CANONBURY SQUARE 1929
To cut a long winter short, the Evelyns arranged to go on a cruise of the Mediterranean on board the Stella Polaris. Free passage (in return for a series of articles from He-Evelyn), with She-Evelyn's sister, Alethea, paying the incidental expenses. They embarked on February 10, 1929, and were back in England by May 31st. Nearly four months away, much of the time a disaster.
She-Evelyn went down with a fever while on the train going south through France. Once they boarded ship in Monte Carlo, she was increasingly sick and had to be transferred to hospital in Port Said. The Evelyns were in the bleak Egyptian port for a month (He-Evelyn made the most of it when he came to write up Labels) during which time Alastair Graham dropped by for a couple of days to support the pair. Once She-Evelyn had recovered enough to carry on with their journey, they stopped for a few days in Athens, where Alastair worked. In short, He-Evelyn didn't manage the ambitious itinerary he had in mind when he'd set off, while She-Evelyn nearly died and had to put up with her husband's old boyfriend being around.
The table below shows how quickly the Evelyns parted once they were back home, the information coming from He-Evelyn's mother's diary via Alexander Waugh, Evelyn's grandson.
May 31: Evelyns return from abroad (last stop, Lisbon).
June 2-3: Evelyns in London.
June 4: The Evelyns lunch with John Heygate at Hampstead
June 5: Alastair Graham in London.
June 6: 'Evelyns left after lunch for Canonbury,' per Catherine Waugh.
June 7 'Evelyn went to Beckley to write' (per Catherine's diary, though Evelyn himself says 'about 10th').
They didn't even have these first few days together, not really, because He-Evelyn was effectively absent, reading Living by Henry Greene, the nom de plume of Henry Yorke who had greatly admired Decline and Fall. Yorke had sent Waugh a copy of his book when it came out in April, presumably to Canonbury Square,.
As early as June 2, He-Evelyn was writing to Yorke at length about how much he admired the portrait of working class, industrial life. He especially liked the dialogue, and commented that Yorke had made an artistic form out of it. Waugh went so far as to quote three sentences that he particularly admired from the book, so let's highlight them:
'But it is quite true to say that there was nothing dirty in all this.'
'Dropping suddenly to be intimate.'
'He spoke like he was sorry Lil was as she was.'
An interesting selection given that Waugh was about to write about the relationship between Adam and Nina in Vile Bodies using distilled, highly crafted dialogue.
In the letter to Yorke, He-Evelyn went on to say that while he was writing his new book in a pub, She-Evelyn was going to be living at Canonbury Square with Nancy Mitford (in the spare room) and that Henry should visit them. Waugh also mentioned that he and his wife came back to bills of over £200 and that both of them were already overdrawn.
It's possible that Evelyn took photographs of the dining room and living room at 17a Canonbury Square at this juncture. The dining room picture has been reproduced many times before, but I suspect this is the first published reproduction of the living room as it was during the Waughs' time. Thanks go to Alexander Waugh who forwarded me the scan in 2011 for publicity purposes re Evelyn!
Living room at 17a Canonbury Square. ©Alexander Waugh, Waugh Family Archive, Milverton.
Certainly, Evelyn Waugh (who had been taking photographs of buildings and architectural details while abroad, which he would later use in Labels) didn't take the photograph, or have it taken, any earlier than June, 1929, because the book on the top of the larger pile on the table is Living by Henry Yorke. (I haven't been able to identify the other books, so if anyone else can, please let me know and I'll add a note to this page.) By placing Living where he has done, Evelyn is surely paying tribute to it.
Living room at 17a Canonbury Square. Detail.
So Evelyn travelled to Beckley, three miles north of Oxford, and checked in to the Abingdon Arms. There he got down to his new novel. Had he already started the book? Christopher Sykes, Waugh's official biographer, states that, according to correspondence with Waugh's literary agent, A.D. Peters, 10,000 words had been written and the title settled on by the end of May: Vile Bodies.
The book starts with a 3500-word chapter with the characters on board a cruise ship suffering a storm at sea. So I suppose that may have been written pre-Abingdon Arms. The second chapter, about 3200 words, sees the characters disembark and Adam have his finished manuscript torn up. He goes along to Henrietta Street to meet Mr Benfleet, his publisher. Actually, Tony Powell does mention that in the days immediately after the Waughs return, Waugh met with Tom Balston and himself of Duckworths, whose premises were on Henrietta Street. I do not think this chapter would have been written while still on board the ship as Waugh liked to write from experience. If Waugh did write 10,000 words on board the Stella Polaris, most of the material was jettisoned before the loose sheets of foolscap were bound into a manuscript volume by Maltby's of Oxford.
