Biography Reviewed in Herald

The new biography of Evelyn Waugh by Philip Eade is reviewed in the (Glasgow) Herald (now rebranded simply, and rather pompously, as “The Herald” but still published in Glasgow) by Richard Strachan. He points out that a disproportionate part of the book (nearly 2/3) is taken up by Waugh’s childhood and education, the period before he had even written a book:

None of this is new information as such, and Waugh was perfectly open about his Oxford dalliances in later years, but Eade spends an inordinate amount of time trying to pin down precisely if he slept with Hugh Lygon, for example, one of the models for Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte, and later goes into great detail about who Waugh had lunch with on the French Riviera. In contrast, his trip to Abyssinia to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie for the Daily Mail, which produced two books (Black Mischief and the travelogue Remote People) is accounted for in only half a page.

Strachan then notes that this concentration on the early years leaves little room for any analysis of Waugh’s writing and how it was affected by his life, a criticism raised by several previous reviewers. It is also noted that Eade specifically eschews any intention of concentrating on Waugh’s works. Strachan goes on to find that:

Where Eade excels is in fleshing out Waugh’s military career, using newly-uncovered archive material to cast light on one of the more controversial events of the war, and in the process exonerating both Waugh and his commanding officer Bob Laycock from precipitately leaving Crete before the British evacuation. 

The review concludes with a comparison to a previous literary biographical conundrum:

Much like Gordon Bowker’s recent biography of James Joyce, which labours in the shadow of Richard Ellmann’s monumental work, Eade’s life of Waugh acts as a complement to rather than a replacement of Selina Hastings’s more substantial 1994 biography. It’s a decent, full account of the particulars of Waugh’s life, but by the end of the book he still remains an impenetrable figure, mercurial and enigmatic, and animated by a strange despair.

In this case, however, it is also the definitive two-volume biography by Martin Stannard as well as Hastings’s later but also impressive and readable, if somewhat derivative, work that stand in the place of Ellmann’s path-breaking biography of Joyce.

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