The Best Fiction Books

The best books on Evelyn Waugh and the Bright Young Things

recommended by Selina Hastings

The biographer explores the decadence of the young and rich in 1920s London, and tells us about Evelyn Waugh’s rebellious youth, bullying disposition and later breakdown – as well as just how much (and early) he drank

Interview by Alec Ash

Buy all books

What should we bear in mind about the Bright Young Things, famous for their decadent lifestyle in 1920s London, which we might not know?

This was the beginning of the Jazz Age, with a lot of drugging and drinking, and of course the Dandy movement. The crucial thing to remember about them is that they were the generation who just missed the [First World] War. Their fathers and brothers had been called up, fought and often been killed. And this was a kind of rebellion against the austerity of the war years. The war was a very harrowing and terrible time, and they were determined that they weren’t going to have anything to do with that, and simply party and be childish. There was also a feeling amongst some of them that they had missed out. Evelyn Waugh’s older brother Alec had joined up, been taken prisoner and came back a hero.

What do we learn about them from Martin Green’s book?

This is a very interesting study. He takes as his two main protagonists Brian Howard and Harold Acton, and describes brilliantly how they constructed this eccentric, upper class Dandy world of aesthetes. Those two leaders were the least talented, whereas the followers – Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Anthony Powell, Robert Byron – were the ones with the real talent. Many of them were at Eton, and most of them were at Oxford. Then they went on to continue the party in London, and Italy and France.

Was the appeal a bohemian breath of fresh air, or simply the fascination of celebrity tittle-tattle of the young, rich and decadent upper class?

I think there was certainly that. But importantly it provided the material for some very remarkable literature. So much came out of it. You only have to look at Brideshead Revisited or A Dance to the Music of Time to see. It was all so spectacular and entertaining.

What else motivated their partying?

Their parents were Victorians, and they wanted to get away from all that. The girls were wearing short skirts and sleeveless dresses, and drugging and drinking – all the things their parents deeply disapproved of. In a kind of iconoclastic mockery, Harold Acton began a mock homage society to the Victorians.

Were they genuinely original, or just cynical?

Yes, I think they were original. In the next decade, the 1930s, the young men of that era were much more serious – there’s the great movement to the left, and Communism. So the Bright Young Things was a very brief period. That, I think, is part of its attraction.

Let’s talk about Evelyn Waugh in particular, beginning with this book by his school friend from Lancing.

This is a wonderful book. Carew’s portrait of Waugh is so marvellous because you not only see the brilliant young man but also the rather vulnerable school boy. Carew is remarkably perceptive, understanding where Waugh comes from and his profound irritation with his father. His father would read Dickens aloud to them in an over-dramatic way which made Evelyn want to go under the table. He understands about Evelyn’s religion, and also his almost sadism. There’s a section in the book when they meet as young men in London, and Waugh behaves appallingly to Carew, which ends the friendship for a time.

Even at school, Waugh was a bit of a bully.

Yes he was, and Carew sees this very clearly. But he also sees his good qualities, and his talent for friendship, as well as the difficulties he had with his home life and his brother Alec. It’s a short but acute picture of Waugh, and only a friend could have written it.

Waugh’s time at Oxford is often thought of as his formative years. Can you draw us a sketch of what he got up to – and didn’t get up to – while there?

Oxford dazzled him. He had the only two homosexual relationships of his life there, both of which were immensely important to him. One was with a man called Richard Pares, who became a distinguished don, and the other with a ne’er-do-well called Alastair Graham. He also met the Dandies, who had a great influence on him even though he wasn’t quite one of them. So Oxford liberated Waugh. For the first time he had the freedom to do what he wanted, and unfortunately a lot of what he wanted to do was drink. He drank terrifyingly, and belonged to a club called the Hypocrites club, where heavy drinking was the thing to do. It was there that he began his lifelong semi-alchoholism.

“At Oxford, for the first time Waugh had the freedom to do what he wanted, and unfortunately a lot of what he wanted to do was drink.”

Waugh didn’t do well academically at all. In fact he had a great feud with his tutor, CRMF Cruttwell. He failed academically. But it was an important time for him, as we come to see later in his portrayal of the university in Brideshead Revisited. He had a romantic association with Oxford which remained with him for all his life. His love affair with Oxford is the same as Charles Ryder’s and Sebastian Flyte’s.

What do we glean of Waugh through his older brother Alec’s memories?

In a way I feel sorry for Alec Waugh. In his lifetime he always felt that he was the brother who succeeded. During the twenties and thirties, Alec was far better known than Evelyn. He wrote a book a year, and was very pleased with himself, adored by his parents. His three passions in life were cricket, wine and women. He was very orderly, very neat, and without a glimmer of Evelyn’s genius, but his portrait of Evelyn is very touching. He sees him as the annoying little brother, to be dismissed. In a Penguin history of literature published in the 1950s, it said: “Of the novelists writing today, the two we can be sure will be forgotten very quickly are Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.”

After Oxford, Evelyn Waugh becomes a school teacher, which provides the material for Decline and Fall. Then he gets married to Evelyn Gardner.

Disastrously. She was a female version of the Dandies. She was pretty, silly, well-born – which Evelyn liked, because he was always a bit of a snob – and he rather fell for her. They had a short, fun time together, but She-Evelyn was only really interested in parties and having fun, and didn’t understand her husband at all. When He-Evelyn went away for weeks at a time, to work on Vile Bodies, she started an affair with another man. He was mortified and miserable, but it was more that his amour propre was wounded. I think he would have grown out of her quickly in any case.

