THE LOVED ONE
At the beginning of the October 1946, immediately following Evelyn's champagne summer, he began a story with the sentence:
'John Verney married Elizabeth in 1938, but it was not until the winter of 1945 that he came to hate her steadily and fiercely.'
As usual with his writing, Evelyn is thinking of himself. One only has to change a single letter in 'Evelyn' to be able to rearrange them into the name 'Verney'. True, Evelyn married Laura in 1937 rather than 1938, and I'm certain his feelings towards his wife included warm ones. But let's stick with the set-up of 'Tactical Exercise'.
In what way does Elizabeth resemble Laura? Well, she was four years younger than her husband (Laura was 13 years younger than Evelyn). In 'Tactical Exercise' Waugh tells the reader that Elizabeth was a calm, handsome woman (as was Laura). 'As a girl in her first season, an injudicious remark, let slip and overheard, got her the reputation of cleverness. Those who knew her best ruthlessly called her “deep”.'
Selina Hastings, in her biography of Waugh, suggests that when Laura was in company she contributed little, being extremely shy as well as socially lazy, but nonetheless she had a mind of her own and firm opinions about the people she met.
Did that make her "deep"? Well, let's explore further.
A schoolfriend of Laura's commented that she had a very definite personality with a quirky way of criticising people. Alexander Waugh, commenting on his grandmother's character, tells us that Anthony Powell thought her extremely dim, but Alexander himself, having known his granny when he was a child, reckons she could have completed the Times Crossword in the time it took Powell to digest the first clue. That perspective, combined with what you learn from the photo below, suggests that this individual has to be taken seriously, whatever her domestic responsibilities.
That'll have to do about Laura's character (for now). Let's carry on with the matching up of fictional scenario to biographical fact, ignoring Tactical Exercise's padding and red herrings.
Verney was discharged from the Army with one leg in 1945, spending three months in a hospital near Rome. Whereas Evelyn broke his leg in a parachute jump in December 1943 and was in hospital in Bari in southern Italy for two weeks following a plane crash in July 1945. But it was in Rome in August of '45 that Evelyn fully recuperated from his experience. A pretty good match, I think.
Verney came back to live with Elizabeth in a Georgian villa in Hampstead (Piers Court transported to the site of Underhill, one might say.) They slept on twin beds in a ground floor room. At least they tried to sleep. One night when Verney had been awake for two hours he turned on the lamp that stood on the table between the two beds to find Elizabeth lying with her eyes wide open staring at the ceiling. Often after that Verney lay awake at night, longing to put on the light, but was afraid to find his wife lying awake and staring. 'He lay, as others lie in a luxurious rapture of love, hating her'.
Now at Piers Court, Evelyn and Laura had separate bedrooms. Though no doubt they shared a bedroom on occasion, especially when they were away from home. For sure, most of his adult life, Evelyn had problems getting to sleep.
One evening, Verney returned home to find Elizabeth asleep and snoring. By her bed was a tube of sleeping pills on which the label warned, in French, that no more than two pills were to be taken. Verney took two pills himself, fantasising about waking in the morning to find his wife dead. He slept all right, but in the morning the object of Verney's hatred was still very much alive.
Another night, Verney and Elizabeth went to the cinema together (as Evelyn would often go to the cinema at Dursley, either alone or with Laura). In the film, a woman murdered her husband by drugging him and throwing him out of the window of the lighthouse they were staying in while on holiday. Below is the nearest I can get to a photo of Laura and Evelyn sitting in Dursley cinema, with each of them fantasising about throwing the other out of the window of a lighthouse.
Shortly after seeing the film, Verney and Elizabeth went on holiday themselves, to a house called Good Hope Fort which stood on the Cornish coast, the place having been found by Elizabeth. Verney planned to klll his loved one by using sleeping pills to drug her and then throwing her over the cliff edge. He let it be known at a nearby pub that his wife had been sleepwalking, and he repeated his concerns to the local doctor. But the doctor had already been consulted by Elizabeth who had told him she was worried about Verney's sleepwalking! In a state of consternation, Verney returned to the house and drank what was left in the whisky bottle. He soon felt woozy, as if he'd been drugged. Remembering the film he roused himself and said aloud that he couldn't be drugged because he hadn't touched the coffee. The story ends like this:
"Drugs in the coffee? What an absurd idea. That's the kind of thing that only happens on the films, darling."
