April 25, 2014. I've come to realise that Evelyn Waugh's experiences at Renishaw Hall - he was there for days on end with Alastair, She-Evelyn and Laura - fed into his vision of Brideshead Revisited. But I'm going to take my time demonstrating as much. Indeed, imagine you've been invited to a country house for the weekend. In such circumstances a certain amount of patience is no doubt required, and - you sincerely hope - will be rewarded.
Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire is owned by the Sitwell family. Evelyn Waugh knew Osbert Sitwell from 1928, when Evelyn gave his influential new friend a signed copy of his sparkling debut novel, Decline and Fall. In 1942, when the relationship was long-established, Osbert asked Evelyn if he could come up with a personal reminiscence of his father, Sir George Sitwell. Evelyn obliged by handing him a carefully crafted letter.
The letter is dated 20 June, 1942 and was written at Renishaw Hall (which is close to where Waugh's Commando unit was based at the time). The letter appears as an appendix to Laughter in the Next Room, the fourth volume of Osbert Sitwell's autobiography. It describes the only occasion that Evelyn met George Sitwell, in the summer of 1928.
Actually, Waugh says 'thirteen or fourteen years ago this summer', but Osbert, in his book, suggests that it was 1928, that special summer of Waugh's marriage to Evelyn Gardner.
Waugh sets the scene neatly. An evening on the terrace shortly before dinner. A party of guests assembled by Osbert and his brother Sacheverell (Sachie for short) were enjoying the beauty of the sunset, which was lighting up the surrounding hills. Sir George seemed slightly estranged from the rest of the party, no doubt a fashionable literary crowd, and edged away to the extreme fringe of the group where Evelyn was standing. Standing beside She-Evelyn? I would imagine he was, but his diaries for that summer are incomplete, basically covering July, and in writing about such a visit in retrospect he would certainly have excluded any mention of his first wife.
The visit - whether in June or August - must have been of a decent length, because Waugh writes that he had noted with fascination during his stay how Sir George's beard would assume new shapes according to his mood. Evelyn had been put in mind of King Lear, Edward Lear and Mr Pooter, but on this particular evening, George Sitwell's beard conjured up Robinson Crusoe (a clever bit of identification given where his letter was going).
Sir George stood silently, gazing out across the valley. Eventually, he turned and spoke to Evelyn whom he had seldom addressed during his visit. He spoke in the wistful, nostalgic tones of a castaway, yet of a castaway who was reconciled to his own company. Ignoring the settlement in the mining valley nearby, its streets packed with terraced housing, Sir George declared "There is no-one between us and the Locker-Lampsons."
What George Sitwell meant, of course, was that there may be all sorts of common people living in the dark valley below - masses of the blighters - but that as far as he was concerned they didn't count.
Evelyn Waugh calling George Sitwell a snob may be the pot calling the kettle black, but I want to focus on another aspect of the anecdote. The Locker Lampsons lived in Barlborough Hall and that is due east of Renishaw Hall, as the Google map below shows.
Now the sun always sets in the west, and so in his letter Evelyn is likely to have been conflating two experiences - a chat in the morning, as above, and a different chat, about whatever, before dinner. Perhaps a chat along the following lines:
George Sitwell: "And you say you're both called Evelyn?"
He-Evelyn: "That is so, Sir George."
George Sitwell: "Not what I'd call a recipe for a happy marriage."
He-Evelyn squeezes the hand of She-Evelyn.
George Sitwell: "Did you know my great grandfather was Sir Sitwell Sitwell."
He-Evelyn: "Interesting. If my wife ever leaves me I may call myself Evelyn Evelyn in an effort to feel I haven't lost anything - but rather gained something - through the transaction."
Did She-Evelyn then squeeze the hand of He-Evelyn to register both her amusement and their connection? At that stage in their relationship, I'd like to think so.
Evelyn paid a ten-day visit to Renishaw in August 1930 and this is commemorated with a detailed diary entry. Waugh explains that he travelled with Robert Byron by train to Chesterfield where they were met by Sachie and his wife, Georgia. He then describes the house and countryside in some detail, as if it was his first visit... Indeed, I now realise that this must have been Evelyn's first visit, as he talks about meeting Sir George. Now if Evelyn only met Sir George once, as he clearly states at the outset of his 1942 letter to Osbert, then this was obviously the time. Evelyn was inaccurate when he referred to thirteen or fourteen years ago, he meant twelve. And Osbert was wrong in mentioning 1928. He meant 1930. Apologies for the false start, but I did say that patience would be needed here.
