Two More Reviews of Waugh Biography: a plus and a minus

Philip Eade’s biography of Evelyn Waugh is reviewed in the Irish Independent newspaper and the Catholic World Report. The Independent’s reviewer is Ellis O’Hanlon who begins by noting the abundance of biographical and autobiographical material already available:

This latest addition has been published to mark the 50th anniversary of the novelist’s death and draws extensively on material in the Waugh family’s own archive. What emerges is a captivating portrait of a man who went out of his way to appear much more cantankerous, cold and intolerant than he really was, ever since leaving Oxford… 

After summarizing Waugh’s life story as reflected in this book and elsewhere (usually with an emphasis on the cantankerous side), O’Hanlon concludes:

Philip Eade deftly rallies round his subject on this score, concluding that his most outrageous statements were simply “self parody and mischievous provocation, or stemmed from a compulsion to say the unsayable”; but for Waugh it was a losing battle…There have been many biographies of Evelyn Waugh, and A Life Revisited is up there with the best of them. It’s exhaustively indexed and annotated, featuring 37 pages of notes and a bibliography running to nearly 200 titles, but at heart it’s a gloriously entertaining indulgence. There isn’t a single dull page in the whole book, and it could easily be twice as long without overstaying its welcome. After all, who could resist any book whose photographs bear titles such as “Evelyn with Penelope Betjeman and her horse in the drawing room at Faringdon House”?

The reviewer (Fiorella Nash) in the Catholic World Report, an online newspaper with an “orthodox Catholic” point of view, is less kind. She begins by confessing to having been influenced by Waugh in her own writing and notes, as have most other reviewers, the difficulty in writing anything new or original about him or his writngs:

We are told at the start that the author “aims to paint a fresh portrait of the man” but what we are treated to instead is the Evelyn Waugh with which much of the reading public is already familiar—a ‘bad lad’ with a sex-and-alcohol-fuelled youth, an English eccentric, hilariously if cruelly satirical, a bit of a social climber. What the biographer fails to provide in originality, he attempts to make up for by indulging his apparent obsession with the Waugh family’s seedy sex lives.

She is particularly offended by Eade’s long digression on Arthur Waugh’s diary entries and letters relating to his son Alec’s masturbation.

There are references to the inspiration behind certain characters and settings, with Captain Grimes and the setting of Brideshead getting a mention, but the strongest sense throughout the biography is that the author is too distracted by a squalid subplot to deal with the rich central narrative—that of Waugh the writer and the vanished world he immortalised in his ever-popular books…My abiding impression, reading Eade’s work is that, in the end, the only true way to get to know this colourful, flawed genius is to read and reread his novels. No biography will be as revealing, as outrageous or as entertaining as the words of the great man himself.

But it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a biography to leave you with the feeling that you need to read its subject’s books.

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