A friend once described Evelyn Waugh as possessing "an odious, indeed a psychopathic character". Waugh listed his own faults in a letter to his eventual wife - "I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve" - on his suitability for marriage, "I can't advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me." Yet Graham Greene declared the author of Brideshead Revisited, the Sword of Honour trilogy, and Decline and Fall "the greatest novelist of my generation", an opinion echoed by Robert Henriques, who called Waugh "the best writer of our generation, both morally and in ways I can't define." Waugh himself understood the complementarity of his famously difficult personality and his craft: "Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice - all the odious qualities - which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew, his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in doing so he enriches the world more than the generous and good, though he may lose his own soul in the process. That is the paradox of artistic achievement."
Eade's biography of Waugh charts this paradox as it follows him from his troubled childhood to his schooldays when he first "declared war on dullness", through to Oxford with the Aesthetes and London with the Bright Young Things, his initial literary success, disastrous first marriage, and subsequent conversion to Catholicism, his happy second marriage and service as a commando in World War II, the writing of his later masterpieces, struggles with alcohol, mental breakdown, semi-retirement and death. Eade is less interested in Waugh's literary output than in the people and personalities that surrounded him, although given the extent to which Waugh used (and often abused) friends and acquaintances as models for characters in his work this is understandable - even moreso if considered in the light of Waugh's notorious contempt for critics.