At the end of chapter two, Adam phones Nina, to whom he is engaged. These phone calls become a motif in the book, and one can see why. On one end of the line, He-Evelyn, ensconced in the Abingdon Arms, which I visited with my partner Kate in 2006, who can be seen (reading Vile Bodies?) in the foreground of the photograph below. Actually, she's barely visible as I've taken the liberty of superimposing on the photo a portrait of Evelyn Waugh that Henry Lamb painted for Bryan and Diana Guinness in 1930, the year that Evelyn gave the aforementioned manuscript of Vile Bodies to the pair.
On the other end of the line, She-Evelyn. One can see exactly where she would have taken He-Evelyn's calls, thanks to the photograph of the Evelyns' living room. She-Evelyn with her bum parked on a nice bit of Arts and Crafts upholstery, the pattern showing rural scenes involving trees, churches, peasants and farmyard animals
Living room at 17a Canonbury Square. Detail.
The phone rings at 17a Canonbury Square, June 1929. Perhaps Nancy answers it. Perhaps She-Evelyn answers it, pretending she doesn't know who's asking to speak to Mrs Waugh. Selina Hastings tells the story of how, shortly after the Evelyns had first met in 1927, He-Evelyn - piqued at not being given permission to walk She-Evelyn home - phoned her at 1.30am and said: "Is that Miss Gardner?" "Yes." "What I want to say is, Hell to you!' before replacing the receiver. In Vile Bodies, the first exchange goes:
"May I speak to Miss Blount, please?"
"I'll just see if she's in." said MIss Blount's voice. "Who's speaking, please?"
"Adam, you know... How are you Nina?"
In any case, using the above image, picture a seated She-Evelyn taking up the main part of the phone in her right hand and putting the ear-piece to her left ear. Evelyn, having had to put his pint and his pipe on one side to make the call, tells her how his writing is going. And she tells him about her newly resurrected social life. As well as Nancy, she is seeing a lot of John Heygate, Eleanor Watts and Tony Powell. Together, they are going to all sorts of parties. "Too, too drunk-making," concedes She-Evelyn.
The book under the candlestick phone is presumably a phone directory. Along the spine are the words "SWAN" PENS, an advertisement for a leading fountain pen of the time, perhaps the same kind of pen as Evelyn was writing his new novel with. He-Evelyn sent the new novel in weekly batches to She-Evelyn, and she would arrange for the words to be typed up. Are you getting the picture? Real life (He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn) and fiction (Adam and Nina) running side by side, just as is the case with so much of Waugh's autobiography-driven work.
In the 3700-word third chapter, Adam finds digs in London. Shepheard's Hotel in Dover Street, run by Lottie Crump, bears a close resemblance to the Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street run by Rosa Lewis. And indeed Waugh would have had this in mind. But he couldn't escape the fact that he really was in the Abingdon Arms, and perhaps it was while drinking in the bar of an evening that he managed to come up with the comic scenes at Shepheard's. Adam wins £500 from a bet in the bar and then doubles his money thanks to winning a toss. He phones Nina at the Ritz (where He-Evelyn proposed to She-Evelyn) to communicate the good news. Now Adam and Nina could get married! (Now the Evelyns could pay off their debts.) Adam returns to the parlour at Shepheard's. A few minutes later, he phones Nina again to tell her he's been persuaded by rather a drunk Major to put the money on a horse called Indian Runner. Perhaps they won't be able to get married after all. (Perhaps the Evelyns wouldn't be able to pay off their debts quite as soon as they'd hoped.) As I say, reality feeding the fiction; reality being tweaked for comic effect.
