THE SEPTIMUS LETTER
EVELYN THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
I've been looking forward to writing this piece for a while. Indeed since January 2007 when I visited Piers Court for the second time. For the follow-up visit, I wanted to stay overnight in the area. A little research told me that Nibley House, which offered B&B and was less than two miles from Piers Court, was available at an attractive price.
But the real attraction of staying at Nibley House was that it seemed identical to Piers Court. It would be like living in the house that Waugh had lived in throughout his married middle age. See for yourself: above, NIbley House, below, Piers Court...
Piers Court was built in 1588, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1, when it was south facing. But it was altered in the mid eighteenth century, turned around to face north (as NIbley House does) and given a Georgian front. Nibley House was built in 1610 in a Jacobean style, though that was largely demolished in 1760 and rebuilt in the Palladian style.
Two different histories, one similar outcome. Above, Piers Court; below, NIbley House. Or vice versa.
Would Evelyn have known about his house's doppelgänger? I suspect so. Certainly in Waugh's library at his death was the volume The Georgian Buildings of Bristol by Walter Ison, attesting Waugh's interest in both Georgian architecture and local buildings.
Kate came with me on this second reconnaissance as well as the first. We spent a comfortable night then woke with much to get on with. But first breakfast, which was served in the front room on the left. That is, in the equivalent of Evelyn Waugh's library. In the photo below I'm standing where Waugh's desk would have been, as it were, gazing towards the portrait of George III, here represented by a glass-fronted dark wooden cabinet.
It took me a while to get my head around this scenario. In fact, it took seven years, as I've just written the following this morning, September 26, 2014:
"So you're having a full English breakfast in my library today, Laura."
"You don't mind, do you, Evelyn? You can carry on with your writing, if you like, you won't disturb me... My these sausages are delicious... Toast, dear?"
"I must warn you. Please do not use words like 'Corn Flakes' and 'Tomato Sauce' in this room or I may be forced to call Ellwood and have your table removed."
"Oh, it was Ellwood that suggested I eat here while the dining room is being decorated."
Perhaps I mention decorating because the other front room at Nibley House was being decorated. As Kate and I were waiting for breakfast to arrive, I put my head in the other big front room and observed the man of the house on a stepladder painting the fancy plasterwork that goes round the top of the wall. He told me that he'd already repainted the floral and fruit motifs of the ceiling itself, and I admired his handiwork. 'Very Piers Court circa 1950,' I thought to myself.
An odd thing about the drawing room was a one person table tennis set-up. That is, a table with a wall in the middle, against the net, so that when a player hit a ping-pong ball above the net it came back to the solo player. Now that's something I dare say that Evelyn wouldn't have minded in his library. A physical activity to take his mind off a structural problem in his latest novel, thereby unblocking his creative self.
I ate a mouthful of toast then got to my feet again and approached the incongruous object that was keeping the breakfast corner of the room warm. I took it in from several angles.
It reminded me of a Piers Court story which I told Kate as well as I could remember it from the pages of Martin Stannard's biography of Waugh. An American (Paul Moor, I've since confirmed) was staying at Piers Court in winter 1949. At night there would be a roaring fire in the drawing room. Evelyn and Laura would sit on armchairs about six feet away from the fire, smoking cigars and cigarettes respectively. Paul Moor sat on a seat between them, also smoking cigarettes. There were no ashtrays in the room and he had to follow their lead of flicking his cigarette ash towards the fire, conscious that much of it (Evelyn and Laura's ash as well as his own) was falling short and landing on the carpet.
Perhaps I shouldn't have told a story about smoking because Kate is a smoker and immediately started to fret about how soon she would be able to get outside for her first roll-up of the day.
We didn't get out straight away because Mrs Eley wanted to show me something. The night before I'd told her that I was staying in the area because of my interest in Evelyn Waugh. Now she wanted to show me a letter that had been in her family for some time. Would I look at it for her?
It came in a small pale blue envelope, the little red stamp was franked with the information that the item had been posted at Dursley, Glos. at 3pm on Feb 23, 1953. The addressee was E. Wood Esquire of The Manor House, Stinchcombe.
"Do you know who E. Wood is?" I asked Mrs Eley.
"My uncle, Eddie Wood. His family farmed the Castle Farm in the centre of Dursley. Each day he took the milking cows through the streets of Dursley to get to the fields on the outskirts of town."
