He left Oxford University (Hertford College) in 1924 with a third-class degree. He taught at a private school in Wales and in 1925 attempted suicide by swimming out to sea, but was unsuccessful, turning back after being stung by a jellyfish (this is narrated by himself in his autobiographical work A little learning).
His subsequent career as a journalist was truncated as a direct result of his literary success with his first novel, Decline and Fall. Although his racy novels of the "bright young things" in 1920s England made his reputation, he was a profoundly conservative writer who also had great success with more sombre works like Brideshead Revisited.
In his pre-World War II novels he makes a strong criticism of his contemporary Enlgish society, especially aristocracy and higher middle classes, using acerbic humour and presenting weird (but usually real) situations as quite common.
In 1930 he converted to Roman Catholicism. His religious ideas are manifest (although not usually explicitly) in most of his novels, the clearest example being Brideshead Revisited which, as he himself stated is the account of the intervention of God's Grace in a family.
With the advent of World War II, Waugh entreated ‘friends in high places’, such as Randolph Churchill - son of Winston, to find him a service commission. Though in his late thirties and of poor eyesight, he was commissioned into the Royal Marines and found more suited for intelligence duties than that of a line officer. He was promoted to Captain but found life in the Marines dull. Following a joint exercise with No.8 Commando (Army), he applied to join them and was accepted, earning credit during the evacuation of Crete. Later, he was placed on extended leave for three years and reassigned to the Royal Horse Guards. During this period he wrote ‘Brideshead Revisited’. He was recalled for a military/diplomatic mission to Yugoslavia at the request of his old friend Randolph Churchill. An outcome was a formidable report detailing Tito’s persecution of the clergy which was ‘buried’ by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (who also attempted to discredit Waugh) to save diplomatic embarrassment as Tito was then a required ally of Britain and official ‘friend’.
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He was the father of Auberon Waugh and brother of Alec Waugh.