In Vile Bodies, Waugh’s novel satirising that set of people, the latter half is much darker, with Adam Fenwick-Symes ending up on a European battlefield. Many ascribe that bleak ending to the breakdown of Waugh’s marriage.

I think it was the worst thing that happened to him. And underneath his bullying, he was lacking in confidence, particularly sexual confidence with women. He was constantly falling hopelessly in love with women who wouldn’t give him the time of day. He was also prone to depression, and the ending of Vile Bodies reflects that very clearly.

Do you feel it evinces a broader disillusionment with the Bright Young Things?

He saw himself as them, dancing into chaos. He was terrified of chaos. And that’s when he was saved by the Catholic church.

He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930. Why?

One of the draws for him was the church’s inflexible rules. He knew exactly where he stood every minute of the day, and that became terribly important to him. He was always a hardline Catholic, and tried to convert John Betjeman.

The Picturesque Prison gives us a deeper understanding of his religion.

This is a remarkable book, with such a good title. Jeffrey Heath is talking about the need for refuge. The false refuge in Brideshead Revisted is the great house of Brideshead with all its glamour and beauty, but the real refuge is the Catholic church, which Ryder comes to by the end of the book. Jeffrey Heath examines Waugh’s career as a writer, and his ambition, but also his need for structure and refuge. His emphasis is on Brideshead in particular, and I would recommend this as one of the best introductions to the novel that I have come across.

Let’s look more at the the latter half of Waugh’s life. By the 1950s Waugh had slipped into depression, and suffered a breakdown.

It was the lethal combination of drugs and alchohol that brought about the breakdown. When I say drugs, I don’t mean morphine and cocaine but the strong sleeping pills that he took. He wrote about the frightful breakdown that he had in his novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. I remember talking to the priest who had dealt with him at the time, and taken him to a Catholic psychiatrist. He said that it was 80% physical. Waugh would start drinking from 10 in the morning – whisky, brandy and wine.

His lows were his material, as much as the highs. Do you feel that’s the case for all writers?

I do. The thing about Waugh that is so captivating, though, is that his terrific wit and humour always keeps bursting out. Even Pinfold is very funny, although also black. Waugh can be savagely funny, and he can be just savage. He was a bully, but like all bullies, if you stood up to him he would immediately back down. He suffered, like Graham Greene, from fear of boredom. If he met somebody for the first time, to amuse himself he would start ribbing and bullying them, in the hope that they would give it back. If they did, he would be delighted, and would become charm itself.

So his bullying hid his insecurities?

Very much so. He was tormented by feelings of inadequacy on all kinds of levels. Except as an artist, where he knew what he was doing.

Does his acerbic edge come across in his letters with Nancy Mitford?

Not so much, because she wasn’t remotely frightened of him. She did say that after Waugh would leave, having stayed with her in Paris, it was like an air raid was over. But the only time he really slapped her down was when she was frivolous about religion.

What was the quality and subject of her correspondence with him?

Glorious, glorious gossip. You had two of the best novelists of the 20th century writing to each other on absolutely equal terms about their friends, the people they met, and their lives in London and Paris. It is very high performance art, and they were performing for each other because each was the other’s best audience. They teased each other. Waugh was always sending Mitford up for her passion for the French, which he had no time for.

To what extent did Waugh construct himself, both in his novels and in his letters? Can we ever know who the real Evelyn Waugh was?

Probably not. Nancy Mitford said of him that he’s the man behind the iron mask. She didn’t feel that she knew who he really was, and very few people did. His second wife did – a much more resilient figure than how she is often portrayed – and possibly his priest.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

As a biographer of Waugh yourself, how do you get to that kernel of who a subject is?

There’s only one thing you can do really, which is to read everything you can lay your hands on. The luck with Waugh is that there is an enormous quantity of letters – thousands of them – and his diaries. And I interviewed people who had known him well, his children and also his contemporaries. It’s like developing a photograph gradually. I spent eight years writing my biography. You live with it very intensely, and get quite close.

And what riches are there in reading a biography? Why should we care about another’s life?

That’s a very good question. I find it interesting to try and discover the man or woman behind the work. The great luck of writing about novelists is that writing is how they communicate. I couldn’t possibly write about a painter or a musician, but a writer is constantly communicating themselves not only through their work but through their correspondence. And stylistically, Waugh is in a class of his own. With each line of dialogue, you know exactly who the character is. He paid a high price for his genius. But for us, and for posterity, it’s worth it.

Interview by Alec Ash

July 30, 2012

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Selina Hastings

Selina Hastings

Selina Hastings is a writer and journalist. She is the author of four literary biographies, of Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Somerset Maugham and Rosamond Lehmann. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she reviews regularly and has been a judge of the Booker Prize. In 2011 she won the Biographers' Club Lifetime Services to Biography Prize

Selina Hastings

Selina Hastings

Selina Hastings is a writer and journalist. She is the author of four literary biographies, of Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Somerset Maugham and Rosamond Lehmann. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she reviews regularly and has been a judge of the Booker Prize. In 2011 she won the Biographers' Club Lifetime Services to Biography Prize