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Evelyn Waugh: A Biography Hardcover – 31 Oct 1994
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"Her style is supremely elegant and her eye for detail brings dazzle and wit to every page... This is a monumental book." - "Independent on Sunday "Evelyn Waugh was the most complicated of men... It is the first great virtue of Selina Hastings's splendid biography that she never forgets it. Consequently she has written a sympathetic and highly intelligent book which also - rarity of rarities these days - reads rapidly. It is sympathetic also because, like Waugh himself, the author adores gossip." - "Daily Telegraph "Evelyn Waugh was one of the funniest writers in the language. Selina Hastings's book is alive with his humour." - "Sunday Express "Be assured that you would be unlikely to find a more entertaining, delightful or rewarding book on Waugh if you were to search... for the next twenty years. The narrative is at once gripping and thoughtful on every page." - "Mail On Sunday "From the Trade Paperback edition.
This biography of Evelyn Waugh, written with the full co-operation of the family and making use of a mass of unpublished letters and diaries, traces the remarkable career of a writer who, though respected, was always controversial and undoubtedly eccentric. In particular, it sheds new light on his difficult relationship with his father, his homosexual affair at Oxford, his unhappy first marriage to Evelyn Gardner, and his years of sexual adventure before his second marriage. Hastings also uncovers his attitude to the Church, his conversion to Roman Catholicism, his disastrous relationship with the military, and his enduring, but difficult, friendships with his three favourite women: Nancy Mitford, Diana Cooper and Ann Fleming.
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I must admit that I was somewhat worried at reading about the personal life of Evelyn Waugh. Having read books by his brother, Alec Waugh, I was aware that he became more difficult with age and I was concerned that he would simply come across as utterly unlikeable . Selina Hastings certainly does not make her subject nicer than he was, but she does give a sympathetic portrait of him as a man and as a writer.
The book takes us from his childhood and the difficult relationship with his father Arthur, who saw his elder son, Alec, as "the son of his soul" and who found Evelyn a difficult and emotional child. Evelyn resented his father, was a bully at school and a priggish, religious child. At Oxford he was, of course, among the Bright Young Things and saw University as the chance for three years of idleness. His failure to achieve a good degree saw him having to take a job at prep schools; one of the most depressing times of his life.
We move through his first, disastrous, marriage to Evelyn Gardner (He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), the shock and humiliation when he discovered she had been unfaithful and the beginning of his success as an author. Hastings follows his career as a novelist, travel writer and his attempts to annul his marriage and his second marriage to Laura Herbert. His fresh start was marred by the declaration of the second world war and she follows his war years, his disastrous attempts to be wooed by Hollywood ("Californian Savages") and his lessening reputation in the 1950's. She also covers, in depth, his conversion to Catholicism and his lifelong interest in religion.
What so fascinates you as you read this biography though; looking past the hostility, bad temper and general grumpiness, is how everything he experienced was used in his work, as well as how long his truly close friendships lasted. His work as a prep school teacher in "Decline and Fall", his first marriage in the biting "A Handful of Dust", his university years in "Brideshead Revisited", his war wars in the Sword of Honour trilogy and more. He not only lived his life, but he observed and saved every experience and created novels which may have fell out of favour, but are now regarded as the classics they undoubtedly are. I would recommend this book to anybody who wishes to know more about Waugh, his life and his books.
Hastings brings a forensic quality to her descriptions but especially on Waugh's Catholicism she does "get it"
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