Let's suppose that this (end of chapter three) is as far as Waugh had got by the weekend of the 15th and 16th of June. That seems reasonable since he only arrived at Beckley on the 7th. Waugh tells us in a letter (that I'll be further considering shortly) that on Sunday the 16th, Nancy drove the Evelyns to Savernake near Marlborough. That's the home of Robert Byron that the Evelyns had visited the year before when staying at Geoffrey and Alethea Fry's house. I like to think that the Evelyns had been to a party on the Saturday. Why? Because of the shape of chapters four and five that I'm presuming he got down to writing when back at his desk in the Abingdon Arms on Monday the 17th. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Evelyn is pretty well making his book up as he goes along, drawing on immediate experience and whatever else he can dredge up, then playing with it all in a clever way.
In chapter four, Adam and Nina go to Archie Schwert's party. The Marquess of Vanburgh is there. That would seem to be the character from 'A House of Gentle Folk', the short story that Waugh wrote in February 1927, just after he'd been dismissed from Aston Clinton School. Vanburgh has come of age, become every bit as sophisticated as he promised to, and now contributes a society gossip column to a daily paper. At the party, Adam and Nina bemoan their financial state (because Adam put the £1000 on Indian Runner) and Nina suggests to Adam that he goes and asks her father for money. After the party, Miss Brown, invites several of the guests to her place, where the good time continues. Her place, it turns out, being 10 Downing Street as her father is the Prime MInister. This gives Vanburgh the opportunity to send in a story about 'midnight orgies at No. 10'. What would give this material extra frisson is that She-Evelyn's brother-in-law was the PM's private secretary. Perhaps number ten was where the Evelyns ended up post-party on the night of the 15th of June, 1929.
In chapter five, Adam wakes up with a hangover. (Seems fair enough.) He makes his way to Aylesbury to see Colonel Blount, Nina's father. In reality, Evelyn failed to get the approval of - never mind any money from - Lady Burghclere, She-Evelyn's mother. But he-Ev gets a great comic scene from conflating the journey from Aylesbury to Aston Clinton School (he directly borrows the taxi ride from the station to Stayle House from 'A House of Gentlefolks', which was in itself inspired by the journey from Aylesbury station to Aston Clinton School) with his interviews with Lady Burghclere. The colonel gives Adam a cheque for £1000 which Adam bears in triumph back to London and to Nina who is at a party at Pastmaster House. This is Lady Metroland's townhouse on Hill Street, Mayfair. As I've said in my analysis of the character on this page, Margot Metroland (Beste Chetwynde before her marriage to Maltravers, now Lord Metroland) is based on Alethea Fry (married to Geoffrey Fry) and their London house was not far away from Hill Street at Portman Square.
I've only recently, made this 'discovery' about Margot. When on location in 2006, it was on Hill Street I looked for a possible model for Pastmaster House, and the grand staircase at number 15 was scheduled for demolition. Here is Margot (Kate) emerging from 'Pastmaster House' then.
Although it looks as if the receptionist is seeing us off the premises, it was the receptionist at number 13 that told us that hardly any of the buildings on Hill Street were still private residences. Most had already had their staircases ripped out and replaced with lifts and offices. Below is the view of what is still a fine street, towards Berkeley Square, where Paul Pennyfeather walked to have lunch with Margot after the latter had spent a hard morning interviewing potential prostitutes at Pastmaster House.
In Vile Bodies, Adam wants to celebrate his and Nina's good fortune (they can get married again thanks to her father's cheque) and, even though it's early evening, they discuss going to Thame or Brighton or Maidenhead, before deciding to go to Arundel, near Worthing. So they go off to a hotel there and make love for the first time. NIna has gone along with what she knew was a charade re their new found wealth since the moment of seeing the cheque which had been signed 'Mickey Mouse' by her father, but Adam had looked so happy dancing by himself at the bottom of the grand staircase at Pastmaster House that she didn't have the heart to spoil his fun.
It was with this scene in mind that I took the above photo at 15 Hill Street in 2006. Already showing signs of ageing back then, this staircase with its marble steps ascending on either side of a massive pillar, will now be gone. Perhaps I was the last person to dance at the bottom of it. I visualised myself with a cheque for £1,000 in my hand, the advance on my book Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love. Alas, little was I to know that the cheque was signed 'Donald Duck'. Or might as well have been.
