MARGOT, I PRESUME
I think I’ve made a discovery. I believe I know who Margot Beste-Chetwynde - the society beauty who lights up Decline and Fall - was based on. And that is the precious creature who appears (four times) in the photographic diptych below:
It might not be a surprise that the love interest of Decline and Fall was based on a real person, after all the novel’s protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, shares much of Evelyn Waugh’s own background (Lancing, Oxford, teaching at a public school in North Wales), and we know that Captain Grimes was based on Dick Young, a colleague of Waugh’s at the Welsh school. But it surely is a surprise that no-one has identified Margot before. So maybe I’ve got this wrong. You, dear reader, must judge for yourself the evidence I’m about to serve up.
First, let me identify the woman in question. It’s one of she-Evelyn’s sisters. Evelyn Gardner was born in 1903, and she had three sisters born about ten years earlier, all of whom were beautiful, or so I’ve read. Two of them married very rich husbands and one of those lucky ladies was ALATHEA. When the Evelyns got engaged in December 1927, she-Evelyn’s best friend Pansy Pakenham was interviewed by Alathea (pronounced Al-i-thé-a) about the match. As we’ll see, Alathea - married to Geoffrey Fry, who was personal private secretary to the Prime Minister at the time, and about whom more later - would seem to have become a discreet supporter of the Evelyns, although her mother, Lady Burghclere greatly disapproved of the match. Here is the mysterious Alathea Fry, as recorded for posterity by the photographer, Curtis Moffat:
Mrs Geoffrey Fry, one of a diptych. by Curtis Moffat. Courtesy of the V&A.
Charming, beautiful, and so much more. Boldly meeting the gaze of any admirer whilst simultaneously keeping her real opinions - and her string of pearls - to herself. Alathea Fry standing shoulder to shoulder with Margot Beste-Chetwynde. Margot dancing cheek-to-cheek with her one true begetter!
This is how Margot is described when she first enters the life of Paul Pennyfeather: ‘After him, like the first breath of spring in the Champs-Elysées, came Mrs Beste-Chetwynde - two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat, pinned with platinum and diamonds, and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz Hotel from New York to Buda-Pest.’
From the start of his attraction to her, Paul was worried about Margot's age. Should he have been?. If Paul was born in the same year as Evelyn, 1903, that made him 25 in 1928. While Alathea Margaret Gwendolin Valentine Gardner was born in 1893, giving a ten-year age gap. Well, in those days a 25-year old man probably would be concerned about taking on a woman ten years his senior, especially if she had a child. 15-year-old Peter in Margot's case, 12-year-old Jennifer in Alathea's.
But let's take this slowly. The key to any such identification between Margot and Alathea is the text of Decline and Fall, the process of writing it, and what Evelyn was up to in his personal and social life just before and while engaged on the book’s composition. We need to go through that with some care, doing what we can in the absence of a diary for most of 1928.
Evelyn began the comic novel at the beginning of autumn, 1927, noting in his diary on September 4 that he was writing to Tom Balston at Duckworths about it (the firm that would be publishing Waugh’s Rossetti in April, 1928) and that he thought it amusing. In Messengers of the Day, Tony Powell, who also worked for Duckworths, states that, when he was visiting Evelyn at Underhill one Sunday night that autumn, he was read from the 10,000 words that Waugh had by then written on double sheets of blue-lined foolscap, each double-sheet having the cipher EW printed at the top of it. When, a few months later, Powell asked what had become of the very funny material, Waugh replied that he’d burnt it.
This reply suggests that Evelyn had difficulty taking the book - which clearly had (and has) a brilliant start - past a certain point. He probably had burnt the draft that Powell had seen, in that the first half of the actual handwritten manuscript at the Harry Ransom Centre is so polished that it has surely been copied neatly from an earlier draft, which would then have been disposed of. Dudley Carew remembers being read hilarious material by Evelyn at Underhill when there were about 50 pages written. It’s not clear if he means 50 pages of manuscript or the first 50 pages of what would turn out to be the published book. In any case, Carew’s memory can’t be relied on. In Fragments of a Friendship, he thinks the reading took place in January, 1928, and that Evelyn was about to go back to a new term at school. Well, Evelyn’s time as a teacher finished in the spring of 1927.
