HOW TO WRITE BIOGRAPHY LIKE EVELYN WAUGH


(And possibly a guide to how I wrote Evelyn!)





1) Choose someone with an anniversary coming up.

In April 1927, Evelyn Waugh realised that it would soon be 100 years since the birth of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).

2) Choose someone who had a similar background to yourself.

Rossetti’s mother, like Waugh’s, was practical and sympathetic, a devoted wife who had a close and consistent relationship with her sensitive son.

Rossetti’s father, like Waugh’s, was a literary man, a larger than life figure who specialised in flamboyantly interpreting passages of Dante. Waugh’s father was similarly effusive about Dickens.

3) Choose someone who looked like you.

Rossetti was 5 feet 7 inches tall, about the same height as Waugh. Rossetti had large oval eyes, an aquiline nose and a round, prominent brow. As did Waugh (see 4 if you need convincing).

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4) Choose someone who continued to look like you in later life and develop some of his most destructive habits.

Rossetti suffered from insomnia much of his life and took chloral to help get to sleep, leading to chloral poisoning in his 40s.

While writing
Rossetti, Waugh complained of not being able to sleep, a condition that continued to bother him. By the time he was 50, the combination of chloral and bromide he was washing down with alcohol every night led to the breakdown that he wrote about in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

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5) Choos
e someone who was made to look incredibly cool by another artist.

The watercolor below was painted by Max Beerbohm in 1922. It’s titled: Mr William Bell Scott wondering what it is those fellows seem to see in Gabriel.

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If anyone has ever wondered what it is those fellows seem to see in Evelyn, consider the following words that were written by the aforementioned Beerbohm in reply to a letter from Waugh following their meeting in 1947.

Dear Evelyn Waugh, You are wrong about the 'high privilege'. It was mine. And you are wrong about 'homage' too; for you are a far more gifted man than I ever was. And again you are wrong in supposing that I had not read Brideshead Revisited: I had done so at the time when it was first published, and I remember well the great outward brilliance of it and the inward strength and depth. I shall now read it again, for I am one of those who have the leisure to read a book for the interest of the writer's use of language. And you are a master of language.’

6) Crib the opening line from another writer’s book, making pedantic changes so that the plagiarism is not immediately obvious.

H. C. Marillier (1904):
‘Dante Gabriel, or to give him his full christening name, Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, was born on May 12th, 1828, at no. 38, Charlotte Street, Portland Place, and was the second of four children, all born in successive years.’

Evelyn Waugh (1928):
‘Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, as he was christened – Dante Gabriel, as he afterwards chose to be called – was born on May 12th, 1828, at No. 38 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, the second of four children born in successive years.’

7) Use quotes for a fair chunk of the copy.

Chapter three of
Rossetti takes up 48 pages of the 220-page book. As much as 35% of the chapter consists of direct quotation. While 11 people are quoted, John Ruskin alone writes almost 10% of the chapter. Waugh didn’t even bother to copy this material into his manuscript. He cut whole pages out of other people’s books and stuck them in his own. Page 82, for example, was written entirely by Ford Madox Brown except for Waugh’s connecting phrase: ‘And another:’.

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8) Take the most disgusting thing your subject did and find a way of doing something similar yourself.

Women played a large part in both Rossetti’s and Waugh’s lives.
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In 1862, Rossetti placed a book of his poems into the coffin of his dead wife, Lizzie Siddal, between her cheek and her hair. A couple of years later he painted the superb Beata Beatrix, based on memories and drawings of his deceased wife:
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A moving image, not least because in the background of the painting Dante is staring at Beatrice, timelessly. But in 1870 Rossetti had his wife’s body exhumed in order to retrieve his book of poems. Needless to say, the book was worm-holed and in need of fumigation.

Waugh’s change of mind was cleaner. In 1928, he dedicated
Rossetti to his wife Evelyn Gardner. When the book was reprinted in 1931, after she had left him for another man, the dedication was quietly omitted.

Moral of both artists’ actions? The work is a separate thing. And it comes first.

9) Work in the same building your subject worked, without telling the reader (who’ll find out when your personal diaries are published).

In the Library of the Oxford Union in 1857, Rossetti painted the murals that can still be seen between the first-floor bookshelves and the ceiling decorated by William Morris.

In the same place 70 years later, Waugh put together several chapters of his biography on one of the large tables in the ground floor reading room.

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Above: Max Beerbohm (1922): The sole remark likely to have been made by Benjamin Jowett about the mural paintings at the Oxford Union: ”And what were they going to do with the Grail once they found it, Mr. Rossetti.”
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10) Come to an unambiguous but obscure conclusion about your subject’s character.

From the penultimate page of Waugh’s
Rossetti:

‘It is not so much that as a man he was a bad man – mere lawless wickedness has frequently been a concomitant of the highest genius – but there was fatally lacking in him that
essential rectitude that underlies the serenity of all really great art.’

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11) Make it clear on the last page of the manuscript how much you enjoyed writing the book:

‘The End. Thank God.’

12) Come across a juxtaposition of watercolor and photograph that puts everything in perspective.

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Above: Mr William Bell Scott wondering what it is those fellows seem to see in Gabriel.
Below: Mrs Evelyn Waugh explaining to the gardener that in his youth her husband used to be so funny.
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13) Come across a caricature by the subject that shows how he would have felt coming across his own biographer’s corpse, 97 years on.

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Transcription:
“I never reared a young Waughmbat.
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tail-less, he was sure to die!”

This brings to mind a quote from near the beginning of Rossetti that seems to sum up the art of biography:

‘We have discovered a jollier way of honoring our dead. The corpse has become the marionette. With bells on its fingers and wires on its toes it is jigged about to a period dance of our own piping; and who is not amused.’

14) So, once again, if that really is ‘How To Write Biography Like Evelyn Waugh’, does it give a guide as to how I wrote Evelyn! ?

There is only one way to find out. Buy, read…

evelyn! final cover - Version 2

…laugh, ponder, review and plan a biography of your own.

Last words to Mark E. Smith of The Fall from the song 'How I Wrote Elastic Man':

"But in the town
They'll stop me in the shops
Verily they'll track me down
Touch my shoulder and ignore my dumb mission
And sick red-faced smile
And they will ask me...
And they will ask me...
HOW I WROTE "PLASTIC MAN"
HOW I WROTE "PLASTIC MAN"
HOW I WROTE "PLASTIC MAN"
HOW I WROTE
"PLASTIC.... MAN...."