"GOOD GOD, GRAHAM!"
Just as there is no photograph of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh together, so there is none of Evelyn and Graham Greene. Which you'd think would make this piece hard to illustrate, but I'll see what I can do.
In 1949, on his return from a trip to the United States, Waugh described himself to a friend as the fattest man in White's. In which case it might not be too much of a stretch to suppose that the above photo shows Evelyn sitting with Graham Greene in the garden at Piers Court during Greene's stay there in September 1951, a time together which this essay will zero-in on.
Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh had much in common. One was born in 1903, the son of a publisher, the other in 1904, the son of a headmaster. Both read History at Oxford, though it was Waugh who enjoyed himself there with Alastair Graham, while Greene suffered bouts of depression (though it was while at school he'd attempted suicide and played Russian Roulette). Both had first novels published in the late twenties, The Man Within (dour and romantic) and Decline and Fall (a book that in later life Greene would admit to having read six times). Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926, because his wife-to-be was a Catholic. Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930 after his first wife had deserted him, leaving Waugh doubting the value of a life without God. By the mid 1940s both were famous novelists and practicing Catholics, with success coming in America for EW with Brideshead Revisited and for GG with The Heart of the Matter.
In the late 1930s, Greene invited Waugh to write for a journal he was editing, Night and Day. And he did visit Piers Court in 1938 with his wife Vivien. But it wasn't until the mid forties, by which time each had expressed deep admiration for the other's major novels, that the friendship blossomed.
In October 1950, Greene thanked Waugh for sending him a copy of Helena. He'd been reading the instalments in The Month but was looking forward to reading the full version. He said he would have to buy a reading copy because he couldn't bring himself to mark a limited edition and because he never felt he owned a book until he'd made certain marks of approval and disapproval in the margins.
Greene followed this up in November 1950, by saying how much he liked Helena: that it was a magnificent book. However, one needs to get this in proportion. In between the two letters to Waugh, Greene wrote sycophantically to Osbert Sitwell, saying that his receipt from the author of the last volume of Right Hand, Left hand completed a set which Greene valued more than any other book of his time, Proust being before his time. Pass the sick bag, Evelyn.
In May, 1951, Evelyn wrote a postcard to Greene saying that he greatly admired The End of the Affair which had been sent to him in proof form, and that when he read it again he would review it in The Month.
The End of the Affair is, fundamentally, about Greene's affair with a married woman, Catherine Walston. Although he had finished the writing of the book in August 1950, the relationship was ongoing and troubled. In August 1951 he was writing to her as follows:
'My Dear, In this nervous condition, speaking on the telephone, it seems impossible to convey a meaning without over-emphasis or abruptness. What I want to say is this. A human relationship, like ours has been, is inextricably physical and mental. I have no real belief that the physical side is seriously wrong in the particular circumstances, but you will remember that for the last two years I've urged you to go to confession and communion between our meetings.'
Some deep Catholic guilt-tripping going on there. The 'particular circumstances' Greene speaks of is Catherine's marriage to Harry Walston. Catherine didn't want to leave the rich socialist, whom she loved and admired, but she was sexually and emotionally drawn to Graham Greene.
Greene's letter ends: 'I love you and I want you and I can't separate the two'.
Well, no, it ends 'God bless you'.
Also in August of 1951, Evelyn wrote to Greene thanking him for the inscribed copy of The End of the Affair. He reported that Laura and the children were away for the month so why didn't he come and stay? Waugh had been reading his war diaries and had started to write Men At Arms but would welcome the company. Waugh made a comparison between his own writing habits and those of Bendrix, the first person narrator of The End of the Affair. Bendrix wrote 1000 words a day. Well, Waugh used to write 3000 words on a good day but by 1951 could manage only 1200. He suspected that Bendrix wrote better than him, a remark that no doubt flattered Graham. 'Do come if you can bear the thought.'
Greene wrote back on August 20, saying that Evelyn's letter had come like a Godsend. He described himself as a semi-corpse who would try and work but who would succeed in drinking. He aimed to come down on the afternoon of Sep 3 and leave on Sep 14. He hoped that Catherine might be able to come down for Sep 11, 12 and 13. Greene said in passing that he has just had an awful time with Cyril Connolly who was claiming to have been commissioned to write a profile on Waugh for Time.
