Pilgrim’s Progress

Michael Davie

  • The Letters of Evelyn Waugh edited by Mark Amory
    Weidenfeld, 664 pp, £14.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77657 6

The external paraphernalia of Evelyn Waugh included check suits, an ear-trumpet, a watch-chain, cigars, unfashionable Victorian paintings, a large family and a West Country manor house. To those interested by what lay behind these characteristically English defences, this selection of his letters may come as a disappointment. When Waugh died in 1966, the outside world possessed little reliable information about the nature of the beast inside the baroque carapace. Only occasionally would the monster come out of his lair: sometimes in print to deride Picasso or Auden, sometimes in person to insult his friends. For all the outside world could tell, though the evidence of his books seemed to argue against the conclusion, he truly was a snob, a religious bigot, an anti-semite, an anti-foreigner, a near-fascist.

Since his death, a Waugh industry has sprung up, encouraged by his family. His brother has written about him. His diaries have been published. Mr Christopher Sykes has produced an ultimately unsatisfactory but absorbing biography, Mr Don Gallagher has edited an anthology of his journalism, full of biographical clues. For fanatics, a regular Waugh newsletter is published in the United States, dealing with the most obscure details of his life and works, and at the University of Texas a procession of ‘Waugh scholars’ pores over the Waugh archive – this one preparing a book on Waugh’s aesthetics, that one in search of evidence that Waugh was a lifelong homosexual. Now we have the letters. As a result of this flood, the old monster is slowly coming into focus, and slowly, too, becoming more likeable. Most of the popular ideas about him were wrong.

His nature is coming into focus, but the reasons for his turning out the way he did remain profoundly mysterious. He was a formidable man. As time goes by, his writings and his character and his beliefs seem to contain more bone and gristle than those of many of his contemporaries. His earliest novels have not dated, and his beliefs about the subjects that interested him – the conflict of civilisations, the march of barbarism, class, aesthetics, Roman Catholicism – still possess bite and pertinence. His despair at the condition of 20th-century man, much ridiculed at the time, now seems merely prescient.

But he did not arrive at these beliefs by contemplation. Pious he may have been, but no one could accuse him of innocence or of unworldliness. He led an erratic youth, experienced a bizarre and dangerous war and, outward appearances and his own assertions to the contrary, never became a recluse. Two of the main puzzles about his life are why he turned against his perfectly respectable family background, and what effect the collapse of his first marriage had on him.

His father was an esteemed and literate publisher who in the early years of the century proudly built himself a pebble-dash villa between Hampstead and Golders Green, where Evelyn was brought up. Evelyn’s older brother, Alec, the indefatigable popular novelist, now 82 and living in Tangier, has always regarded his background with pride, and his parents with affection – as may be learned from his numerous autobiographies. But Evelyn, who enjoyed a happy, normal childhood, took against not only his parents, their friends and the whole man-of-letters world that they, and particularly his father, inhabited, but also against his brother and his brother’s friends – despite the fact that it had been Alec who introduced him to the bohemian literary world, and Alec who was always lending him money. (We learn from the letters that Evelyn was drawing money from the same source as late as 1937, for the Joan who stood him his second honeymoon must be Joan Chirnside, Alec’s second wife, a rich Australian.) One of the disagreeable sides of Waugh is shown in a letter of 1958 to his son Auberon, who had written home from hospital to say that he had been visited by his Uncle Alec. Evelyn wrote back mocking Alec. How did Auberon know it was his uncle? Was it not an impostor? ‘Did he wear a little silk scarf round his neck? Was he tipsy? These are the tests.’ Evelyn was then aged 54 and Alec 60. The exasperation that his family caused him all his life, and the way his own values appear to have germinated in that exasperation (aged 16, he alarmed his father by his defence of Cubism), are not fully explained by clichés about adolescent revolt. The first girl with whom Evelyn fell in love, Olivia Plunket Greene, was a Catholic, and it was a Waugh family theory that it was she who first turned him against his parents – as it was certainly she who first gave Alec the unkind nickname of ‘Baldhead’. The Plunket Greenes had links with a very different world from that of North End Road, Hampstead. Mrs Plunket Greene was a niece of Baron Von Hugel, the theologian.

