Evelyn Waugh (1940)
Public DomainEvelyn Waugh (1940) - Credit: Carl Van Vechten

 Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh is one of the most well-known and highly respected of 20th Century British novelists. He was also a journalist, short-story writer, travel writer, biographer and diarist.

Born in 1903 in Hampstead, north London, and brought up in nearby Golders Green, he was the second son of Catherine and Arthur Waugh. His father was Managing Director of the publishing firm Chapman & Hall, and his elder brother Alec Waugh also became a novelist.

Waugh was educated at Lancing College in Sussex, and at Hertford College, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Anthony Powell and Cyril Connolly. During his time at Oxford he concentrated on his social life and his artistic interests, to the detriment of his academic studies, and he left with "a bad third class degree". Following a brief period teaching in Wales, he was apprenticed for a short while to a cabinet-maker. But after the publication of his first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), he was able to earn his living as a writer and journalist.

 In 1928 he married Evelyn Gardner, but due to his wife's infidelity the couple were divorced in 1930. Later that same year, Waugh was received into the Roman Catholic Church. In 1937, having obtained an annulment of his first marriage, he married a fellow Catholic, Laura Herbert. They went on to have seven children, one of whom died shortly after her birth. 

From 1957, the Waugh family lived at Combe Florey in Somersetshire, and it was here that Evelyn Waugh died suddenly on Easter Sunday, 1966. He was 62 years old.


Waugh's literary output was considerable: during his lifetime he published fourteen novels, two collections of short stories, seven travel books and three biographies. Following his death, various new collections of short stories were published, along with his diaries, selected letters, and the first volume of an autobiography, A Little Learning (1964).

His early satirical, rather surreal novels, such as Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930), and his later, more sombre and realistic works like Brideshead Revisited (1945) and the Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-1961), are extremely well known. Other novels, for example The Loved One (1947) and Helena (1950) have received much less attention and acclaim.

Waugh's biographies reflect his interest in Art and Catholicism: his subjects were the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the Catholic martyr, Edmund Campion; and the Catholic cleric, Ronald Knox.  His travel writing concentrated mainly on his various trips to Africa: Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) and A Tourist in Africa (1960). Amongst his various short-story collections are: Work Suspended and Other Stories (1943) and Charles Ryder's Schooldays and Other Stories (1982).

Waugh has himself been the subject of numerous biographies by authors including Christopher Sykes (1975), Martin Stannard (1992), and Selina Hastings (1994). More recently, he was the subject of a book by Paula Byrne entitled: Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (2009). 

Evelyn Waugh was a complex human being who was capable of great sensitivity, generosity, warmth and humour, but who could also be impatient, arrogant, cantankerous and unkind.  He lived life to the full, travelled widely, and moved in highly cultured and sophisticated circles; all factors that contributed to his unusually wide-ranging, perceptive, and accomplished literary works.


Click here for An Evelyn Waugh website.

Click here to listen to  audio-recordings of Evelyn Waugh discussing his work with the novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard.