Born in Hampstead in 1903, Waugh was the second son of Arthur Waugh, a prominent man of letters, and younger brother to Alec Waugh, the novelist. Educated at Lancing and at Hertford College, Oxford, Waugh came down with an undistinguished third in History. After trying his hand at everything from teaching to carpentry, Waugh followed up a short essay on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with his first published book, a 1928 biography of Pre-Raphaelite painter/poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This was followed that same year by his first, very successful, novel Decline and Fall, which drew, among other things, on Waugh's stint as a schoolmaster. This popular farce was followed in 1930 by the even more popular, though darker, Vile Bodies, which succeeded in making Waugh a celebrity, in the UK at least, and a writer much in demand in the popular press.
Soon after the dissolution of his first marriage, to Evelyn Gardener ("She-Evelyn," to his "He-Evelyn"), Waugh, following instruction by Fr. Martin D'Arcy S. J., was received into the Roman Catholic Church in the autumn of 1930. Though this was the most momentous act of his life, it did not immediately obviously influence his fiction. 1932's Black Mischief was of a piece with the dark farce of Vile Bodies, and indeed, even earned Waugh the condemnation of the editor of the Catholic journal, the Tablet, who deemed the work obscene. This was followed in 1934 by what many critics judge his greatest novel, A Handful of Dust. It is decidedly his most somber work to date, and while still devoid of any obvious traces of his recent conversion, is nonetheless also, in Waugh's words, the work which "contained all I had to say about humanism", or about what a life devoid of faith can be.
1935, however, saw Waugh take up forcefully the role of Catholic writer, not in his fiction, but in his second biography, this time of the sixteenth-century English Catholic martyr, Edmund Campion. The 1930s also saw the publication of five different volumes of travel writing: Labels (1930); Remote People (1931), dealing with Waugh's travels to Ethiopia to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie; Ninety-Two Days (1934); Waugh in Abyssinia (1936), which deals with his return to Ethiopia as reporter in advance of the Italian invasion; and Robbery Under Law (1938), which made clear, as did Waugh in Abyssinia, Waugh's emergence as a staunch conservative, but also revealed, again, his specifically Catholic outlook.
After Scoop (1938) and the abandoned project ultimately published as Work Suspended (1942), Waugh, with the outbreak of World War II, and despite being almost 36 years old, set about finding himself a combat role. He did indeed find such a role, and became Captain Waugh of the Royal Marines. Although he was little loved by his men or fellow officers, and though he saw little actual combat—none of it successful—he did distinguish himself by his unfailing bravery and succeeded in storing up material for many novels to come. 1942 saw the publication of his satiric treatment of the home front in Put Out More Flags, but this was, in terms of the works of the 1940s, overshadowed by 1945's Brideshead Revisited, a novel less farcical, more realist, more sentimental, and more obviously Catholic than any fiction he'd published to date. A memoir of inter-bellum Britain and a tale, ultimately, of Catholic conversion and redemption, Brideshead became his greatest commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic, even if many critics, uneasy with its cast and its creed, excoriated it for its stylistic excess, its snobbery, and its abandonment of the cool satire they associated with his work.
Though relatively neglected, Waugh's post-war work was astonishingly varied, consistently stylistically strong, and continually an occasion for critics and academics to review and denounce the politics and confession of the writer, rather than assessing the achievements of the work. 1947 saw the British publication of the novella Scott-King’s Modern Europe, which offered Waugh’s dim assessment of the totalitarian trends of modernity. A trip to Hollywood led to the dark satire of The Loved One (1948), which offered an even more gruesome assessment of the barren and deadly fruits of simple humanism than did A Handful of Dust. Helena (1950) offered an extension of Waugh's exploration of his faith in his fiction as it traced, in playfully anachronistic terms, the life of St. Helena, discoverer of the True Cross. The caustic and laconic lampoon of the secular welfare state, Love Among the Ruins, was published in 1953, and the extraordinarily candid psycho-drama The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold in 1957, but much of this decade was given over to the composition of Waugh's war trilogy, with Men at Arms appearing in 1952, followed by Officers and Gentlemen in 1955, and the third volume, Unconditional Surrender, in 1961. Taken together these three novels may well represent Waugh's crowning achievement, a nuanced and artful meditation on love and war, history and eternity, honour and charity, and the hope of salvation to be sought in the humble acceptance of one's God-given vocation—all leavened by Waugh’s sharp eye for the bathetic, the absurd, and the laugh-out-loud funny.
Evelyn Waugh died after Mass on Easter Sunday, 1966, and left a world impoverished of one of its great stylists, humorists, provocateurs and characters. Though his faith and politics and temperament remain as out of step with the norms of literary culture today as they were at the time of his death, he is perennially in print and likely to survive as one of the giants of 20th-century English literature and one of the greatest English stylists of any age.
Later a writer must face the choice of becoming an artist or a prophet. He can shut himself up at his desk and selfishly seek pleasure in the perfecting of his own skill or he can pace about, dictating dooms and exhortations on the topics of the day. The recluse at his desk has a bare chance of giving abiding pleasure to others; the publicist has none at all.
Evelyn Waugh, 1955