A more obvious biographical and psychological puzzle is the effect on Waugh of his First wife’s desertion in the summer of 1929, while Waugh, who had left her in London, was writing Vile Bodies at the Abingdon Arms near Oxford and drinking beer with the local farmers (not, surely, ‘famous’ as Mr Amory’s text reads on page 36). Several contemporary letters refer to and comment on this event. ‘There is practically no part of one that is not injured when a thing like this happens but naturally vanity is one of the things one is most generally conscious of – or so I find,’ Waugh wrote to Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green). Four months after the breach, he wrote to Yorke again, saying that he (Waugh) had gone on far too long in a fog of sentimentality, hiding away from everyone, and that ‘all that must stop.’ Thereafter, his friends have said they noticed a change, a new harshness in his character. The breakdown propelled him into the Catholic Church, deprived him of a settled base, and transferred to him the important friendship of Nancy Mitford, a close friend of his wife’s who had broken with her when she ran off. Partly through the Mitford family, and partly through the patronage of Lady Cunard (whom he detested), he was now able to launch himself, a successful and unattached young literary lion, into loftier social circles.

Mr Amory has edited the letters meticulously. To a letter of July 1931 he appends 31 footnotes identifying those mentioned. They include one future duke, one earl, one younger son of a marquess, one daughter of a baronet, one baronet, one daughter of a baron, one sister-in-law of a baronet (and two middle-class homosexuals). The ‘mask’ had descended. As Mr Amory points out: ‘The failure of his marriage and the success of his book [Vile Bodies] changed Waugh’s life completely.’ The change was permanent. The monster of Combe Florey House sprang from the humiliations of his wife’s desertion. Or did he? Unfortunately, through no fault of Mr Amory, about this watershed in Waugh’s life the letters have little substantially new to offer.

Mr Amory tells us that Waugh’s first wife cannot recall getting a letter from him. (Mr Christopher Sykes, Waugh’s biographer, chose not to approach her for information.) The letters from Waugh to Father D’Arcy, who received him into the Catholic Church, are not available: the reason is not explained, but the implication is that Farm Street possesses the letters but thinks it inappropriate for them to be published. These letters, however, must be expected to contain crucial evidence about Waugh’s conversion, and it is possible, besides, that they would throw light on the obscure (and, I think, deliberately obscured) chain of events that led to the annulment by Rome of Waugh’s first marriage.

Other letters from this period remain unsighted by Mr Amory. In 1931, Waugh fell in love with Teresa Jungman, a devout, half-Dutch Roman Catholic and a bright young thing. In 1933 he wrote to Lady Mary Lygon: ‘Just heard yesterday that my divorce comes on today so was elated and popped question to Dutch girl and got raspberry. So that is that, eh. Stiff upper lip and dropped cock. Now I must go. How sad, how sad.’ Alas, the letters to Teresa Jungman, like those to Father D’Arcy, ‘exist but are not available’. What is no less disappointing, but more surprising, is that ‘the great majority’ of Waugh’s letters to Lady Diana Cooper have been ‘lost’. Waugh went to see Lady Diana acting in The Miracle in April 1932. He described her later as ‘an exceptionally brilliant social figure’. During the early Thirties she became one of Waugh’s closest friends, and so remained. Five years ago, when I was editing Waugh’s diaries, Lady Diana told me that she had turned over what I understood to be a large cache of Waugh’s letters to Mr Christopher Sykes. Did I misunderstand her? Was her recollection at fault? Or can it be that the letters have been ‘lost’ since then? Here again, in this correspondence there would surely be evidence of Waugh in limbo.

Of 639 pages of letters, those from 1914 to 1939 occupy only the first 121. However, many of these are to the spirited Lygon sisters, Lady Mary Lygon and Lady Dorothy Lygon, who, fortunately for the rest of us, have boldly given Mr Amory the run of their Waugh correspondence. Insofar as Waugh had a centre to his life during the Thirties, it was the large house in which the Lygon children lived, Madresfield Court near Malvern, known as ‘Mad’. Was ‘Mad’ the model for Brideshead? It was, and it wasn’t, but in these letters the reader can detect a feeling of the sanctuary that Waugh remembered a decade later, at the height of World War Two, when, disenchanted by the collapse of the ideals with which he thought the war had begun, Waugh, in an exalted state of creativity and nostalgia, steeped Madresfield in theology and transformed it into Brideshead.