Why did Adam take a trip to Arundel to find joy? The Guinnesses (Diana and Bryan) had a house there and the Evelyns may have visited it in 1928 and enjoyed their time there. So perhaps Evelyn was conflating that and the trip to Savernake on the 16th of June, 1929, as he quickly belted out chapters four (let's have a party) and five (let's get out of London) in the week ending June 21. It's quite possible that he did write the 9000 words in those four days or so. In the retrospective preface that he wrote for Vile Bodies in 1965, Waugh states: 'This was a totally unplanned novel. I had the facility at the age of 25 to sit down at my table, set a few characters on the move, write 3000 words a day, and note with surprise what happened.' Waugh doesn't say that often what happened was that the characters followed closely in his own footsteps.
In a letter to Henry Yorke, which was replied to on June 22nd, Waugh told his friend that he'd written 25,000 words in the 10 days he'd been at Beckley. Perhaps that was a slight exaggeration. The first chapter (which, as Sykes has said, may have been written while at sea) and the next four, come to about 20,000 words (that's approximate, and it's me counting from the published book rather than the manuscript itself). Waugh describes the book as being rather like PG Wodehouse and being about bright young people. In his letter, Waugh wonders if Henry is going to Bryan and Diana's party (which is about to take place on Tuesday, June 25) he would go along himself but fears that all the people there would be too like those in his book. (Ah, but wouldn't that help the novel along, Evelyn!)
Perhaps Waugh managed to write chapter six (6000 words) of the manuscript over Friday and Saturday, June 21 and 22, because in a letter to Harold Acton written on the Tuesday of the Guinness party, he writes that he's been in London on Sunday and Monday. He writes that he would come up for the party as well but feels chained to the novel that he's now half finished.
Chapter six of the manuscript (divided into chapter six and seven in the published book), deals with the party thrown by Margot at Pastmaster House. Another gossip writer called Simon Balcairn can't get an invite and so gatecrashes the party wearing a false beard. He gets chucked out eventually, but takes his revenge (before gassing himself) by writing a passionate anti-party piece for his paper, suggesting that Margot's guest speaker, Mrs Ape, got all the guests to repent of their hedonistic and materialistic ways, throwing down their jewels and breaking down into tears.
'End of book one' Waugh wrote at the end of this chapter, surely hoping that by the time he sat down to write the second half of the book he would know where his novel was going. Because what he'd written up to that point was a warm, playful riff on his relationship with She-Evelyn and a sharp, funny critique of his generation's party lifestyle. But it was the despair that Waugh had felt when stuck teaching at a school in North Wales that had been the driving force behind Decline and Fall. Where was the equivalent trauma that would give Vile Bodies direction and substance? Don't worry, Evelyn, your trauma awaits.
In London the party season was in full swing. On Tuesday, June 25, the Guinness party on the theme of 1860, took place at their house at 10 Buckingham Street. Below is how that address (now changed to 10 Buckingham Place) looked in 2006, with food being delivered by a harried servant as in 1929, though then the servant would have been in-house, one of many looking after the bright young creme de la creme, Bryan and Diana.
Maybe this is a good point to say how many parties there were in the summer of 1929. As Nancy Mitford later wrote: 'there was a costume ball party nearly every night: the White party, the Circus Party, the Boat Party.'
Selina Hastings writes in the same vein: 'There was the Catalan Party in Lowndes Square, the Baby Party in Rutland Gate, the Bath and Bottle Party at the St George's Swimming baths, the Heroines of History Ball at Claridge's, and Olga Lynn's Literary Party, where guests had to come as the title of a book.' How about going to the party as the as yet half-written Vile Bodies? It would mean turning up with a candlestick phone and a cheque for a thousand pounds.
It was in the second half of the book that the then embittered Evelyn Waugh inserted the paragraph (...Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John's Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris - all that succession and repetition of massed humanity... Those vile bodies...)
Not forgetting the Party Without End that John Heygate threw in his basement flat, during which people would come and go as they pleased, fortified by an inexhaustible supply of sandwiches. Yes, the equivalent of the bloke in the above photo was kept busy in the summer of 1929.
Perhaps the next photo gives a better impression, with a party-goer waiting to be let in. Or is that the ghost of Diana standing guard over her own party?
Harold Acton subsequently reported to He-Evelyn in a letter that he danced with She-Evelyn. ('I danced blissfully with Evelyn at Bryan's last night.') However, it was John Heygate who accompanied She-Evelyn and Nancy Mitford to a second party that night, a Watteau party on board the Friendship, the boat permanently moored at Charing Cross. Apparently, John was there until dawn. It seems that the kind of party he liked best was the kind that gave the impression of never finishing.
