Evelyn Waugh’s diaries, published after his death, record much of his post-Oxford existence. Much of that existence, at least for the years between 1924 and 1928, revolved loosely around a young man named Alistair Graham, forever immortalized in print through Waugh’s character from Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian Flyte. Evelyn courted women in this period, and married his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, in 1928, but it was Alistair who was, as Evelyn put it, “the friend of my heart”. The two men traveled together, went shopping together, drank and laughed at one another, just as Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte were to do twenty years later in Waugh’s book. Alistair, like Sebastian, was born of a rich family, and had been born into wealth— specifically, he was born in Bucknell Manor. Alistair’s usual home, Barford, became Evelyn’s refuge when he was writing Decline and Fall, his first popular work. In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder finds a parallel solace at Brideshead Castle.
However, as fans of Brideshead Revisited know, Charles and Sebastian grow distant. Evelyn’s real-life romance deteriorated over time as well. Alistair’s mother, Mrs. Graham (referred to in Evelyn’s diaries as “Mrs. G”) grated on Alistair. Evelyn never elaborated on what particularly Mrs. Graham said toward her son, but mentioned how much “noise” she made whenever she was around. Alistair frequently left the country in order to escape her. “Today we had to go through the heartbreaking business of buying Alistair’s tickets to Kenya,” Waugh wrote on June 25, 1924. Alistair traveled to Constantinople and Italy as well, seeking refuge from his mother in foreign places and in drink, precisely as Sebastian does. “Mrs. G” frequently wrote to Evelyn, desperate letters in which she begged him to convince her son to return for the holidays. It is unclear from the diaries if, as in Brideshead Revisited, this connection with Alistair’s mother drove the two men apart, but it is certain that Alistair grew more distant and more consistently drunk, and that Evelyn began to complain that Alistair annoyed him with his behavior. One spring, Alistair disappeared from Barford for days before finally being found in a pub some miles away. Another time, he fled to Paris without telling anyone.
In Brideshead Revisited, Charles watches helplessly as his friend descends into bouts of drunkenness in which he shuns Charles, even as Charles tries to speak with him. Charles himself remains in the reader’s favor: as he grows older, his own drinking becomes more infrequent and he adopts a more mature attitude toward life, attending art school and becoming a studious young painter, giving up revels in favor of working toward his goal of painting for a living. After reading Evelyn’s diaries, it becomes clear that Charles is a model of what Evelyn might have been. In 1924, Evelyn began to attend Heatherly’s drawing school, with the goal of improving his sketching— a skill he had been honing in his amateur way since his days in Lancing public school. Unlike Charles, though, Evelyn’s trips to the school soon became infrequent— his diary is full of entries in which he rewards himself for drawing well by going to nightlong drinking parties with his old friends from Oxford. Eventually, Evelyn ceased going altogether, and instead lapsed into a habit of drunken late nights, parties, and hangovers. It is tempting to suggest that, in reflecting on this time, Waugh decided that Charles should be what he couldn’t be for Alistair: sober, and willing to help.
Though Evelyn remained friends with Alistair into the 1930s, the peak of their friendship had passed by 1927. Evelyn got married to Evelyn Gardner (upon his proposal he asked her to marry him “and see how it goes”), then divorced; he found a new, more advantaged crowd with the success of his first novel. Later, he joined the Roman Catholic Church. Alistair moved to Cairo.
It is tragic, then, to read on through the later decades, to find no mention of Alistair at all. Waugh’s diaries grow remote and incomplete; the paragraphs-per-day of 1924 shorten themselves to bullet points by the forties. Evelyn’s second wife, Laura, is hardly ever mentioned even in his journals, and he never spoke again of anyone as he did Alistair. Throughout the rest of his life, the whimsy remains lost, the happiness, it would seem, gone. The diaries become nearly dull, a catalogue of minor dinners and friends whose names appear once or twice, never elaborated on. To be fair, it was a stressful, uncertain time for many people, and with such discontent in the air politically, it was probably hard for anyone to be sentimental, or romantic, or whimsical.
There was a brief period, though, in 1944, when Waugh’s diary entries lengthened for a time, when his entries became inflamed briefly with excitement: when he was on leave from the military, writing Brideshead Revisited.