Evelyn Waugh's first wife was also called Evelyn. To distinguish between them, they were known to their friends as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn: this risible situation, so ripe for muddle and farcical misunderstanding, might have been taken straight out of a Waugh novel—or put straight into one.
Born in Hampstead to a middle-class literary family, Waugh read modern history at Oxford, where he cheerfully admitted to doing very little except getting drunk with his chums, Harold Acton and Cyril Connolly. This period was given a golden mythological gloss in Brideshead Revisited (1945), which thirty years later was turned into a lavish and hugely popular television series. Waugh combined satire, farce, and broad comedy in a witty and elegant manner in his early novels Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930). They made him an instant celebrity, the darling of the Mayfair society he mocked in his books, yet to which he aspired. While giving his characters such fatuous names as Lady Circumference, Mrs Ape, Mr and Mrs Outrage, and Lady Throbbing, Waugh is none the less wickedly accurate and unsparingly vicious in his portayal of the giddy young things, dowagers, and crusty old buffers. These novels set a high standard, being exceptionally skilful for such a young writer, and also very funny.
A Handful of Dust (1934) is Waugh at his best. The backdrop is still that of smart society (parties at Lady Cockpurse's, chaps dining at Brat's club), but the novel presents a darker and far bleaker view of human nature. Tony Last prefers to live in his grand but decaying house in the country while his wife, Lady Brenda, is drawn to the meaningless pursuit of amusement on the cocktail circuit. Her affair with John Beaver, a feckless, self-seeking wastrel, brings destruction to her decent if dull husband, her family, and herself. The scene where she confuses the name of her young son, also called John, with that of her lover, is truly shocking. Scoop (1938) is a swingeing, full-blooded satire on Fleet Street. It features the hapless and hilarious William Boot, a reclusive writer of a nature column, who by mistake gets sent to cover a foreign war. The phrase ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper’ has entered the language, used by a fawning minion who never dares to openly disagree with the tabloid proprietor of The Beast.
In 1930 Waugh became a Catholic, and later served as an ageing army officer. He combined these experiences in the magnificent Sword of Honour trilogy, Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961), which follows Guy Crouchback through many escapades during the Second World War, when Guy's faith is put to the test on the field of battle and in his own intimate relationships. No finer fictional testament of that conflict has appeared by an English writer.
Towards the end of his life Waugh became a caricature of the curmudgeonly country squire, fulminating in all directions. It was perhaps his finest creation; certainly no one but Waugh himself could have done it justice in fiction.