The next day, She-Evelyn, who'd been seeing a lot of John since that wonderful day she'd stepped off the Stella Polaris for good, went with him and Tony Powell to a dinner party given by Tom Balston, Waugh's publisher. Powell writes in To Keep the Ball Rolling how Heygate was so tired he fell asleep in between courses. He also notes that Evelyn Waugh wasn't present and that Tom Balston would certainly not have invited John Heygate and She-Evelyn to a dinner party if he'd suspected anything approaching a rift in the Waugh marriage.
He-Evelyn put aside his fountain pen and came up to London the next day for a cocktail party given by Tony Powell at 33 Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury. Powell notes about this party that the Waughs arrived separately. He notes also that She-Evelyn had a row with Heygate, who was there from 6pm to 3am. Another without-ender! Well, nearly. In any case, it's pretty clear that John Heygate was a party animal. She-Evelyn too.
Not sure what happened on Friday, but on Saturday the Waughs and Tony Powell travelled with John Heygate to his parents' house, Salt Grass, in Milford-on-Sea on the Hampshire coast. Powell has to admit that he didn't notice anything amiss between the other three. They went to the New Forest Hunt Ball on the Saturday night and a tea party at Lady Montagu's the next day. However, decades later, Elizabeth Montagu told Selina Hastings that the tea party was not a success, with He-Evelyn in a heavy sulk and John Heygate trying much too hard to be funny.
On Monday, He-Evelyn would have been back at his desk in the Abingdon Arms, but within a day or so - did he but know it - his world had been torn apart.
John Heygate had been seeing a lot of Eleanor Watts that summer. Indeed on one occasion, he drove Eleanor and She-Evelyn to spend the day with He-Evelyn in Beckley. John proposed to Eleanor at a party in the first week of July and was turned down. He stayed on at the party to drown his sorrows and ended up taking She-Evelyn back to his flat in Cornwall Gardens and sleeping with her.
A week later - the letter was dated, July 9 - She-Evelyn wrote a despairing letter to He-Evelyn at the Abingdon Arms stating that she was in love with John Heygate and didn't know what to do. Had He-Evelyn got started on the second half of his book that week? If he did, the pages don't survive into the bound manuscript. The way that Vile Bodies carries on is largely dictated by the shattering of his marriage.
It's Friday July 12 that Evelyn returns to London, perhaps having thought about what he should do for a day or so (just as She-Evelyn may have thought for a day or so before posting her devastating letter). Evelyn told She-Evelyn that he would be prepared to carry on as if nothing had happened on condition that she never see John Heygate again. For the next fortnight, He-Evelyn remained with She-Evelyn at Canonbury Square, escorting her to parties. There was a Tropical Party at the Friendship on July 16, where the following photograph of two miserable individuals was taken. He-Evelyn looks grim; She-Evelyn looks ill.
In chapter eight of Vile Bodies, which is set at a party in a captive dirigible rather than a permanently moored boat, there is the following exchange between Adam and Nina which I feel fits in with the mood of the above picture:
'I don't know if it sounds absurd,' said Adam, 'but I do feel that a marriage ought to go on - for quite a long time, I mean. D'you feel that too, at all?'
'Yes, it's one of the things about a marriage.'
'I'm glad you feel that. I didn't quite know if you did. Otherwise. it's all rather bogus, isn't it?'
The Evelyns also went together to Henry Yorke's marriage at St Margaret's, Westminster, the reception taking place at the Biddulphs' house at 36 Lowndes Square, Knightsbridge (a long way from the Birmingham factory owned by his father that Henry had written about in Living). In the photo below at least the couple are touching each other, at least the bride looks happy.
I'm not sure of the date of that wedding, other than it was 'late-July'. But on July 23 there was another social event of interest, the opening of an exhibition of a newly discovered artist, Bruno Hat, at the Guinness House at Buckingham Gate. I should say more about this house which has popped up again. There are four floors to it, plus a basement. The house stretches for six windows across, as shown in the photo below.
This superb piece of real estate is just a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace in one direction, Victoria Station in the other. This may be where He-Evelyn got the idea for the invite to the Evelyns' party in November 1928. He marked out the route from Buckingham Palace to 17a Canonbury Square because he was all too conscious of how close his new friends, Diana Mitford and Bryan Guinness, really were to Buckingham Palace. His invite was intended to tickle those two in particular. Diana and Bryan were able to stroll to the Palace following the route I've marked below. They may even have been able to nip in by a side gate, so the route marked in blue is a conservative one.
