Here I am back at Underhill. When I paid a site visit in 2006, my camera’s eye was drawn to the ‘Evelyn Waugh lived here’ plaque on the front of the house, not to the front door. Also, there is a hedge around the house, protecting it from the worst of the noise from North End Road as traffic moves between Golders Green and Hampstead. For those reasons, none of the photos I took that day show the front door, just as none of the few period photos taken of Underhill seem to do so.
I’m here because She-Evelyn is upstairs having bolted to Underhill after her argument with John. So let me get this straight. It is 1932 going on 1934. He-Evelyn has travelled to the Amazon in another attempt to escape from his broken heart. He will return to England and stay in Diana Cooper’s house in Bognor Regis long enough to write the travel book NInety-Two Days about his degrading time in the rainforest. After that he will fictionalise the whole thing (the adultery, the flight to South America, the degradation) in A Handful of Dust.
One of the more moving scenes in what is a consistently moving book is when Waugh’s protagonist, Tony Last, is feeling lost and alone in the jungle. Waugh juxtaposes poor Tony with Brenda, his unfaithful wife, now abandoned by John Beaver, lying alone in her bed in London, suddenly overcome with self-pity.
Actually, this room does have real biographical significance. It features the curved window in the attic bedroom of Underhill, overlooking North End Road, in which eight-year-old Evelyn recovered from an appendectomy operation. His childhood drawing of the room was used by John Howard Wilson on the cover of his excellent book Evelyn Waugh, A Literary Biography, 1903-1924.
The appendectomy scenario crops up in Decline and Fall, as I discuss in EVELYN! And in a sense it crops up here, because Waugh has again chosen to place a character in this room to suffer. Poor Beatrice has been jilted by her Prince Charming... Oh Lord, now I’m making Elsa Lanchester take on three roles at once: She-Evelyn, Brenda Last and Beatrice de Carolle. Can she pull it off? That’s down to me.
Emerging from the front door, neither She-Evelyn, nor Brenda, nor Beatrice, seem to see me lying there. Nor do they seem to hear me when I say: “I have spread my dreams under your feet, Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” That’s what I wrote at the foot of the covering letter when sending my Waugh manuscript to Bountiful Books. Perhaps I shouldn’t do that in future, it doesn’t give a bold enough impression.
Beatrice leaves the house and makes for Hampstead Heath. Why does she go there? Well, Hampstead Heath was on boy-Evelyn’s doorstep. Underhill was something of a literary salon run by his father, the managing director of a publishing firm. But, just a few hundred yards away, books and their writers did not rule the roost. Instead the sun or rain - and if not the sun or rain then an unruly wind - would connect young Evelyn to the elements.
Interesting, that when portraying the distress of a woman who has been injured in love, the 20-year-old Waugh sends her wandering in what he had experienced as wilderness. When the hurt happens to him later on, as a more mature adult, what does he do? He flees to a proper grown up jungle. And what does he do in his fiction? He sends his character into the Amazonian rainforest that he has so thoroughly researched in the flesh.
But back to The Scarlet Woman. Greenidge has Beatrice wandering over the heath for several minutes of the film. “Act, darling, act!” Eventually Beatrice, still distraught over her rejection and unable to come to terms with it, arrives at a bridge which she intends to chuck herself from.
As I consider helping the woman, I calculate that this is the first of three suicide attempts that Waugh thinks through between the summer of 1924 and the summer of 1925. This, the first one, may end happily if I can manage to grab hold of Beatrice’s hand. Next in ‘The Balance’, Adam Doure, upset at not having his love returned by Imogen Quest, takes sleeping pills in his lodgings at Oxford. Third, He-Evelyn himself, while working as a schoolmaster in North Wales and finding the going tough and the outlook hopeless, will attempt to take his own life. Bewildered Evelyn, schoolmaster ordinaire, walks down to the beach at Llanddulas, takes his clothes off, leaves behind a suicide note written in Latin (as does Adam Doure) and swims out to sea. A sting from a jellyfish jolts him back to sanity and he turns back to the shore.
As I’m running towards the damsel in distress, I imagine for a moment that it’s She-Evelyn. I shout out that there’s no need for her to commit suicide. Her marriage to John Heygate will be dissolved in 1936 and the next year she will go on to marry for a third time, and with this third husband she will go on to have two children, one of whom will write theatre reviews for The Times! In fact, she can’t commit suicide, for the very good reason that she is destined to live to the Queen Motherly age of 97.
With Beatrice saved, what happens next in The Scarlet Woman? When I have her safely on solid ground, I tell her that she has been the victim of a Catholic plot to undermine the leading Protestants of England. What action does Beatrice take? And who gets the upper hand - the Pope and his cohorts, or the King and his supporters? Well, you must watch the film to find out. This website is intended to promote The Scarlet Woman, not to spoil the film for potential viewers. Just as the site is intended to promote EVELYN!, not give all its hard won treasures away.
Here endeth the entertainment.