Over the Christmas holidays, Evelyn travelled to Athens to spend time with Alastair who was working at the British Embassy. He could see that Alastair was enjoying the lifestyle, sleeping with the locals who hung around the place, but the visit was not a success. He returned to Britain, with a crumbling Greek icon that Alastair had given him, via Olympia, Corfu (where the photo below was taken), Brindisi, Rome and Paris, to the news that his book Noah had been rejected by its prospective publisher.
Evelyn Waugh in January 1927, taken by an unknown photographer on Corfu
Evelyn doesn’t look too happy, does he? Is that a crumbling Greek icon he’s got stuffed under his jacket?
Never mind, he could go back to school where there were four new boys, a new matron and a new master awaiting. The latter (educated at Kings School, Worcester, and Christ Church, Oxford) was a bit of a Paul Pennyfeather, it seems. But Evelyn soon had him into the habit of drinking after school at the Bell, and out of the habit of talking seriously to him about education.
Edmund was mentioned as not coming back until a few days into term. As for his other old friends: Richard and Elizabeth came to dinner with him at the Bell one evening, and Claud came and ate with him at the same pub another night. All was set fair for the new term. At least, so it seemed.
Evelyn was writing a diary entry headed Sunday, 20 February, when disaster struck. The entry begins by mentioning that a man had offered to pay him 10 guineas to write a story to put in a book he was editing, namely The New Decameron. So far so good. The entry goes to to say that Evelyn had been to London by train, so it may be fair to assume that the motorbike was still out of action. Didn’t really matter given what happened next.
Waugh wrote that he was going to visit a man of the cloth about the possibility of being a parson. He followed that up by saying that he’d been very drunk the previous night. He then noted how odd those two sentences looked together. Even odder, because the next thing Waugh wrote was that just a few minutes after having noted the odd juxtaposition, while he and the new teacher were sitting round the fire laughing about their drunkenness of the other evening, Dr Crawford had appeared and sacked them both on the spot. What had happened? Apparently, Evelyn, after coming back from drinking with the new teacher at the Bell, had said something to the new matron that she’d taken great offence to. Anyway, she’d reported the incident to the headmaster and that was that.
The next day, Evelyn sadly walked in the rain the mile or two to Stoke Mandeville to meet ‘Bobbie’ who was up from London, a figure who crops up a few times in the Aston Clinton diary. His real name was Cecil Roberts and Evelyn had met him in London just before he started to work at Aston Clinton. The relationship was based on an interest in art and, especially, drinking. Between Evelyn’s first and second terms at Aston Clinton, he had lunch with Bobbie before they went together to a private view of the London Group. Before Evelyn went off to Midsomer Norton after the Easter term, he had cocktails with Bobbie at the Ritz. During the summer term, Bobbie came out to Aston Clinton and dined with Evelyn at the Bell. He was out at Aston Clinton in the Christmas Term too, and the headmaster was even thinking of making him a teacher at the school, something that Evelyn was not at all happy about. In fact, the appointment did not happen, much to Evelyn’s relief. But obviously Bobbie was still around.
Later in the day, Evelyn packed his bags and left the school, never to return. From his parents’ house in Golders Green he wrote letters of farewell to Charles and Edmund. The diary entry for 21 February ends with the intriguing statement that the time would seem to have arrived for Evelyn to set about being a man of letters.
A week later he was writing that he’d received a charming letter from Edmund. Evelyn was then visited in London by Bobbie, unfortunately drunk, and Claud. Actually, Claud was staying at Underhill and Evelyn lunched with him at a mutual friend’s. The diary entry for Monday 28 February, 1927, ends with the news that Evelyn had got a temp job at a school in Notting Hill which would keep him going for a few weeks.
On March 7, Waugh tells us that the new school was awful. He also mentions that the story he’d written for The New Decameron had been accepted. The diary entry ends with the news that he’d sold his motorbike for £10. The end of one era and the start of another? From biker to writer?
On March 27, Claud visited Evelyn for the evening. His father, ‘Chinese Harry’, had died. But Claud had got his Travelling Fellowship all right, and so he was off. Alastair in Athens, Charles and Edmund at Aston Clinton, Chinese Harry dead, Claud off on his travels, Richard and Liza at Lancing, Bobbie increasingly a drunkard. All his friends were out of reach; everything was crumbling, not just the Greek icon that Alastair had given him. Was that what it felt like to Evelyn?
