New Evelyn Waugh: a handful of Bohemia

April 16, 1995|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to The Sun

"Evelyn Waugh: A Biography," by Selina Hastings. Illustrated. 724 pages. Boston: Houghton Miffin. $40

In old age Evelyn Waugh was the perfect picture of the snobbish English squire. Dressed in tweeds and smoking a fat cigar, he would shuffle through his big house in the country mumbling nasty remarks about the Welfare State, the Classless Society, and the Ugly American. As he admitted to one of his titled friends, he was "sour & crusty."

After his death in 1966, the publication of his letters and diaries revealed the enormous depth of his misanthropy. His bitter jokes were most often directed against Jews, women, blacks, homosexuals, and uppity foreigners, but even his closest friends were not spared the sting of his "wit." When he learned that a benign tumor had been removed from the lung of his old wartime friend Randolph Churchill, he remarked: "It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it." In short bits this sort of wicked humor is tolerable, but it soon loses its appeal as one wades through page after page of it in the two volumes of letters and diaries.

In her new biography, Selina Hastings does not try to hide Waugh's failings; but she does a great service in showing readers that there was a brighter side to the man, particularly in his early years. It is easy to forget that Waugh was young once and full of life. Although his most famous novel, "Brideshead Revisited" (1944), presents a vivid backward glance at the dreaming spires and Bright Young Things of his youth, it is colored by the profound sense of regret that troubled him from middle age until his last day. By carefully reconstructing the world in which Waugh began his career, Selina Hastings gives us a lively portrait of the writer as a brilliant, young Bohemian whose high spirits are in marked contrast to the morose mood of later years.

Drawing on a wealth of new material, this biography makes the young Waugh seem almost like a character invented by Oscar Wilde. He is a playful, gentle figure who likes costume parties and eccentric hobbies. He rides a motorcycle, plays amusing practical jokes on friends and enemies, and cultivates both homosexual and heterosexual affairs.

His courtship of a young aristocratic woman bears a resemblance to certain scenes in Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." There is the sometimes comic confusion of names - Waugh's "Intended" shared his first name, with the result that friends began calling them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. And there is a series of farcical confrontations with the young woman's overbearing mother. Like Wilde's Lady Bracknell, She-Evelyn's mother - Lady Burghclere - insists that Waugh obey the most absurd standards of upper-class life. "The late Lord Burghclere," she informs her prospective son-in-law, "always said that 'a young man might drink champagne but not spirits.'"

Waugh captured the comedy, and the tragedy of this upper-class world in such early novels as "Decline and Fall" (1928) and "A Handful of Dust" (1934), and it is this period that now seems the best of his career. The cruel failure of his marriage to She-Evelyn and the inevitable pressures of a high-powered literary life led to the gradual destruction of his Bohemian persona. The story of his transformation into a grim country gentleman is handled with sensitivity and grace by Selina Hastings, who is herself a child of the aristrocracy - she is the daughter of the Earl of Huntingdon. She knows Waugh's world from the inside, and it is difficult to imagine anyone improving on her richly detailed account of the novelist's decline and fall.

Michael Shelden is the author of "Orwell: The Authorized Biography," "Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon" and "Graham Greene: The Enemy Within," to be published by HarperCollins in June. He is a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph in London, the Washington Post, the New Yorker and the London Times.

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