The Complex and Curmudgeonly Character of Evelyn Waugh


By Selina Hastings

Houghton Mifflin,

724 pp., $40

TO the generation that came of age in the 1920s, Evelyn Waugh's scintillating satires seemed to epitomize the style of an era. Yet successive generations have also turned and returned to his fiction for the fresh insights it continues to provide into odd corners of the human heart.

''With every major writer there is room for at least three biographies,'' declares Evelyn Waugh's latest biographer, Selina Hastings. Each portrays its subject from a distinct vantage: ''the memoir written by a personal friend'' (Christopher Sykes's 1975 life of Waugh); ''the academic biography'' (Martin Stannard's two-volume work, published in 1987 and 1992); and ''the more general account'' (that is to say, her own.)

Although Hastings's quasi-Hegelian biographical triad may sound a trifle self-justifying, her ''general account'' of Waugh is indeed a comprehensive, immensely readable biography that not only contains some original new research, but also offers a fresh look at a notoriously contradictory personality.

It's not that Hastings presents a Waugh who is radically different from the Waugh of Sykes or Stannard. This is, essentially, the same curmudgeonly character, well known for his relentless snobbery, his belligerent espousal of Roman Catholicism, his inspired wit, and his ability to alienate stranger, friend, and foe alike. Readers will recognize the hard-drinking, deliberately outrageous sophisticate who chronicled and took part in the dissipations of the ''bright young things'' in the 1920s, while seeking refuge from the soulessness of modern times in the orderly structure of the faith he adopted in 1930.

And this is that same consummate craftsman who proved himself equally adept at the brittle and brilliant black comedy of ''Decline and Fall'' and the poignantly elegiac romanticism of ''Brideshead Revisited.''

Hastings perhaps does Stannard's work a slight injustice in categorizing it as ''academic,'' for, like hers, it is a lively, gracefully written portrait, combining sympathy with critical objectivity. More than twice the length of Hastings' book, Stannard's provides more detail of every kind, personal as well as historical.

Hastings has managed to unearth some new material, although she has left out some of the more intriguing stories Stannard tells about Waugh's later years, such as his support for a Jesuit in trouble with the church.

The chief difference between the two books, however, is a question of focus. Stannard views Waugh from a greater distance, placing him in the context of his historical era. Hastings' portrait is more of a close-up.

Describing Waugh's attraction to Kenya's white-settler society for example, Stannard paints in the full background: ''1931 saw a National Government formed under Ramsay MacDonald in a desperate attempt to control an unstable political situation. The Statute of Westminister gave independence to the Dominions. At home, it was a period of financial depression. Revolution was in the air as the workers and unemployed took to the streets. In Kenya, at least, a well-regulated society existed offering the possibility of individual action. He despised the agitators for rocking the boat.''

Hastings, who refers to Waugh as ''Evelyn'' throughout her book, does not step back quite so far: ''In its every aspect, Kenya enchanted Evelyn. He saw in this beautiful country with its young, hedonistic, and glamorous society a last, precious vestige of a golden age, an age long vanished in Europe.''

There was nothing very subtle about Waugh's snobbery. He was not an intellectual snob, but rather (in the phrase from a short story by one of his favorite authors, Somerset Maugham), an ''unadulterated common snob who dearly loved a lord.''

Born in 1903 to happily married, middle-class parents, he was also a bit of a bully, even as a small boy, when he terrorized his schoolmate Cecil Beaton (who recalled this even after he grew up to be a famous photographer).

Waugh was also capable of love and tenderness. As a child, he adored his mother. At Oxford, where he played the frivolous aesthete, ignoring his studies and indulging in parties and drinking, he formed two relationships of exceptional ''passionate intensity'' with fellow students, the first with Richard Pares, the second with Alastair Graham, who would be the model for Sebastian Flyte in ''Brideshead Revisited.''

After leaving Oxford, Waugh's attention turned to women. Many who delighted in his company did not want to take him seriously when it came to romance.

Over the objections of her family, he married the charming Evelyn Gardner (who became ''She-Evelyn'' to his ''He-Evelyn''). ''Far from unintelligent,'' Hastings remarks, ''she read Proust, but undermined this sign of intellectual discernment by referring to him always as 'Prousty-wousty.'''

Hastings wittily and discerningly portrays the colorful cast of people in Waugh's life, evoking their distinctive personalities with a light, sure touch, from friends like Harold Action and Nancy Mitford (the subject of Hastings' previous biography) to his long-suffering, yet oddly nonchalant second wife, Laura, who was content to live in the country looking after their six children while her husband took jaunts to London.

Hastings also sheds new light on Waugh's romance (between his marriages) with Joyce Fagan Gill, one of the very few women to fall madly in love with him.

Despite the serenity of his marriage and the consolations of his religion, Waugh's last years were gloomy. The postwar era of the common man repelled him; the marriage of his favorite child, Margaret, deprived him of her companionship; and Vatican II's modernization of the church liturgy hit him hard, though none of these was probably half as devastating as the one factor he refused to recognize: his decades-long abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Hastings' intelligent and moving portrait of his life captures both the mischief and the melancholy of a man who was quite as fascinating as the remarkable books he left us.

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