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.
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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