Both these Lygon sisters (there were seven children in all) were younger than Waugh, and his letters to them, often smutty, are written in a private language. They have nicknames, ‘Blondy’and ‘Poll’, and so does he, ‘Boaz’or ‘Bo’. Their father, Lord Beauchamp, who had been driven out of the country following allegations of homosexuality by his brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster, is known as ‘Boom’, which becomes a synonym for any father, including Arthur Waugh. Because Miss Jungman was Dutch and resisted Waugh’s advances, anyone who behaved in an awkward manner was described as ‘Dutch’. A Miss Jagger attended the Lygon family: hence ‘Jaggering’, meaning over-obliging or obsequious.

On the face of it, the private language that Waugh employed to entertain the Lygon sisters may seem childish. But, for Waugh, the use of language was not merely a literary activity: it was a weapon. Physically, he was small and unremarkable. Socially, he was self-conscious about his background. In one of the many letters to Nancy Mitford printed here, he says he had never realised that he was not a gentleman until it had been pointed out to him by Lady Burghclere, his first mother-in-law. The tone is ironic – but he remembered the slight twenty years later. It was Lady Burghclere, too, who wounded him by mispronouncing the name of his public school, Lancing, with a short ‘a’. She had never heard of it.

Language was not only the sole source of his income throughout his life, it was also an instrument of his social advance. He and his closest friend of the 1920s, Alastair Graham, invented a private language with a special cadence and punctuation, described by Waugh in his so-called autobiography, A Little Learning, as ‘mock-whimsical’: ‘Poor thing he does draw so badly.’ This language, largely because of the way Waugh reported it in Vile Bodies, is instantly recognisable half a century later as that of the bright young things. It may still be heard among survivors of the period. The language was that of a coterie, of which Waugh was the recorder and observer rather than a member (he was handicapped by poverty), but it was partly because he was the coterie’s impresario that he was enabled to join the ranks of the upper classes – at that time not an easy achievement. Two literary members of Waugh’s generation broke through the social barriers of the day with outstanding and lasting success: Waugh and John Betjeman. Others tried – Cyril Connolly, for instance – but with less success. Both Waugh and Betjeman employed schoolboy language to effect: ‘Gosh, how scrumptious,’ said Waugh to Lady Diana Cooper’s mother, the Duchess of Rutland, when, on his first visit to Belvoir Castle, aged 29, he was invited by the Duchess to admire a sunset. He had nerve. As with the Lygons, so with the Mitford sisters, to whom he endeared himself by actually incorporating some of their nursery phrases in his novels.

There are two letters which show how Waugh tackled his problem of coming out of limbo. In 1937 he became engaged to a 20-year-old upper-class Catholic girl, Laura Herbert, a cousin of his first wife. The wound of his first wife’s desertion – no doubt social as well as sexual, for she was the granddaughter of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon – could at last be forgotten. His determination to put this first marriage behind him is demonstrated by a letter written in January 1937 from the Herbert home, Pixton Park, to his old Lancing contemporary, Tom Driberg, then a gossip columnist on the Daily Express:

I have got engaged to be married, and shall be announcing the fact early next week. I don’t imagine the story will be of great news value but if you care to publish it you can have it a day ahead of the Times. In return could you oblige me in one particular? I think that by now most people have forgotten or have never known that I was married before. That marriage has been annulled by the papal courts and it would be very painful both to me and my young lady to have it referred to (1) because in ecclesiastical circles they get embarrassed if annulments are given publicity (2) because my future wife is a near relative of my former wife’s and there are numerous mutual aunts who would be upset. So may I rely on you not to bring the topic up?

He offered to supply a photograph.

Soon afterwards he was writing to his brother Alec: ‘Now that I am marrying, procreating and purchasing properly there is a thing which excites my curiosity – which you as the elder and wealthier of us might think it worth investigating – the validity of our coat-of-arms and crest... It seems to me the kind of thing which isn’t important now but which our children might well be grateful for if there were a change of fashion and heraldry came into general use again.’ Fat chance. For once, Waugh was being hypocritical. Before long, Mr Amory tells us, the Waugh coat-of-arms had been carved in stone and placed on the front of the 18th-century manor house (a wedding-present from his wife’s grandmother, Lady De Vesci) into which he and the second Mrs Waugh now moved. His role would be that of the country gentleman, living an ordered life with his new upper-class bride, putting his erratic past behind him, secure in his faith, secure in his marriage, and secure in his manor house with the crest on its ‘extremely fine’ façade and its 41 acres and view over the Berkeley Vale.

