Evelyn Waugh drank his way through his time at Oxford, but he also found the inspiration for his most famous book, Brideshead Revisited. Alexander Waugh writes about Waugh's louche life with the Hypocrite Club
Evelyn Waugh's years spent as an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1920s have been characterised as a time devoid of academic effort and filled with pointless debauchery. But Waugh had no regrets and looked back on them as 'an Indian Summer,' and a 'Kingdom of Cockayne'. "I wanted to taste everything Oxford had to offer and consume as much as I could," he wrote in his autobiography 40 years later.
His nostalgic descriptions of the city, read as a voice-over in the rich and sombre tones of Jeremy Irons for the Granada Television production of Brideshead Revisited, has made Waugh's opinion of Oxford now famous throughout the world:
Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days – such as that day – when the chestnut was in flower, and the bells rang high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft vapours of a thousand years of learning.
But Waugh was not at Oxford to learn. Nor did he pretend to anyone that he was interested in trying to apply himself to his studies. In October 1924 an article appeared in The Sunday Times, entitled 'Youth's Protest – The Right to Satisfy Oneself'. The author is named as Alec Waugh, Evelyn's older brother, but since it is framed as 'a letter to a father' giving forceful reasons why enjoying oneself with friends at Oxford is much more important than getting a good degree, and since Alec Waugh never went to university, there are good reasons to suspect the guiding hand of Evelyn behind it. "I have done the minimum of work," the 'student' writes. "I am quite frank, you see. I confess to it. I have done practically no work at all. It is most unlikely that I shall get a second, though I shall be surprised if I do not get a third."
In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder's father sends his cousin, Jasper, to berate Charles for his idleness. In reality Arthur Waugh sent his elder son, Alec, to Oxford to remonstrate with his younger brother, Evelyn. In the novel, having listened to a long and priggish lecture on the dangers of alcohol and of falling into bad company, Ryder (Evelyn Waugh) replies to Jasper (Alec Waugh):
'I'm sorry Jasper, I know it must be embarrassing for you, but I happen to like this bad set. I like getting drunk at luncheon, and though I haven't yet spent quite double my allowance, I undoubtedly shall before the end of term. I usually have a glass of champagne about this time. Will you join me?'
If Waugh's father was concerned about his son's attitude to work and to the company he was keeping, so too was his tutor at Hertford College, Mr C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. Cruttwell attempted to squish Waugh in his first tutorial. Later, in an altercation between the two, Waugh told Cruttwell that he did not give a damn what the College authorities thought of him. Cruttwell promptly cut him loose, refusing to teach him anymore.
Four years after leaving Oxford, when Waugh was engaged to be married, Cruttwell wrote to the mother of the bride to say that Evelyn Waugh: "1. Lived off his parents; 2. Ill-treated his father; 3. Had no moral backbone or character; 4. Would soon cease to love his wife; 5. Would drag her down into the abysmal depths of Sodom and Gomorrah." Waugh's revenge was exacting. In four of his novels he introduced ludicrous and offensive characters called Cruttwell so that the don quailed every time a new Evelyn Waugh book was due to be published. But the last laugh came long after Cruttwell's death, in a memorable description from Waugh's autobiography, A Little Learning:
'Cruttwell's appearance was not prepossessing. He was tall, almost loutish, with the face of a petulant baby. He smoked a pipe which was usually attached to his blubber-lips by a thread of slime. As he removed the stem, waving it to emphasise his indistinct speech, this glittering connection extended until finally it broke leaving a dribble on his chin. When he spoke to me I found myself so distracted by the speculation of how far this line could be attenuated that I was often inattentive to his words.'
The so-called 'bad set' was largely made up of members of the Hypocrites Club – soon to be closed down by the authorities – whose members included the louche poet Brian Howard, 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', and the tall, strangely alien aesthete, Harold Acton, in love with the budding actor Tony Bushell. Both men were later fused to form the unforgettable character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited.
There were very few girls at the University in those days, but one, a Russian exhibitioner reading Modern Greats, became a staunch ally and loyal friend to Waugh. She was Tamara Abelson, the exiled daughter of a senior official in the Tsar's treasury at St Petersburg. She found herself alone and miserable in England. Ticked off by the authorities at St Hugh's for having tea with a man, she transferred to become a Home Student at St Anne's, living in a little cottage in Bath Place off Holywell. To counter her loneliness she bought herself an Alsatian dog called Ghost. Evelyn loved Ghost and he and Tamara became close friends during long walks across the meadows together. She admired Waugh's athleticism but deplored his drunkeness. After a sharp letter of reproach Waugh never appeared drunk in front of her again. Soon she was being assiduously courted by another of Evelyn's acquaintances from the Hypocrites Club, the Old Etonian archaeologist, David Talbot Rice.
If any jealousy existed between Waugh and Talbot Rice over Tamara, it has not been recorded by posterity. But Tamara revealed in an interview in 1991 that Talbot Rice only grew fond of Waugh after Oxford and through her influence. She and Talbot Rice married in 1927 and two years later she repaid Waugh's kindness to her at Oxford by taking him in after he had been deserted by his first wife.
The beautiful and rare books that Evelyn gave and inscribed to Tamara and David are to be offered at Bonhams in March. They are a testament to a deep and enduring friendship – one of several that Waugh made at the university. As he insisted to his father and to his tutor at the time, he went to Oxford not to gain academic honours but to enjoy himself and to make long-lasting friends:
'That, at any rate, Father, is the way in which I look at things. I am prepared to pay for my mistakes, but I have, I consider, the right to satisfy myself that they are mistakes and not, as I think them now, the ways of wisdom.'
Alexander Waugh is author of Fathers and Sons: the Autobiography of a Family, and is General Editor of a 42-volume edition, Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh.