EVELYN AT ASTON CLINTON

August, 2013. In July of 1925 Evelyn left his schoolteaching job at Arnold House in Llanddulas. He’d given notice because he thought Scott Moncrieff (Proust's translator) was going to take him on as his secretary in Italy. This pipe dream did not come to pass, so poor Evelyn had no choice (after his failed suicide attempt) but to look for another job. Below is a portrait of the sad Evelyn of this time. I’ll come to the precise circumstances in which this photograph was taken in due course. For now please compare and contrast the sombre figure with the images of effervescent Evelyn in the immediate aftermath of Oxford while acting in
The Scarlet Woman, a year before. You wouldn’t think it was the same man. It is the same man - brought down by frustrated aspiration and menial activity.

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Evelyn Waugh in February 1926, taken by an unknown photographer from Tring.

A new teaching ‘opportunity’ turned up straight away thanks to Richard Plunkett Greene, who Evelyn had known at Oxford. Post-Oxford, Evelyn had got to know his whole family and it was Olivia Plunkett Greene that Evelyn had been pining for when in Welsh exile and when writing ‘The Balance’, which features the untouchable Imogen Quest.

On Wednesday, 5 August, 1925, (that’s 88 years ago to the month) Waugh wrote in his diary that he’d been applying for jobs. The school that Richard worked at was looking for a new usher. Evelyn thought it would be fun if he got that.

‘Fun’ is a wonderful word. Perhaps Evelyn reckoned it would be fun to get the job because of Aston Clinton School’s location (the blue pin closest to the middle of the map below), just 25 miles east of his true home, Oxford. Also, just 30 miles north-west of his parents’ home in north London and 45 miles south east of Alastair’s mother’s place at Barford. Altogether more connected to various kinds of hospitality than Evelyn ever was when working in North Wales.

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A week or so later he got a letter from the school’s headmaster (Dr Albert Edward Bredan-Crawford) encouraging Evelyn in the hope of getting the job.

On Sunday, 16 August, Waugh went down to Aston Clinton with Richard Plunket Greene. He thought the house ugly and the park beautiful. En route they stopped at Tring to pick up an Oxford chum, Claud Cockburn. The three ate sandwiches and drank beer in one of the class-rooms.

Claud Cockburn is going to be someone who crops up a lot in this period of Evelyn’s life, so I’ll introduce him soon. But first the place itself:

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The above is a detail from a map that appears in the article ‘Aston Clinton House 1923-32’ by Diana Gulland, Records of Buckinghamshire, volume 48. The caption there reads: Plan of Lot 1. From 1923 sale Catalogue of mansion and estate. By courtesy of Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society.

The building was destroyed in the 1960s and I don’t recall seeing any photographs of it in the Waugh literature. But I’ve dug up one or two from the net and from articles by Diana Gulland in the archaeological publication
Records of Buckinghamshire.

Below is the grand building from the front (south east). The oval feature in the drive in front of the house is clearly marked on the above map. Ugly? Well, a turning circle is somewhat suburban.

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The above image appears in the article ‘Aston Clinton House 1923-32’ by Diana Gulland, Records of Buckinghamshire, volume 48. The caption there reads: South east front and entrance front of Aston Clinton House. From 1923 sale Catalogue of mansion and estate. By courtesy of Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society.

Below is the south west face of the building. Again, the layout of the formal gardens is clearly identifiable on the above map, down to the circle in the middle of the square of flower beds. The house had belonged to the Rothschilds, one of several mansions they owned in this part of the Chilterns, but for rather odd reasons it was put up for sale by a branch of the family in 1923, which is when it became a private school owned and run by the ‘Crawford’ that Waugh mentions in his diary.

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Below is another view of the house. This photograph was taken in 1956 when the house’s glory days were well gone. It shows the north west flank of the building and, in the foreground, the southern tip that was also visible in the last image. Would the place have looked as bleak as this when Evelyn saw it in August 1925, with tatty wire fencing to the fore and a ladder abandoned by some maintenance man?

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The above image appears in the article ‘Aston Clinton Manor House: from moated site to classical mansion’ by Diana Gulland, Records of Buckinghamshire, volume 43. The caption there reads: Aston Clinton House showing the NW front (facing Aston Clinton village) and the SW side. 1956. Courtesy of Englsih Heritage. National Monuments Record.

The photo below is taken from the same angle, showing the west side of the house when it was a flourishing Rothschild home. If Evelyn had seen it in this state, with lovely plants, statues and ivy, would he have called it ugly?

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Would the statue of boys visible in the foreground have been there in Waugh’s day? On the one hand, the sale of Lot 1 (basically the house and park) to Dr Crawford in 1923 was supposed to include garden statuary and seats. On the other hand, Lady Battersea (the Rothshild who was selling up) wanted to move ‘the boy figures and vases from the house and bridge’ to The Pleasaunce, Overstrand, her house in Norfolk.

There is something Brideshead-esque about all this. I’m thinking of 40-year-old Charles Ryder coming across Brideshead Castle during the war when the exquisite house had been requisitioned by the army, transforming its rooms into barracks, offices, conference rooms and no-go areas where fine furniture was draped in sheets. In this case, young Evelyn would see a fabulous house taken over by a grim educational establishment. Not that I’d want to make too much of this. In the war, aged about 40, Evelyn would have come across grand houses that had been requisitioned by the army, there was no need for him to go back twenty years to find this motif. Nevertheless, Aston Clinton may have been the first time he came across this kind of thing - a once great house laid low.

Perhaps when Evelyn ate his sandwiches and drank his beer in the classroom that August day in 1926, he was in what had been the Billiards Room. I say that because there are photos of that particular room in existence. Picture Evelyn eating his sandwiches while imagining himself standing at the blackboard (at the left edge of the photo below) teaching teenage boys English, conscious of the old adage that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.

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The above image appears in the article ‘Aston Clinton House 1923-32’ by Diana Gulland, Records of Buckinghamshire, volume 48. It appears there courtesy of Hilda Isabel Marriott.

Alternatively, pIcture Evelyn, eating his sandwiches and drinking his beer, bringing to mind the house’s glory days. Better still, Evelyn’s own glory days at Oxford. Using the billiards table as a bar, a bar surrounded by Harold Acton, Terence Greenidge, John Sutro, Alastair Graham, Robert Byron... The room alive with wit and bonhomie, precocious intellects rising to the heights of scintillating innuendo while simultaneously sinking to the depths of mocking the Dean of Hertford’s supposed sexual appetite for dogs. Could Evelyn really go from being wayward student to reliable teacher in just a couple of years?

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The above image appears in the article ‘Aston Clinton House 1923-32’ by Diana Gulland, Records of Buckinghamshire, volume 48. It appears there courtesy of Hilda Isabel Marriott.

Immediately after the school visit, Evelyn heard that he had indeed got the job. So he was able to relax for a month or so, take a week’s holiday with the Plunket Greenes (no physical joy from stand-offish Olivia) and see a fair bit of Alastair both at Barford and in London. But the day came when Richard (accompanied by Elizabeth, his fiancee) came to collect Evelyn from Underhill and bear him off to Aston Clinton.

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Having set the scene, let the fun begin. On the
next page.