Nobs and Snobs

Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903–1939

by Martin Stannard
Norton, 537 pp., $24.95

A shilling life will tell you all the facts, according to Auden. Martin Stannard’s rather more expensive biography will tell you more facts than you probably want to know about Evelyn Waugh. Five hundred pages, for the early years alone, seems a lot. And much of the relevant material is already available in print. We have, for the first twenty-one years, Waugh’s autobiographical volume, A Little Learning (1964). There are Michael Davie’s edition of the Diaries (1976) and Mark Amory’s of the Letters (1980). And all that has the advantage of being written in Waugh’s own astringent and startling prose, so that we can read with pleasure, even if we feel no strong interest in the writer’s not-especially-eventful life. There is also Christopher Sykes’s Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1975). Sykes knew Waugh well, and was a good writer himself. Why not leave it at that?

Martin Stannard faces that question bravely and answers it firmly, in his preface:

The most avid Waugh fanatics might throw up their hands in despair at this news. Is there not quite enough on the market already without another book on the man? Do we need another biography? I believe we do.

I found myself murmuring, well he would, wouldn’t he? Yet that does not dispose of the matter. This biography is a different kind of thing from the Sykes one. Sykes was elegant and discreet. Stannard is neither. Also, Stannard is able to draw on a range of material—published, unpublished, and interviews—which Sykes either did not have or did not want to use. Stannard is a biographer of the dogged type; I was reminded of Herbert Lottman’s Albert Camus (1979). The reader gets more facts than he feels he wants, and sometimes more facts than he feels he can bear; but among the facts are some interesting ones that the reader would not have got had the biographer been less dogged. And in the end the subject looks significantly different from what it did before it got explored with doggedness.

The trouble is that if you, the reader, are to benefit from dogged biography, you have to get a bit dogged yourself. I must confess that, if I had not been commissioned by The New York Review to review this book, I would probably not have got beyond the first two chapters—about ancestors, background, and so on—which are pretty boring.

Still, it is worthwhile to persevere. The book gets a lot more interesting later on, when Waugh himself comes in. Indeed from that point on, the biography becomes infused, in a special way, with Waugh’s own comedy of manners. There are rich contrasts between Waugh’s own manner and the manner of the biographer commenting on Waugh. Quite often the ghost of Waugh seems to be teasing and tormenting his biographer, and forcing him to sound like a character in a Waugh novel.

The comedy is quite rich and complex …

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