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On this day in history in 1966, died Evelyn Waugh.
Waugh was a person whose only vocation in life was to comment disparagingly on the society in which he found himself, and who became the most accomplished satirical novelist of the Twentieth Century.
Waugh was born in 1903 of the respectable lower ranks of the upper class. He would have followed his elder brother, Alex, to Sherbourne School, Dorset, had it not been for the unfortunate fact that Alex, who had been sent down from Sherbourne for the usual thing, published Loom of Youth, exposing and satirising the goings on at public schools in general and Sherbourne in particular. Instead, Waugh went to Lancing School and from thence to Hertford College, Oxford where he took a Third in History.
After university, Waugh took up the study of art, at which it is said that he was good, and teaching at which there is no doubt that he was bad. He took up various teaching posts, one after another (at one he was dismissed for drunkenness), all the while becoming intermingled with the vigorous social scene of the Twenties, populated by aesthetes and the boorish upper class. From these surroundings, he drew his material for his satirical novels.
In 1928, Waugh published Decline and Fall, which, like Gibbon’s work of the same title on Rome, traced the degeneracy of British society. The protagonist of the novel is an Oxford student, who takes up a variety of teaching jobs and mixes with the ‘Bright Young Things’, and who see first hand the degeneracy of Twenties life. Waugh went on to produce several novels in the same vein. Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, deal with the effete aristocracy and their failure to govern either the country or themselves. Black Mischief and Scoop deal with public school boys failing in their attempt to govern African colonies. All these novels achieved immediate success and presumably were read by the people whom they were satirising.
During the Second World War, Waugh served with the Royal Marines and the Royal Horse Guards. In the fifties, he wrote the Sword of Honour trilogy, dealing with upper class buffoons and their attempt to run an army opposing the ruthlessness of the Nazi and Japanese regimes. After the war, his work took on a more serious vein. In 1945, he produced the classic, Brideshead Revisited, concerning a young Oxford undergraduate, at Hereford College, with artistic leanings, who comes into contact with an aristocratic family. This novel deals more sympathetically with the upper class but the satire is still present. It evokes a lost age of the English country house and the gentile mores of a society being ravaged by the effects of war and socialism.
Brideshead was such a success, that Waugh received an offer for the film rights. He travelled to Hollywood to discuss the offer with the moguls at MGM studios. Unfortunately, the studio would not agree to Waugh’s demand that the movie be produced in black and white. In pique and revenge, Waugh wrote The Loved One, a novel satirising American society in all its banality.
Waugh was married twice, first to the honourable Evelyn Gardner, (their friends called them he-Evelyn and she-Evelyn) and secondly to Laura Herbert. Waugh was converted to Catholicism in 1930 but his obvious deep faith did not prevent the occasional lampooning in his novels of the more outrageous aspects of Catholicism. In 1957, Waugh purchased a country house in Combe Florey, at the periphery of the Quantock Hills, and lived in the style of the upper class country gentlefolk. He died on Easter Sunday 1996, after returning from Mass. He is buried in Combe Florey churchyard. [St Peter and St Paul Church, Combe Florey, Taunton, Somerset, TA4 3JD]
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