THE LAST PARTY
What am I doing here again? Well, I've been invited to a party. The invite included a map showing directions from Buckingham Palace to 17a Canonbury Square, which wasn't much good to me up in Perthshire. But I've got here.
The invite didn't say I should bring a bottle, but I wish I had now. There are ten empty glasses in the dining room. Three at He-Evelyn's place setting, which I'm guessing is the one nearest the window, three at She-Evelyn's, and four on the mantelpiece.
Let's stick with the mantelpiece. At one time, Selina Hastings tells us, there was an Evelyn mug at either end of it. Maybe that was shortly after the Evelyns moved into the flat in the summer of 1928. The Evelyns' mugs would add to the Evelyns' double-portrait photograph by Olivia Wyndham, the painting of She-Evelyn by Henry Lamb and the sketch of He-Evelyn by Lamb.
But, by whenever this photo was taken the mugs were gone. So what is on the mantelpiece? I know nothing about the figurines but I do have something to say about the decorated octagonal plates that She-Evelyn is presiding over. Something new, I suspect.
Forty-two years after the photograph of the dining room first appeared in print, a Google search of 'octagonal plates' brings up a series of famous Victorians in less than a second. And it doesn't take much longer to establish that the plate on the left features Benjamin Disraeli, Conservative MP, chancellor of the exchequer, and two-time Prime Minister, while the plate on the right features William Gladstone, LIberal MP, chancellor of the exchequer and four-time Prime Minister.
The pair had a political rivalry that lasted forty years. Any connection with the rivalry between the two prime ministers in Vile Bodies? That's Sir James Brown, Conservative, in power at the beginning of the book, whose daughter Jane gets involved with the Bright Young Things, leading to the fall of her father's government. And Walter Outrage, who has sexual fantasies about a Japanese woman who works at the embassy. Mr Outrage was prime minister a week before the action of Vile Bodies began, and he was PM again by the second half of the book. Well, I bet there is a connection. That would have been a big part of the reason that the plates were put up there, I suspect.
Arthur Waugh, Evelyn's father, was born in 1866. By the time he was reading Dickens every night to his sons, Evelyn and Alec, around 1910, he was 44 and Disraeli had been Prime Minister for eight of those 44 years while Gladstone had been PM for seventeen of them. Yes, for more than half Arthur's then life, either Disraeli or Gladstone had been the country's leader, and I expect Arthur let young Evelyn know as much. Did he bore his son with political talk to the same extent that he did with his Dickens obsession? I don't know. But it wouldn't surprise me that Evelyn had a good old retrospective dig at Disraeli and Gladstone. Especially Gladstone.
Gladstone is famous for walking the streets of London late at night on the look-out for prostitutes. He had an obsession with saving beautiful, fallen women from themselves. Walter Outrage had no such moral underpinnings to his leanings. Early in Vile Bodies we are told that his nickname is 'Right Honorable Rape', though Outrage is actually quite diffident in his treatment of women, particularly the beautiful Japanese woman, the Baroness Yoshiwara. His is essentially a sensual passion as you can tell from this quote: 'The Leader of his majesty's opposition lay sunk in a rather glorious coma, made splendid by dreams of Oriental imagery...of golden limbs and almond eyes, humble and caressing.'
Commentators have been content to assume that the prime ministers referred to in Vile Bodies, in so much as they had real-life inspirations, were Stanley Baldwin, Conservative, who had been prime minister until a week after Waugh got back from his Mediterranean cruise, and the labour politician, Ramsey MacDonald, who became PM on June 5 1929, just when Waugh was on the point of settling down to write Vile Bodies. MacDonald had also been PM in 1924, while before and after that Baldwin was prime minister. It's easy to see why this pair has been taken as the parallel to the pair of PMs in the book, but the identification of the decorative plates points at another likelihood.
Has this party started yet? I seem to be on my own still, but I suspect it has. So I sit down at the table, and, referring to the tabletop map of central London, trace a route between Canonbury Square and Shepheard's Hotel on Dover Street. Sure, I have to move from the table the tray of porcelain jars, and move the table-top candleabra a few inches, but that's allowed isn't it? It's my party after all. (And yours, dear reader.)
