“When the final reviews—that is, the obituaries—came in, Evelyn Waugh’s were mixed. His literary accomplishments were noted, so too his Catholic apologetics, but heavy emphasis was put upon his reactionary views and his snobbery. Waugh’s son Auberon, responding to these notices, countered that they were wrong about his father’s snobbery (he scarcely cared about pedigree) and his politics (“politics bored him”), and missed the main point about him: “[i]t is simply that he was the funniest man of his generation.”

Quite so, though it needs to be added that in the case of Evelyn Waugh funny was not always the same as amusing. Amusing suggests light, whimsical, charming. P.G. Wodehouse is amusing. Waugh’s humor tended to the dark, and, given his often gratuitous pugnacity, usually had a victim, or at least an edge. When the favorite of his seven children, his daughter Margaret, wished to live on her own, he told her “you are no more ready for independence than the Congo.” After Randolph Churchill had what turned out to be a benign tumor removed through surgery, Waugh remarked that it was the only thing about Randolph that wasn’t malignant and they removed it. When someone called his attention to a typographical error in one of his books, he replied that one cannot get any decent proofreading now “that they no longer defrock priests for sodomy.” Waugh’s humor was also strong in the line of mischief. While serving in the British army in Yugoslavia during World War II, he spread the rumor that Marshal Tito was a woman—and a lesbian into the bargain. Of his teaching at a boys school in Wales he claimed to take “a certain perverse pleasure in making all I teach as dreary to the boys as it is to myself.” When his friend and fellow convert Ronald Knox asked him if he, Knox, seemed to nod off while giving a lecture, Waugh replied that indeed he did, but only for “twenty minutes.” He described travel to Mexico as “like sitting in a cinema, seeing the travel film of a country one has no intention of visiting.” Of the reception in America of his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), he wrote: “My book has been a great success in the United States which is upsetting because I thought it in good taste before and now I know it can’t be.”

Waugh soon enough acquired a reputation for social ruthlessness, a ruthlessness nicely abetted by his heavy drinking. “Even his close friends were not spared,” Nancy Mitford wrote. “He criticized everyone fiercely and was a terrible tease, but he set about it in such an amusing way that his teasing was easily forgiven…”

Read it all: