Waughped talent

This is my review of Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends by Humphrey Carpenter.

This biography provides a vivid portrait of Waugh's personality and the factors which may have affected it, but falls short in the method used to include some of the author's influential acquaintances such as Harold Acton, Graham Greene and John Betjeman to name only a few. This involves frequent digressions which make for a read that is often rambling and baggy in structure, particularly in the early chapters. In a book that cries out for a good edit, I was put off by the opening chapter's lengthy imaginary conversation between two horribly precocious young Etonians which, although it may have satisfied Humphrey Carpenter's ambitions as a novelist, seems unnecessary when there is so much "real" information to cover.

Waugh comes across as a witty and articulate man with a keen sense of the ridiculous, but on the negative side also a bully, an appalling snob, irritable, often remarkably rude, which may have had something to do with being frequently drunk. We are told that in World War 2 he was judged unsuitable to command a company of soldiers because he could not relate to junior ranks. All this may have been in some way the result of a lack of affection as a child, a sense of exclusion from the "cosy friendship" his father apparently formed with Waugh's older brother and the humiliation of his first wife, "She-Evelyn" going off with another man.

He also revelled in gossip, exaggerating the misfortunes of others, including so-called friends. He could not resist the barbed repartee as when Graham Greene observed that it would be fun to write about politics rather than God. Waugh rejoined: "I wouldn't give up writing about God at this stage if I were you. It would be like P.G. Wodehouse dropping Jeeves halfway through the Wooster series."

There seems to be a strong autobiographical thread in much of his writing. "Vile Bodies" which established his reputation and began to earn the income which enabled him to live the life of a country squire, shows both the brittle gaiety of the endless parties of the "Bright Young Things" but also the cynicism of the generation reaching adulthood just after World War 1 and their rejection of the values of the fathers who had sent their sons to die.

It is sad to read that, only in his early sixties, prematurely aged by alcohol, cigarettes and "sodium amytal", he was longing for death and claiming to be so bored that he breathed on the library window to play "noughts and crosses with himself, drinking gin in the intervals between play". Even before that, suffering from hallucinations and an enhanced persecution mania triggered by large quantities of alcohol combined with medicinally prescribed drugs, Waugh heard voices accusing him of the actual charges that he probably found most cutting: that he was snobbish, had fascist sympathies, was guilty of "sentimental overwriting" at times, and may have been an "insincere" convert to Catholicism, together with the charge of homosexuality.

Although the final chapters of this book are the best, I was disappointed by the rather pat ending, suggesting that Evelyn Waugh's reactionary views had been proved justified by the turn of events evident in the 1980s – "the remarkable way in which ancient institutions seem to have outlived the egalitarian zeitgeist".

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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