Italian Biographical Sketch of Waugh

The Italian online religious journal Radio Spada has published a feature-length illustrated article containing a thumbnail biography of Evelyn Waugh. This is by Luca Fumagalli who frequently writes on English literary subjects generally and Waugh specifically in that paper. The biographical article opens:

“Evelyn Waugh is probably the most paradoxical British writer of the twentieth century. In fact, even though he signed some of the funniest songs ever written in English, he suffered from chronic depression in the last twenty years of his life; he then donated large sums of money to charity and was always lavish with compliments towards other authors whom he appreciated, but at the same time he knew as well as few others how to be despicable and arrogant. Still, at some point in his career, when his books began to sell well and his wallet grew, he began to pose as a wealthy landowner, although the plaid suits and hats he used to wear made him look like a bookmaker. Friends knew that his character limitations were compensated for by the many qualities,”  

There follows a largely accurate and familiar description of Waugh’s childhood, education, and post-Oxford life. One thing I learned was that Waugh was paid for some of his writing in Oxford student publications. The article then arrives at the troubling subject of Waugh’s first marriage and his writing success:

“… the need for more regular income had pushed him towards the shores of journalism. Fortunately for him, he possessed the three basic requirements of the perfect freelancer : he wrote well, he was versatile and, above all, he had found in the legendary AD Peters an agent ready to get him the best offers. […] By now the salient features of his prose were clearly defined and included, in addition to a very accurate style, a delicate allusiveness and a taste for a satire with a slightly farcical flavor. According to Graham Greene, Waugh’s writings had the clarity of the Mediterranean before it was polluted by tourism. The fact that he was an excellent promoter of himself, capable of combining humor and intelligence as few others, helped to facilitate his climb to success.”

Next, the subject of his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his writing on religious subjects is taken up. This is among the topics discussed: 


“Ernest Oldmeadow, editor of The Tablet, was one of his most ardent opponents: in the Catholic weekly there were in fact some reviews under his signature that harshly criticized Waugh’s latest novels including Black Mischief, of 1932. He answered in no uncertain terms, and when in 1935 the direction of the periodical was entrusted to Douglas Woodruff he became, almost out of spite, a regular collaborator. In general, the publication of a biography of the Jesuit Edmund Campion, martyr under the reign of Elizabeth, whose earnings were given to charity for the reconstruction of Campion Hall, the center of the Society of Jesus, also contributed to improving relations with the most hostile co-religionists. in Oxford. The book also won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize.”

There is a good summary of Waugh’s prewar writing, second marriage and WWII career but, strangely, it says little about the writing and reception of his most popular book Brideshead Revisited. The article continues with the postwar success and the onset of a more extravagant lifestyle. Here the story goes a bit astray. Waugh was not forced to sell his manuscripts during his lifetime. Indeed, he donated the manuscript of Brideshead to Loyola College in Baltimore which had awarded him an honorary academic degree in 1947. He had given the manuscript of Vile Bodies to Bryan and Diana Guinness in the 1930s and distributed the manuscript pages of Labels in copies of a special first edition. The bulk of his manuscripts remained in his possession when he died and became part of the University of Texas Humanities Research Center when it acquired his library in the 1970s. The reason for the sale of Piers Court was not financial but to escape from the suburban sprawl of Dursley. Combe Florey was not a downmarket Piers Court.

The concluding section describes his declining later years and the drug and alcohol consumption that lead to the hallucinations depicted in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. The article concludes with this:

“He died of a heart attack on April 10, 1966, Easter Day. Thus it was that British Catholic culture suddenly lost its best standard bearer, a contradictory man, with whom it was not easy to deal, but a very talented writer and, above all, one of the last intellectuals in England to still give some value to the word Tradition.”

The translation of the excerpts is by Google with some edits. The Google translation of the entire article is fairly high quality for this sort of thing and may be read at this link.



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