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Novelist Evelyn Waugh still wows, even today

By Dana Trismen

Section: Arts

October 28, 2011

You wouldn’t normally think that Evelyn Waugh, usually shown in photographs as a middle-aged, portly man, could possibly inspire bonding between mostly normal college-aged students. I for one have always been a huge fan of this English author’s novels and, upon discovering my roommate’s interested in him, I’ve decided to unearth as many facts about Waugh as possible.

Born Oct. 28, 1903, Waugh released his most famous works in the early 1930s and died April 10, 1966. His masterpieces include “A Handful of Dust,” “Brideshead Revisited” and “Scoop.” Like many of his characters, Waugh attended Oxford. He led a wild lifestyle, at one point writing to his friends that he had been “living very intensely these last three weeks. For the last fortnight I have been nearly insane.”

Waugh was recognized as a great writer relatively early in his career and soon could charge large fees for his journalism; later, the Royal Marines commissioned him during World War II. Waugh’s postwar years remained glorious until his breakdown around 1953, which was caused by his popularity as a writer declining. He became poor and arguably insane until doctors discovered he was actually suffering from bromide poisoning, the result of drugs he’d been giving himself. Waugh, a staunch religious convert, eventually died from heart failure while attending Mass.

As a creative writing major, part of what interested me in Waugh is the way he integrates his everyday life into his writing. As a young man, Waugh had many aristocratic friends and loved the culture that surrounded them. This is reflected in many of his works. For example, in “Brideshead Revisited,” this is what draws Charles, the main character, to charismatic, rich Sebastian. Waugh also converted his religion to Catholicism after the failure of his first marriage, which is reflected by the level of religious tension present in his novels. Indeed, some of his novels are even referred to as “Catholic books.” I empathize with Waugh because I often feel as though my fiction constantly reflects my own life, no matter how hard I try.

So why Waugh and why right now? Though he attained a new following after the film version of “Brideshead Revisited” was released, it’s still been more than 50 years since his death. Despite that, Waugh seems increasingly relevant, and not just to me—my roommate instantly recognized him by name. Now we’re planning to read each other’s Waugh novels and to watch the movie adaptations together. We occasionally stroll around Brandeis people watching, pointing out those who look like they could be characters in a Waugh novel (i.e., attractive, popped collar, upper-class). We are even considering adding “Waugh Wednesdays” to our weekly schedule.

“Brideshead Revisited” especially relates well to the current modern-day college student. Its protagonist, Charles, is a student at Oxford, experimenting for the first time with freedom, alcohol, sex and making a name for himself. This idea can easily be transposed to the modern day; college students still experience basically the same problems.

One could also argue that Waugh is creating storylines similar to “Gossip Girl”—just in a totally different time period. “Gossip Girl” entrances millions of viewers and readers with its display of fancy clothing and upper-class life. Waugh does the same, just more eloquently and without quite as much hooking-up. Waugh’s ideas are timeless, as are his novels.

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