He did not hear her. He was fast asleep, snoring stertorously by the open window.
To summarise: Verney's hatred of his wife is matched by his wife's hatred of him. And it's she who wins the battle of ill-will. I suppose Evelyn may have suspected that Laura, who had effectively been confined to the nursery, deeply resented her husband's freedom to do his own thing. And Evelyn may even have been afraid of his loved one's negative feelings towards him.
It needs to be said that Evelyn Waugh's hatred of his wife, if it existed, need not have been what gave rise to 'Tactical Exercise'. Simply watching a film whereby a woman plots to murder her husband may have been the initial inspiration. Evelyn may have set himself the task of describing a situation where such a murderous action was emotionally feasible, and then realised he could simply trot out some of the underlying tensions in his own marital life.
Brideshead Revisited, the book written just two years earlier, is dedicated to Laura. That novel is also preceded by an author's note which states simply: 'I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they.' Which, in connection with Tactical Exercise, brings to mind: 'I am not Verney. You are not Elizabeth. They who hate each other is not us.'
So what happened next to our loved one?
Evelyn realised that Laura had not had a holiday for years and badly needed some pampering. So, via his agent, Waugh managed to book a trip to America, all expenses paid, ostensibly to discuss with MGM in Hollywood their wish to make a film out of Brideshead.
What happened to the children in the month of their departure? Well, Teresa, Bron and possibly Margaret would have been at boarding school. Harriet would have been two years and James six months old, so they would have been looked after by a nanny, either at PIers Court or Pixton.
In the knowledge that he and his wife would be sharing a cabin for the long crossing of the Atlantic, Evelyn decided to have an operation on the piles he'd been suffering from for some time. Perhaps it can be thought of as another tactical exercise - Evelyn didn't think it would help encourage romance between husband and wife if he'd regularly to be applying haemorrhoid cream to his backside. Laura's American treat was to include intimacies with her partner. Alas, things didn't go quite to plan. Waugh tells us in a January diary entry that the pain following the operation was excruciating and the humiliations constant. He was in hospital for three weeks and was still in a very delicate state as he boarded the ship bound for New York.
I prefer the way Verney puts it to himself at a low point in Tactical Exercise. 'Security had ben compromised; the operation must be cancelled; initiative had been lost... all the phrases of the tactical school came to his mind, but he was still numb after this unexpected reverse. A vast and naked horror peeped at him and was thrust aside.'
The photograph below was taken of Evelyn as he disembarked at New York on January 31, 1947. In which case he seems to be putting a brave face on any discomfort he was still feeling below the waist.
However, the bags under his eyes suggest that Evelyn may not have been sleeping well. Actually, Waugh's diary tells us that one of the first things he did in New York was to go to a chemist to try and get a commercial form of barbiturates that would knock him out at night. Although unimpressed by most things in New York, Evelyn was impressed by the way that the chemist phoned a doctor and baldly said. 'Dere's a guy here says he can't sleep. OK to give him Dial, doc?'
On Feb 3, Waugh noted in his diary that the editor of Good Housekeeping was changing the name of 'Tactical Exercise' (as it was published in The Strand Magazine in the UK) to 'The Wish'. The editor also told him he'd commissioned an illustration from 'the very best artist in the country'. Waugh asked this Mr Mays what he'd paid for it and was told $2,500. That's $25,000 in 2014 money! Here is Al Parker's image in question:
And while Mays was throwing cash around, he asked Waugh if he'd like a $4000 advance for another story. The advance was accepted, but Waugh did nothing to provide Good Housekeeping with another story until forced to years later. Why? Well, the majority of 'The Wish' is juxtaposed with crude commercial adverts for washing powder, and the like, two of the ads including crass images of babies. The cover of the issue is a classic. The Waugh story is the only bit of content advertised, but the image is of a child manipulating candle sticks on a table with two chairs around it. Could it be young Margaret or Harriet Waugh amusing themselves with a model of the dining room at Piers Court in the absence of her parents?