Evelyn tells us that Robert Byron stayed in his room all the time, and that for companionship he 'summoned Alastair' who had returned to England on leave from his diplomatic job in Athens. The household was full of plots, apparently. For instance, Sir George was told by his adult children that Alastair played the violin and that another guest's specialist subjects were Arctic exploration and ecclesiastical instruments. I expect this made for opportunities for laughter in the next room.
According to Evelyn, Sachie liked talking about sex, Osbert was very shy, and Edith wholly ignorant. There is a famous photo by Cecil Beaton of the Sitwell siblings, which it seems right to place here.
The Sitwells, brothers and sister, October 1, 1929 by Cecil Beaton
That's Sachie on the left, Edith in the middle and Osbert on the right. All writers and intellectuals; all born of an idiosyncratic father and an uneducated mother. (The couple was famously ill-matched. Evelyn tells us that Sir George and Lady Ida were never together at meals.)
The above photo is particularly apt for the anecdote Evelyn tells about the young Sitwells' relationship to both a footman and their mother. The footman brought a message to the drawing room that her ladyship wanted to see Edith upstairs. Edith said she'd been with her all day and that Osbert should go. Osbert said: "Sachie, you go." Sachie said: "Georgia, you go." Until the footman broke in with "Well, come on, one of you's got to go."
Waugh also writes that it was unsafe to mention any living author because the Sitwells were so bitchy about them all. So it must have been good to break away from the solipsistic siblings for a while. I imagine Evelyn and Alastair at the edge of the terrace enjoying a preprandial cocktail when Sir George approached:
Sir George: "I hear you play the violin, Alastair."
Evelyn: "He plays wonderfully, Sir George. Did you not hear him pawwing away at his instrument as the sun rose over Barlborough Hall at dawn?"
Sir George (staring off into the east, smiling): "There is no-one between us and the Locker-Lampsons."
Evelyn: "That's what the Vivaldi said to me too. The sweetest violin-playing you ever did hear this side of the Acropolis."
Alastair: "And then you spoiled everything by getting your flute out."
Evelyn: "And then I spoiled everything by getting my flute out, Sir George. I must apologise for that. Luckily there were no ladies present."
Evelyn was also at Renishaw with his second wife, Laura. We know that because of another letter that Waugh wrote while at Renishaw on that same June 20, 1942. He began it by apologising for not writing before. Laura had given birth to their third child, Margaret, ten days previously. He wrote that his excuse was a poor one, but that there was nowhere at Matlock to sit and write and that by the end of the day his eyes were sore from scrutinising photographs (he was on a photo interpretation course) and all he wanted to do was sit in the twilight drinking beer.
In his letter, Waugh makes it clear that he had spent time there with Laura before, by saying: 'Renishaw is just as you saw it'. He goes on to say that the gardens are shabbier but that the house has not been requisitioned by the army, and is open, with no dust-sheets except in the drawing room.
Waugh mentions that he's come across an extremely charming artist called John Piper who was making drawings of the house and grounds. This may well have been the inspiration behind the scenes in Brideshead Revisited where Charles Ryder paints aspects of the house.
Osbert had commissioned John PIper in order that he would have a bank of paintings of the house to surround himself with in his study while he wrote his five-volume autobiography, Left Hand, Right Hand, and to provide illustrations for that autobiography. In volume two, The Scarlet Tree, there are a dozen images of Renishaw painted by Piper, a few of which I'm making use of in this piece.
A page from The Scarlet Tree. Volume two of Left Hand, Right Hand by Osbert Sitwell..
In his letter, Waugh tells Laura that Osbert and Edith send their love. Osbert is 'bland and genial'. While Edith is 'alternating between extremes of venom and compassion'. The Sitwells have left Evelyn alone for the afternoon, which is what he'd hoped they would do so that he could write letters.
A page from The Scarlet Tree. Volume two of Left Hand, Right Hand by Osbert Sitwell..
