Waugh Biography Reviewed in the US Press

Reviews have appeared in two US newspapers of the new biography of Evelyn Waugh by Philip Eade, published earlier this month in the US. In the Wall Street Journal, the book is reviewed by British novelist and journalist Allan Massie. (If you cannot open the article on your computer, try it on your smart phone where the pay wall does not seem to be so formidable.) After a thorough summary of the story of Waugh’s life as retold by Eade, Massie concludes

Any biography of Waugh is entertaining because he was such a witty man, and Mr Eade does not fail to entertain. He is not only fair to Waugh, moreover; he evidently likes him. It’s good to read an admiring rather than a debunking biography. Yet ultimately it is Waugh the novelist who matters, and Mr Eade, eschewing ctiticism, pays little attention to his work.

Massie then attempts to set matters straight by offering a thumbnail critique of Waugh’s writings. He focuses primarily on Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour. After confessing to have loved Brideshead since he first read it 60 years ago, Massie now comes down on the side of the war trilogy as his favorite:

Waugh has been condemned as a snob. Yet in Sword of Honour the members of the upper classes behave badly and the most admirable officers belong to the middle-class regiment, the Halberdiers. There is comedy and acute social observation throughout the trilogy, but essentially it’s a story of disillusionment, as Guy finds what seemed to him a noble cause corrupted and betrayed. This rings true. It rings equally true that Waugh gives Guy and the trilogy an ironically happy ending.

Well, not exactly, at least with respect to the ending. In the first edition Waugh does provide an “ironically happy ending.” But when Nancy Mitford congratulated him on the upbeat conclusion and Anthony Powell said he thought it didn’t work, Waugh changed it to remove the happy bit but leave the irony. That change is reflected in the second printings of the UK and US hardback editions of volume 3 (Unconditional Surrender/The End of the Battle) and the one-volume recension of the trilogy published in 1965 as Sword of Honour but never made its way into the single volume Penguin editions of volume 3 on which Mr Massie apparently relied. Eade does not address this matter in his book.

In the conservative Washington Free Beacon, the biography is reviewed by English Literature professor and journalist Micah Mattix. He begins with an interesting comparison of the views of Waugh held by George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens. He then provides a fair summary of the book, highlighting the new materials that Eade brings to bear, something Massie left out. Mattix concludes:

What’s missing in Eade’s Evelyn Waugh, however, is the man himself. We are told a great deal about Waugh—about what he said and did—but are rarely treated to any exploration of why he said and did those things. Eade chalks most of them up to Waugh’s bitterness at his father’s preference for his brother and Napoleonic competitiveness. (Waugh was short, we are reminded.) As real as Waugh’s bitterness and competitiveness may have been, surely there was more to the man…While Eade’s life of Waugh is not a “critical” biography, the absence of any extended analysis of his work for what it tells us about the man is puzzling in a biography of a writer whose fiction was so autobiographical.

Eade is a gifted narrator and a master at providing the right quote at the right time at just the right length, avoiding, thankfully, the temptation (which must have been acute in the case of Waugh) of ventriloquism or the overuse of block quotes. With two of Waugh’s three biographies currently out of print and with Waugh’s Complete Works scheduled to be published in 43 volumes (including 12 volumes of Waugh’s letters and diaries) between now and 2020, Eade’s account of Waugh’s life (undertaken at the request of Waugh’s grandson, Alexander) will be a useful starting point for the biographies or more specialized studies of Waugh to follow.

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