A train whipped the adult Waughs from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific and the pair were soon ensconced in the Bel Air Hotel. Not in the luxury suite they'd been promised, but a simpler attic room. A couple had been due to leave the large suite to make way for the Waughs, but the husband had suffered a stroke and it was thought better that he stayed where he was until he'd recovered. (Perhaps there was another 'tactical exercise' going on between this Mr. and Mrs.) Never mind, Evelyn, at least you are in a child-free zone. At least there is a nice swimming pool for you and Laura to relax around.
Well maybe not. After all it was only February and the Californian sunshine would not have warmed up. I picture Evelyn and Laura lying on twin beds with a lamp between them. I picture Evelyn not being able to sleep, switching on the bedside light to find Laura lying on her back, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling. Perhaps that is not fair. Waugh was going to the studios of MGM each day, becoming disappointed that the film company's reps could only see his glorious book as a love story. Meanwhile, Laura was lunching with LA ladies. According to Evelyn she was doing extensive and extravagant shopping and was looking smart and young and happy. Perhaps she was sleeping like a log, then. Perhaps they both were.
On Feb 14, Waugh wrote in his diary that he and Laura had gone for tea with the actress Anna May Wong. A photo was taken of the occasion, in which Evelyn is the figure standing. Laura is on the right, perhaps wearing a new dress and feeling young, smart and happy, though her expression suggests otherwise.
In a letter written on March 6 to A.D.Peters, his agent, Waugh states that it was thanks to Charles Mendl (the seated figure in the above photo), and no thanks to MGM, that the Waughs finally got a decent set of rooms. No longer at the Bel Air Hotel but at the equally luxurious Beverley Hills Hotel.
Waugh's diary stops at 15 February, 1947, and only resumes again when back at Piers Court on Easter Monday, April 7. But in the Feb 15 entry he mentions that Simon Elwes and his wife had arrived and were staying in the house opposite the Bel Air Hotel.
The picture below shows Simon Elwes painting a portrait of Evelyn Waugh. Is Evelyn posing as Charlie Chaplin, as suggested by Martin Stannard? Well, he might be, given the black bowler, the cane and the splayed feet. Yes, he might well be, given where this piece is going.
The painter is set up at an odd angle to his subject. I'd like to see the finished portrait but have not been able to trace it. Can any reader help with that?
Useful Charles Mendl (the elderly English gent holding onto a cane two images up) also introduced the Waughs to Aldous Huxley and his wife, Maria. She later described the lunch meeting in a letter to Christopher Isherwood as follows:
'At one end of the table sat Waugh, 'wearing a little black hat on top of his little face and a striped suit over his little body...at the other end a very English, still-young woman with an intensely inner-absorbed face.'
The word you are looking for, Maria, is 'deep'. But carry on:
'Unlined, unwrinkled without any expression but when she looked out of herself the most despairing eyes…I must have put my foot in it when I told her she looked melancholy… because Waugh in his little black hat put his arm round her shoulder and assured her that she was the gayest person he knew and they walked off, all three, and we were left - uncomfortable.'
I know what she means about Laura's despairing eyes. Try this, for example:
Whether or not Evelyn managed to cheer up Laura by giving her this holiday, it has to be said that Evelyn made a negative impression on most people he met in America. Selina Hastings tells us that in New York, the top management of Time-Life, outraged by offensive remarks made by Evelyn at a banquet in his honour, left early together. In Hollywood, the English actor, David Niven, was infuriated when Evelyn referred to Niven's black housekeeper in her presence as 'your native bearer'. Carol Brandt, who with her husband, Carl, accompanied the Waughs from New York to California, wrote to Peters that while they themselves had found Laura and Evelyn delightful, gracious and appreciative, nobody else seemed to have. Evelyn was consistently arrogant and rude and left a trail of bloodied but unbowed heads in his wake. Some of this was mischief on Evelyn's part, she surmised, and some of it was other people's inability to appreciate his particular variety of humour.
I suspect that another person who may have got on all right with Evelyn was Charlie Chaplin. When Waugh got back to Piers Court he wrote that he and Laura had seen a highly secret first performance of Chaplin's 'brilliiant' new film, Monsieur Verdoux.