The point is that Evelyn wrote most or all of the scenes of Decline and Fall set in Llanabba Castle in the autumn and winter of 1927. Although this takes the reader half-way through the work, the true story only begins to take shape on the introduction of Mrs Chetwynde (the ‘Beste’ was added post-manuscript, as Robert Davis tells us in chapter two of Evelyn Waugh, Writer). She makes her entrance on the day of the school sports, via an enormous limousine, on page 92 of the first edition. Actually, in the manuscript, Waugh refers to her (four times) as Mrs Prendergast when she first arrives. Soon he must have realised the incongruity of the suggestion that the beautiful woman, daringly accompanied by a well-dressed black man, would be the wife of an anxious and pathetic school teacher, and so he changed her name. If anything, the first introduction of the all-important female character brings to mind Babe McGustie arriving at Aston Clinton School in a Rolls Royce, as mentioned in the 1925 diary, or Olivia Plunket Greene’s obsession with black men, also mentioned in Waugh’s diary of around that period.
Mrs Beste Chetwynde is given a first name, Margot, at the beginning of Part 2 (of the published book), when the house, King’s Thursday, is introduced. This section is written on 24 numbered sheets, the pages showing signs of active composition, with additions and deletions. I suspect this, together with Part 3 and the Epilogue, which was written similarly on 31 pages of manuscript, amounted to what was written at the Barley Mow, the pub in Dorset that Evelyn wrote in while she-Evelyn and Pansy Pakenham also worked on their novels while sharing rooms in Wimborne MInster, two miles from the Barley Mow.
So when was that? The Waugh literature doesn’t make it clear when the four (Henry Lamb was part of the group, staying in a house in Poole) moved from London to Dorset. But on April 7 (the date is in brackets in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, so it is not certain), Waugh wrote to Anthony Powell saying the novel would be finished in a week. And it was finished by the time Waugh wrote to Harold Acton from Henry Lamb’s address in Poole on April 27 (again the date is bracketed). I suppose Waugh wrote Parts 2 and 3 in March and April. Parts 2 and 3 taken together are about 30,000 words long and Waugh has said before that in the early years he was writing two or three thousand words per day.
So, if I’m right, in March or April, 1928, Evelyn began to write about King’s Thursday, a house in Wiltshire. When Margot bought the original Tudor building she had it demolished and replaced with something ‘clean and square’ by a young architect, Professor Otto Silenus. One of the features of this glass and concrete monstrosity is a tank of octopuses installed in one of the rooms. Naomi Milthorpe wrote a PhD thesis on Waugh’s novels in 2009, and its first chapter is ‘Quite right to suppress them: Decline and Fall and England and the Octopus’. The latter is a book by Clough Williams-Ellis that was published the same year as Decline and Fall. Williams-Ellis was an architect, famous for designing the Italianate Portmeirion on the Welsh coast, the intriguing setting for the TV series The Prisoner, and his book is a polemic against what he sees as the despoliation of the English countryside via the tentacle growth of urban development. Naomi Milthorpe argues that Waugh’s novel has the same target, though using satirical means to hit it.
There was (and is) a copy of the 1928 edition of England and the Octopus in Waugh’s library, and the annotations suggest it has been closely read by its owner. According to Milthorpe the following quote from Williams-Ellis has been ticked in Waugh’s copy: ‘In the late War we were invited to preserve England. We believed, we fought. It may be well to preserve England, but better to have an England worth preserving. We saved our country that we might ourselves destroy it.’
Reading Naomi Mithorpe’s thesis (and very interesting it is too), you get the feeling that she would like to unambiguously suggest that Evelyn Waugh had read the book before writing Decline and Fall, but she has the honesty to note that England and the Octopus was reviewed in a July edition of the Times Literary Supplement, just a couple of months before Decline and Fall was published. It was also July when DH Lawrence reviewed England and the Octopus in Vogue. A July publication of the work seems likely and I can find no indications that the book was available before that. Yet the manuscript of Decline and Fall, in which the monstrous replacement of the original King's Thursday looms large, was written in March or April of 1928. How can this be reconciled?
Perhaps by considering some information about Oare House, the Hampshire (adjacent to Wiltshire) home of Geoffrey and Alathea Fry. Clough Williams-Ellis was commissioned by Geoffrey Fry to modernise his house and the work took place from 1921 to 1926. In fact, Country Life did a feature on the place in March of 1928.