But there’s something I need to go back to. It was on Tuesday, 1 March, 1927, that Evelyn received the charming letter from Edmund. The next two days he spent writing the story about a duke that was accepted by The New Decameron. Wondering if the story reflected Evelyn’s Aston Clinton period in some way, I’ve just re-read it. And this is what I have to report back from the front line of Evelyn Waugh studies...
The protagonist arrives at a place called Vanburgh at 12.55pm. He bemoans the fact that a car hasn’t been sent for him. He asks how far it is to Stayle and is told that it’s a good mile the other side of the village. So, as it’s pouring with rain, reluctantly he gets into the only taxi lurking in the otherwise deserted station.
Could this be Evelyn having arrived at Tring? Or Aylesbury? In his time at Aston Clinton, on those occasions that he didn’t have Richard’s car or his own motorbike, he had the problem of how to get from the station to the school. Exhausting walk or expensive taxi?
After the taxi reaches a crossroads, the protagonist becomes aware of the walls of Stayle Park stretching on forever. The trees are leafless and dripping with wet. There are several lodges and gates but the taxi eventually makes it onto a large sweep of unkempt drive.
I can’t resist using a plan of Aston Clinton Park in slightly adapted form. Besides, it really does get the reader of ‘The Tutor’s Tale: A House of Gentlefolks’ off on the right track:
This map (prior to annotation) 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.
As they travel the drive, the protagonist notices that the park land on either side features railings and concludes that the land is let out to pasture. In fact, a sheep has strayed onto the drive, so the beast leads the taxi for a while, looking over its shoulder nervously, the bedraggled leading the bedraggled. Eventually, the house comes into sight. The word ‘prodigiously’ is invoked to describe its extent. Now, prodigious is a word that Evelyn didn’t use much in his diary, but he did use it to describe a water ewer, a bath and a fire at Aston Clinton House. So partly for that reason I feel justified in inserting this picture here:
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.
Evelyn: “Can you keep going around the turning circle, please, I mean forever.”
Taxi driver: “It’ll cost you a pretty penny, sir. And there’s already eight shillings on the meter.”
Evelyn: “Oh God, let me out then.”
Waugh’s protagonist pays the taxi driver and rings the bell. An old man answers the door. This turns out to be the Duke of Vanburgh who explains that his butler is in bed with a bad back and his two footmen ‘have been killed’ in the war. Waugh’s protagonist, who has introduced himself to who he thought was the butler as Mr Vaughan, thinks it strange that the old man doesn’t say ‘were killed’ in the war, since it happened ten years ago. Now this is interesting as it shows Waugh raising the very issue that Claud Cockburn did in his 1973 article about Evelyn that I quote from in ‘In the Fourth at Aston Clinton’. The war may have been over for ten years, but the effects of it lived on in fundamental ways.
Vaughan is escorted to a room which takes him by surprise. It is very hot. The double windows are shut and a fire is blazing. The air is heavy with the smell of chrysanthemums and there is a gilt clock under a glass case on the chimney piece. All about the room there are formal clusters of china and bric-a-brac. Vaughan suggests it’s the sort of room one might find in a fashionable part of London, but I’m happy to stick with this image of a drawing room at Aston Clinton. In the picture below, there may be no clock under a glass case on the chimney piece, but time would seem to have stood still since the Rothschild era.
Ball Room, Aston Clinton House. From 1923 Sale Catalogue of Mansion and Estate. By courtesy of Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society. From an article by Diana Gulland in Records of Buckinghamshire, 2008.
The Duke of Vanbrugh introduces his sister, Lady Emily. There is then a ludicrous conversation between the three as to how Vaughan arrived (the Duke insists he came by car rather than train) and who his father was (Lady Emily insists he used to live nearby). Vaughan knows that he did not come by car, not least because he doesn’t own a car. He knows that his father lived most of his life in India, and died there. But his knowledge of such ‘facts’ counts for nothing in the face of an upper class sense of power. Consider the park, the house, the drawing room - the owners of these have all the knowledge, the wealth, the power that matters. No point in Vaughan, educated at Oxford or not, bowling up with his miniscule middle-class facts and thinking they’re going to impress anyone!
Lady Gertrude, the near-identical sister of Lady Emily enters the room, allowing the joke to be repeated about Vaughan having arrived by car rather than train. It does have to be said that when Evelyn was writing this, his motorbike was out of commission and anxiety about how he was going to get about - without money for taxis or trains - would have been uppermost in his mind. Equally, it has to be said that the set-up of the Duke of Vanburgh and his sisters parallels the Aston Clinton household of headmaster, Dr Crawford (in his sixties) and his two daughters.