That would have been at Chaplin's film studios in Hollywood. Waugh was then invited to a supper party at Chaplin's house. Evelyn doesn't say more about the meeting but he does say more about the film. In his review of it which was published when the film eventually came out in Britain, in November, 1947, Waugh describes Chaplin as a great artist. 'Talent is sometimes forgiven in Hollywood, genius never,' wrote Waugh, perhaps thinking of his own experience. Waugh went on to say that he attended the private screening hoping to step back into the delights of boyhood. Instead he found a startling and mature work of art.
Below is Monsieur Verdoux. Straight away you can see why Waugh would have been taken aback. Instead of looking at the young tramp that had delighted his boyhood, Evelyn found himself looking at someone not unlike his middle-aged self.
One can also see why Waugh admired it as a work of art. Chaplin wrote the script and was on his fourth wife by the time he did so. Clearly he'd experienced in real life some frustration with his partners, and I expect used this to good effect in the film. The one woman that he takes a shine too, and spares, is decades younger than himself, which is how Charlie liked it off-screen. After all, he was 54 when he married 18-year-old Oona O'Neill, shortly after a series of trials involving his previous lover. In other words, autobiography subtly informs Monsieur Verdoux, just as it always does in Waugh's case.
What is the story? Monsieur Verdoux's profession is to marry and kill his wives for their money. Waugh tells us that it might be thought that there was a danger of monotony in the single repeated theme of wife-murder. But the author of 'Tactical Exercise' assures us that it comes across as continually fresh and surprising.
Waugh admired the precision of Chaplin's movements. 'Study him laying the breakfast table. First for two, then, as he suddenly remembers the successful murder of the previous night, for one.' Waugh tells us in his review that there is a scene in Monsieur Verdoux featuring a detective and a bottle of poisoned wine, which he did not want to spoil by recounting. Evelyn did, however, want to record that it was the finest piece of acting and dramatic construction that he had ever seen.
Seventy years on, I don't think I'll spoil anything by recounting the scene. The detective wants to interview Verdoux about the murders. Verdoux offers him a glass of wine from a bottle (poisoned). The detective refuses the offer so Verdoux pours a glass for himself and leaves the empty glass with bottle beside it on the table. The detective tells Verdoux that he's been following him for two weeks. He lists several widows (including Varney, which is coincidentally similar to Waugh's Verney of 'Tactical Exercise').
"What are the charges?" asks Verdoux, looking downcast.
The detective, thinking he's got his man, and not noticing that Verdoux has been nursing his glass without drinking from it, pours himself a glass of wine. "Bigamy", he answers, and takes a sip, immediately followed by a good old swallow. The viewer senses Verdoux relax as the wine enters the detective's system. By the time the oaf-detective puts down his empty glass and adds: "And fourteen counts of murder", Verdoux is listening with equanimity.
The stand-out scene for me also involves Chaplin and a bottle of poisoned wine. Verdoux wants to try out a poison and picks on a young homeless woman (cum glamorous actress) whom he invites to have something to eat in his house. He pours her a glass of wine from the poisoned bottle then goes to the kitchen to get her food. While away, he switches the bottles so that when he returns to the table with her scrambled eggs on toast he can pour himself a glass from an unpoisoned bottle. As the still below suggests, it could almost be Evelyn and Laura sitting in the dining room at Piers Court.
She eats. He drinks. She picks up her glass... But she puts it down untouched. On the basis of the book she's reading being by Schopenhauer (a favourite read of down-and-outs in Paris/Hollywood in the 1940s, no doubt), a discussion of the possible benefits of suicide takes place. At this stage, Verdoux is all too happy for her to drink the poison. But suddenly she starts talking about how wonderful life is. "What's wonderful about it?" he asks. "Everything: music, art, love." A discussion about love gives Verdoux the chance to say that once a woman betrays a man she despises him. And that all too often a woman will be attracted to a younger 'more attractive' man. I presume this is Chaplin bemoaning the fact that at the age of 56 he can't necessarily hold on to the young actresses he falls in love with. Though I suspect Evelyn would have agreed with much of the sentiment thanks to his experience of being rejected by both She-Evelyn and Baby Jungman.
Verdoux/Chaplin asks her what she knows of love.
She talks about her husband, now dead. He was an invalid and the woman loved him as if he was a child. She states that she would have killed for him, and that is enough to make Verdoux change his mind. Clearly, this woman was too like himself to be murdered in cold blood in the prime of her life. Deftly, he suggests that her wine has been tainted and takes it away.