Waugh replied the next day, saying Graham would be most welcome. He then warned him that the cook was on holiday and the village woman that took her place could just about manage scrambled eggs. Also, Evelyn's butler had gone sick and looked set for a long period in bed. (Poor Ellwood. The demands of his job would appear to have been too much for him.) Evelyn was in the habit of wearing a dinner-jacket in the evening but that didn't mean Graham had to. There would be a sitting room for Graham's exclusive use for writing, as well as a bath and a bed. The letter ends by admitting that Connolly had many injuries to revenge. But if he took the opportunity to do so in print, Evelyn might have to horsewhip him on the steps of his club.
A postscript states that Catherine would be very welcome but needed to be warned of the Swiss Family Robinson life.
In a letter to the Betjemans in 1946, Waugh said that there was only one guest room at Piers Court. I suspect this was Bedroom 3, outlined in green in the plan of the first floor of Piers Court, below.
The room outlined in royal purple was Evelyn's. Which means that Laura's room would have been the one outlined in brown. Waugh wrote more than once that he slept alone (except in special circumstances like being on a cruise ship with Laura). Waugh commented on a couple of occasions about the activities of cowmen under his windows. I'm sure Laura would have preferred to have the room overlooking her field of cows, but, too bad, there was only one master bedroom and that was always going to be Evelyn's.
Laura would not have moved her stuff out of her room while she was away for the month, I suspect. So Graham and Catherine would have been in bedroom three. That's the room that had a pink bathroom that Bron refers to using throughout his boyhood in his autobiography. An American who stayed as the Waughs' guest in 1951, confirms that the sign on the cistern did indeed read:
'Should the handle fail to return to the horizontal when the flow of water ceases, please agitate it slightly until it succeeds.'
On August 22, Greene wrote back saying that he and Catherine were drinkers not eaters and that a Swiss Family Robinson life was exactly what he and Catherine had lived when the world had allowed them to do so.
Catherine must have then written to Evelyn separately, because Waugh wrote to her on the 25th of August. Evidently she needed to be reassured that she would be welcome even though she and Graham were 'living in sin'. Waugh declared that he was too depressed by his own odious but unromantic sins to have any concern about other people's. She would be most welcome.
Indeed she would. Graham Greene had introduced Catherine Walston to Evelyn, at her request, in autumn 1948. They met at 5 St James Street, Mayfair, where Greene had a flat next to Catherine's. An entry in Waugh's diary mentions that she sat on the floor and buttered Evelyn's bread and made simple offers of friendship. Waugh had another social commitment that evening, but the next day Catherine's car drove him to her husband's house in Thriplow, near Cambridge, to spend the day with her, GG and her children. 'Mrs Walston barefooted and mostly squatting on the floor. Fine big eyes and mouth, unaffected to the verge of insanity, unvain, no ostentation - simple friendliness and generosity and childish curiosity.'
There is no doubt that Evelyn Waugh was impressed with this woman. Catherine was born in 1916, so in 1948 she would have been 32. Below is a photograph of her which captures her film star looks.
No wonder Graham Greene was in love with this American. On September the 3rd, presumably the first day of Greene's stay at Piers Court, a letter that is briefly quoted from in Norman Sherry's biography of Greene, but, alas, is omitted from Francis Greene's edited volume of Graham Greene letters, includes the lines:
‘What can one write about when one can’t write about one’s longing? Please come to Evelyn’s as planned for Sep 11, 12, 13.'
But it was Graham who arrived first, on his tod. What did he do during the visit? Well, on the 8th of September, Evelyn wrote to Nancy Mitford saying that G. Greene was with him, 'very sad and gentle'. Evelyn also wrote to her saying that Greene spent his time in nearby Dursley making notes of number plates, looking out for unusual combinations and reading omens into them. Which is exactly what his character Bendrix does in The End of the Affair.
I'm certain that GG and EW would have discussed that book in depth. Christopher Sykes mentions that when he stayed overnight at Piers Court on the first of September, he didn't get any sleep because Evelyn kept him up talking about Greene's novel. Moreover, Waugh's review of the book came out on the 6th of September, just a day or two after Greene's arrival at Piers Court.
So what does Evelyn write about The End of the Affair? First, he praises it greatly, suggesting that Greene's writing has moved onto another level with this book, in part thanks to the use of a first-person narrator. (Interestingly, Greene at one stage commented that his favourite Waugh books were Work Suspended and Brideshead Revisited, the two novels that use a first-person narrator.)