I read the letter, written on paper that matched the pale blue of the envelope.
Basically, Evelyn thanked Mr Wood for finding his son, Septimus, and returning him home.
Mrs Eley: "I don't think the next generation of my family will value the letter. So I thought of selling it to someone who might. Do you think the letter has any value?"
I try to give a detached answer: "Of course, anything signed by Evelyn Waugh is valuable. He is one of the best thought-of writers of the Twentieth Century. People still read his books today."
I told her that I would let the Evelyn Waugh Society know about the letter and that she might get a buyer that way. In the meantime, I read the letter twice and took a picture of it so that I wouldn't forget what it said, either that day or in the future.
Pity it wasn't on paper headed with the engraving of the front of Piers Court by Reynold Stone. But that had only been commissioned in 1954.
"What does it say?" asked Kate when I joined her outside. (She'd been more interested in getting smoke into her lungs than reading some old letter.)
What did the letter say? In the two minutes since I'd read it, my mind had been working on this. I'd come to the conclusion that NIbley House must be Piers Court in another dimension and that the fatherly Evelyn Waugh who wrote the Nibley House letter was a variation on the Evelyn who could be so dismissive of his family and of social niceties.
"Just tell me what the letter says."
"Dear Mr Wood, I must write to thank you again for your great kindness this morning in searching for my little bear, Aloysius, and for bringing him back to us in safety. It was a most neighbourly action and Charles and I shall always be most grateful to you. Yours sincerely, Sebastian Flyte."
Having tantalised my partner with this rough transcription, we left it at that for the time being and I communicated to Kate my plan for the day. We needed to get ourselves to Piers Court via the by-ways of Gloucestershire.
"What are we going to do when we get there? We have no invitation. We won't be able to get in."
"We're already in! We couldn't be more satisfactorily ensconced in Piers Court if we owned the bloody place. I've just seen Evelyn write a letter. I've just watched him playing ping-pong with himself."
I pointed out my preferred route on the Ordnance Survey map that Mrs Eley had kindly lent us. Nibley House is in the bottom right corner. We would walk north west along Frog Lane and then we'd take the footpath which goes along the foot of the escarpment as indicated by the closely packed contours. Piers Court is just before the junction of the B4060, the red road going north, and the yellow road that we could have walked on if we'd wanted to listen to the roar of the M5 for an hour.
So off we went. Unfortunately, the camera's batteries ran out of power at this point. That doesn't happen so much these days, but in 2007 digital cameras were still in their infancy.
The Google camera, which barely existed in January 2007, comes to my rescue as I write this up in September 2014. Luckily it was a bright sunny day in 2009 when the Google camera travelled the lanes around Nibley, albeit in June.
The Google camera facility is great. But it can't follow people when they transfer from road to footpath. And so I have no visual record of the stile we stopped at for a rest. Actually, not so much a rest as a chance for me to research one or two things about the letter. The Diaries and Letters of Evelyn Waugh are heavy books and I wouldn't have put them in my rucksack but for the excitement of having come across that gem of an original letter.
First, the Diaries. In June 1947, a low-spirited Waugh took a long walk through sunny lanes, woods, passing through NIbley amongst other places. 'Everything like Birket Foster,' he wrote when he got home to Piers Court. Now Birket Foster was a nineteenth century illustrator of rural English scenes. And I've since Googled his work:
A shepherd, livestock, a parent clutching a small child and the parent passing the time of day with the shepherd. Couldn't be better. Only the very literal-minded would have it be cattle instead of sheep. But hang on a minute. I've just found another Birket Foster painting called Cattle returning from Pasture.
Looks like the woman herding the cows has picked up another straggling child. Surely Septimus isn't having to be returned to Piers Court twice in one day! What is he trying to get away from? Is it the thought of his angry father, forever shushing him quiet and banning him from the library, that is causing the boy's tears to fall?
Back to January, 2007. I turned the pages of Waugh's Diaries until February 1953. Waugh doesn't mention the Septimus incident, indeed EW doesn't record much at all in February. In a diary entry not written until March 16, he remarks that Lent (which began on Ash Wednesday, February 18) had started well. He'd begun a novel (Officers and Gentlemen) and fiddled with the collages for Love Among the Ruins.
Kate wasn't much interested. So we got going, tramping over the countryside, stopping now and again to enjoy the views, check our route, talk to cows etc.