In 1945, when Waugh was looking for an artist for a special limited edition of Brideshead, he approached John Piper. Preliminary drawings were completed but Piper was not satisfied with the work and did not submit it to Waugh. Shame, I say. The paintings at Renishaw have a darkness that suggests they have been done in time of war. And, of course, it was during the war that Charles Ryder stumbled across Brideshead and remembered it in happier times. Ryder had known Brideshead in the early twenties. Evelyn had known Renishaw and Madresfield from 1930 and 1931, respectively; he'd virtually lived at Barford House in the early twenties. All three real houses fed into Waugh's nostalgic vision.
A page from The Scarlet Tree. Volume two of Left Hand, Right Hand by Osbert Sitwell..
As it happens, Renishaw Hall, nowadays open to the public, is only an hour's travel from Leeds, where I was booked in to have a look at the manuscript of Vile Bodies. And so the next day, April 25, 2014, I was driven down the M1 by a friend. On the way there I had the following aerial view in mind, the blue dots representing the drinks table at the back door to the house and the edge of the terrace where Evelyn and Sir George may have had their conversation:
I also had in mind the following passage from Brideshead Revisited:
'This terrace was the final consummation of the house's plan; it stood on massive stone ramparts above the lakes, so that from the hall steps it seemed to overhang them, as though, standing by the balustrade, one could have dropped a pebble into the first of them immediately below one's feet. It was embraced by the two arms of the colonnade; beyond the pavilions groves of lime led to the wooded hillsides. Part of the terrace was paved, part planted with flowerbeds and arabesques of dwarf box; taller box grew in a dense hedge, making a wide oval, cut into niches and interspersed with statuary, and, in the centre, dominating the whole, splendid space rose the fountain; such a fountain as one might expect to find in a piazza of Southern Italy, such a fountain as was, indeed, found there a century ago by one of Sebastian's ancestors; found, purchased, imported and re-erected in an alien but welcoming climate.'
In the alien and unwelcoming climate that met my arrival - the damp grass soon had my feet wet - I wanted to see how closely I could link the above passage to the terrace at Renishaw. First off, a grove of lime (actually an avenue, running from the left edge of the house to the bottom edge of the above aerial shot) from where I took the following picture. Forgive the smudges made by raindrops:
I didn't think I'd be able to make much of the 'massive stone ramparts'. But, in fact, the terrace does drop some considerable distance from the house to the southern edge. And so it's possible to get the photograph below, where the wall is about ten feet high:
I was sure the bit about being able to throw a pebble into the first of the lakes below would be a non-starter. But my friend, Marilyn, pointed out that if I went to the extreme south east edge of the terrace, or just beyond, a lake can indeed be seen far below one's feet:
Sebastian: "Charles, have you seen Aloysius? He simply loves this time of year and likes to hide in the bluebells. But I'm always afraid he'll slip down the hill and those damn trees won't move a muscle to save him."
From this vantage point one can also see a temple that reminds me of the one at Barford that Alastair and Evelyn used to hang around in.
Sebastian: "It's all right, Charles. Aloysius is lying on his back in the bluebells, smoking a Turkish cigar. He'll be quite safe there until we're called for lunch. Let's go to the temple and do things that we couldn't do if Mummy was in residence."
It's a great space...
But I don't hang around it for long, there is so much else to piece together over and above Evelyn and Alastair's Barford dynamic.
On the way back to the terrace I can't resist taking this photo:
It shows that the dwarf box is not so dwarf any more. I suspect it has grown by several feet in the eighty-four years since Evelyn was first here. But it also allows me try and amuse Marilyn:
"There is no-one between us and the Locker-Lampsons."
And so to the fountain which can be glimpsed in the above photo but is central in the one below:
Now this fountain is not like the one in Brideshead, which has an island of sculptured rocks in the centre, through which the water flows in streams, height being given to the feature by an Egyptian obelisk of red stone. However, elsewhere on the terrace at Renishaw stand two candle fountains of Veronese marble (not currently plumbed in) and these were imported from Italy by Sir George Sitwell.
Indeed, perhaps that's what Sir George told Evelyn when he sidled up to him looking like Robinson Crusoe that evening in 1930. And so the Italian origins of a fountain found its way into Brideshead:
Sir George: "See that fountain?"
Evelyn: "Such a fountain as one might find in a piazza in Southern Italy."
Sir George: "Found there, purchased, imported and re-erected in an alien but welcoming climate."
Evelyn: "Do they have such a fountain at Barlborough Hall?"
Sir George: "They do not!"
Other parallels between Renishaw and Brideshead exist. For instance, when the family don't have guests, they eat in a relatively small dining room, as is the case at Brideshead. The Ante-Dining Room at Renishaw; the painted Parlour at Brideshead.
