THE ELEANOR WATTS CONNECTION
June 20, 2014. A letter written by Evelyn Waugh in June of 1929 has just been auctioned at Bonhams in London. It sold for £9,000. More importantly, It provides a useful prism for looking again at what happened to Evelyn Waugh that fateful summer. Or at least I can't resist using it for that purpose.
I should say from the start that the copyright of this letter belongs to the Estate of Evelyn Waugh. I'm hoping it will tolerate my full quoting of the text as I feel the analysis throws light on Waugh's tempestuous state of mind - the mind that wrote Vile Bodies. Of course, if asked to I will cut back on the use of Waugh's actual words.
The letter was written on headed paper that Evelyn had picked up on the cruise that he underwent with She-Evelyn in the spring of 1929. According to Bonhams' notes, it was May 4 that the Evelyns lunched at the Tokatliyan Hotel in Istanbul. I suspect that this is the hotel they also slept at. In Labels, Waugh mentions the hotel a couple of pages after reporting on his lunch, telling us that he got his hair cut in Pera, opposite the Tokatliyan. On May 4, Waugh did write to fellow novelist and ex-Oxford man Henry Yorke using the headed paper of the Tokatliyan Hotel but he refers to his Istanbul visit as having been in the past, so I suspect the letter was actually written while at sea later in May.
By the time Waugh made use of the headed paper again, he had been at the Abingdon Arms, Beckley, Oxfordshire, for three weeks, and was well into the writing of Vile Bodies. In the image above, the 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 - has been superimposed on the pub where he wrote the first half of the book.
Who was Eleanor Watts? Selina Hastings tells us that in January 1929, when She-Evelyn was in hospital having an operation on her throat, John Heygate and Eleanor Watts took He-Evelyn out to dinner. She was born in August 1908, and was an attractive 20-year-old Oxford undergraduate in early 1929 when she found herself going out with the handsome and charming John Heygate, who was 26 that April.
After the Evelyns cruise, She-Evelyn was driven by John and Eleanor - still seeing each other - to Beckley to visit hard-writing He-Evelyn for a day in early June. John Heygate, Eleanor Watts, and the Evelyns: a fine foursome. Just as the Evelyns, Pansy Pakenham and Henry Lamb had been so in 1928. I suspect Eleanor must have written to He-Evelyn at the Abingdon Arms shortly after the Beckley day together, for his reply on June 25 begins like this (you'll find the transcription immediately below this photo of the relevant bit of the letter):
'How very kind of you to ask to (sic) Evelyn and me to stay. I think that she would love to. I, alas, am less free as I am chained hand and foot to this novel I am writing - a welter of sex and snobbery...'
Apart from the newly discovered letter, there are three known letters written by Evelyn Waugh in June, 1929. (Though the publication of Evelyn's Personal Writings, edited by Alexander Waugh, the first due to appear by Easter 2016, may well increase this number.) Two were sent to Henry Yorke. In the second (to which Henry replied on June 22) Evelyn asked if Henry was going up to London for the party of Bryan and Diana Guinness.
That fancy dress party, whose theme was '1860', was on June 25, the day that Evelyn wrote to both Eleanor and his ex-Oxford friend and fellow writer, Harold Acton. In the letter to Harold, two of the phrases used in Eleanor's letter crop up in slight variation, which I've underlined:
'Dear Harold, I nearly came up again today for Bryan’s party but I feel so chained to this novel. I am sure you will disapprove of it. It is a welter of sex and snobbery written simply in the hope of selling some copies… I have done half of it and hope to get it finished in another three weeks.'
Waugh's idea of being chained to his novel is a strange one when one considers his movements. In the letter to Harold, he says he has been in London the previous two days - that's Sunday and Monday. Although he didn't go to the Tuesday night party given by the Guinnesses at Buckingham Gate (or the late night party at the Friendship that John Heygate, She-Evelyn and Nancy Mitford went on to), by Thursday Evelyn was back in London. The Evelyns went to a cocktail party given by Anthony Powell from which John Heygate was among the last to leave at 3am.
