October 28th – Evelyn Waugh

Most writers in the course of their careers become thick-skinned and learn to accept vituperation, which in any other profession would be unimaginably offensive, as a healthy counterpoise to unintelligent praise.

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh was an English writer of novels, biographies, and travel books; he was also a prolific journalist and book reviewer. He is regarded by many to be the most brilliant satirical novelist of his day. 

Born Arthur Evelyn St John Waugh on October 28th, 1903, in London, England, he grew up as the privileged son of a publisher, attending Hertford College, Oxford, and enjoying the acquaintance of aristocracy. His older brother Alec was also a novelist of note. 

In 1924 Waugh began the manuscript for his first novel, The Temple at Thatch. After his friend Harold Acton commented negatively on the manuscript, Waugh burned it. Depressed by events, the same year, he attempted suicide by walking into the ocean to drown himself – only to be thwarted by the sting of a jellyfish.

He returned to writing, publishing a short story, “The Balance,” and receiving a commission to write Rossetti: His Life and Works, which was published in 1928 to favorable reviews. Waugh’s first published novel, the comedic Decline and Fall was also published in 1928. 

On June 27th, 1928, he married Evelyn Gardner, the daughter of Lord and Lady Burghclere. The couple was known as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. She-Evelyn was twenty-four when they got married and had been engaged nine times before. Waugh was offered a free cruise in exchange for writing, and the couple took it as a honeymoon. On the cruise, his wife became sick, and the couple disembarked. She then admitted she was having an affair with his friend – thus ending their short-lived marriage. 

In 1930 Waugh converted to Catholicism. Because of his conversion, Waugh sought an annulment of his marriage so he could get remarried. In the interim, he fell in love with Laura Herbert, the daughter of the late explorer Audrey Herbert and a cousin of his wife, Evelyn Gardner. Waugh’s annulment came through in 1936, and on April 17th, 1937, he married Laura. He was 33, and she was just 20. They had seven children together and were married until his death. 

When the Second World War came, Waugh enthusiastically signed up for service, although at just 36 years old, he wasn’t exactly a picture of health or a snappy soldier in a uniform. He was pudgy and had poor eyesight, yet his connections got him a post. He showed a fair amount of courage, just as he did in his bold writing, but he knew nothing about leading soldiers. He wrote as he served, and his most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited, was published in May 1945. The book contained decidedly Catholic themes influenced by his spirituality. In September 1945, Waugh was released from the army and returned to his family. 

His book The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, first published in 1957, is highly autobiographical, based on Waugh’s experiences in the early 1950s when he was taking alcohol, bromide, as a treatment for anxiety and insomnia and chloral, causing hallucinations. 

Other notable Waugh books include Vile Bodies (1930), A Handful of Dust (1934), and his Second World War trilogy Sword of Honour (1952-1961). Waugh published a total of 28 books during his lifetime. 

He died April 10th, 1966, at the age of 62, of a heart attack after attending Easter Mass.  

Lesson from Waugh:

Waugh was especially moved and inspired by his conversion and spirituality. Find something you believe in: pursue it, explore it, and share

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