As you can see below, Charlie pours her another glass from the unpoisoned bottle. The hand on hip pose is not something I can imagine Evelyn adopting as he poured a glass of wine for Laura at Piers Court. However, Evelyn did have an alternative pose as can be seen from three of the four photos of him reproduced so far on this page. Elbow bent; hand to face, not hip. A manly pose thanks to the cigar he's holding.
Anyway, Verdoux and his intended victim enjoy their wine together in silence.
What about Laura and Evelyn? Well, Waugh wrote to his agent on March 6, a communication dominated by Evelyn's growing obsession with Forest Lawn, a Los Angeles cemetery that he had been visiting two or three times a week now that the MGM negotiation was winding down. Evelyn was chums with the chief embalmer and was to lunch with the founder himself. Waugh notes that the cadaver is referred to as 'the loved one' and that he plans to write a long short story about life and death in Los Angeles.
When the Waughs returned to Piers Court, a diary entry for Easter Monday, April 7, summarises the Californian trip in this way. 'Laura grew smarter and younger and more popular daily and was serenely happy.' As for Evelyn himself, he 'found a deep mine of literary gold in the cemetery of Forest Lawn' and intended to get to work immediately on a novellette staged there.
It was actually May 21 of 1947 before Waugh managed to create the space to begin work. The visit of an American academic a couple of days later interrupted progress. On June 2 he noted that he was going to bash on with a rough draft, but soon he went back to his old method of rewriting as he went along.
Was Evelyn pleased to be back at home? On the one hand, he and Laura were making trips to Ireland where they wanted to move. On the other, Waugh was exploring his surroundings on foot. Two ascents of Stinchcombe Hill on the Saturday before he started working on The Loved One. A long walk through sunny lanes is mentioned in the June 2 entry, on which occasion he walked from Wick to Nibley, Stancombe and up over the golf course.
I feel I should map this, just to emphasise that Waugh is back in Gloucestershire. Perhaps he did the walk to make sure that England was still the green and pleasant land that he'd been brought up in. And that the golf course hadn't been converted into a sugar-coated cemetery. The yellow pin is Piers Court. Evelyn walks in an anti-clockwise circuit, down Wick Lane (without the M5 to disturb the pastoral scene in 1947) into Wick (Green pin) and then across to Nibley (turquoise). From there to Stancombe (blue) and then up and over the golf course (purple pin) to return home. These green hill are not Hollywood Hills!
Evelyn tells us that when he got home, he had a bath, a change of clothes, a glass of burgundy, a cigar, fruit juice and soda and a story by Henry James. I wish he'd said how far he'd got with The Loved One by this time, because he'd taken a break from the writing. But he doesn't tell us.
Laura and Evelyn went house hunting in Ireland from June 11 to 16. Cyril Connolly 'and his concubine' came to stay at Piers Court on the weekend of 28/29 June. But most of June must have been spent writing in his library because in the diary entry of July 6 Waugh notes that he has finished the first draft of The Loved One and has begun rewriting.
What had he written? Waugh told Cyril Connolly that what he'd had in mind, apart from raw excitement with the cemeteries of Southern California, was the Anglo-American impasse, the lack of an American identity, the rapacious European making his fortune in America, and a Memento mori. I think this list misses out the vital themes of religious belief and 'wife-killing'.
Waugh sets the scene with some English ex-pats living in California, most of them with Hollywood connections. One of them dies and Denis Barlow, the English protagonist, who works in a pet cemetery (The Happier Hunting Ground) goes to Whispering Glades (effectively Forest Lawn) in order to organise the funeral. There he meets Aimée Thanatogenos, who he seduces with poems - world famous poems - that he pretends are his own. His rival in love is Joyboy, the chief mortician at Whispering Glades. Torn between her two suitors, and facetiously advised by a local newspaper's Agony Aunt - actually, two cynical male hacks - Aimée commits suicide in the embalming rooms at her place of work. Afraid of the scandal, Joyboy drives the corpse to the Happier Hunting Ground for Barlow to dispose of. Together they man-handle their load into the oven. Barlow reckons it to be an hour and a half job and hangs around to pound up the skull and pelvis.