It's just possible that Waugh was chained to his novel on Friday, but I think it more likely he was chained to a hangover. In any case, on Saturday, June 29, John drove the Evelyns and Anthony Powell to his parents' house at Milford-on-Sea, where there was a New Forest Hunt Ball on the Saturday evening and a tea party at Lady Montagu's on the Sunday. That suggests Evelyn was chained to his novel three days out of eight, and off the leash for the other five!
It seems from the reports left of all this, principally from Anthony Powell, that Eleanor Watts wasn't around for that week of partying. The Oxford year would have finished and she may have been back living with her parents at Haslington Hall near Crewe. Indeed, I wonder if the invite sent to the Evelyns was to stay at Haslington Hall, either to make a foursome with John or to form a larger party of London's bright young things.
Anyway, back to Waugh's letter to young Eleanor, First, photo then transcript, mostly about Waugh's novel-in-progress:
'I hope I shall have it finished by the middle of July in which case I shall love to visit you. Would you think it intolerably casual and altogether like the beastly people in the book I am writing, if I ask you to let me leave it open.'
So the invite must have been for sometime after the middle of July. Evelyn hoped to be finished his novel, but couldn't be sure. If it was done, he would come!
In the first week of July, Eleanor was around. On or about Tuesday, July 2, a week after the two parties that John Heygate and She-Evelyn had both been at, John took Eleanor to a party in London and proposed marriage to her. She turned him down. John stayed on at the party with the express intention of getting drunk. At the end of the evening he took She-Evelyn back to his flat in Cornwall Gardens and slept with her.
About a week later, on July 9, She-Evelyn wrote to He-Evelyn who really had been chained to his novel (and to the bar of the Abingdon Arms, I dare say) saying she had fallen in love with John Heygate. Waugh returned to London on the 12th and stayed with She-Evelyn at their Canonbury Square flat for a fortnight, accompanying her to parties, including the Tropical Party at the Friendship on July 16.
But, as you might guess from the above photo taken at the fancy dress party, the attempted reconciliation didn't work out. Around July 25, Waugh telegrammed Anthony Powell who had gone on a motoring holiday to Germany with John Heygate, 'INSTRUCT HEYGATE, RETURN IMMEDIATELY'. This has been taken to mean return to England and take possession of She-Evelyn who Waugh no longer wanted.
On the next day, July 26, Eleanor Watts drove Evelyn Waugh in her Morris Oxford to Haslington Hall, near Crewe in Cheshire. He was utterly miserable while she was regretting turning down John Heygate who she had been a little in love with. Come to think of it, perhaps this was the week that Eleanor had been hoping to host her party to which the Evelyns' had been invited. In which case Evelyn's retrospective reply might have been:
'My Dear Eleanor, How very kind of you to ask Evelyn and me to stay. I think that I would love to. She, alas, is less free as she is chained hand and foot to your boyfriend of last month. Would you think it intolerably casual and altogether like the beastly people in the book I am writing, if I ask you to let me die in your parents' house?'
The actual letter ends:
'Have they expelled you yet – and did you enjoy being tipsy?
That's probably a reference to Oxford. In Waugh's eyes, everyone worth their salt got sent down from Oxford in disgrace, and invariably alcohol was involved.
In any case, Evelyn and Eleanor seem to have spent their few days together drinking Black Velvet and endlessly analysing the events of the previous weeks. That's how Selina Hastings puts it, and she interviewed Eleanor a few years before the latter's death in 1996. Hastings goes on to write:
'Eleanor sensed that Evelyn was not, probably never had been, deeply in love with his wife, but that it had been a powerful infatuation and that the possession of such an attractive woman had meant a great deal to him in restoring his masculine self-confidence. Now all this rebuilding had been demolished. You must put it out of your mind, she told him. "I can't, I can't," came the unvarying reply.'
