Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh, known better as Evelyn Waugh, was a British novelist, journalist, and essayist. He was born in 1903 to a family with a background as publishers and literary critics. He attended Hertford College at Oxford University, where he studied history and journalism, but his focus on his social life led to him leaving without formally graduating. He became a teacher for a short period of time before turning to writing. His first novel, Decline and Fall, was released in 1928 to great acclaim. In 1927, he married his first wife, Evelyn Gardner. Friends called the couple “He-Evelyn” and “She-Evelyn.” Gardner eventually cheated on Waugh, leading to their separation. In 1930, Waugh converted to Catholicism. He distrusted change and modernity, and he believed the Catholic Church was humanity’s best hope to survive what he saw as an oncoming dark age. His conversion profoundly changed his writing. Whereas he previously wrote biting satires, his later novels took a more philosophical bent. Waugh married his second wife, Laura Herbert, in 1937, after annulling his first marriage.
Throughout the 1930s, Waugh traveled as a journalist, famously reporting on the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. He served in the Royal Marines during World War II, but, like his Brideshead Revisited protagonist Charles Ryder, became disillusioned when his platoon was never deployed abroad. He transferred to a commando unit in 1940, but in 1944, he had to take sick leave after landing badly during parachute training. Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited on this break from active duty, publishing the novel in 1945. Despite Brideshead’s favorable reception, Waugh released a revised edition in 1959. He felt that because of the grimness of World War II, he had made some of the descriptions more elaborate than necessary, and he found them overwrought. Despite Waugh’s acclaim as a novelist, he had a reputation for rudeness and misanthropy, in addition to expressing extremely conservative views. Nevertheless, he had many loyal friends who described him as incredibly generous and claimed his notoriety stemmed from his tendency to caricature himself. He died of heart failure in 1966 at the age of sixty-two.
Brideshead Revisited is Waugh’s best-known novel, and many critics have noted its autobiographical parallels to his life. Like Charles Ryder, Waugh fell in with a raucous, bohemian set at Oxford, known as the Hypocrites’ Club, which overrode his academic studies. He also dated men during this time. In addition, Waugh suffered a failed first marriage marked by infidelity that led to a conversion to Catholicism. Finally, Waugh, too, had a miserable military career. However, Waugh discouraged critics from seeing too much autobiography in any of his novels. In his letters to his publisher, Waugh discusses Brideshead as a novel about theology and divine grace, the Catholic idea that God will offer unconditional forgiveness to even the unworthy if they repent with a sincere heart. Some of Waugh’s contemporaries found the overt Catholicism of the novel’s ending saccharine and unconvincing. In 1981, Granada Television produced a miniseries adaptation of the novel, which aired on the UK’s ITV. The faithful adaptation renewed Brideshead’s popularity, bringing it to a new generation of readers.
Waugh was part of the British aristocratic party set of the 1920s known as the “Bright Young Things” or “Bright Young People.” Newspapers and tabloids followed the exploits of this group of unconventional youths because of their penchant for wild parties, acceptance of homosexuality, and love of jazz music and Black musicians. In addition to Waugh, many famous writers, artists, and intellectuals of the day were considered members of this group, including writer Herald Acton (also a member of the Hypocrites’ Club), novelist Nancy Mitford, and photographer Cecil Beaton. Waugh viciously satirized this social scene in his 1930 novel, Vile Bodies. Brideshead Revisited provides a glimpse of the Bright Young People through Charles’s social life at Oxford. In addition to wild partying and sexual freedom, Boy Mulcaster, Sebastian, and Charles also speak about what it means to have been too young to fight in World War I. Many historians blame the wildness of this generation on a reaction to the grim realities of World War I, in which 700,000 British soldiers died.
The decline of Brideshead Castle reflects the twentieth-century sale and demolition of English country estates owned by members of the British nobility. Initially, country estates earned revenue for noble families in the form of tenant farmers, who paid the landowners a certain percentage of their income on the land they farmed. As tenant farming fell out of practice, country estates no longer produced income except as tourist attractions. Adding to the decline of country estates, Britain introduced death duties, taxes on inherited wealth over a certain value, in the late nineteenth century, which increased the taxes the nobility paid on their estates. Staffing the manors also became difficult because of the number of former servants who died during World War I. In addition, many servants sought higher paying jobs in other industries. All of these factors contributed to country estates becoming difficult to maintain, and many financially ruined noble families sold them for development to help maintain their standard of living. For Waugh and others, the decline of these houses became emblematic of a lost Britain.
Throughout Brideshead Revisited, Waugh reveals his distrust of the growing social mobility within English society. He references with disdain the General Strike of 1926. The strike began with British miners protesting mass pay cuts, and unionized laborers across Britain joined in solidarity. The government fought the strike by pulling together middle and upper class volunteers to keep the country running. They formed a militia called the Organization for Maintenance of Supplies to ensure that the protests did not hamper counter-strike efforts. As a result, the unions capitulated. Although the strike didn’t ultimately disrupt the social order of Britain, Waugh was staunchly anti-communist and viewed the decline of the aristocracy as representing a loss of history and values. Throughout Brideshead Revisited, Charles portrays the men he associates with modernity—Hooper and Rex Mottram—as seeing the world solely in terms of money without a sense of beauty, spirit, or soul.