Then Evelyn summarises the plot, which I'll try and do in my own way. Bendrix's affair with Sarah has ended as the book begins. He has been rejected by her for reasons he can't fathom. Sarah's husband, who didn't know about the affair when it was going on, approaches Bendrix because he's worried she's having an affair with someone two years on. Bendrix tries to work out what Sarah is up to, in so doing puts over the passion of their past relationship. These aspects come over very well. As Waugh says in his review:
'The relationship of lover to husband with its crazy mutations of pity, hate, comradeship, jealousy and contempt is superbly described. The heroine is consistently loveable. Again and again Mr Greene has entered fully into a scene of high emotion which anyone else would have shirked.'
Bendrix discovers that Sarah gave him up when he'd been seriously injured by a bomb. That is, she made a deal with God, that if He spared Bendrix's life, she would give him up. The 'affair' she is having in the present is with God - spending a great deal of her time at church. However, she catches a cold, quickly becomes seriously ill, and suddenly dies, to the horror of both Bendrix and her husband. Then comes the supernatural bit. After her death 'miracles' happen in the lives of unfortunate people she knew and cared about...
Bendrix, stunned by the revelation of her motivation and by her death, ends the book in a rage with God. 'O God you've done enough. You've robbed me of enough. I'm too tired and too old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.'
Waugh makes the extremely astute point that the book is called The End of the Affair in no small part ironically, because, when it finishes, it's really just the start of something. What he means is that the spirit of Sarah, having helped an ill child and a man with an unfortunate skin condition, would surely soon be turning her benevolent love towards her traumatised ex-lover.
Late at night, when Greene and Waugh have left the dinner table and are smoking and drinking in the drawing room, I can imagine GG taking issue with this very point.
Evelyn Waugh. by Madame Yevonde bromide print on card mount, 1951
"Actually, unlike you Evelyn, I am plagued with doubts. I've ended the book with Bendrix in a fury with God, because I am too. If I was writing that last paragraph again I'd be saying. 'You bastard, you don't exist!'"
"Oh, Graham, I wish you wouldn't speak that way. It makes me feel decidedly liverish."
"Don't feel ill, Evelyn. Here, have some of my brandy, it's rude to out-drink one's host."
My own view, is that the book which was dedicated 'To C' (the American edition was dedicated less ambiguously 'To Catherine') was an attempt to get a single, very special reader on the author's side. One does feel sorry for Bendrix at the end of the book, after all he's lost the love of his life, a love that he's spoken convincingly of. So perhaps Catherine was supposed to reach the end of her copy of the book, throw it to the floor of her St James Street flat, walk next door, and say, "It's all right, Graham, I've decided not to make an absurd pact with God. Instead, I'm going to live my one and only life with you."
In a funny sort of way, that's Waugh's reading of the book's ending as well. Only instead of Sarah coming back to save Bendrix from beyond the grave, as Evelyn would have us believe, a live and kicking Catherine is simply going to continue making love to Graham Greene, noble Catholic author!
Another perspective on the book is that the decision of Sarah's to give up the one thing on earth she really wants, Bendrix, echoes Julia Flyte's sacrifice of her relationship with Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Greene had read and admired that novel (though it wasn't his favourite Waugh book until much later in life). It's as if Greene had set himself the task of analysing Charles Ryder's feelings in the aftermath of the rejection. Not just over the page or so that Evelyn devotes to the break up in Brideshead, but at novel length. For me the image below, the cover of the Folio edition of The End of the Affair, would work as the cover of the hypothetical story of Charles Ryder's despair and Julia Flyte's religious exaltation, though the scene has clearly been transferred from the fountain at Brideshead to mundane Clapham Common.
However, I suspect The End of the Affair is a book that Evelyn Waugh couldn't have written because he didn't have an overwhelmingly passionate affair with anyone. He seems to have held himself back from complete immersion in his relationships. (He was certainly keeping his distance from Laura in the summer of 1951. Having been in France on his own for six weeks, he was no sooner back at Piers Court than Laura was off to Italy with the three oldest children.) But Greene and Catherine Walston were immersed in each other. Of that the reader of The End of the Affair, and of Graham Greene's letters to Catherine, can be in no doubt.
What Evelyn and Graham did both manage to immerse themselves in is alcohol. Greene developed a liver condition that forced him to cut down on his daily consumption of booze. But that hadn't been diagnosed by September, 1951 (he took a liver cure in 1955). It's not hard to envisage the scene in the drawing room with neither Laura or Catherine around, just Evelyn and Graham, those likely lads.
