A star-studded new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 novel Decline and Fall is headed to BBC One in what star Jack Whitehall describes as: “an anarchic Downton Abbey”.
Joining Whitehall – better known for his stand-up comedy and panel show appearances – in Decline and Fall are Eva Longoria and David Suchet.
But who was Evelyn Waugh, the man who wrote Decline and Fall?
Here are five things you may not know about him:
Decline and Fall was Waugh’s first published novel
Decline and Fall was published in 1927 by Chapman and Hall – the first of Waugh’s novels to find its way into print.
Waugh had previously written another novel, The Temple at Thatch, but this had never been published. Having begun to write it during his last year as a student at Hertford College, Oxford, Waugh destroyed the manuscript in dramatic fashion, burning it after receiving unfavourable critiques.
Apart from some short stories published in university magazines, Waugh’s first full-length publication was a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
He came from a literary family
Evelyn Waugh was born in Hampstead, London in 1903. His father, Arthur, was at that time managing director of publishing company Chapman and Hall – which later published Decline and Fall.
Evelyn was not the only author in the family. His older brother, Alec, was also a novelist. Evelyn, however, would go on to eclipse them all, publishing 17 novels, along with multiple short stories, several biographies and travel memoirs, during his 40-year writing career.
Among his most famous works are Fleet Street satire Scoop, Vile Bodies, a critique of inter-war London Society, and Brideshead Revisited, the 1981 televised adaptation of which introduced Waugh to a new audience.
He declined a CBE
In 1959, Evelyn Waugh was offered a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. He turned it down – reportedly because it wasn’t a knighthood.
Waugh is not the only famous name of the 20th century to decline an honour. In 2012 a Freedom of Information request listed those who had declined an honour in either the New Year’s or Birthday honours lists between 1951 and 1999 and who had subsequently died.
Amongst Waugh’s fellow authors, Roald Dahl turned down an OBE in 1986, I, Claudius author Robert Graves turned down both a CBE and a Companion of Honour and Aldous Huxley turned down a knighthood.
In the realm of arts, director Alfred Hitchcock joined Waugh in declining a CBE in 1962’s New Year’s Honours List, while iconic painter L S Lowry turned down a total of five honours over a 21-year span, including a CBE twice, a knighthood and a Companion of Honour twice.
His real name was Arthur – and his wife was also called Evelyn
Evelyn was really Waugh’s middle name. He had been named after his father Arthur and his full name was Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh. He was always known personally and professionally as Evelyn, a fact that could have come in tricky when he met his first wife – who was also called Evelyn.
In 1927, Waugh married Evelyn Gardner, and there were two Evelyn Waughs. Any confusion was soon removed as friends referred to them as ‘He-Evelyn’ and ‘She-Evelyn’ respectively. The marriage only lasted two short years, before being annulled in 1936. The marriage was annulled – rather than dissolved by divorce – as Waugh had converted to Catholicism in 1930.
In 1937, Waugh married again – this time a woman with a name different than his own, Laura.
Decline and Fall is semi-autobiographical – sort of
After leaving Oxford University without completing his degree, Waugh started a career as a schoolmaster in North Wales – much like Paul Pennyfeather, the lead character of Decline and Fall, who is played by Jack Whitehall in the BBC adaptation.
While Pennyfeather finds himself rusticated from the august academic institution after a drunken mishap involving the Bollinger Club – a thinly disguised version of the notorious Bullingdon Club – Waugh’s departure from Oxford was less spectacular. He had started university late, and so lacked the required number of months’ residence to graduate. He had done poorly in his exams, so couldn’t return for a last term to gain his residence requirement.
Waugh’s first teaching job was at Arnold House, in North Wales. Decline and Fall’s Pennyfeather arrives to teach at Llanabba School - also in Wales.
However, other aspects of the plot – including the thrilling denouement – were entirely fictional.