What do the Letters add by way of context to the Septimus letter? At a stile quite close to Piers Court, though the house was not yet within site due to the rolling hills, I reached into my rucksack for that volume while Kate had a drink of water and a fag. Evelyn wrote a generous letter to Nancy Mitford giving her advice on how to write the biography of Madame de Pompadour. (Not a local letter, he'd have needed more than a tuppence ha'penny stamp to get it all the way to Paris.) And he wrote a teasing letter to his daughter Margaret at her boarding school in Kent, glad that she hadn't been washed away in the recent floods and informing her that her younger sister Hatty had given up rum and cigars for Lent.
As we reached the edge of Piers Court, another coincidence happened. (Coincidence one: Nibley House = Piers Court. Coincidence two: Nibley House's Evelyn Waugh letter. Coincidence three: unfolding in front of my eyes.) What we took to be the owners of Piers Court were walking up the path towards the house.
I'll try and capture the gist of Kate's and my conversation as best I can. They, represented by the yellow tack, were about to enter Piers Court by the front door. We, as indicated by the blue tack, were on the right of way that would take us along the drive and out of the property.
Kate: "Aren't you going to introduce yourself?"
Me: "I don't think so."
Kate: "Come on! This is a lucky break. You might get invited in."
Me: "I'm embarrassed. What will I say?"
Kate: "You'll know what to say."
Me: "Oh, fuck."
Kate: "No, not that."
Me: "Sweet Jesus."
Kate: "Not that either."
I stopped and looked towards the front of the house into which the couple had now disappeared. I'd realised what the trouble was, and explained to Kate that the situation put me in mind of something that Evelyn had endured in 1955. That is, a couple knocked on his door one morning, uninvited. The couple were Nancy Spain, a journalist from the despised (by Evelyn) Beaverbrook press. And Lord Noel-Buxton, her escort for the day. They were sent away by Laura on Evelyn's shouted instruction, but turned up again in the evening, just before dinner. A furious Waugh spoke to them sharply, shouted at them again, and they were turned away for a second time. The incident left Waugh furious all that evening and, according to his diary, all the next day too. When a piece appeared in the Daily Express written by Nancy Spain, telling her side of the story, Waugh wrote a riposte in the Spectator which was in return responded to in the letters column of that weekly by Noel-Buxton. Later, Waugh was to say that it was this incident that caused him to put Piers Court on the market. He felt his privacy had been invaded at a fundamental level.
"Over-reaction by reactionary old Evelyn!"
"I suspect you're right. Anyway, I've got my nerve back. I'll do it."
"Can Aloysius come?"
"Of course, Alo must come. You take his left hand, I've got his right."
So we walked, hand-in-hand, up to the front door which was immediately opened by a friendly woman who told us she had bought the house in the last year. I asked if we could see the Gothic Edifice in the garden and so we walked and talked. She hadn't known about the Waugh connection when she'd bought the house but when she learned of it (shortly after she moved in) she was delighted, as she'd always enjoyed Waugh's books. She was upset that the Ruin was no longer in the front garden and was even thinking of trying to get a classical pillar put back by the party she suspected of having removed it.
When I said that I'd love to see the library, Jocelyn invited us into the house. Our boots were heavy with mud from the fields between Nibley House and Piers Court, so of course we took these off in the hall. (You can take us anywhere.) I stepped into the library in my stocking soles and, ignoring the present layout of the room, told Kate and Jocelyn where Evelyn's desk had stood, where his book shelves had been, and where the portrait of George the Third had hung.
I then turned to look out of the library window nearest the front door, the equivalent of the window by our breakfast table that morning, and an image flew to mind, a photograph that I'd seen in Alexander Waugh's excellent book, Fathers and Sons, a photo I'd never given much thought to. Evelyn and Septimus eyeballing each other alongside one of the gateposts that appear in the group photo Evelyn arranged showing family and servants in 1948. Septimus hadn't even been born then, while in the July 1955 photo that I was thinking of (see below) Septimus would have been almost exactly five years old.
Evelyn and Septimus by Kurt Hutton. 1955, Hulton Archive, Getty Images.
At the time I said something to Kate and Jocelyn about the image, as an excuse to mention the Septimus letter that we'd come across that morning. But writing this up in September 2014 I'm more interested in what went on between Evelyn and Septimus on the day the photo was taken:
"Do you remember the time you were nearly trampled on by a herd of Dursley cows?"