This article came out within a month or so of when I imagine the Evelyns paid a visit to Oare House (They did visit in October 1928, as we’ll see, but I’ll argue that they were probably there in the spring as well.) Below is a view of the front and back of the house. By adding wings, had Clough Williams-Ellis succeeded in creating something ‘clean and square’? Or, rather, had he preserved the cleanness and squareness of the Eighteenth Century architect’s original vision?
When the Evelyns visited the house in October, Waugh noted in his diary (which, as I’ve already mentioned, doesn’t exist for most of 1928 or this kind of scouring for evidence wouldn’t be necessary) that all the chat over dinner with Geoffrey Fry was about architecture. It’s also true to say that when Evelyn met Clough Williams-Ellis on July 3, 1930, the jolly and chatty architect was constantly pulling little books from an attaché case and showing Evelyn underlined texts. So it seems possible that Geoffrey Fry was given an early draft or proof copy of England and the Octopus and that he plied it upon curious guests, such as Evelyn Waugh.
Why do I think the Evelyns may have visited Oare House in spring, 1928? Firstly, because of the geography, The map below shows the location of Oare House (the blue pin near the top of the map) west of London. Evelyn Gardner and Pansy Pakenham were living in digs in Wimborne Minster (the blue tack near the south coast of England), while Evelyn was based close by at the Barley Mow (the red tack). If Alethea had thought it appropriate to interview Pansy about the Evelyns the day after they announced their engagement, then why not invite them to Oare House in the spring to find out how things were coming along? After all, all three were writing novels, what entertaining guests they would have made for a weekend party, mingling with Geoffrey’s duller political connections. The fifty mile journey would only have taken an hour and a half.
Secondly, because of a very strange story that Selina Hastings tells in her biography. Evelyn Waugh, in the midst of writing a comic novel but needing an income to make marriage to she-Evelyn a practical proposition, wanted a job at the BBC. In his letter to Tony Powell of April 7, he gathers that the way to go about this is to approach one Lance Sieveking. This he did, and to the resulting interview Evelyn took along a letter of recommendation written by Geoffrey Fry, which suggests that the two men had been seeing something of one another. However, what Waugh didn’t know was that before the interview with Sieveking, the latter had received another note from Geoffrey Fry saying that he was to go through the motions of interviewing Evelyn but not to give him a job, explaining that his wife’s family were against the marriage of the Evelyns and so to keep him penniless was the plan!
I find that shocking behaviour. But I suppose that it is simply the work of a cold and calculating politician. I hope Alathea played no part in the machinations but can't be sure.
I’d like to think that Waugh got his revenge on Geoffrey Fry in his portrayal of Sir Humphrey Maltravers, who in Decline and Fall is the Minister for Transportation. Like Geoffrey Fry, Humphrey trained as a lawyer before going into politics, though Humphrey is portrayed as coming from a working class background while Fry was the heir to the Fry chocolate fortune. Humphrey does go on to marry Margot eventually, though Margot is at first reluctant to consider the match, as she doesn’t like the name ‘Margot Maltravers’ and feels that if Sir Humphrey was to be made a peer by the PM, he’d choose something ‘quite awful' as a title (Lord Metroland, as it happens). In 1929, Geoffrey Fry became Sir Geoffrey Fry, no doubt thanks to Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative Prime Minister he served. The title he chose was First Baronet of Oare, which is not too bad, though it left him vulnerable to being called "Boare" for short.
Here is a photograph of Geoffrey Fry that I've been kindly sent by his grandson.
Geoffrey Fry. Courtesy of Jonathan Ross
And here is the odd quote from the Pervigilium Veneris chapter of Decline and Fall. That's the chapter where Margot throws a house party at KIng's Thursday but doesn't put in an appearance herself. This makes none of her guests feel uncomfortable except uptight Sir Humphrey. Paul finds him seated alone in the garden smoking a cigar. The Minister for Transportation bears a preternatural resemblance to his caricatures in the evening papers, Paul thinks. Sir Humphrey proceeds to talk politics and to tell Paul his life story. Indeed, he ends up boring the whole Margot-less party.
It seems then, that I’m not just tying up Alathea with Margot, but Sir Humphrey with Sir Geoffrey, and Oare House with KIng’s Thursday. Quite an ambitious thing to do, so long after the event. But the evidence is either persuasive or it’s not, so let’s get on with it.