On the 12th of September, Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn saying that she had been reading GG all yesterday. She was referring to The End of the Affair when she wrote: 'It is wonderful. What a sexy man he must be, Mr Greene.'
Pertinent to my own view is Nancy's statement 'The only thing I couldn't swallow was that she could give up her lover.' I wonder if that was Nancy's view of Brideshead also. It sure is mine.
In mid-letter, Nancy receives her copy of The Month and reads Evelyn's review of Greene's book. It prompts her to comment 'Oh the horror, the horror of people's lives. Thank goodness one has escaped. All that rain and public houses.'
Yes, GG does rather pile on the Clapham Common ambience. Bendrix sitting alone in a pub, or in his bedsit, watching the rain fall and wishing he was dead. Or if not dead then in the arms of his lover. Which wasn't going to happen any time soon because she'd caught a cold and died...
Graham and Evelyn drank together at night, no doubt. While by day, GG noted car number plates and Evelyn got on with Men at Arms. In a letter to Nancy at the end of August, just before Graham's visit, Waugh commented that his novel was unreadable and endless. 'Nothing but tippling in officers messes and drilling on barrack squares. No demon sex. No blood or thunder.'
Evelyn was asking for trouble. He was asking for Nancy to write back: 'What a sexless man he must be, Mr Waugh.' Though she needn't have bothered because Waugh knew the score. In Men at Arms, Waugh has the character, Virginia, say of his protagonist, Guy Crouchback: 'You wet, smug, obscene, pompous, sexless, lunatic pig.'
Evelyn Waugh. by Madame Yevonde bromide print on card mount, 1951
Anyway, I wonder if Nancy's letter arrived at Piers Court while Catherine was there. She arrived on Tuesday, September 11, and left, presumably with Graham, on the afternoon of Friday the 15th. The post was fast in those days. I reckon the three probably spent most of Thursday going around Piers Court saying to whoever they met: 'What a sexy man he must be, Mr Greene.'
And sitting down at dinner, already a bottle of champagne and a bottle of claret under their belts, what did they say then? How about this:
Evelyn: "Wet, smug, obscene, pompous, sexless lunatic pig to sexy man."
Graham: "Yes, Evelyn."
Evelyn: "Would you ask the lady with whom you are living in mortal sin to kindly butter my bread roll?"
Catherine: "Sexy lady to wet, smug, obscene, pompous, sexless, lunatic pig."
Evelyn: "Yes, Catherine."
Catherine: "Why don't you ask me yourself?"
Graham: "That's right, Evelyn. No need to go through the monkey when the organ grinder's sitting right next to you!"
The following photo of Graham Greene and Catherine Walston was take on a friend's yacht rather than in the dining room at Piers Court. Nevertheless, I think it gives the right impression of both the monkey and his organ grinder.
With Catherine aboard the Elsewhere at Antibes
I wonder how Catherine found Piers Court. She had never seen Graham dressed in a dinner jacket before and was enchanted, she later wrote to Evelyn. Did she like the old-fashioned house, stuffed with Victoriana? Evelyn had noted that at her own home three years before, the living room was full of modern books and pictures and gramophones and wireless. He wrote that she went about barefoot and mostly squatted on the floor, eating nothing more than Shredded Wheat of an evening, her kids' nanny, dressed as a nurse, talking about 'masturbation and incest'.
In a letter to Nancy from that earlier time, Waugh described the Walstons as very rich, Cambridge, Jewish, socialist, highbrow, scientific and farming. He said that there were Picassos on sliding panels, and that when you slid them back you were likely to find yourself staring into the eyes of a stallion. Did Waugh say anything about the nanny/nurse to Nancy? Yes, that her name was 'Twinkle' and that she talked to everyone about 'lesbianism and masturbation'.
OK, back to the dinner table at Piers Court.
Evelyn: "Wet, smug, obscene, pompous, sexless lunatic pig to Cambridge, Jewish, socialist, highbrow, scientific, stud owner."
Catherine: "Yes, Evelyn."
Evelyn: "Remember when I visited you at Thriplow? At the end of the evening, when you'd retired to bed, Graham and I were drinking together downstairs and the telephone rang. It was you calling from your bedroom where you asked us to join you, your bedside littered with books of devotion."
Catherine: "Very little chance of that tonight, darling. It's barely possible to reach the outside world with that telephone of yours."