In his deadpan way, Evelyn has succeeded in mocking Forest Lawn, which has a sentimental attitude towards death and supposes effortless access to an afterlife. He does so by setting up The Happier Hunting Ground which takes the same notions towards death and heaven as Forest Lawn, and applies it to animals. Then, in the final scene, Waugh cuts to the pagan chase when the girlfriend of both Barlow and Joyboy is put into an oven and incinerated.
In a way, the plot is a culmination of 'Tactical Exercise' (only this time the female falls victim to the male(s)) and Monsieur Verdoux (who burns several wives in an incinerator). But it wouldn't be fair to accuse the story's author of being misogynist. While writing The Loved One, Evelyn wrote letters to several loved ones, as follows:
May 10, 1947
Evelyn tells Diana Cooper that in California he got obsessed by morticians like so many other visitors to the US and is starting a novel about them. He had made 'something very like friends' with Mr Howells of Forest Lawn who gives the 'personality smile' to the embalmed corpse.
May 29, 1947
Evelyn thanks Nancy Mitford for the presents she has sent her godchild, Hattie. Actually, he doesn't mention The Loved One in the couple of letters he writes to Nancy from May to July, which is strange because he dedicates the book to her and she becomes his closest correspondent about the text on its publication.
June 1, 1947
Evelyn tells Blondie (Lady Mary Lygon) that her godchild, Bron, has had a squint dealt with. Actually, Waugh says that the boy has had his eyes taken out and put back in again straight, and as a result is prettier. He tells her that he is writing a beautiful tale about corpses and that the weather is very seasonable for it.
July 14, 1947
Having written to Penelope Betjeman twice already about his bullying of her husband - in an effort to convert him to Catholicism - Evelyn tells Penelope that he is writing 'a singularly unpleasant' tale of life in the Hollywood Mortuary.
It's February 1948 before The Loved One first appears. Cyril Connolly, much mocked by Evelyn in private, especially in letters to Nancy Mitford, devoted a whole issue of Horizon to it.
Before that, in December, the artist Stuart Boyle had come to Piers Court for the day and Evelyn had briefed him about illustrations for the book edition that Chapman and Hall were to bring out in the summer of 1948. According to Evelyn, he himself supplied every detail of the drawings and if the book was a failure it would be entirely down to himself.
By 15 December, Evelyn was writing to Nancy Mitford saying that the story was dedicated to her. She would see from a printed line in the Horizon issue, but in the book the dedication would have a page to itself.
I think it was a very good idea not to dedicate the book to Laura, even though she was the author's companion in Hollywood when the seeds of the book were sewn. I think that would have been just a little too close to the pounded bone.
But I've got this vision of several urns, containing the ashes of Laura Waugh, Penelope Betjeman, Nancy Mitford, Diana Cooper and Lady Mary Lygon. I see Evelyn and his family with croquet mallets on the lawn at Piers Court, hitting the ball towards the urns which have been stood in a row. The toppled urns are then buried in one of the paths around Piers Court, perhaps extending the one made from upturned champagne bottles.
Why do I come up with this scenario? Just to emphasise the unsentimental nature of Waugh's vision. According to him - a devout Catholic - when a person dies it doesn't matter what happens to their vile body: it rots or is burnt. What matters is that the person believed in God, had lived in accordance with God's laws, so that their soul would, given due process in purgatory, eventually make it to Heaven.
On receiving a copy of Horizon from Cyril Connolly, Nancy wrote:
'Darling Evelyn, The heaven of The Loved One oh you are so kind to dedicate it to me, thank you thank you for it. I've been utterly shrieking since it arrived, luckily was lunching alone....My mother will be appalled and think it bad luck (the urn) but so long as the urn contains me and not my loved one I don't mind a bit.'
The day after receiving a copy of Horizon, Nancy received a proof copy of the Chapman and Hall book, with illustrations.
She wrote again: 'You needn't have wondered whether I would laugh - in spite of Cyril's preface forbidding me I bellowed for an hour and a half gasping for breath.'
In early March she wrote once more: 'I read Loved One every day. My favourite joke is 'They do when they go to the can.' (so true.) My second favourite is 'what you said first.'