Actually, before I do get on with the evidence, I want to do some more scene-setting, as it all adds to the case. When the Evelyns visited Oare House in October, 1928, there really are elements of the diary entries that remind one of the party at King’s Thursday to which Sir Humphrey turns up to. The Minister arrives in a big car and goes off again on Monday morning without seeing Margot who has been sleeping and/or on drugs the whole weekend. When the Waughs were at Oare House, Geoffrey arrived after a few days, accompanied by a servant. Then Alathea turned up for one night before disappearing, after which Geoffrey also left, though separately. I just wish Evelyn had kept a diary for the first six months of 1928, because I like to think it would reveal similar goings on at Oare House.
Oare House. Below are images of the Hall and the Drawing Room as pictured in the 1928 article from Country Life.
King’s Thursday? After the part weekend, Grimes turns up to be interviewed by Margot for a job in her ‘entertainment’ business. Waugh doesn’t say which room Grimes is in when his character’s eye travels over the glass floor, and the pneumatic rubber furniture, and the porcelain ceiling, and the leather-hung walls, noting to Paul Pennyfeather that: “It’s not everyone’s taste, but I think you’ll be comfortable.”
Arthur Potts, Pennyfeather’s former friend from Oxford, turns up too. (Trying to expose Margot’s business for what it really is: the trafficking of prostitutes), He gets a guided tour of the house. ‘He admired the luminous ceiling in Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s study and the india-rubber fungi in the recessed conservatory and the little drawing room, of which the floor was a large kaleidoscope, set in motion by an electric button. They took him up in the lift to the top of the great pyramidal tower, from which he could look down on the roof and domes of glass and aluminium which glittered like Chanel diamonds in the afternoon sun.’ Obviously the above passage is imaginative and hyperbole. But I can just imagine waspish Evelyn Waugh being given a tour of Oare House by its owner, a Geoffrey Fry primed by Clough Williams-Ellis as to all the possibilities that the country house offered, including monstrous ones.
It’s Potts that notices the tank of octopuses, that motif so suggestive of England and the Octopus. This can be interpreted in different ways. Given that Williams-Ellis’s redesign of Oare House was essentially successful - and even Otto Silenus’s design of KIng’s Thursday was surely better, in Waugh’s opinion, than the country house being demolished and turned into a suburban estate - perhaps the fact that the octopuses are confined to a tank is suggestive of the beast being tamed.
What about the bedrooms at Oare House? The Country Life article tells us that Mrs Geoffrey Fry’s bedroom was above the library. So here is the library at Oare House. Another clean, square space?
It’s in the library at King’s Thursday that Paul Pennyfeather proposes to Margot. The suggestion is that they kiss there. However, Margot won’t answer his question until the next morning. During the night, Margot enters Paul’s bedroom. There is a rustle of silk and then she gets into bed with him. She is making sure that it isn’t just an idea of Paul’s that he’s in love with her. All goes well and the next day their engagement is announced.
I’ve scoured the Internet for a photograph of Alathea Fry letting her silk stockings or nightdress fall to the floor. In vain, I’m sorry to report. However, there is a painting of Alathea Fry lying in bed reading a newspaper, which was commissioned by her husband in 1935. That’s the best I can offer my readers for now. Margot with ‘come to bed and read the society column’ eyes?
The Honourable Lady Fry. Oil on canvas by Walter Sickert. Commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Fry, 1935
Margot Beste-Chetwynde also had a house in London. Pastmaster House is described at the beginning of the ‘King’s Thursday’ chapter as the finest property between Park Lane and Bond Street. I’ve marked Pastmaster House on the Google map below, which Vile Bodies tells us is on Hill Street. Decline and Fall has Paul Pennyfeather and Margot spending a morning together and then walking across Berkeley Square for lunch.
Now Geoffrey and Alathea Fry also had a place in London, though this was on Portman Square, as indicated by the blue marker at the top of the above map. So the geography doesn’t quite fit, just as Wiltshire is not quite Hampshire. But if the fit was any closer then it would have been noticed at the time and Evelyn would have been in SERIOUS TROUBLE. Being sued by the Prime Minister’s personal private secretary would not have been much fun. Well, maybe it wouldn’t have come to that. I don’t suppose he courted publicity. Evelyn may have had a pact with she-Ev (which Alathea may have been in on) not to expose the literary shenanigans.
She-Ev: “If Mummy got to know about it, the explosion would be too, too shattering.”