"The Queen and her Ladies-in-waiting
Sat at the window so bored.
She cried, 'Look! who’s that handsome gal?'
They answered 'Diana Mitford!'"
Sorry, I couldn't resist that. OK, back to the Bruno Hat exhibition. This was the hoax, initiated by Brian Howard, an outrageous friend of He-Evelyn's from Oxford, the inspiraton behind Anthony Blanche in Brideshead, whereby Tom Mitford, Diana's brother, heavily disguised and mumbling German from where he sat in a wheelchair, played the part of a newly discovered artistic genius. He-Ev wrote the essay for the catalogue in which he called Hat 'the first English abstract painter' and signed his piece A.R. de T. It's thought that the actual paintings were done by Brian Howard, possibly aided by his artist friend John Banting. All the Bruno Hat paintings still in existence are on rope-framed canvasses. Below is an example of one.
Bruno Hat (Brian Howard), Still Life with Pears, 1929.
I've located a transcription of Waugh's essay here (scroll down to the foot of the page). It's first paragraph states that in hosting the show, Mrs Guinness is doing a service less to the artist than to the public. Waugh goes on to say something about the history of abstract art. He mentions Wyndham Lewis but states that the acknowledged masters are PIcasso and Gris and that English art has fallen behind that of the continent. Bruno Hat, Waugh informs the reader, is a naturalised Englishman and wishes to be considered English. Waugh then suggests that Hat may lead the way 'in this century's European painting from Discovery to Tradition'. The last sentence of the essay reads 'Bruno Hat is the first signal of the coming world movement towards the creation of Pure Form.'
The photo below is a 2006 recreation of a dealer, staggering out of the Bruno Hat exhibition, convinced that he has been in at the birth of a new talent, the start of a new push in English Art. Or is it Otto Silenus, the architect from Decline and Fall who has unshakeable belief in all things Modernist?
The fortnight of attempted reconciliation between the Evelyns did not work out. She-Evelyn met Alec Waugh at the Gargoyle (in between parties, I presume). She told him things were terrible, that He-Evelyn was drinking far too much which was making him paranoid. He'd even accused his wife of trying to poison him.
What happened at the end of the fortnight? Martin Stannard asked She-Evelyn in the 1980s. She told Waugh's first reliable biographer that it was He-Evelyn's decision that things were hopeless between them and that they should divorce. John Heygate and Tony Powell had gone on holiday to Germany. Powell received a telegram saying: 'Instruct Heygate return immediately Waugh'. This was He-Evelyn requiring John Heygate to take She-Evelyn off his hands. Meanwhile, Lady Burghclere had insisted that her daughter go to Venice to think things over. However, John returned to England, got in touch with her, and She-Evelyn went to live with him at his flat in Cornwall Gardens. Martin Stannard spoke to many people about the split. In general, the Catholics were critical of She-Evelyn's behaviour. Others were more supportive (such as Tony Powell and Alec Waugh). Stannard put the following question to those he spoke to: 'Do you think that at least as far as she was concerned, the sexual side of the marriage was inadequate?' Most felt this to have been the case.
Having sent off the telegram, Waugh did an odd thing. On July 26 he travelled north to Cheshire in the car of Eleanor Watts, a trip which Selina Hastings, Waugh's third biographer, tells us about. He-Evelyn stayed with Eleanor for several days at her parents' house, Haslington Hall near Crewe. There was much sympathy between them based on mutual unhappiness. Eleanor was regretting having turned down John Heygate on that fateful night in early July. She advised He-Evelyn to try and put his own loss out of his mind. 'I can't, I can't' was his repeated refrain.
According to Selina Hastings, it was while He-Evelyn was in Cheshire that She-Evelyn (she could not have been in Italy more than a day or two) was photographed with John Heygate at a party (a photograph I would love to trace). When she asked Nancy Mitford for advice, Nancy told her to tell her husband the encounter had been an accident and that she loved only him. She-Evelyn then told Nancy that she didn't love He-Evelyn, that she'd only married him to escape her own mother. Nancy, sensing scandal, left the Canonbury Square flat at about this time. She-Ev also told Pansy Lamb that Evelyn was too difficult to live up to. And complained to an unidentified girlfriend that He-Evelyn had been 'bad in bed'; that she found his sexual techniques unpleasurable, techniques that had been learned in affairs with men.
