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Evelyn Waugh

October 28, 1903, marks the birthday of British satirist Evelyn Waugh.  Born in London to a well-to-do literary family, Waugh's father worked as the managing editor of an important British publishing house.  His older brother was a well regarded writer.  Regardless, Waugh managed to turn his own life into rubble from early on.  He was an underachiever in school and left Oxford, where he'd had several homosexual relationships, without a degree.  He went to work as a teacher but was fired from three schools in two years.  He found himself jobless, in debt, and rejected by a girl he tried to date.  "I was from the first an obvious dud," he said.

Waugh thought he'd found the perfect way out.  He decided to go down to the ocean and drown himself.  He left a suicide note and jumped into the water, but before he journeyed very far, a jellyfish stung him, and he scurried back to shore, where he tore up the note and decided to give life a second chance.

Still jobless, Waugh decided to write a novel about a young teacher at a private school where the other teachers are all drunks, child molesters, and escaped convicts.  The mother of one of the students runs an international prostitution ring.  His publishers forced him to preface the book with a disclaimer that said, "Please bear in mind throughout that it is meant to be funny."  The novel Decline and Fall was published in 1928 and was a commercial and literary success.

Finding himself with plenty of money for the first time in his adult life, Waugh married a woman named Evelyn, and his friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn.  The two divorced as he was writing his second book, and he joined the Catholic Church for solace.  Although some people were surprised that an author of books about riots, orgies, and cannibalism would become a devout Catholic, Waugh felt it quite natural.  "You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic," he said.  "Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being."

Waugh wrote several more novels, including A Handful of Dust (1934), about a crumbling marriage.  It ends with the main character trapped in a jungle, reading Dickens to a madman.  It's thought to be his masterpiece. 

He also traveled around Africa and South America and was known as one of the most entertaining travel writers of his day, producing books such as Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) and Mexico: An Object Lesson (1939).  Although his comedic and racy novels of "bright young things" in Twenties' England made his reputation, he was also a profoundly conservative writer who had great success with more somber works such as Brideshead Revisited.

In his later life, he eschewed everything about modern life.  From music and art to the latest inventions, he turned his back on them all.  He didn't drive, and he wrote with a quill pen that he had to dip into the ink every few seconds.  When his hearing went bad, he refused to buy a new-fangled hearing aid and chose instead to place a giant horn to his ear to hear.

Waugh lived out his life in a huge house in the English countryside, as far away from the modern world as he could get, where he kept a pet pig named Glory and periodically received his six children.  Accused as being a vain-glorious reactionary, Waugh defended himself.  "An artist must be a reactionary.  He has to stand out against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along."

Author, humorist, and acerbic writer Evelyn Waugh died on April 10, 1966, at the age of 62.

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