BOOK REVIEW / The man who might even be shot: Evelyn Waugh: A Biography - Selina Hastings: Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 20

'FURNITURE is so useful,' observed Evelyn Waugh's mother Kate. 'He would have been happier designing furniture'. It is startling to discover that even after the beginnings of his literary career, with his biography of Rossetti completed and Decline and Fall under way, Waugh still believed that his real future lay in cabinet-making. His fascination with elegant craftsmanship began in infancy with his mother's sewing box, its minute compartments and accessories, and continued all his life, becoming a metaphor for his other preoccupations, writing and Catholicism.

Evelyn was born in Hampstead in 1903, the second son of Arthur and Kate Waugh. Arthur worked in publishing, loved literature, amateur theatricals and cricket. He was the author of several books, including a life of Tennyson and a series of bicycling poems. Kate was a devoted wife, mother and homemaker, reacting against her disorderly upbringing. They were mild, kindly people, and Selina Hastings' account of their marriage, with its innocent pleasures and modest aspirations, is infinitely touching. Evelyn, as an adult, saw them as shamefully Pooterish; he despised his father's literary achievements and resented his preference for his older brother Alec. Alec, meanwhile, noted Evelyn's resemblance to Lupin Pooter and was entertained.

After a happy childhood spent racketing round Hampstead Heath, Evelyn endured the rigours of public school at Lancing. Here he was unpopular, arrogant, sharp-tongued and devoid of team spirit. Although he was writing prolifically by the time he was 16, his greater interests were in calligraphy and book binding. Lifelong misanthropy had set in: 'the increased insight into people's characters led, I found, mainly to increased dislike'.

A history scholarship to Oxford began three years of resolute idleness in that 'deregulated nursery', where he formed intense and lasting friendships with other newly liberated drinkers, including Frank Pakenham, Harold Acton, John Betjeman, Anthony Powell and Hugh Lygon, whose family was the source of the Marchmains in Brideshead, written 20 years later. Through these friends he became familiar with the great country houses of old Catholic families, which offered him an ideal of aesthetic and spiritual continuity, a domestic counterpart to the Church.

Waugh left Oxford with many debts and a third. A wretched period of teaching was made tolerable by drinking bouts in London and Oxford, and concluded abruptly by a commission to write a biography of Rossetti and a vague job on the Express. With the acceptance of Decline and Fall, he abandoned thoughts of cabinet-making for writing and after a long engagement married She-Evelyn, flirtatious, lively, reader of 'Prousty-wousty' and owner of a handbag which was shaped like a Pekinese and known as Androcles. In Islington they played house; a friend likened them to a pair of squirrels with their 'round eyes and reddish nutkin colouring'. Both had married to escape from their families and to set some order on their lives. He-Evelyn spent periods of solitude writing in country hotels; She-Evelyn, lonely and depressed, returned to flirtation and parties. Inevitably, the marriage collapsed. Horribly shocked to find himself divorced, Waugh embarked on seven years of travels of increasing improbability and pointlessness, funded by various newspapers and publishers.

Vile Bodies had been well received but his travel pieces were not successful; as Selina Hastings observes, Conrad's dictum that the writer should study human nature in unfamiliar surroundings to avoid superficiality simply didn't work for Waugh. He wrote best about the world he knew best.

But in such a time of emotional chaos, despair and accidie he found that the Catholic church offered an 'unarguable historical truth', with discipline and order leading to salvation through a series of dove-tailing doctrines; the priest was the craftsman. He was admitted to the Church on 'firm intellectual conviction'.

At last, after the protracted anulment of his marriage, he was able to marry Laura Herbert and achieve a stable, loving home life in the country. Almost immediately war was declared and his life was again fragmented. He knew active service once only, in Crete, and was disgusted by what he saw as the cowardice of the British Army. Due to his unbridled obnoxiousness, he was never given responsibility. Indeed, it was suggested that he would be shot, and not by the enemy, if he attempted any form of leadership. Although he was able to write for long periods through the war and spent a surprising amount of time with Laura and friends, he came out of the Army in deep depression into an England which had changed forever. For 20 more years he wrote and drank and tortured himself and others, none the less sustaining his old friendships and tolerating rather than enjoying family life with six children and the silent Laura, who had become obsessed with her herd of cows. He died on Easter Sunday 1966, after Mass, at home, in unusually good spirits. His family said that he wanted to die. He had said 'I believe that man is by nature an exile and will never be self- sufficient or complete on this earth.'

Selina Hastings has written a remarkable biography, uncensorious but never indulgent. Her style is supremely elegant and her eye for detail brings dazzle and wit to every page. She is admirably unintrusive to the narrative, allowing incidents and individuals to speak for themselves; in the 600-odd pages she steps forward twice only, once to be a little sharp on Diana Cooper, 'voracious for admiration, indifferent to sexual love', and once, when a friend remarks apropos of Laura that 'wives must have some life of their own', she comments 'there was never to be much chance of that'. Indeed it would have been interesting to learn how Laura endured or enjoyed those long lonely years and so many pregnancies engendered but often unwanted by Evelyn, who saw children as 'defective adults' of inferior worth to his library: 'A child is easily replaced, while a book destroyed is utterly lost.'

Discussion of the books is brief and to the point, linking Waugh's life and associates to his fiction. She is sympathetic and lucid on his very personal version of Catholicism and its particular role in Brideshead and the Sword of Honour trilogy. She is also wildly funny on the bizarre language of Helena, notably when the Emperor Constantine mentions his formal green wig: 'just a little thing I popped on this morning. I have quite a collection.

You must ask to see them. Some of them are very pretty.'

This is a monumental book, leisured but never monotonous. She says in her foreword that she aims to give an impression of what it was like to know Evelyn Waugh, even what it was like to be Evelyn Waugh, and certainly one has by the end of the book a most powerful sense of someone who has just gone: not merely the lasting image that Waugh offers of himself - 'I saw myself in a mirror . . . like a red lacquer Chinese dragon, and saw how I shall look when I die' - but a complex striving and solitary soul. Could he have been happier as a furniture-maker? Never.