In the chapter of D&F called ‘The Latin-American Entertainment Co.’, Margot spends the morning interviewing prospective prostitutes. Could the set-up be in some way suggested by Alathea’s interview of Pansy in December 1927, which Pansy no doubt told the Evelyns about in some detail? In the novel, the interviewing is done in the Sports room. ‘The carpet was of grass-green marked out with white lines, and the walls were hung with netting.’ Below is a photograph of a tennis triptych that Sir Geoffrey Fry commissioned for the Music Room in his house in Portman Square. True, that was installed in 1930, a couple of years after Evelyn wrote Decline and Fall. But perhaps Evelyn had been to a party there (the diary mentions Alathea throwing a party which Evelyn attended in July 1928, at which an ex-policeman sang) and perhaps he’d noticed a sporting theme about the house’s decor even then.
The grand party at Pastmaster House in Vile Bodies has Mrs Ape and her 'Angels'. Chastity, Creative Endeavour and the rest of the Angels are there to sing hymns. Eventually, Mrs Ape addresses the assembled throng of party-goers, the Bright Young Things as well as stuffy old ones. Only Margot aka Alethea could bring the two groups together. Walter Outrage, Prime Minister, at the same party as Adam Fenwick-Symes, penniless author. "Just you look at yourselves," Mrs Ape begins. But, thanks, in part, to the response of Lady Circumference (a character who was based on Alastair Graham's mother), the night's guest is a failure. Margot, though she's never had a party guest fall flat before, is actually quite pleased that Mrs Ape has failed.
Come to think of it, Evelyn Waugh went from being a penniless author to being a friend of Arthur Baldwin, son of Stanley Baldwin, the PM that Geoffrey Fry served. Could that acquaintance have begun at one of Alathea's Portman Square parties?
Below is the central panel from the above triptych. Is it my imagination or can Margot be seen running away from Maltravers on the weekend of the party at King's Thursday? (All those parties. Masked parties at Pastmaster House. Tennis parties at King's Thursday. 'Parties where one has to dress as someone else. Parties in Portman Square. Parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths...')
Eric Ravilious, Tennis (central panel of triptych), 1930. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Looking at the above painting, I can almost hear Miles Malpractice (aka Martin Gaythorn Brodie in the first edition of Decline and Fall, but too close to the real Eddie Gaythorn-Hardy to make it past the second impression) and David Lennox (a thinly disguised Cecil Beaton) talking to each other from the page of the novel:
‘Let’s all play billiards and make a Real House Party of it,” said David, "or shall we have a Country House Rag?”
In the last chapter of Part Two, a few days before his wedding to Margot, Paul goes to Paris to Marseilles on Margot’s behalf. As a result he falls foul of the authorities and is arrested for trafficking prostitutes.
And so to Part 3, the first chapter of which is called ‘Stone Walls do not a Prison Make’, while the fourth chapter is called ‘Nor Iron Bars a Cage’. Intriguingly, these are lines from a poem called To ‘To Althea, from Prison’, by Richard Lovelace. The first verse reads:
‘When Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my Gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the Grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fettered to her eye,
The Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Libertie.’
The poem concludes:
‘Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Libertee.’
It’s in the ‘’Nor Iron Bars a Cage’ chapter that Paul discovers paté de foie gras in his dripping. Next he’s given the latest novels, still in their dust wrappers, bearing inside them the label of a Piccadilly bookseller. Thus he gets to read the latest Virginia Woolf, a day or two after publication. Caviare intended for Paul accidentally ends up on the plate of another inmate, who complains bitterly about the outrage on what should have been bacon night. But Paul does get to enjoy a pie from which the feet of two pigeons protrude. Obviously, all these luxury goods come courtesy of Margot. Interestingly, in autumn of 1928, when Decline and Fall had just been published and She-Evelyn was ill with German measles, Waugh reports in his diary the receipt of a parcel of turtle jelly, ham mousse and other delicacies from Fortnum and Mason. The gift, Waugh reports, ‘attested to Alathea’s continued interest in our welfare’.
Margot eventually visits Paul at Egdon Heath Prison, shortly after Paul has come across Grimes again. I can’t help wondering if the Evelyns got a visit from Alathea in the spring of 1928. I’m reproducing again the map on which I’ve marked Wimborne MInster, near Bournemouth on the south coast of England, where Pansy and She-Evelyn were in digs. And the Barley Mow close by (marked in red) where Evelyn was made glorious by his solitary confinement. Oare House, just south of Marlborough, is towards the top of the map, from where Alathea might easily have driven down to see her poor sister, living in such dismaying poverty ('digs' for goodness sake) but with her disarmingly funny author fiancée.