Selina Hastings's own opinion seems to be that, in addition to the above, when she was seriously ill during the cruise, She-Evelyn had come to despise her husband for not giving her the kind of warm and spoiling love that she felt she needed.
No doubt all this was on He-Evelyn's mind when Eleanor Watts drove him back to London on August the first. He entered the empty flat and found what? According to official biographer Christopher Sykes, he found the house empty - no Nancy and no She-Evelyn - and had to go and fetch the 'daily-woman' to try and find out what had happened. However, according to Martin Stannard, there was no shock desertion. 'The shock was at standing alone in the place which, only three weeks earlier, had formed the focus of an apparently serene domestic life.'
I think that He-Evelyn was indeed shocked. I suspect it's at this moment that he took the photographs of the dining room and the living room. I say this because of one telling detail. Eleanor Watts told Selina Hastings that when not drinking Black Velvet together at Haslington Hall, He-Evelyn - who had his paintbox with him - had been painting sketches for the dust-cover of Vile Bodies. Surely it is one of these that He-Evelyn placed in the middle of the mantelpiece in the living room before taking a photo of the room (second image from the top of this page).
I should mention first about the next image, that the picture on the left edge of the mantelpiece below could be the 'crumbling Greek ikon' that Alastair Graham gave Evelyn on his visit to Athens, Christmas, 1926. Or it could be something brought back from the spring 1929 cruise, after all the Stella Polaris did stop in Athens, and in Waugh's letter to Henry Yorke of June 20, he mentions that he'd bought a seventeenth century water colour of the Prodigal Son in Malta, and wondered if Henry would like it as a wedding present.
Living room at 17a Canonbury Square. Detail.
The striking painting in the middle of the above detail consists of a top hat above a bowler hat, with a target pattern (or maybe the bird's eye view of a cap) imposed on them both. There are also letters which make up the word BOGUS. (Waugh did something similar for the cover of the Oxford Broom in 1924, there making a pattern, though not such an ambitious one, of the letters BROOM.) The letters B, O, G, U and S may have been cut out of something, perhaps a magazine, and laid out incongruously. Now the word 'bogus' crops up a couple of times in the first half of Vile Bodies. But in the devastating interval before getting down to the second half of the book, the word was clearly on He-Evelyn's mind a lot.
Perhaps he'd started Vile Bodies thinking that the world of the bright young thing was bogus; now he was going to have to come to terms with the fact that what Adam and NIna had together was bogus too. Bogus? Us?
In any case, he uses the word 'bogus' eight times in the second half of the novel (thank-you to the 'Look-Inside' function on Amazon for that figure). The most significant instance being in the following quote from the Jesuit priest, Father Rothschild:
'"I know very few young people, but it seems to me they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence. I think all these divorces show that. People aren't content just to muddle along nowadays....And this word "bogus " they all use... They won't make the best of a bad job nowadays."'
The top hat is more decipherable than the bowler in the painting, but the bowler is more interesting. When Waugh takes up his book again, Adam becomes Mr Chatterbox in place of the journalist who killed himself. He introduces the green bowler as the latest 'must-be-seen-in' fashion accessory. The phrase 'green bowler' comes up seven times in the second half of the novel. Of course, I don't know if the bowler in the black-and-white photograph is green or not.
Actually, the painting has a vague resemblance to the cover of the Penguin Classic published in 2000. A useful edition with an introduction and notes by Richard Jacobs.
Before going any further, I want to use an image and some words (all the words from the double-page chapter eleven of Vile Bodies, if the copyright holder has no objection) to give an overview of the first and the second half of Vile Bodies as they came to Evelyn Waugh in two flashes: the day he received the most upsetting letter from his wife, and the day, three weeks later, he walked into the Canonbury flat and found her gone for ever. Not that you'd guess that there had been such 'a sharp disturbance in his private life' - as Waugh later put it in the 1965 preface - from the words or the image, such are the layers of irony:
Vile Bodies: Eleven. (Photo © Alexander Waugh, Waugh Family Archive, Milverton. Text © Oxford University Press.)
