Evelyn Waugh was born in Hampstead in 1903, son of Arthur Waugh, and brother of Alec Waugh, both novelists. He was educated at Lancing and read Modern History at Hertford College Oxford.
In 1928 he wrote Decline and Fall a satire of the preparatory school industry, followed in 1930 by Vile Bodies, another biting satire, this time of the
pre-war smart set, the "bright young things." (Recently filmified under that title)
Before the Second World War, Waugh travelled extensively, mostly in the "uncivilised" world - Africa, South America, and the Middle East. His books of this period are full of minute - but impersonal - observations of people and their behaviour, and make fascinating reading.
During the War, he commisioned in the Royal Marines, and served in the Middle East and Yugoslavia. This experience led to Put Out More Flags, and the Sword of Honour trilogy, which are all set in and around WW2, and are much darker than his previous works. The rich pre-war generation of "Bright Young Things" were changed by the War, and there are fewer places this was more keenly evoked than in Waugh's work.
Brideshead Revisited, considered by many his finest book, is the story of Charles Ryder, who, serving in the War, is billeted with his men in Brideshead Castle. This introduces us to the bulk of the story, which is an account of Ryder's time as an Oxford undergraduate, and his reckless, care-free lifestyle. However, as we all find out sooner or later, nothing lasts for ever. The prologue and epilogue, set in the War, place Ryder's coming of age in context with the collective loss of innocence that occured during the War.
This idea permeates all his post-war books, but only insofar as they affected his character and perceptions. He says: "I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. It is drama, speech and events which interest me."
Waugh was received into the Roman Catholic church in 1930, and his religion influences many of his books. In Brideshead Revisited, Ryder's "seduction by Brideshead Castle and its denizens is mereley the prelude to his improbable seduction by god," in the words of Anthony Burgess. The subject of the Sword of Honour trilogy, Guy Crouchback, is a Roman Catholic, and one of his lesser-know books, Helena is a fictionalised life of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who discovered the true Cross and saw Christianity become the religion of Rome.
Religion, along with a profound pessimism, greatly influences Waugh's later works, but it is important to remember that he saw the purpose of writing as the recording of "drama, speech and events," and thought that "the emotions ought to be the reader's - the consumer's." His world view only affects his novels insofar as it does his perception of the events he writes about.