And perhaps Pansy, she-Evelyn and Evelyn found any such visit from Alathea both thrilling and quite amusing. Evelyn may even have felt inspired to write her into another scene. Margot visiting Paul in prison!
She-Evelyn: “Oh God, you’re not putting my sister into another sceney-weeny, are you darling? Mummy will have kittens! Still at least we’ve got another invite to King’s Thursday. We could all do with a party this weekend. Let’s just hope nobody lets the octopus out of the tank before we get there.”
It was while Evelyn was staying at the Barley Mow that Rossetti came out. Just before, Waugh wrote to Anthony Powell at Duckworths reminding him that he’d sent in cards for the presentation copies. Seven were inscribed ‘with love’. I’d be surprised if that list wasn’t Arthur and Catherine Waugh, Alec Waugh, Alastair Graham, Harold Acton, Olivia Plunket Greene, Richard and Elizabeth Plunket Greene and, possibly, Robert Byron. There were two more books inscribed 'with kind regards', one to Lady Burghclere and one to ‘Alathea and Geoffrey’. Interesting that the latter are not on the ‘love’ list But the fact that they are on the list at all puts it beyond doubt that, at the time, they were important people in Evelyn’s life.
That can be further illustrated by a scrutiny of the names that turn up in the seven pages of The Dairies of Evelyn Waugh that exist for 1928. These cover the period 22 June to some time in July (one curt diary entry starting on July 6 covers an unspecified proportion of the month), together with the period October 4 until November 23. Here is a league table of names mentioned more than three times:
Evelyn (she): 19
In 1928, Alathea was the second most important person in Evelyn’s life by that reckoning!
A few days after mentioning the Fortnum and Mason goodies in October, on the 21st of that month, Waugh wrote that he lunched with Alathea at Taglioni’s, which was on Gerrard Street, Central London. He describes her as being ‘very lovely and vague, with an air of just waking after an uneasy night’. ‘Extraordinary ingenuous’ is another phrase he uses to describe his wife’s sister. He concludes his admiring words by stating that she had a ‘fluttery eagerness’ to go skating and go to the theatre and go to see the latest films. An active rather than a passive person, then. Like Margot. Though I wouldn't necessarily trust that extraordinary ingenuousness, Evelyn. Remember, what Margot did to Pennyfeather!
I wonder what Evelyn and Alathea discussed on that occasion. Well, Decline and Fall, for a start. The book had been out for a month and Evelyn was keeping a note of the weekly sales figures. On the 19th of October he’d written that there had been 827 sales for the week and that a second edition was on its way. No doubt Alathea was an admirer of the book (for sure she would have received a presentation copy, and perhaps she'd even made it onto the ‘with love’ list). And it’s just possible that, despite her enthusiasm to go skating, she marked Evelyn’s card. Robert Byron had already sent Evelyn a very cross letter about the portrayal of Gavin Henderson as Kevin Saunderson. But the case of Alathea and Margot was different. It was structural, and significant on various levels. True, it was in many respects flattering to Alathea, but it was not to become public knowledge. Was that understood? Evelyn assured his sister-in-law he had covered his trail sufficiently. And off he went to his tailor to try on a check suit.
I started this piece with a portrait photograph by Curtis Moffat and I think that’s how I’ll end it. Alathea and her string of pearls; Margot and her string of Latin American lovelies.
Mrs Geoffrey Fry, one of a diptych. by Curtis Moffat. Courtesy of the V&A.
On second thoughts, here is another verse from ‘To Althea, from Prison’. I can see Evelyn, after a day’s writing at the Barley Mow, treating himself to a bottle of fine wine and finding a quiet corner of the pub where he could drink it whilst savouring all the ironies of these lines:
‘When flowing Cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with Roses bound,
Our hearts with Loyal Flames;
When thirsty grief in Wine we steep,
When Healths and draughts go free,
Fishes that tipple in the Deep
Know no such Liberty.’
Where does the grief come from? Ah, that's to come for poor Evelyn. But what do you think, Alathea? Do you like that poem? Or is it all to remain a secret between the four or five of you? Evelyn, she-Evelyn, Alathea, Geoffrey and Pansy, give or take a name.