By this time in the story, Vaughan has told the reader that he had just come down from Oxford when, as luck would have it, the Duke of Vanburgh was in need of a tutor to take his grandson and heir abroad. The youth’s title was ‘Marquess of Stayle’ and he was eighteen years old. He does not appear at lunch, instead the Duke and his sisters take the opportunity to describe the boy as ‘not quite right in the head’. He’d only been at school for a couple of terms, where he’d been unhappy, and so was removed from school altogether. It was while reading this short part 2 of the story that I asked myself what had happened to the boys’ parents. Perhaps the father was killed in the war. If the boy was 18 in 1927 (the time of Waugh writing the story), then he would have been 5 in 1914, so the father may have well been of an age to be called up and killed in the trenches of northern Europe. Leaving the child in the hands of an inadequate (it turns out) older generation.
At the beginning of part 3, Vaughan tells the reader he had been sent down from Oxford in disgrace. Of course, this is the Ernest Vaughan that blazed an overwrought, drunken and hilarious trail through Waugh’s previous short story, ‘The Balance’. Adam Doure, depressed undergraduate who was hopelessly in love with Imogen Quest, was modelled on Waugh himself. And so was the fiery Ernest Vaughan. In the new story, Ernest has mellowed somewhat but is still clearly based on Evelyn, though more post-Aston Clinton than post-Oxford. And so, it turns out, is the other main character, the 18-year-old Marquess of Stayle, or George Theodore Verney. Ernest Vaughan and George Verney. An 18-year-old and a 21-year-old, both certainly - though not obviously - affected by the First World War. Both somehow held back by a lack of love and a shortage of money they themselves had done nothing to deserve.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Ernest is introduced to the Marquess after lunch. Ernest describes him as good looking, tallish and speaking with a pleasant intonation. He’s wearing a horrible shiny blue suit that is far too small for him. A narrow tie is tied in a sailor knot. His hair is too long. On being prompted by a great aunt, he shoots his hand out to be shaken by the visitor, leaning forward awkwardly as he does so. Ernest feels sorry for the ungainly creature, but he does not think him mad.
Soon they are on the train and they introduce themselves to each other properly. From then on it’s the George and Ernest show. George is excited to be going to London and impressed that Ernest lives there. Ernest asks if the school George was briefly at was beastly. “It was shite,” comes the answer (though the last word is only implied by the narrator) leading to an exchange about the proprieties of language. For the rest of the journey they chat freely. Indeed, the rapport between tutor and his charge is positive for the rest of the story. No doubt Waugh was drawing on his warm feelings towards the likes of Charles and Edmund, who had just sent him the charming note the day before Evelyn began the story. Yes, George is only partly drawn on Evelyn himself, he’s also partially a portrait of a student he feels much affection for.
They stay at a London hotel and order clothes for George. Ernest takes the opportunity of resuming contact with the tailors that he owes a lot of money to, knowing they will be impressed by George’s pedigree. A Mr Phillrick (his first of many appearances in Waugh’s writing), previously very cold towards Ernest, turns up in person followed by an assistant with a suitcase full of patterns. Multiple suits are ordered for both Ernest and George. All this is written with no little enthusiasm. After all, didn’t Evelyn mention seeing Alastair off to Constantinople in his only good suit. Didn’t he meticulously mention in his diary every fitting for his new suit at Andersen and Sheppard. And didn’t he mention, on finally wearing the garment in public, the pleasure he found in no longer feeling the worst dressed man in the room?
I’m going to resort again to stills from The Scarlet Woman.The scenes between the Dean of Balliol (Evelyn) and the Prince Regent (John Greenidge) are a perfect representation of the relationship between tutor (Ernest cum Evelyn) and the Marquess of Stayle. Besides, Ernest is supposed to be newly down from Oxford, as Evelyn was when these particular scenes were shot in July of 1924.
Apparently, George shows a ‘well-bred leaning towards checks. But of course he needed to invest in black tie as well.
After the first morning, Ernest gives up any pretence at maintaining a teacher-pupil relationship. Instead he takes George to the theatre and to restaurants. Ernest is pleased to see that George is instinctively drawn to high quality and that he has a fresh and sharp critical faculty as well as a natural fastidiousness. At the National Gallery, George is struck by Bellini’s The Death of Peter Martyr and will not take an interest in anything else after having seen it. Why? Neither Ernest nor Evelyn tell us, but as you can see from the reproduction below, it is an image of murder, war almost. One just has to remember that everything in the story is either biographical or symbolic. After all, was it not Waugh’s opinion that Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience was both magnificent and symbolic to the nth degree, the symbols put there to be translated by the knowledgeable and alert viewer?
