“a valuable and fascinating biography… a remarkable portrait of a remarkable figure.”
John Banville, Observer
“The reputation of Evelyn Waugh rests on two premises: that he was one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century, and that as a man he was a monster. To judge the first, one has only to read his books; to judge the second one must turn to the life.
According to James Lees-Milne, who barely knew him, Waugh was ‘the nastiest tempered man in England, Catholic or Protestant’; according to Malcolm Muggeridge, who hardly knew him either, Waugh was ‘a saint’. Certainly Waugh was capable of generosity and compassion; he was also romantic and affectionate. But in counterpoint to these agreeable qualities were other attributes; a deep seam of anger and resentment, notoriously exploding in demonstrations of cruelty and rage. Hilaire Belloc said on first meeting him that he was convinced the young man was diabolically possessed, and indeed Waugh had personal demons to contend with of a violence and tenacity unknown to most of us. As his alter ego, Gilbert Pinfold, asks despairingly, ‘Why does everyone except me find it so easy to be nice?’
The demons were specifically his, but it is possible to see in Evelyn Waugh’s forebears some of the trace elements of that difficult and complex character, ‘the physical materials’, as he phrased it in his autobiography, of which he was made. His parents were kind, gentle people; his paternal grandfather on the other hand was an irascible and sadistic character, known within the family as ‘the Brute’. Once when sitting opposite his wife in the carriage, he saw a wasp settle on her forehead, and with cold deliberation leant forward and crushed it with the head of his cane, causing it to sting her…” (Evelyn Waugh)