing us to see more clearly how deep were the wells of anger on which it drew.

Waugh, a wonderfully funny, horribly difficult, talented and complex man,has in recent years been the subject of exfoliating memorabilia. We now have editions of his letters and diaries as well as two biographies: one by the family friend Christopher Sykes, the other, a more detailed and objective two-volume life by Martin Stannard. Selina Hastings, arguing that there is room for a general account, triumphantly provides it.

Dense but not laboured, respectful yet often very amusing about her subject, she dips and delves into the many friendships, tasks and places that create the colourful tapestry of Waugh's life. Surprisingly, this pronounced individual was looked on in childhood as "no more than an encumbrance in a corner" by his elder brother. Their father made no secret as to which son he preferred and Evelyn never forgave him. Once when Arthur Waugh complained aloud that Evelyn was nice to his friends but rude to his father, his younger son instantly retaliated with the remark that while he could choose his friends he could not choose his father. It appears he had inherited the ruthlessness of his grandfather who was known as "the Brute". Seeing a wasp settle on his wife's forehead while they were travelling in a carriage, he crushed it with his stick, causing it to sting her.

At Oxford, where he read history, Evelyn attended life-drawing classes at the Ruskin School of Art. Though he had already begun to store in his diary thoughts and observations that would serve him as a novelist, he still mistakenly believed that his primary artistic outlet would be drawing. But already he was meeting those people (here identified by Selina Hastings) who began, as V S Pritchett once put it, "to barge about in the corridors of Mr Waugh's fancy". Once when a rowdy bunch of hearties passed his window one leaned inside and was sick, an episode that provided Waugh with Charles Ryder's first encounter with Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh himself learnt at Oxford the aesthetic advantages of drinking; it became his chief occupation. He left Oxford with a third, debts that took four years to clear, and the prospect of "heart-breaking dreariness . . . a completely hopeless future".

There had already begun in him a conflict, nicely identified by Lady Hastings as that between "the asceticism and detachment demanded by the religious life and the sensual self-indulgence of the worldly". The problem, of course, was that he was both religious and wordly to a high degree. He became a Roman Catholic convert in 1930, after the failure of his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner - She-Evelyn, as she was called. It wounded him badly and left him prone to feelings of worthlessness. "I did not know it was possible", he wrote, "to be so miserable and live but I am told that this is a common experience. "

There followed seven nomadic years. He undertook commissions as a journalist in Abyssinia and Africa, drew closer to his friends, among them the Mitford sisters and the society beauty, Diana Cooper, and, after his first marriage was annulled by the Vatican, married into the aristocracy. This development, combined with a wedding present large enough to buy him a small Georgian pile and the literary success that had followed Decline and Fall, brought him great pleasure. "Mr Toad on top", he announced when satisfied with his fortunes, The Wind in the Willows being one of his favourite books.

As the panorama of his life unfolds, we see how readily he transferred his experience into fiction. His Oxford friends, travels and journalistic adventures, wartime experiences, even a chance visit to the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Bel Air, California, all fed his novelistic imagination. The impression remains that his energies flowed less readily into his family life. His wife, Laura Herbert, refused to engage with his smart London life and appears to have cared more for her cows than his books. His children, when present, wearied him; he found their jokes flat and monotonous and hated their physical ineptitude.

According to his son Auberon, Waugh not only reserved the right to withhold affection as a parent but advertised "an acute and unqualified dislike". He did, however, write affectionate and entertaining letters, finding it easier to put himself imaginatively in the presence of a child or adult. It was a technique, he said, that was also the secret of prayer.

His prejudices and beliefs fascinate and provoke. Selina Hastings seems to have acquired from her former subject, Nancy Mitford, an ability to catch a psychological truth with unerring lightness. This book also has a breadth and richness of detail that makes it a fascinating education into many corners of English life and society. It is huge, yet not a page too long. It expands the mind even while it describes the demonic hostility that narrowed Waugh's sympathies. It is an achievement that owes much to the felicitous pairing of its author and her subject.

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