The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War
Random House, 2008
288 pp., $26.00
Reviewed by Nathaniel Peters
Not the Same Man
George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh were very different men, yet in their critique of the modern age they were of one mind. That, in a nutshell, is the message of David Lebedoff's The Same Man: George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love and War. Lebedoff takes the reader on a richly researched yet fast-paced walk through the lives and ideas of his two subjects, and in its biographical endeavors, the book succeeds admirably. But the simplicity with which Lebedoff streamlines their lives does not give his subjects' beliefs the nuance they deserve.
Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell (Orwell was a pseudonym for Eric Blair) were both born in 1903 to families of status in an age when, Lebedoff writes, "Life was a scoreboard, and each person's score was posted at birth." After a happy childhood at home—the "golden country" of 1984—Orwell attended a boarding school where he was absolutely miserable. His schoolmates hated him for having less money than they, and he came to feel that he would always be a failure in life. He was, however, successful enough to attend Eton College as a King's Scholar—the most prestigious scholarship at the most prestigious school in Britain. One might have expected him to go up to Oxford and become a man of letters or finance. But he rejected the whole stratum he had entered and shipped off to Burma to join the imperial administration.
In the loneliness of the colonies Orwell had time to collect the thoughts he would one day publish. Upon returning to England, he worked in the poorest and most wretched conditions he could find. These experiences provided the fodder for his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, as well as those still to come. Orwell would then marry Eileen O'Shaunnessey, who accompanied him to Spain to fight with the socialists against Franco. The two barely escaped with their lives and settled in squalor in Wallington. It was as an essayist and reviewer that Orwell made his mark. His early fiction did not have great success, though all that changed with Animal Farm in 1944.
Orwell's path stands in sharp contrast to that of Evelyn Waugh. "To say that Evelyn Waugh was a social climber," Lebedoff writes, "is to describe Everest as a hill." Where Orwell had been bullied, Waugh was the bully. He was older when he entered a boarding school, which may have accounted, in part, for the differences in their academic experiences. After boarding school, Waugh attended Lancing, and though the school was less prestigious than Eton, he was one of the wealthier students.
From Lancing, Waugh went up to Oxford, where his social climbing began in earnest. He made up for not having attended Eton by associating primarily with Etonian aesthetes. Through it all, Waugh kept a diary, which he would mine in writing his stories later: the adventures at Oxford for Brideshead Revisited; his year teaching in Wales for Decline and Fall; and the following years in London with the Bright Young People for Vile Bodies. Along the way, Waugh married Evelyn Gardner—he-Evelyn and she-Evelyn, they were called—though the two divorced a year later after she-Evelyn's adultery.
The endless parties and marital infidelity had taken their toll on Waugh. Vile Bodies, writes Lebedoff, is about "the vacuity of life without faith." Waugh found the answer to this hopelessness and vacuity in Roman Catholicism, converting the same year he published Vile Bodies and divorced Evelyn Gardner. Though his cruel manners remained much the same, his life was decidedly changed: "Ten years of that world sufficed to show that life there, or anywhere, was unintelligible or unendurable without God … . My life since then has been an endless delightful tour of discovery in the huge area of which I was made free."
When World War II broke out, both Waugh and Orwell sought to fight totalitarianism not only with words, but with tangible weapons too. Though neither was initially deemed fit for military service—Orwell was too sick and Waugh too irascible—Orwell joined the Home Guard and Waugh served as an officer under Winston Churchill's son Randolph in Croatia. Two of the funniest stories in the book come from this period. One night while enemy planes strafed from above, Waugh, wearing a white duffle coat "which might have been designed to attract fire," ran from the command's quarters to the ditch where Churchill hid. Orwell, meanwhile, had become a war correspondent in liberated Paris. To protect himself from assassination by Communists, he went unannounced to Ernest Hemingway's room at the Ritz and asked to borrow a pistol. Hemingway didn't think much of his worries, but admired Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and loaned him his Colt .32.