Let me recap. For the first half of Decline and Fall, which was begun in autumn 1927, Waugh was mining his memories of - and his emotional experiences at - Arnold House, the private school in Wales that Waugh taught in for much of 1925. I discuss this in Carry On, Grimes. But when he was writing the second half in early 1928, he was forced to draw on more immediate material. In particular, his engagement with Evelyn Gardner and the new social milieu he was moving in. Why has the association between Alathea and Margot not been noticed before? Perhaps because there is sufficient tie-up between Margot and she-Evelyn herself to blunt a literary biographer's curiosity. While Evelyn Waugh was engaged to she-Evelyn, his protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, was engaged to Margot Beste Chetwynde. Couldn't be simpler, even though it is not a particularly satisfying parallel. However, it seems to have been enough to shield Alathea from any attention from the press, which seems to have been what everyone desired back when this story began, long ago.
What's the point of all this? Decline and Fall is such an exuberant book, because it was written by a very happy, very bright young man. To show how the happiness and brightness overflowed from a complex and ambitious personal life into a skilfully constructed yet infinitely playful, imaginative work-cum-autobiography seems like a worthwhile occupation for a 56-year-old man who is interested in the way creative individuals live their one and only lives.
I rest my case at 9pm this day, December 7, 2013. And the jury bursts out laughing at the circumstantial nature of all the evidence I have so painstakingly gathered. "Case dismissed," booms a voice. And Margot floats as free as she so gloriously does throughout the pages of Decline and Fall. Cue mass celebrations.
Evelyn Waugh's drawing for the frontispiece of Decline and Fall. I'm not sure who to ask for permission to use this, but I'll leave it up here for now.
I can't resist adding that when the Evelyns got married in June, 1928, (when the manuscript of Decline and Fall, complete with illustrations, was being considered by publishers), the registration took place at St Paul's Church, Portman Square. Only a few people were there as guests: Harold Acton, Alec Waugh, Pansy Pakenham and Robert Byron. But as Portman Square was where Alathea and Geoffrey Fry had their London abode, let's presume that, like Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean at Scone College, Oxford, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar there, the couple had a fairly good view of what went on in the square below in the immediate aftermath of the wedding.
Blast, I had a perfect ending a few minutes ago, but then I couldn't stop burbling on. Never mind, I can still see Margot, floating free. I'm waving at her. "Happy-go-lucky!" I shout. What am I trying to say?...
"To Fortune, a much-maligned lady."
John Howard Wilson, editor of the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, has alerted me to the fact that in Decline and Fall, David Lennox took photographs of Margot. Two photos of the back of her head and one of the reflection of her hands in a bowl of ink. As John points out, these are perhaps reminiscent of the mannered Curtis Moffat photos above, which are dated 1925-1930. The back of the head motif is also there in the Olivia Wyndham picture of the Evelyns taken a few days after their marriage in June, 1928. While there is a photograph, taken by Alastair Graham, probably in the same summer, again of the Evelyns, that includes their legs reflected in a garden pond.
JHW has also passed on to me a paragraph from Jacqueline McDonnell's book Waugh on Women, where she identifies Nancy Cunard and Olivia Plunkett Greene as the most likely originals of Margot. Alas, as McDonnell herself points out, Evelyn Waugh didn't know Nancy Cunard in 1927/28 and Olivia has a personality diametrically opposite to Margot Beste-Chetwynde. By the way, as Selina Hastings mentions in her biography of Waugh, Best and Chetwynd were the names of two undergraduates at New College adjoining his own Hertford College, Oxford, and Waugh had obviously noticed the conjunction of the names as he walked down New College Lane.
I thank John too for an article by Donald Greene which identifies Edwina Ashley, later Countess Mountbatten, as the inspiration for Margot. But Greene doesn't establish any connection between Evelyn Waugh and Edwina Ashley in 1927/28 . Which is significant when it is remembered how Waugh's writing was so driven by autobiography.
Thanks to Jonathan Ross, grandson of Alathea Fry, for informing me that Geoffrey Fry was a slight, delicate figure, so no big red face and hands as Humphrey Maltravers is described in the pages of Decline and Fall. A case of Evelyn trying to throw the reader off the scent? Jonathan also kindly provided me with the following picture of his grandmother, by the renowned society photographer Hugh Cecil.
Alathea Fry, by Hugh Cecil. Courtesy of Jonathan Ross
Not so upbeat as the Curtis Moffat diptychs, it could almost be Margot thinking of Paul languishing in prison, instead of being her husband.
But I mustn't get sentimental. That's the last thing Margot was.