Why drinking Black Velvet? Black Velvet is a mixture of champagne and Guinness. So it combined Evelyn's favourite drink (it crops up 19 times in Vile Bodies) with the drink that accounted for his chum Bryan Guinness's vast fortune and multiple homes. Apparently, you should pour the champagne in first and then float the Guinness on top by pouring it onto the back of a spoon. The one below looks eminently quoffable:
The striking colour contrast is perhaps appropriate for drinking at Haslington Hall, a grade 1 listed Tudor building set in the heart of Cheshire. It now hosts weddings. It's always been there (since 1480) and it always will be there. Like so much of Evelyn Waugh and his friends' heritage.
Apparently, the first Black Velvet was made by a bartender in a London club in 1861, to mourn the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. I suppose that might mean that for Diana and Bryan Guinness's 1860 party - on the day of Evelyn's letter to Eleanor, remember - it would have been appropriate to dress up as Prince Albert. One might not have to go the whole hog though. Perhaps the piercing that is known as a Prince Albert would have been enough. I dare say there are lots of pictures on the web of male genitalia pierced with steel rings, but I'll refrain from showing any on this site.
Perhaps the '1860 Party' came up in conversation when Evelyn and Eleanor were drinking their Black Velvets:
"Did you go to the 1860 party at Bryan and Diana's?"
"No, I couldn't. I was chained to my novel."
"John told me about it. He said he thought about turning up with a Prince Albert."
"What do you mean?"
"It's a willy thing."
"What can you mean?"
"He told me that a Prince Albert was a ring piercing that extends along the underside of the cock tip from the opening to where the tip meets the shaft of the cock. The night he asked me to marry him he presented me with a picture. Would you like to see it?"
"I can't. I can't."
They carry on drinking. Evelyn finds his self-esteem gradually returning. How does he encourage it further? With booze and word play, as ever.
"Let's both have a Prince Albert."
"I'm not sure I can have one, darling!"
"Nonsense, you've already had five. Besides, we're both in mourning and that's the whole point. You've lost the basement boy and I've lost the queen of Canonbury Square."
"Say the toast from Decline and Fall for me, and I think I might feel all right about everything."
"I don't think I can."
"Go on, Evelyn. She-Evelyn has only done to you what Margot did to Pennyfeather... So say the toast aloud, and damn them all to Hell."
"I really don't think I can."
"All right, I'll say it for you. 'To Fortune, a much-maligned lady.'"
Minutes later, Evelyn says: "Remember that letter I sent you on Istanbul hotel stationery?"
"It's a prized possession."
"Could you fetch it for me?"
Eleanor goes out of the room for a few minutes, then returns and hands Evelyn a single sheet of paper.
"Let me read this to you with the aid of hindsight."
"Oh dear. But carry on, I'm all ears."
"'My Dear Eleanor, How very kind of you to ask Evelyn and me to stay. I think that she would love to. I, alas, am less free as I am chained cock and balls to this novel I am writing - a welter of steel and scrotum.'"
"Oh, put it out of your mind, Evelyn."
"I can't, I can't."
Let's move now from the 1929 letter that Evelyn Waugh wrote to Eleanor Watts, to a 1965 letter that Watts wrote about her time up north with Waugh. How can we do that? Well, at Georgetown University, Washington DC, there is a collection of papers derived from Christopher Sykes, Waugh's official biographer. This includes correspondence between John Heygate and Eleanor Watts.
In October 1969, when Sykes was working on the Waugh biography, Heygate sent Sykes a letter he received from Watts in 1965, the year before Waugh's death, and a letter he received from her in 1967, the year after Waugh's death.
In the 1965 letter to John, Eleanor makes it clear that Waugh and her went from Haslington Hall, her parents' house, to Abney Hall, her grandparents' house, which she usually loved to visit. But let me use her own words:
'The only time I really hated was when you and the two Evelyns were to stay with me at Haslington. He and I turned up, but you and she went elsewhere. He thought we should have a suicide pact behind the rhododendrons at Haslington, but I have never thought suicide was the solution to any problems, so we didn't. Then, as my father had to go away we (Evelyn and I) went to Abney where we were treated like small children by Puntie(?) who didn't want us.'
