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Evelyn Waugh by Philip Eade

Evelyn Waugh by Philip Eade


Evelyn Waugh’s death came at an age – 62 – when “many novelists are just hitting their stride”, said Kathryn Hughes in The Mail on Sunday. Yet by the time of his fatal heart attack in his downstairs loo half a century ago, his place as one of the great English novelists of his time was already assured. Waugh’s prolific career began at the age of 25, with Decline and Fall. “After that, hit followed hit” – Vile Bodies,A Handful of Dust, Scoop, culminating in his 1945 “magnum opus”, Brideshead Revisited. Yet some critics still regard him “with suspicion and even dislike”, partly on account of his alleged “cynicism, snobbery and emotional cruelty”. Philip Eade has produced a “bright, breezy and sympathetic” biography that “revisits” some of the “old charges” against its subject. For example, Eade suggests that Waugh’s strong dislike of his children was the result of being “traumatised” by his father, who treated him with “cold disdain” while favouring his less talented older brother, Alec. As a result, he saw all “family emotion” as “deadly poison”.

“If you like your Waugh fast, furious and funny”, there is much to enjoy in Eade’s “sparkling” biography, said Paula Byrne in The Times. It is very good on Waugh’s life in the 1920s: what Waugh called his “acute homosexual phase” at Oxford; and his time among London’s glitterati, when he was feted as the chronicler of the “Bright Young People”. Eade’s chief “coup” is to have procured access to Waugh’s “hitherto unpublished” letters to Teresa “Baby” Jungman, with whom he fell in love in his late-20s, after the failure of his first marriage. “It may be a surprise to some to find that Waugh penned some of the most beautiful love letters in the English language.” Waugh’s letters also show that he was a more “wise and loving” father than is generally recognised.

Eade “tells an entertaining but superficial story”, said John Walsh in The Sunday Times. He focuses on the sex and gossip (of which there is, admittedly, a “gratifying amount”), but offers “few genuine revelations” to those who have read earlier biographies. Eade’s decision to largely ignore Waugh’s novels is puzzling, said Robert McCrum in The Observer. After all, Waugh’s work and his fiction are “tightly braided together”. Take away the latter, and all that’s left is “yellowing bundles of newspaper gossip”. This book’s “unintended” message is to show that the time is ripe for a “new and comprehensive literary critical life of one of Britain’s greatest writers”.

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