I'd like to know why, on Waugh's first visit to Renishaw in 1930, Robert Byron spent all his time in his room. Could it have echoed the situation with Sebastian at Brideshead? I mean, Sebastian drinking in his own room, unfit to be seen in company? I suspect that the Sitwells ran a pretty tight ship as far as alcohol was concerned (in a letter written to a friend in 1957, Evelyn complains that you couldn't get a gin at Renishaw until 7.30pm). Why else does Evelyn in his 1930 diary entry need to mention secret trips to the nearby golf clubhouse to get a drink before lunch? Again, the lengths that Sebastian goes to in order to get his daily fix of booze comes to mind.
I make my way over soft lawns to the fountain. This is the focal point of the terrace at Renishaw, just as it becomes the focal point in Brideshead when Charles Ryder returns to the house as Sebastian's sister's lover. Chapter three of book two, 'A Twitch Upon the Thread', is surely worth considering in detail while I'm here.
On a tranquil lime-scented evening, Charles and Julia emerge from their baths, and, dressed for dinner, go outside to enjoy the last half-hour of the day. The wind has fallen to a soft breeze which carries its fragrance, fresh from the late rains, to merge with the sweet breath of box hedge and the drying stone. Charles has two cushions with him and puts them on the rim of the fountain. Julia sits, one hand in the water, idly turning an emerald ring to catch the fire of the sunset... Can I picture the scene? Yes, I can manage that:
Charles and Julia talk of their two years together. Not a day's coldness or mistrust or disappointment in that time. They fall silent and listen to the birds in the lime trees and the splishing water of the fountain.
Julia says she wants to marry Charles. Though first there will have to be two divorces. The lakes below are aflame in the sunset. The house is lit up by the setting sun too. And the butler emerges from it to tell them that dinner is ready.
To their surprise, Bridey - Sebastian and Julia's older brother - is in residence. He announces that he is going to be married to a widow and staunch Catholic called Beryl. It turns out that Bridey won't be bringing her to Brideshead while Julia and Charles are there living in sin. To Charles's surprise, Julia is upset by her brother's crass remark and flees the Painted Parlour in tears. Charles finds her down by the fountain, on a wooden seat, in a bay of the clipped box which encircles the basin. He sits down beside her and she clings to him.
I guess I'm also sitting where Evelyn once sat beside Laura, pre-Brideshead, esteemed guests of Sitwell, Sitwell and Sitwell, by then in their fifties, as I am. What did Evelyn/Charles say to Laura/Julia? Well, the line in the book is abstract enough to cover all sorts of scenarios so that's what I say aloud in a bay of the box:
"My darling, what is it? Why do you mind? What does it matter what that old booby says?"
Waugh's characters discuss the notion of living in sin. Julia pours out her heart. Charles thinks:
'An hour ago, under the sunset, she sat turning her ring in the water and counting the days of our happiness; now under the first stars and the last grey whisper of day, all this mysterious tumult of sorrow!'
Presently they go back to the house. Julia finds Bridey in the library and apologises for her outburst. They talk about the future. Charles then repeats a sentence construction used two pages before:
'An hour ago, in the black refuge in the box hedge, she wept her heart out for the death of her God; now she is discussing whether Beryl's children shall take the old smoking-room or the school-room for their own.'
Again, Charles and Julia leave the house together. The moon is high. They walk under the limes and Julia idly snaps off one of the shoots that fringe their boles, and strips it as they walk along, making a switch. Once more they stand by the fountain. Waugh underlines the repetition of the action by having Charles say:
"It's like the setting of a comedy. Scene: a baroque fountain in a nobleman's grounds. Act one, sunset; act two, dusk; act three moonlight. The characters keep assembling at the fountain for no very clear reason."
Julia accuses Charles of talking in a 'damn bounderish' way and cuts him across the face with her switch. He goads her and she hits him again. Then she raises her hand a third time but stops and throws the half-peeled wand into the water, where it floats white and black in the moonlight.
"Did that hurt?"
"Did it?... Did I?"