Abney Hall is an even grander house, surrounded by a park in Cheadle, near Stockport, 20 miles north of Haslington. Agatha Christie was related to the Watts by marriage and she wrote After the Funeral at the house, as well as the short story, 'The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding'. Abney Hall was also used as the country house in The Secret of Chimneys and, apparently, became her chief reference point when describing country house life. Why do I mention this in passing? Agatha Christie novels were read and enjoyed by both the Evelyns when they were together.
In Eleanor's 1965 letter to John Heygate, she goes on to say: 'We sat in the breakfast room with our paintboxes designing the cover for Vile Bodies.'
The breakfast room? Well, here is a view of the dining room at Abney. A perfect place to sit down and do some painting.
Interesting that Eleanor suggests that they were both involved in designing the early cover of Vile Bodies. Here, again, is the one that was displayed in the living room at Canonbury Square.
Two formal hats covered by what could be a third - a bird's eye view of a cap that has a target pattern on it. It's possible that this image was influenced by the posters that were produced by political parties at the time of the 1929 general election. The image below was painted by Ern Shaw.
1929 was the first election where women in Britain had the same voting rights as men. This poster is attempting to encourage women to vote for the Labour politician, Ramsey MacDonald, the man in a smart modern hat. The implication being that Stanley Baldwin, Conservative, and David Lloyd George, Liberal, doffing their top hats, were old-fashioned and out of touch.
Certainly, the 1929 election was on Waugh's mind when writing Vile Bodies. Sir James Brown, Conservative, is the Prime Minister at the beginning of the book. Walter Outrage - either Labour or Liberal, it's not made clear which - was 'last week's prime minister' at the start of the book, and becomes Prime Minister before the book ends, after Sir James Brown's government is brought down by a scandal involving bright young people and parties.
No doubt Waugh thought that the party political system was all bogus. But the image can also be interpreted as two 'heads' (Adam and Nina) being targeted by a third (GInger). Which is maybe why the image worked for Evelyn as a possible cover.
"It's perfect," says Evelyn. "It could even be Father Rothschild conspiring with Mr Outrage and Lord Metroland."
"Oh, you haven't told me about that scene," says Eleanor, excitedly.
"There's going to be a similar meeting of minds in the second half. Rothschild, the Jesuit, is the only one with any understanding of what's going on in society at large. The thoughts of the Prime Minister and the newspaper editor are unrelentingly bogus."
"Oh, Evelyn, do chain yourself to that novel again. And do stay chained to it until it's finished."
'After two days we got into my car after lunch and drove to London as fast as it would go (58 and a half mph) By that time he knew you and Evelyn(f) would not come back. I expect he felt awful as I did. He made a new cover for Vile Bodies (inspired by my driving?) and I suppose I went back to Oxford.'
In fact, Waugh did not make a new cover for Vile Bodies until after he'd been to the races in Belfast that took place towards the end of August.
Perhaps John Heygate thought there was more to be said about those few days that Eleanor and He-Evelyn spent together in the north of England, because it seems that he asked her about it again after Waugh's death. To which Eleanor Watts replied in 1967:
'You probably remember the events which led up to the week-end: how Evelyn's(f) sister took her to Venice so that she could perhaps change her mind about you; that while she was away you stayed with us at Selsey and said that if she had changed her mind would I marry you (to which I replied that I would wait and see too).'
Let's recap. Early in July, John Heygate was turned down by Eleanor Watts on the night that he went on to sleep with She-Evelyn for the first time. Later in July he was asking again to marry her, should She-Evelyn finish with him. By hook or by crook John would be hitched by the end of summer!
'The week-end E(f) was due to return we were all to go to Haslington, meeting at 3 Charles Street, Knightsbridge, and dining on the train. Evelyn(m) turned up and we waited till about 8.30 and then went to Euston and caught the 9 something (Glasgow train) to Crewe. We arrived about 1am after a dreadful journey.'
