Literary Video: Evelyn Waugh Interview

A cheerful Waugh.

A cheerful Waugh.

I don't remember who said it, but whoever it was offered this: "The only original thing that remains to be said about Evelyn Waugh is that he was a terrible writer and a wonderful human being."  One of the foremost English prose stylists of the twentieth century, he was also an acerbic snob and ultramontane reactionary.  All traits are on display in this 1960 BBC-TV interview.

I first discovered Waugh in 1974, when he was eight years dead and his literary reputation not what it had been.  Unfortunately I did so through a used-bookstore edition of Brideshead Revisited.  Unfortunately because as a seventeen year old in Western PA I didn't understand it, but under its influence briefly aped 1920's Oxonian aristocrats on my arrival at Yale.  Forty years later I'm soaked with shame sweat at the thought of port on the mantlepiece.  But luckily that was soon beaten out of me and I went on to discover his earlier work.

Waugh was born into a literary London family in 1903.  His older brother, Alec, got the heave-ho from the exclusive Sherborne School when he got caught with another boy--really?  at an English public school?--thus condemning Evelyn to the less prestigious Lancing.  He went on to an undistinguished academic career--once more, my role model--at Oxford, and after a brief stab at a career as an artist, settled into an apparent dead-end  as a master at an obscure school.  It almost proved to be a literal dead-end; he attempted suicide by drowning, but returned to shore after being stung by jellyfish.

He abandoned teaching and tried to support himself through journalism.  Shortly after the acceptance of his first novel, Decline and Fall, he married his first wife. also Evelyn.  My first wife was also Terry.  Creepy!

The first marriage swiftly crumbled; the literary career did not.   Though his personal life was so unsettled that he had no permanent home for eight years, instead staying with a succession of friends, his second novel, Vile Bodies, was a critical and popular success.  (It also became the basis for a deeply disappointing movie, Bright Young Things2003.)  He also achieved prominence as a journalist, attending the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie in then-Abyssinia as the representative of several newspapers.  This trip led not only to reams of travelogue but the comic novel Black Mischief.

In 1930 Waugh--then 27--converted to Catholicism.  It became a defining moment in his life. He once said: "You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being." Obtaining an annulment of his first marriage, he next married the daughter of an Anglo-Catholic aristocratic family and buckled down to repopulating England--his last child was named Septimus for the very good reason that he was the seventh.  He also buckled down to writing, producing in four years Scoop and A Handful of Dust.

When war broke out Waugh joined up.  He was personally fearless but so constitutionally insubordinate that he was repeatedly transferred and finally granted a six-month leave, in the middle of a desperate war, to write what became his best-known work, Brideshead Revisited. Waugh's conversion novel, it comprises a disillusioned middle-aged British Army officer's recollections of his relationships with an aristocratic Catholic family when he finds himself billeted at their palatial seat early in the war.  I say "relationships" deliberately, because he becomes romantically involved with two siblings--first, consummated or not, with the younger son while both are at Oxford in the twenties; later, with war approaching and the first love throughly lost to alcoholism, with his sister.  Though the story is scarcely without humor, it's nevertheless driven by Waugh's profoundly conservative spirituality.  Surprisingly, its adaptation as a TV series in 1981 is the only example I can think of where the knockoff was equal to the original--possibly because it was written by John Mortimer, who had fourteen hours of screen time to play with.

After the War Waugh's output declined in quality and quantity.  Though a trilogy based on his military experience was well-received and sold well, a novel based on the late-Roman Empress-Saint Helena's search for the True Cross did not do nearly as well.  

His output wasn't the only thing going downhill.  Always a heavy drinker, even by Oxbridge standards, Waugh added crude 1950's tranquilizers to the cocktail.  Shortly he became convinced that people were whispering about him.  He kept hearing the whispers when the people were gone.  Soon he believed he was possessed by devils.  Ultimately he was diagnosed with bromide poisoning, and a change in medications stopped the hallucinations.  This experience became the basis of Waugh's last significant work, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

In his later years Waugh became a caricature of himself.  A dandy as a young man, he turned into the fat tweedy squire who appears in the interview.  As his hearing failed he affected a Victorian ear-trumpet.  He would no doubt have been comforted to know that he would die just after Mass on Easter Sunday; not so much, perhaps, by the fact that his death in the bathroom would form the basis of a persistent rumor that he had drowned in the toilet.