I suppose that Waugh could have painted the picture (which looks rather small now that we're back looking at the whole image of the room) while still on the cruise, and that the photograph of the living room was taken in the first few days of June. That would explain why the book, Living, was given a prominent position in the photo's composition. But I don't think that's what happened. I don't think Waugh would have attempted to paint the cover for a book he had not yet written and barely conceived. I suspect that the high opinion that Waugh had formed of Living at the beginning of June was still there towards the end of July, that he had space in his mind for both feelings of literary admiration and personal devastation.
I also think the photographs of the dining room and the living room were taken at the same time. There is a bunch of large-headed daisies on the table of the living room and a vase of lilies in the background of the dining room. Both suggest summer, and it wasn't until the end of August 1928 that the couple moved into the flat. Besides, surely it would have taken some time for the Evelyns to furnish and decorate the rooms. Oh, but let's cut to the chase, the living room photograph was definitely taken in summer 1929, and the equivalent flowering plants in the fireplaces suggest the photos were both taken then.
Details of Dining Room (left) and LIving Room (right) at 17a Canonbury Square.
So, on August 1, 1929, He-Evelyn wandered from room to room, feeling the full impact of the loss of his wife. The total shock of her betrayal. Let me put it this way, as it's quite close to how Waugh himself put it, both at the time and when he eventually staggered back to his writing desk:
I think of the dining room as the Decline and Fall room, with its several portraits of the Evelyns by Henry Lamb. And I think of the living room as the Vile Bodies room, with its prospective cover. Both books owe huge debts to the part She-Evelyn played in Waugh's life. It wasn't a woman who saved Waugh from teaching at a hellish school in Wales, but it was the joy of being with She-Evelyn that provided a counterpoint to what had been a very miserable experience. In Decline and Fall, Paul went from the safety and drudgery of an institution to the thrills and spills of adult life (and back again). As for Vile Bodies, well the Adam and Nina relationship is all about the Evelyns. And when She-Evelyn left Waugh it meant he was going to have to split up Adam and Nina. How did Waugh go about that? With boiling fury and remarkable restraint. With style and with structure. But I'm getting ahead of things.
The day after his arrival at the Canonbury Square flat, on August 2, He-Evelyn received a letter from She-Evelyn saying that she was living with John Heygate in his flat in Cornwall Gardens. Maybe it was actually sometime during that long lonely day that Evelyn placed his prospective cover on the mantelpiece and took the photo.
And then, when he got up on the next morning of August 3, everything, on the one hand, was confusion, all, on the other, was clear to him: 'I must get the hell out of here'.
Evelyn cleared out there and then. Where did he go?
Ultimately, or a year later anyway, he fled to Africa and to the Roman Catholic Church, which suggests just how meaningless Evelyn's life had become since he came back to the empty Canonbury Square flat. It suggests to me just how significant the photograph of the living room was. Which maybe explains why it's been difficult for me to stop playing around with it.
However, to begin with, Evelyn was taken by a friend to a safe house. We'll catch up with him a month or so later when he buckled down to write the second half of Vile Bodies. For now it's goodbye to Canonbury Square. How did Cyril Connolly put it again:
'It was a very small spick and span little bandbox of a house, and his wife was like a very, very pretty little china doll, and the two of them were this fantastic thing of the happily married young couple whom success has just touched with its wand.'
Touched by success's wand one year, thumped by failure's hammer the next. Not much Evelyn could do about it, except keep on writing with that pen of his, whether it was a "Swan" pen or not.
1) A shorter version of this essay appears on 'Waugh and Words', a University of Leicester website. Thanks to Dr. Barbara Cooke for enabling this.
2) I put together the above piece before my visit to Lisbon which has given me an insight into Waugh's interest in Catholicism at the time. When in late May, 1929, he stood in the exact centre of Sao Roque Church and looked up at the ceiling, he was impressed by all the lines of perspective falling into place. It may even have been a moment of revelation: of belief in God made possible, made easier anyway, through the power of art. Less than two months later Waugh found himself staring into the middle of his domestic space, the living room at 17a Canonbury Square, in the knowledge that what meaning it may have had for him had dissolved without trace: that his belief in his marriage had been a delusion. In which case his decision to place the humble Greek icon on the mantelpiece in counterpoint to his cynical Vile Bodies cover becomes all the more significant.