I have enjoyed Evelyn's Waugh's books for many years and, when I finally deciding to read a biography about his life, there seemed to be only one choice of author. Selina Hastings has written intelligent and in depth biographies of W. Somerset Maugham and Nancy Mitford, among others and her knowledge of that period of literature, and the people associated with it, are second to none.
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.
My introduction to Evelyn Waugh came when I had to read 'A Handful of Dust' for my English Lit 'A' level, well over thirty years ago. That intro led me to read all of his novels and most of his short stories. He was a brilliant chronicler of the British upper middle classes and minor aristocracy in the inter-war years, and reading this biography brilliantly illuminates the background to his novels, the real-life basis for some of his most memorable characters, and the events which informed much of his fiction. Selina Hastings manages to tell Waugh's story with a real lightness of touch that still manages to convey the weight and importance of Waugh's work. he doesn't always come across as a very likeable person, but that's not necessarily a bad thing; Hastings reveals the at times ugly truth of Waugh's character whilst telling the story with wit, warmth and charm, and the cumulative effect is all the more potent as a result. It never gets bogged down, is never 'worthy', frequently salacious, and always a delight. And it makes you want to go back to Waugh's novels with a renewed vigour, matching the real life characters to their fictional counterparts - sometimes they're elisions of the two, but the important thing is the real regard that Hastings obviously holds Waugh's work. If you have any interest in Waugh's work, do yourself a favour and buy this book - it does not disappoint.
Selina Hastings has conceived a biography which is also a vivid portrait of the Bright Young People. She blends historical accuracy and insight into her object so well that the reader feels he is being taken on board this incredibly rich journey. He visits the mansions of the great English aristocratic families, goes to parties along with Waugh and his friends, embarks on a cruise with the Catholic intelligentia, lives his hectic university years with him and experiences his doubts as to which career to embark on. The reader travels around the world with him and goes through the composition of every single work he wrote. A wonderful tour de force.
I have read most of Evelyn Waugh, including biographies. Although this book wa published some years ago it is as fresh as when first written. I bought it on the back of her excellent biography on Somerset Maugham. Both had a cynical view of people and both had powers of acute observation. Difficult to guess who will be her next subject, Christopher Hitchens perhaps?
The best book not only about Waugh but English Society in the first half of the twentieth Century Hastings brings a forensic quality to her descriptions but especially on Waugh's Catholicism she does "get it"
I am reading this book for the second time, and have been trying to work out why reading Selina Hastings is such unalloyed pleasure.
I got a clearer idea when I picked up a book by another writer I had ordered and skimmed a few pages, only to be hit by a familiar weariness.
Too many writers in English fall into one of two categories: their style is too academic or too informal. In both situations the reader is aware of the writer as an uncomfortable presence.
Selina Hastings' writing is absolutely clear: she never uses a difficult word when a simple one will do the job better; it is absolutely graceful: she is incapable of either pretentiousness or vulgarity; she is sometimes laugh-aloud funny, and she is always amusing.
One of her great gifts is to present a short account of each of Waugh's books which such economy and clarity that she arouses one's interest whether one knows the book inside out or has never read it.
Above all, and what a relief this is, she is non-judgmental. She presents her subjects exactly as she finds them, and yet manages to make them lovable. This is particularly useful here, because, as she states in the opening chapter:
"The reputation of Evelyn Waugh rests on two premises: that he was one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century, and that as a man he was a monster."
I've only read Scoop and Brideshead, thoroughly enjoyed them - this book was a present. Fascinating and well written, kept my interest throughout. Recommend for anyone interested in modern literature and what makes authors tick.
I knew very little about Waugh before I bought this book. I only got it because of the author - Selina Hastings. I had read her biography of Anthony Blunt which I found very well researched. This one is just as good. Her research is second to none, and uses not only papers and diaries from Waugh himself but from those with whom he worked, lived and had contact so you do get quite a rounded picture of the man. He unfortunately lived up to his reputation as being quite unpleasant and irascible most of the time but when circumstances pleased him he would flower into a completely different person whose stories and mimicry could hold the crowd mesmerised. That wasn't very often though. He was a notorious drunk and that surfaces with regularity too.
And he was a snob - proud of it too. Loved his high quality food and deemed it a necessary not a luxury. I like the story where he met the Queen Mother for lunch at her home. She had two glasses of champagne ready. 'Isn't this a treat' she said. 'Champagne at lunchtime!' 'Is it?' he replied. He took it for granted and the Queen Mother was partial to a drop too but no where near what Waugh indulged in.
For a man who took his religion to the extreme right he lacked a lot of the finer graces of belief and was a most uncharitable man - to those he barely tolerated (most people) and his own children. Charity didn't start at home and went no further either. On the positive side he took his writing seriously when it suited him and Hastings gives us the good, bad and indifferent reviews of this writings at the time. He wasn't held in high esteem by everyone or every publisher. I felt I had met the man on completing the book or rather I knew a man I probably wouldn't like to meet would be more accurate. In saying that I still think Brideshead is a fantastic piece of writing and well worth a re read every other year.
I felt the ending came about rather abruptly and was dismissed in two pages. There was nothing about the fallout after his death either. Maybe it wasn't necessary. As it was written with the consent of the family maybe they didn't want themselves included too much and she respected their privacy.
Even if you don't read Waugh's books you can get a lot from Ms Hastings' book on the man and his life.