We could not provide an adequate account of our university’s unusual literary past without mentioning the man who established the Oxford stereotype that remains ingrained in the minds of the public today. Undergraduates applying to Oxford probably envisage an indulgent existence of champagne luncheons, decadent excess and diamond-encrusted tortoises, but they could not be more mistaken (except perhaps for the unconventional choice of college pets).
Evelyn Waugh, it would seem, not only wrote about the decadence of upper class society, but lived it too. His thoughtful, satiric portrayals of the aristocratic way of life in novels such as Brideshead Revisited were partly fuelled by first hand experience. Arguably, it was his time at Oxford that shaped the literary satirist that we have come to know so well.
Waugh’s talent for writing manifested itself at an early age. At seven, he had already become the author of his first work, ‘The Curse of the Race Horse’. His genius did not go unnoticed: Waugh, at least, thought himself ‘quite a clever little boy’. This confidence no doubt came in handy in the intellectual environment of Oxford.
Waugh’s elder brother, Alec, had followed family tradition and attended Sherborne. Unfortunately he was expelled after his homosexual relationship with another pupil was revealed. Alec subsequently wrote the novel The Loom of Youth, based on the homosexual goings on at Sherborne. This book proved so controversial that Evelyn was denied admission to the school, instead attending Lancing in 1917. At school, Evelyn went against the current and set up the satiric Corpse Club to parody the cadet corps ‘for those who were weary of life’.
At Oxford, Waugh enjoyed the social scene offered by his new university. He told a friend that ‘I do no work here and never go to Chapel’.Waugh also became secretary of the Hertford debating society, spoke at the Union and wrote for the Cherwell and Isis. He joined The Hypocrites’ Club, the centre of Oxford’s gay and artistic scene. Drinking and socialising formed the basis of his weekly activities.
The pressure of maintaining all of these extracurricular pursuits landed him with a third in History. His bohemian approach to work sparked a dispute between the writer and his history tutor, C.R.M.F Cruttwell, who also happened to be the Dean of his college. They plunged into a bitter battle and the Dean formed the basis for many of Waugh’s loathsome characters. Waugh’s poor academic effort lost him a scholarship and stopped him from returning to Oxford to finish his degree.
Despite this Waugh went on to achieve fame and fortune with the Oxford-inspired Brideshead Revisited. He is remembered as a successful satirical novelist, arguably one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th century. He is a reminder that working hard here is not everything: experience is key.