Given the telegram that Waugh sent to Anthony Powell 'Instruct Heygate return immediately', it had been thought that He-Evelyn had cast off She-Evelyn after the failed two-week reconciliation. Eleanor Watts's account is telling us that Waugh was still ready to make a go of it. The fortnight's reconciliation in London in the middle of July may not have worked out. Indeed, it obviously didn't. But the telegram to Powell/Heygate may simply have been a preliminary to getting John Heygate involved in discussions as to the best way forward for all concerned. Presumably that was the idea of the Evelyns, John and Eleanor going to Haslington together.
What does Eleanor say to John in retrospect?
'I have a feeling that you sent a telegram next day saying that you and Evelyn(f) were not coming. It was late in that day that Evelyn(m) suggested that the proper thing for us to do would be to have a suicide pact in the rhododendrons. However, we talked a good deal and came to the conclusion that neither really wanted to die.'
How many years is this after Waugh's abortive suicide attempt off the Welsh coast when he was working as a schoolmaster at Arnold House in North Wales? Four years between suicidal depressions, I calculate.
'Next day we went to stay at Abney and worked on the cover of Vile Bodies on 2 days, the book was already finished (at Beckley Mill, as you suggested).
Vile Bodies was only half-finished. We must bear in mind that Eleanor Watts's account can't be entirely relied on.
'I can remember vividly details of conversation, and how annoyed E (m) was that my car would not go any faster than 59 mph flat out. He thought I washed too much too! He could be most unkind and rude, but he never was to me.'
'After 2 days of Abney we couldn't stand it any more and drove (at 59mph) to London, lunching very well at the Bell, Aston Clinton on the way.'
Evelyn was faithful to old friends, whether they were people, like Alastair Graham, or places, like the The Bell, Aston Clinton.
'We went to cash cheques at the Cavendish and that was when E was told to get out because he'd put her in D.&F.'
I suspect this is a Vile Bodies reference. In which case the expulsion hadn't happened yet as the book wasn't published until January 1930.
Eleanor dropped Evelyn in London and he went to the Canonbury Square flat. Following the telegram from John Heygate telling him and Eleanor that they weren't coming to Haslington, the next day a letter arrived from She-Evelyn informing her husband that she was living with John in his flat in Cornwall Gardens. Which is, I suspect, when this photo was taken.
Let's search for a perspective to end this essay. I think Eleanor and Evelyn must have helped each other during those days they were together in her relatives' house up north. I say this partly because, years later, Eleanor was invited to attend Evelyn's second marriage, to Laura Herbert. That's the newlyweds below.
How Evelyn has aged in those eight years between 1929 and 1937. But then that's what happens when you use excessive alcohol and extreme travel to try and escape from the unthinkable: that your loved one loves another.
A year later, on 30 April 1938, at Saint Margaret's, Westminster, Eleanor Watts became a Lady when she married Sir Simon Campbell-Orde. The photo below shows the happy couple that day.
Was Evelyn at Eleanor's wedding, just a year after his own? I like to think he was, but he didn't keep a diary at the time and so I don't know.
No doubt John Heygate was at the wedding. And it says something positive about John that he was still in friendly touch with Eleanor in the 1960s. This is not just a story of the breakdown of the Evelyns' marriage, it's also about the longevity of other relationships. Nancy MItford, who moved into the Canonbury Square flat when He-Evelyn moved out to write at Beckley, got to know and like He-Evelyn in the summer of 1929 and remained his very close friend for the rest of their lives.
Final perspective. I'm so glad that the Bonham's auction of the E.Waugh/E.Watts letter of 1929 led me to the E.Watts/J.Heygate correspondence of 1965-67. Not just for its own sake but because it led me to an even more important letter written by John Heygate to Christopher Sykes about the summer of '29, which I will try and do justice to on the next page.
For a different view on the He-Evelyn/She-Evelyn/Heygate triangle, and its impact on Waugh's writing career, see Evelyn! published by Harbour on May 1, 2015.