But by the end of the third night of her stay, I envisage Graham, Catherine and Evelyn having a conversation upstairs in the guest room. Or, rather, Evelyn, in an advanced state of inebriation not dissimilar to Graham's, having brushed his teeth and washed his face, exits his bathroom and is walking through his dressing room towards the master bedroom when he thinks of something. Something that amuses him, judging by the expression on his face. He turns around and exits the dressing room into the first floor corridor, walks a few paces, then halts outside the door of the guest room. After stifling a chuckle, Evelyn knocks hard on the door and says in a loud voice:
'Message from Twinkle. Should Graham's penis fail to return to the horizontal when the flow of sperm ceases, please agitate it slightly until it succeeds.'
All good things must come to an end. According to Greene's biographer, Norman Sherry, both Catherine Walston and Graham Greene enjoyed themselves at Piers Court. In a letter to Graham, Catherine admitted she liked being with Evelyn as he was able to cheer up Graham enormously. Apparently, Greene made the same point to Waugh, (though the letter is not in Francis Greene's volume): ‘I enjoyed myself with you so much and you eased what would have been a very bad period for me.’
The day after leaving Piers Court, on Saturday the 15th of September, Greene wrote a letter to Catherine, which I will quote from at length, if I may:
I can't stand this situation - I simply haven't got the strength. There are only three things possible to choose.
1) I know you won't, but that's to come away with me to Italy, start annulments - you'd have your children half their holidays, we'd marry as soon as we could, and if possible have one of our own.
2) Be as we were minus Newton [because he was no longer allowed by Harry Walston to visit Newton Hall]. Sometimes going away for a little, getting back to confession or communion all the time. But in between be lovers.
3) I disappear completely as from tomorrow. My dear last night shows that I can't be with you and not your lover. I'm too in love for that. I'd just ask one thing and that's for you to take my bureau key and take away your letters in the top right hand drawer. I tried the other day to destroy them, but it meant seeing them and I couldn't. If it's 3 try not to be corrupted and lie around. I'll try not.
You said it was not the love relationship that Harry minded - it was that you 'worked to sew on fly buttons', but no one, not even the church, has a right to demand that you shan't love in that way. Our love's been a good love... I have been your husband...
Please put 1, 2, or 3 on a piece of paper. It won't be 1, but if it's 3, I think I must go away tomorrow...
Your lover - probably for the last time of writing it.
As I say, this letter was dated the 15th. Now GG and CW were at EW's together on 11,12 and 13 September. So the 'last night shows that I can't be with you and not be your lover,' must refer to the 14th, the day of leaving Piers Court. I expect they travelled back to London together and slept in his or her flat on St James Street.
Joking aside, perhaps Catherine's wish that they not have sex worked when they were at Evelyn's, because of late night drinking and talking. But when they were alone together, Greene's desire for his mate became too strong for him to ignore it.
And what does one make of GG asking Catherine to take away her letters? I'd suggest that he doesn't really want them taken away and/or destroyed, instead he's communicating how important they are to him. How important her love is to him. The same trick he plays on the last pages of The End of the Affair.
Greene doesn't seem to have got his way though. Rather than write 1, 2 or 3 on a piece of paper (like the emotionally retarded, inarticulate child she certainly wasn't), Catherine plumped for a fourth option, temporary separation. They didn’t meet again until April, 1952.
As for Evelyn, he went on writing Men at Arms. Graham wrote to him on September 29, a letter which suggests that the two literary authors had spent some of their time together discussing the low-brow detective novels of Erle Stanley Gardner. Gardner's best-sellers concern the work of heroic criminal defence lawyer, Perry Mason. In his letter, Graham told Evelyn he'd just been reading the first one, The Case of the Velvet Claws.
GG reports that in the book, Perry Mason kisses Della, his secretary, on the lips, and when his client, another woman, notices lipstick on his mouth, he says: 'Let it Stay.' Later, GG reports, Perry Mason pushes his client roughly onto a bed. He also makes her faint by third degree questioning and slaps her with a wet towel to bring her round.
And Evelyn's response to this mix of book talk and schoolboy smut? Well, we don't know, so let's speculate:
"Why are you telling me all this, Graham?"
"Because by your own admission you are engaged in a wet, smug, obscene, pompous, sexless, lunatic book. Nothing but tippling in officers messes and drilling on barrack squares. No demon sex. No blood or thunder."
"Oh, is that the impression I gave you? In which case I don't think I quite did my current work justice."
Ha! This piece has turned into something of a digression. Time I got back to The Case of the Velvet Claws. I mean Men at Arms.