The acute emotional pain caused by his first wife’s infidelity was of priceless service to Evelyn Waugh as a novelist, says Paul Johnson
Evelyn Waugh died, aged 62, in 1966, and his reputation has risen steadily ever since. His status as the finest English prose-writer of the 20th century is now being marked by an annotated complete edition of his works, sumptuously published by the Oxford University Press. As a prolegomenon, Penguin is issuing another complete edition in hardback, the first eight volumes of which are now available, priced £20 each. They include his life of Rossetti, three travel books, Labels, Remote People and Ninety-two Days, and his first four novels, Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust. These books, published between 1928 and 1934, cover his emergence as a major novelist.
Waugh’s gifts as a storyteller are now so obvious to us, and fit so well into his overwhelming personality, that it is impossible to think of him as anything else. But he might not have become a novelist at all. He came down from Oxford having acquired expensive tastes in cigars, wine, travel and rich company, and for many years his main concern was how to earn enough to indulge them.
As his father was a publisher and his elder brother an established author of fiction, writing was clearly the family trade. But this might have operated strongly against taking it up, had cash been easily come by in other ways. He was drawn more to the visual arts than to writing, and illustrated several of his earlier books. What he respected was craftsmanship, and his happiest days, he later said, were spent learning to be a carpenter. Indeed the aspect of writing which appealed most to him, all his life, was the choice and manipulation of words, and the carving of sentences and paragraphs.