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Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Oct 11, 2017
Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited

Evelyn Waugh was one of the few early 20th-century British writers who wrote openly about his gay lovers at Oxford. His most celebrated novel, "Brideshead Revisited," remains a classic of gay literature, despite the fact that his protagonist Charles Ryder all but repudiates his gay identity by the end of the book.

Waugh was considered one of the best writers of his generation, and his life and works have been the subjects of many biographies. But there is more to tell about the vexing and enigmatic literary giant. In "Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited," British journalist Philip Eade writes an uneven but insightful biography 50 years after Waugh's death.

Eade is the author of the acclaimed 2011 bestseller "Young Prince Philip," and it was Waugh's grandson Alexander who suggested he write another biography, even giving him exclusive access to his grandfather's private correspondence.

For GLBTQ readers the primary interest will not only be Waugh's gay relationships at Oxford, but the backdrop of sexually repressive England, where homosexuality was still a crime, yet gay subcultures were an open secret among the aristocracy.

Waugh grew up in an aristocratic British family. His father was a publisher and his brother Alec was also a successful writer. His parents favored Alec, and Evelyn was bitter about being neglected to the point where he preferred being away at school, where he excelled and despite won prizes and scholarships. He was attracted to girls his age as a teenager, but his most intense emotional attachments with boys.

When Waugh was still barely in his 20s he was emerging as one of the most prolific and successful novelists in England, famously satirizing both the establishment and the louche life of his generation in such bestsellers as "Decline and Fall," "A Handful of Dust" and "Vile Bodies," among many others.

In his 20s, Waugh apparently was putting homosexuality in his past, with a string of affairs with high profile women. The bulk of "A Life Revisited" centers around his relationship with his family, his heterosexual relationships, and his marriages.

It disappoints that, on balance, Eade seems to gloss over Waugh's serious relationships with men, particularly Richard Pares and Alastair Graham, who just fade from the pages without any narrative closure. Meanwhile, Eade includes the lineage of seemingly everyone in Waugh's orbit, which really saps the rhythm of the book at key points.

Past that, Eade writes vigorously about Waugh's personal life, including his strained relationships with his parents and his disastrous first marriage to Evelyn Gardner (they were known as the two Evelyns). There was love between them but, by their own accounts, the bond was absent real passion.

Waugh could be brutal in print and in private with his assessments of others, especially when he drank. Yet, others were privy to his generous, loyal and compassionate side.

After his Catholic conversion and a string of public successes, he married Laura Herbert (his first wife's cousin). Although he remained passionately in love with Laura the rest of his life, he didn't like being around their six children, and any expressions of love didn't fully erase how cold, uncaring and distant frequently he was to them.

Eade condenses Waugh's years in WWII, during which he was both well-liked and reviled as an officer, but gives a frustratingly tangled account of a pivotal incident of a botched mission under his command on Crete. Waugh was admired for his bravery in battle but vilified for his treatment of other officers (among other charges of misconduct).

Eade deftly dissects the merits of Waugh's most important books, including witty peek at the backstabbing world of literary criticism of his era. Eade is particularly illuminating on the circumstances of the writing of "Brideshead," the book Waugh - like most of his readers - considered a masterpiece.

"Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited"
by Philip Eade
Trade Paperbck

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.


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