I might as well explain these jokes, as another way of putting over the book's content and tone.
It is the custom of The Happier Hunting Ground to send a card to the ex-owner of a pet on the anniversary of its death. In the case of a dog, the card would say: 'Your Fido is wagging his tail in heaven tonight.' But in the relevant case, the pet was a goat and Dennis Barlow pointed out to the pet cemetery's owner that goats don't wag their tails. Mr Schulz's reply, that they do 'when they go to the can' conjures up the image of a goat taking a piss in heaven. Well, why not? Cue laughter from Nancy Mitford lunching alone in Paris.
'What you said first' refers to a discussion between Dennis Barlow and the husband of a woman whose dead dog has just been bagged up and put in the back of Barlow's van. Their conversation goes like this:
"I have our brochure here setting out our service. Were you thinking of internment or incineration?"
"Buried or burned?"
"Burned, I guess."
"I have some photographs here of various styles of urns."
"The best will be good enough."
"Would you require a niche in our columbarium or do you prefer to keep the remains at home?"
"What you said first."
I must admit I burst out laughing twice there. First, picturing Dennis Barlow asking this American businessman who just wanted shot of the corpse 'were you thinking of internment or incineration?'. Second, at the idea that keeping the ashes of the dead dog in his house would ever be the option this customer would go for. Yes, I'm with you, Nancy, bellowing down through the years.
I seem to be letting Evelyn off the hook here. The love-hate relationship with Laura seems to have transmuted into a love-laugh relationship with Nancy. How did Evelyn achieve this? One of the keys is that Evelyn and Nancy rarely met, though their relationship went back to the Canonbury Square flat (when Nancy stayed in the spare room, keeping She-Evelyn company while He-Evelyn was writing Vile Bodies in Beckley). So rarely did they meet, that there doesn't seem to be a single photograph of them together. The cover of The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh uses a composite photograph:
What I mean is, the Evelyn part of the above pairing is taken from a photograph of Evelyn with Alec Waugh in 1952, as you can see from the image below.
Evelyn: "Where is Nancy?"
Alec: "She heard you were drunk and high-tailed it to Paris."
Nancy came across Evelyn when he was at his best. That is, when he came into her bookshop at Heywood Hill; when they met at parties (where Evelyn's ebullience shone like a beacon); and through the writing of letters. Both of them were brilliant letter writers, always keeping things fresh, sharp and personal.
Evelyn needed spirited Nancy, Penelope, Blondie and Diana as pen friends. These relationships helped make the relationship between Evelyn and downtrodden Laura work for him. Why should Evelyn kill Laura for boring him with domestic trivia when he could just as easily write a gossipy letter to one of his platonic woman friends? And then, just when he was feeling like doing poor Laura a mischief again, in would come the day's second post, and with luck there would be something with a Paris postmark:
24 April, 1948
'Darling Evelyn, I hear Gerald has left it in his will that he is to be stuffed and kept in the hall at Faringdon. I think The Loved One will have done a great deal of harm in these little ways.'
29 April, 1948
'Darling Evelyn, I hear the result of The Loved One is no American undertaker will look at an English corpse now (revenge) and they are all piling up on rubbish heaps.'
21 May, 1948
'Darling Evelyn, Masturbation. I used to masturbate whenever I thought about Lady Jane Grey, so of course I thought about her continually and even executed a fine watercolour of her on the scaffold, which my mother still has, framed, and in which Lady Jane and her ladies in waiting all wear watches hanging from enamel bows as my mother did at the time. This sublimation of sex might be recommended to Harriet, except I don't think it changed anything and I still get quite excited when I think of Lady Jane (less and less often though as the years roll on).'
Evelyn's letter to Nancy which provoked the above paragraph has not survived. However a few months later, Evelyn is writing:
'Darling Nancy, So my friend Graham Greene whose books you won't read was sitting in a New York hotel feeling quite well when he felt very wet and sticky in the lap and hurried to the lavatory and found that his penis was pouring with blood...'
I think I'll leave 'The Loved One' there. I'd like to write about Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh very soon, but that had better wait until I've reached 1951 in these Piers Court Papers.
1) Thanks to Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, for providing scans of the Evelyn Waugh story in Good Housekeeping.
2) Images have been reproduced without permission but with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.