"It happened the same month that your sister Margaret nearly got drowned in a flood. The same month that your sister Hatty gave up rum and cigars for Lent. And a month or two later, if my memory serves me correctly, your brother Bron was arrested in Stroud for being drunk and incapable. He had a third of a bottle of gin in his possession. A third of a bottle of the brand I drink."
"That was just this month, Papa. He said that he drank your gin because you ate his banana."
"I see you have attained the age of reason, child. Soon you will be smoking cigars like Hatty and me. The correct way to smoke a cigar is to sit on an armchair within six feet of a fireplace and to flick the ash in the general direction of the fire without regard for the welfare of the carpet."
"Not all the time. Shall I tell you why you're called Septimus?"
"If you like."
"Septimus means 'seventh' in Latin. You are so called because our third child, your sister Mary, died the day she was born. Laura and I have seven children, not six, and we want to be constantly reminded of that fact. But if you'd been done in by those cows the day that the kind farmer brought you home to us, we'd have lost you and Mary both. Do you understand, boy?"
From Piers Court we walked to the parish church of Saint Cyr's. This is not the church Evelyn would have attended, instead he went to a Catholic church in Dursley. But the churchwarden at St. Cyr's seemed fascinated by our reason for being in the area. He kept on repeating himself in his efforts to get his head around our presence in the village and seemed most reluctant to listen to any elaboration of our initial statement. But eventually he was able to tell us that his own father had known Evelyn Waugh and hadn't liked him. Waugh would make an appointment with someone from the village and if the villager wasn't at Piers Court bang on time then Waugh wouldn't speak to him.
I imagine this was in an effort to get over the fact that an author's time was important, at least to himself. Standing there in front of another person for half an hour in order to establish something pretty basic may be just about tolerable, but to have to wait half and hour before the conversation could even get underway obviously tried Waugh's patience.
The churchwarden tried again: "So you're here to?"
"We've stumbled across a letter Waugh wrote."
"To my father?"
"Was your father Eddie Wood?"
"Rex Wood he was."
As I waited for his reply I wondered if this could be today's fourth coincidence.
"Don't rightly know."
"There are lots of Woods about these parts?"
But the churchwarden had had enough. He turned around and walked away. It seemed that something required his urgent attention in the vestry.
We too had had just about enough excitement for one morning. Together Kate and I climbed Stinchcombe Hill to see if we could find a viewpoint from where both Piers Court and Nibley House could be seen. Alas not.
But this story has a happy ending. I did indeed tell the Evelyn Waugh Society about the Septimus letter and a note appeared about it in an edition of the Waugh Newsletter. But with my 50th birthday coming up, Kate secretly got in touch with the Eleys who were pleased to sell it to her at a price that must have been less than they could have got for it if they'd kept it on the market for a while. Why? Because Waugh had written the letter just a few months before his own 50th birthday and because they knew it would be going to a good home.
Let's finish with another photograph of the letter, this one taken a few seconds after I finish typing this essay into the same machine that takes the picture, see below, on the very eve of my 57th birthday.
I didn't expect the mirror effect. Still, it gives me an alternative title for this piece: 'Evelyn Through the Looking Glass'.
In chapter one of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which is heavily autobiographical and written while Waugh lived at Piers Court, Waugh tells the reader that the fields around Pinfold's house were let to a grazier called Hill (not Wood). Waugh paints a negative portrait, describing how Hill collected parcels of grassland in and around the parish, and on them kept a nondescript herd of 'unattested' dairy cattle. The pasture was rank, the fences dilapidated. When the Pinfolds came back to their house in 1945 (which, like Piers Court had been let to nuns) and wanted their fields back, the War Agricultural Committee found in Mrs Pinfold's favour. But she let Hill farm her fields for a bit longer, which gave him new rights. It was a few years later, when the committee walked the property again and found once more for Mrs Pinfold, that she insisted on getting her fields back. But this time HIll had a lawyer who appealed on his behalf, and it wasn't until autumn 1949 that Hill finally moved from the area, boasting of the financial deal he'd got and of his cleverness. Obviously this Hill was not the Wood of the Septimus letter. Indeed, Evelyn may have written in such a warm way to Wood because he was so much nicer a neighbour than Hill had been.