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Tymon Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Footnote: Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh

He was once described as “the nastiest-tempered” man in England, but for many readers Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was one of the great prose stylists of his time.

Born today in 1903, Waugh was the son of a publisher and served briefly as a schoolteacher before turning to writing full time with the publication of his first novel Decline and Fall in 1928.

He once said, “Anyone could write a novel given six weeks, pen, paper, and no telephone or wife.” He was married twice and had seven children. He’s most remembered for his debut novel, as well as A Handful of Dust, his most well-known book Brideshead Revisited and his trilogy of war novels collected as Sword of Honour.

Waugh, like his contemporary Graham Greene, also wrote several travel stories for newspapers about Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

Raised as an Anglican, Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930 and remained a devoted and staunch adherent of the church who was opposed to the changes made after the Second Vatican Council.

He served in the army during World War 2 and had a mental breakdown in the 1950s after extended drug dependence that saw his health deteriorate and led to him hearing voices while on board a ship travelling to Sri Lanka.

While he continued to publish throughout the ’50s until his death in 1966, his later works were not well received by the public or critics. When he died, Greene wrote that Waugh had been “the greatest novelist of my generation”.

The publication of his diaries, in 1973, led to a new interest in his work that resulted in the Granada Television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in 1982, which was a huge critical and popular success in both Britain and the US.

 

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