And things calm down for the night. What has Waugh achieved through these scenes by the fountain? He's established that Julia's latent Catholicism is going to upset the apple-cart as regards she and Charles living a happy, secular life. Peculiar that it's seen through the eyes of the atheist, Charles, because of course the whole thing comes to the reader through the mind of a committed Catholic. I have to say that I don't find the belief system as persuasive as the existential aspect. By which I mean that one does get the impression that the characters are alive in the environment they are presented in. Especially Sebastian and Charles in Oxford and at Brideshead. Not so much Julia and Charles at Brideshead. I suspect because there was a falling off in intensity as Evelyn moved from his pissing-about-with-Alastair era to his let's-make-a-family time with Laura.
A chapter or so later, Lord Marchmain arrives back at Brideshead where he has come to die. The basic situation in Brideshead - with Lord Marchman having been in exile abroad - is thought to have been inspired by the parallel situation at Madresfield Court, where Lord Beauchamp was forced into exile in 1931. However, much the same applies at Renishaw. Evelyn only met Sir George once, because in 1925 he'd taken up permanent residence in Castello di Montegufoni, near Florence. He remained in Italy at the outbreak of war, but in 1942 moved to Switzerland where he died the next year. So, like Lord Beauchamp, when Waugh sat down to write Brideshead in 1944, he would have been aware of Sir George's self-imposed exile and his death.
I think I'm going to leave this essay here. Soon I may try and rebuild Brideshead Castle entirely from the stones of Barford House, Madresfield Court and Renishaw Hall. But for now let's leave this particularly charming site with the hero of the hour: Sir George Sitwell. The page below is from Osbert Sitwell's book Laughter in the Next Room, the volume that also contains Evelyn Waugh's short yet resonating reminiscence of George.
A page from Laughter in the Next room. Volume four of Left Hand, Right Hand by Osbert Sitwell.
It would seem from the top picture that, even in Tuscany, Sir George was seeing no-one between himself and the Locker Lampsons.
And from the picture in the bottom half of the page, it would seem that the umbrella that would have served Sir George well on a spring day in Derbyshire, came in just as handy when walking the terrace at Montegufoni in the middle of summer.
Ah, the middle of summer! My summer, your summer, Evelyn's summer.
1) Renishaw Hall is currently owned by Alexandra Sitwell, grand-daughter of the Sacheverell mentioned above. For details of how and when this rich, historic building and superb garden is open to the public, see here.
2) What did Evelyn Waugh think of Osbert Sitwell as a writer? During an exchange of letters with Nancy Mitford in 1944 shortly after the publication of Brideshead, Evelyn wrote that Charles Ryder was bad at painting in the same way that Osbert was bad at writing. Anxious not to upset such influential friends and upper class hosts, he added 'For Christ's sake don't repeat that comparison to anyone.'
By then, a couple of the volumes of autobiography had been published. But Evelyn must have admired the way the sequence progressed, because he later wrote a profile of Osbert Sitwell in the New York Times Magazine in which he concluded:
'His life and his writings are indivisible. It is fitting that his masterpiece should be the five lucid, opulent volumes of his autobiography. He knew he had a valuable message to deliver – one of urbane enjoyment. He knew he had an artistic creation to perfect – his portrait of his own father. He knew he had a uniquely rich experience to develop – a lifetime lived in and for the arts. Those five volumes have given him a secure place in English literature.’
Evelyn didn't really think that! On the appearance of volume four, Waugh wrote to Nancy Miford that Osbert's book was decidedly odd and that it was amazing that a man of his disposition could write about Picasso and Gertude Stein in the way he did. On the appearance of volume five, Evelyn suggested that the book was very heavy going, though it did contain one good sentence: ‘Although I was already an eminent author, it is a curious fact that I experienced considerable difficulty in getting anything published.’ Poor Osbert. Poor, poor Osbert!
3) Given that it is obliquely referred to so often in this text, I think the reader deserves to see what Barlborough Hall looks like:
The Locker Lampsons are long gone. They sold the pile in 1935 and it is now an independent Jesuit preparatory school for boys and girls aged 3 to 11. I think Evelyn would have approved. He liked Jesuits. For example, Father Rothschild in Vile Bodies, Father Mather in Ninety-Two Days and Edmund Campion in Edmund Campion: Scholar, Priest, Hero and Martyr.
Anyway, the line nowadays when standing on the terrace at Renishaw looking into the sunrise is: "There is no-one between us and the Jesuits."
This can also be said at sunset looking into the west, thinking of Father Mather and a handful of Jesuit missionaries still heroically trying to spread the word of God throughout mud huts in the Amazon Basin.