This is not to say that he was not deeply in love with Laura. Most of his letters to her are tender and some are moving. Even so, the relation between man and wife was unusual. No word either in the letters or the diaries suggests for a moment that Waugh behaved towards Laura with anything less than propriety. Yet from Yugoslavia in 1944 he wrote to her, with every appearance of seriousness, to propose that after the war they should divide their lives between two houses: one, which had belonged to his aunts, would become Waugh’s place of work (‘you would of course always be eagerly welcomed there’); the other would be a simple farmhouse and property ‘for yourself and children where I will live when not working’. Are we therefore to conclude, despite the usually light-hearted references in the letters to his own writing, that his work always came first? Not quite: the inescapable message of the letters, despite all the gossip and jokes and malice, is that at the centre of Waugh’s concern was his religion.

This dominant fact is, perhaps, the reason why Waugh continues to seem a puzzling figure. He often behaved atrociously, and knew it. Time and again he shows himself not only avid for gossip about his acquaintances but eager to spread distorted information about them. In almost all the letters printed here that were written to people other than members of his own family, his purpose is to amuse. The one moment when the reader senses Waugh’s self-esteem to have been genuinely wounded is when he hears that, on a visit to the West Indies, he had failed to amuse – indeed, had bored – his host and hostess. The letters to his women friends are sometimes flirtatious, invariably entertaining, and often illuminating about the characters he describes. But the serious letters are about religion.

Waugh, for reasons that his biographer did not explain, was not interested in motive. Neither in his novels, nor in his diaries, nor in his letters, did he ever show any interest in why his characters, or his friends, behaved in the way he described. He exaggerated their behaviour, to amuse his correspondents or his readers. He wrote letters of great tenderness to his children, invented fantasies for them, and gave them sound worldly advice. But of an interest in motive, throughout the entire Waugh opus, there is very little sign. Even when his first wife left him, he seems to have been incapable of confronting the question of why she behaved as she did. His bulging eyes are focused on the surface of people’s lives. But when he writes about his faith, it is as if another man had taken up the pen.

His correspondence with Betjeman, in which he sought to convert Betjeman to the Roman faith, displays a force and passion and urgency that is wholly lacking elsewhere in the letters. Suddenly, the reader feels that the whole of Waugh’s intellectual armament is engaged. He weighs into Betjeman like a hungry fighter with an opponent on the ropes, looking for the knock-out, brushing aside Betjeman’s feeble counter-punches about the need to bolster up the Anglicans of Wantage, and boring in with demands that Betjeman, if he had any interest in going to Heaven, should undertake some serious and prolonged thinking, inform himself about the tenets of the Roman Catholic faith, and ground his decision about the future course of his life, not on vague poetical sentiments about the smell of hassocks in country churches, but on the bleak, inescapable dictates of reason.

All the rest is froth: the life of a man much like the rest of us, getting by, setting his house in order, worrying about the bills, keeping the neighbours at bay, escaping from his family to a genial set of rogues (in Waugh’s case, White’s Club). From all the jokes and trivia of the letters emerges a haunted man, acutely self-critical, who liked to annoy other people by adopting unfashionable, sometimes ugly attitudes about modern art, or hanging, or Jews, but who was convinced that he and his family and friends could make sense of their lives, and achieve salvation, only by a rigid and humble adherence to what, in the eyes of the people he had grown up with – and of many of those who in other ways, social or literary, he admired – was a peculiar, foreign, lower-class and outlandish faith. He was a reckless man who lived a reckless life. Yet it is hard, with the evidence before us of the biography, the diaries, and now the letters, to think of him just as a fraud, or a snob, or a reactionary. He seems to have been a man who truly believed, in a rather straightforward way, that the only hope, in a world peopled by savages, was to go for sanctity. He struggled for sanctity against the drift of the world and his own nature. He may have found faith easy, but not hope or charity. Monstrous though he was, it is hard to blame him for his courage in trying.