Evelyn probably met Alastair Graham in the autumn of 1922, though its difficult to be sure as Evelyn destroyed his diaries covering the years he was at Oxford. But we know that they were close in 1923 when they spent much time at Barford House, near Warwick, where Alastair lived with his idiosyncratic mother. In a note to Waugh’s Diaries, published in 1976, the editor Michael Davie suggests that between January 1924 and August 1932, Waugh stayed at Barford at least 21 times, sometimes staying as long as three weeks.
Fair enough, but in 1923 it would seem that Evelyn was particularly associated with Barford House, physically end emotionally. (Barford is the prototype of Brideshead; Alastair is the forerunner of Sebastian.) Evelyn and Alastair had to be more circumspect when it came to cavorting in front of Evelyn’s parents, so it wasn’t until January 1924 that Alastair first came to stay at Underhill, six months before this scene from The Scarlet Woman was shot.
Would Evelyn and Alastair Graham have been quite as warm with each other at the back porch of Underhill as Evelyn and John Greenidge (playing the Prince of Wales in The Scarlet Woman) are in the film? I think they would have been. But who is that lurking in the background? Could it be Arthur Waugh, Evelyn’s father? If so, he may be observing to himself that it wasn’t just Alec, his favourite son, who was going through a gay phase, but both his talented children. Evelyn may well be drawing on his feelings for Alastair as he pets his Prince for the benefit of the camera. Waugh later said in A Little Learning about Alastair Graham that he ‘could not have fallen under an influence better designed to encourage my natural frivolity, dilettantism and dissipation.’
Early in Brideshead, Sebastian drives Charles to see his home for the first time on a beautiful day in June, 1923. On the way, they stop for strawberries and wine on a sheep-cropped knoll. While lying together enjoying the English countryside and Turkish cigars, Sebastian says, “Just the place to bury a crock of gold. I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.’ I’d suggest digging for gold in the porch at Underhill. I’d further suggest hiring a lip reader in the hope of striking gold in the otherwise unrecorded dialogue of The Scarlet Woman.
On two occasions in the Brideshead manuscript, Waugh writes ‘Alastair’ when he means ‘Sebastian’, and I go into the two occasions in detail in EVELYN!. Here I’ll just say that I think he had Alastair in mind when he wrote in the brilliant ‘Et In Arcadia Ego’ section of Brideshead, ‘that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom’. The image below was captured in summer 1924, when Evelyn and Alastair were still intimates.
At the bottom of the grounds at Barford House there is a temple. It was still there in 2006 when I visited the place to take photographs for EVELYN! In its heyday it was a secluded and inspirational spot that must have been important to the classically minded couple. Evelyn began a book in the summer of 1924, the same summer that The Scarlet Woman was begun. In A Little Learning he comments: ‘I remember only that it was called The Temple at Thatch and concerned an undergraduate who inherited some property of which nothing was left except an eighteenth-century classical folly where he set up house and, I think, practiced black magic.’ Actually, Evelyn began writing The Temple at Thatch the same week he spent filming The Scarlet Woman.
Here is a taste of Evelyn and Alastair in the summer of 1924, taken from Waugh’s Diaries. The extracts are from several days in a row, which I’ll illustrate with more or less consecutive film stills taken in the garden at Golders Green. I’ll paraphrase so as not to infringe the copyright of the Evelyn Waugh Estate:
Monday 23 June 1924
Evelyn arrived home to discover a telegram from Alastair suggesting they dine at Previtali. After that they did a pub crawl to the Embankment and then the Café Royal. They were joined by two women, one dressed like a man which attracted much attention. Evelyn and Alastair got rid of them by leaving the establishment themselves and putting them in a taxi to ‘lesbianise’.
Tuesday 24 June 1924
Evelyn and Alastair took a bus to Kew and walked for miles around the beautiful gardens in the heat of the day. At Hampton Court, Evelyn admired the buildings rather than the pictures. From there they took a boat to the Star and Garter where they dined together.
Wednesday 25 June 1924
Evelyn called round for Alastair mid-morning and accompanied him through the depressing business of booking Alastair’s trip to Africa.
Thursday 26 June 1924
Evelyn wrote that he didn’t do anything that day.
Friday 27 June 1924
On Alastair’s birthday he visited Evelyn at Underhill, had lunch, dinner and slept the night.
Saturday 28 June,1924
Evelyn and Alastair went to Paddington Station where they scoffed buns and watched trains. After that to the cinema then back home to dine. At 11 they went for a walk and got lost. In Evelyn’s opinion, God removed Parliament Hill from the face of the earth for a while. When they eventually got home, Alastair cooked them an omelette.
Sunday 29 June,1924
Evelyn accompanied Alastair to a church in Buckingham Palace Road where Evelyn very much enjoyed the Russian Mass.
OK, so what was happening here? Alastair was as much at sea as Evelyn in the summer of 1924, post-Oxford. Casting around for meaning in his life, Alastair did two extraordinary things. He sailed to Africa on September 18. But just before that, on September 13, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Clearly, religion was a shared interest between Evelyn and Alastair, and Waugh regularly comments about churches they visited together and services they attended side by side. All the same, I doubt if Evelyn shared Alastair’s beliefs at this stage. After all, isn’t the whole plot of The Scarlet Woman - the Pope’s plan to convert the heir of the English throne to Catholicism - a reflection of Evelyn’s personal circumstances? The Pope plotting, as it were, to convert his Alastair to the Italian Church. In other words, John Greenidge sitting on the bench in the garden at Underhill, is as much acting the part of Alastair Graham as he is of the Prince Regent. No wonder Evelyn is playing his own part with ironic gusto!
The connection between Waugh’s life and the plot of The Scarlet Woman becomes all the more pronounced when the film crew got together again over a year after the original shoot, in November 1925, to complete the film in Oxford. There is a long scene in which the Prince Regent undergoes conversion. Waugh, hamming it up behind the kneeling figure taking the vows, would seem to be mocking the exercise.
“I’ve lost my lover to the Pope, God help me!” Evelyn could be declaiming, facetiously. And he may be thinking that he can cope with that, because he’s got other options. But Evelyn himself converts to Roman Catholicism in autumn 1930, then leaves for Africa immediately thereafter. That same double whammy that Alastair imposed on himself in 1924! Why on earth did Evelyn do that?
Well, if you know where to look, the answer is in The Scarlet Woman. As we’ll see in a page or two.