The assassination of Saint Peter Martyr, Giovanni Bellini, 1507.
In 1914, when the war started, Evelyn Waugh was 10 years old. Boys just a few years older than himself (and Alastair) were killing and being killed. Perhaps that’s why so many of the elite of Evelyn’s generation embraced homosexuality as they became men at Oxford. Their slogan might have been ‘Make Love Not War’.
And as for Evelyn’s generation’s relationship to alcohol. Well, perhaps they were having to try hard to forget what happened to their elder brothers, cousins and neighbours. An intoxicated Evelyn jumping out of a window in Oxford and breaking his ankle. A drunk Alastair swimming in the Grand Union Canal with a glass of beer in each hand. Both might have been shouting: ‘Join the PWB. Lest we forget’. What is the PWB? Why, it’s the Post-War Brotherhood, of course. And George Theodore Verney, being only three or four years younger than Ernest, Evelyn and Alastair was very much part of it.
George is a success with all Ernest’s friends. Just as Edmund may have held his own in the Bell in the company of the likes of Alastair, Claud, Bobbie and Richard.
On the last evening of their stay in London, immediately before they are due to set off on their Continental travels, Ernest shows George a map of the world. George, in his ignorance, thinks Europe to be full of towns like Paris (where Evelyn had recently returned from) and Budapest (a nod to Claud’s second home), all equally remote and full of prostitutes (as Evelyn had found Athens to be). Ernest’s plan is to stop the night at Brindisi (where Evelyn had stopped the night on his return journey from Athens) and to get the Lloyd Trestino from there. The latter being a mode of transport that would have been way out of schoolmaster Evelyn’s league, I suspect.
At this stage, George is standing in front of the looking glass, admiring himself in his new clothes. He muses aloud that after the four days he has spent in Ernest’s company, he’s beginning to think it’s his grandfather and the great aunts that are mad and not him. He comes up with a couple of examples of his elderly relatives behaving in a bonkers way. And it becomes pretty clear to the reader that, yes, it is the old fogeys whose minds have been turned, perhaps as a result of losing their children in the Great War. The passage ends with George asking if the people in Athens are black. Ernest’s answer is that they are mostly Jews and undergraduates. George wonders if he will be taken for an undergraduate. Now I can’t help wondering if ‘undergraduate’ is code for ‘homosexual’ at this point. Certainly, that was Evelyn’s experience of what people in Athens were like. To briefly quote his diary: ‘dreadful Dago youths called by heroic names such as Miltiades and Agamemnon with blue chins and greasy clothes who sleep with the English colony for 25 drachmas a night’.
The story comes to a premature end when the old Duke changes his mind. Ernest’s services are no longer required, just as Dr Crawford had sacked Evelyn on the spot a few days before Waugh sat down to write ‘The Tutor’s Tale’. All George says is that he thought it was too good to last. A lawyer turns up to accompany George back to Vanburgh.
The large cheque that Ernest had been given is stopped but he is allowed to keep three months pay. The clothes that have not been specially made have to go back to the shops they were bought from. But when Ernest and George are alone, George says it’s a shame sending back the ties and asks Ernest if he might keep one or two. I like to think that these were Sulka ties and that Ernest encouraged George to keep the lot. George is not too despondent at the turn of events because in three years time he will be 21 and will inherit his mother’s money. My reaction to this is that within three years from the writing of the story, Evelyn wouldn’t be so worried about money either, because Decline and Fall would have been a success. Though that was largely through cashing in on the paternal side of his inheritance, his writing ability.
Say goodbye to Evelyn and Alastair (for now), Evelyn and Claud (they would meet again), Evelyn and Bobbie (of whom more later), Evelyn and Richard, Evelyn and Edmund, the Dean of Balliol and the Prince Regent and, last but not least, Ernest Vaughan and George Theodore Verney, Marquess of Stale Old Aston Clinton.
Yes, say goodbye to Aston Clinton, a previously neglected period of Evelyn Waugh’s experience and career. Except, that is, in his wonderful Diaries and in the quietly powerful little story ‘A House of Gentlefolks’.
On, Evelyn, on. Next stop, Rossetti.