Saturday, August 15, 2009
Mr. Waugh's Gay Lovers
Soon to be released is a new biography by Paula Byrne about the British novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), author of Brideshead Revisited (1945) and many other books. Evelyn (pronounced "EVE-lin" not "EV-a-lin," as my British friend CC corrected me) Waugh isn't well known in the US except among the literati, but he is still widely read in the UK. I enjoyed reading Brideshead, and bklynbiblio readers may recall my review of the 2008 movie version. The new biography is called Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead. From the title alone, it sounds like a tell-all book that reveals juicy tidbits about his life. Sure enough, the Daily Mail has already picked up on one of the juiciest: Waugh had 3 homosexual lovers when he was a student at Oxford. Byrne names them too: Richard Pares, Alistair Graham, and Hugh Lygon (can you find names more British?). Now, on one level, this news is interesting, considering Waugh was later married twice and fathered 8 children, but also because it provides readers with a better personalized sense of Waugh's involvement with Oxford love affairs and homosexuality in general, such as how he portrays them in Brideshead. Byrne, in fact, suggests that 2 of his lovers became the models for the character of Sebastian Flyte. Waugh brought personal details of his life into his work, such as his Catholicism, and thus his bisexuality now can be seen as an active part of his personal composition and his literature. But why does this news have to be presented as if it were a great scandal? The fact that the Daily Mail extracts just this part of the biography into an article suggests a sort of National Enquirer take on this great novelist's life. Furthermore, the insistence that such affairs were just a part of his Oxford days, emphasizing their temporality, a "phase you grew out of," reinforces outdated notions that homosexuality is a choice, when for most homosexuals it is a sense of identity. Indeed, reading Brideshead it becomes clear that Waugh was well aware of this distinction: Charles dabbles in homosexuality, but characters like Sebastian and Blanche suffer for their innate homosexuality as marginalized, self-destructive figures, which is one of the great tragedies of that novel. To me, that is a much more interesting story. The point is that it's 2009: are we really shocked to discover that a famous British novelist who went to Oxford had homosexual lovers? Hardly. But instead of tabloidizing it and then apologizing for it, isn't it time we took a look at how such critical aspects of one's life (Waugh himself referred to these affairs as a form of fermentation, "to prepare you for later on--for being married") played themselves out as constructive aspects of gender and sexual identity, both in his writing and in the culture and society in which he lived? Or am I expecting too much?