Evelyn Waugh, born in 1903, was the younger son of Arthur Waugh, the managing director of the London publishing firm of Chapman & Hall. After attending Lancing College and Hertford College, Oxford, Waugh taught for three years in a series of private preparatory schools before beginning his career as a writer. His first commercially printed work was a short story, "The Balance", which Chapman and Hall included in a 1926 anthology. He worked briefly as a Daily Express reporter, and wrote a short biography of the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti before achieving success in 1928 with the publication of his comic novel, Decline and Fall. By the end of 1932 Waugh had written two further novels, Vile Bodies and Black Mischief, and two travel books. His professional successes were overshadowed by private upheavals; in June 1928 he had married Evelyn Gardner, but just over a year later the marriage ended when she declared her love for the couple's mutual friend John Heygate. Reconciliation proved impossible, and Waugh filed for divorce in September 1929. At the same time, Waugh was undergoing instruction which led to his reception, in September 1930, into the Roman Catholic Church.
Because of the Catholic Church's stance on divorce, Waugh suffered personal and sexual frustrations while awaiting the annulment of his marriage. He had fallen in love with Teresa Jungman, a lively socialite whose Catholicism precluded any intimacy in their relationship since in the eyes of the Church Waugh remained married. Waugh's conversion did not greatly affect the acerbic and sharply satirical tone of his fiction—his principal characters were frequently amoral and their activities sometimes shocking. Waugh claimed "the right to write of man's depravity in such a fashion as to make it unattractive". When Black Mischief was published in 1932, the editor of the Catholic journal The Tablet, Ernest Oldmeadow, launched a prolonged attack on the book and its author, stating that the novel was "a disgrace to anybody professing the Catholic name". Waugh, wrote Oldmeadow, "was intent on elaborating a work outrageous not only to Catholic but to ordinary standards of modesty". Waugh made no public rebuttal of these charges; an open letter to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster was prepared, but on the advice of Waugh's friends was not sent.