It was in Shepheard's Hotel (based on the Cavendish Hotel, Duke Street, West Central London) run by Lottie Crump (aka Rosa Lewis) that Outrage tried rather ineptly to seduce the Baroness Yoshiwara in the pages of Vile Bodies. While in another of the hotel's rooms a girl called Flossie, who was entertaining a judge at the time, fell from the chandelier to her death.
By the way, what is that piece of two-tone string lying across the table? Nothing to do with poor Flossie's demise, I don't suppose. But as so much of Evelyn Waugh's actual surroundings fed into his creative imagination, one never knows.
Evelyn Waugh used his home to reflect his life. His writing also closely reflected his life. It's interesting to assess whether the arranging (and photographing) of his domestic interior was used as a staging post in the writing of Vile Bodies. Or if it was just a parallel - if related - activity.
For now, in the absence of fellow guests, let's move next door in the search for the spirit of this party, or indeed the motifs of the second half of the book. What do we have in front of us?
Lottie's chandelier, perhaps. Henry's Yorke's book, as discussed in the first essay in this section. Evelyn's provisional cover for Vile Bodies, painted in the company of Eleanor Watts, as previously discussed at some length. Having come straight from the dining room, the hats - top and bowler - put one in mind of the heads in the mirror portrait. The top hat for He-Evelyn and the green bowler for She-Evelyn? It doesn't really matter, what matters is that now, in the second half of the book, the relationship is BOGUS between them.
Let me make something clear. When Evelyn Waugh placed the painting on the mantelpiece (and placed LIving on the top of the pile of books nearest the camera), he could have been looking back at his failed marriage to She-Evelyn (the book adds a philosophical touch), or he could have been looking forward to the task in hand - the writing of the second half of Vile Bodies.
Perhaps I can utilise some of the same techniques that Evelyn used in carrying on my analysis.
The Heygates took over this flat in autumn 1929. Let me not forget that. Let me not forget that when He-Evelyn was writing the second half of the book in a pub in Appledore, Devon, She-Evelyn and John Heygate were living together at 17a Canonbury Square, Islington. In other words, let's assume that Evelyn was bearing this in mind as he introduced "Ginger" LIttlejohn into the plot.
It's easy enough to remind myself of the situation. I have both the Penguin edition of Vile Bodies - which I read while in the first year at university, back in 1976 - and a copy of the original 1930 Chapman and Hall edition to hand. I might turn up at a party without a bottle, but I'd never turn up at one without a good book or two.
Though the Chapman and hall is the lovelier object (even without its dust-jacket), I still favour the Penguin as a reading copy because I'm so much more relaxed with it: flicking through the pages, underlining sentences and highlighting particular words. Really, I can't keep my hands off the paperback, so I'm not even going to try.
Chapter seven: Adam and NIna are at a horserace meeting in Manchester when Adam, who has been in pursuit of the drunk Major, comes back to find Nina in conversation with a young man with a curly red moustache. I keep reading, but I do so from the doorway so as to be able to keep a general eye on the party. Actually, the real reason I keep reverting to this view of the living room is because of Richard McGuire's 2015 book Here. It's that which has given me the confidence to keep reverting to a single image of a room. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
In chapter eight, Adam and Nina take Ginger to the party that's being held on a 'captive dirigible'. With Ginger elsewhere, Adam leans his forehead, to cool it, on Nina's arm, and kisses her in the hollow of the forearm. She puts her hand on his hair at which point Ginger comes strutting jauntily by, obliterating the tender scene. As I read that, the scene on the Friendship that was published in The Sketch comes to mind. The young couple in the foreground in a clinch. The couple in the background - She-Evelyn and John Heygate - implicated in something. An image Evelyn Waugh would have been aware of from July 3, 1929, or shortly thereafter. An image, I imagine, that he couldn't get out of his mind.
Evelyn Waugh: "I can't get it out of my mind."
Eleanor Watts: "You must try to."
Evelyn Waugh: "I can't. I can't."
Let me try for an overview. Vile Bodies is a series of happenings and images very much influenced by the actual happenings in Waugh's life and certain images that were planted in his mind, such as the photograph I've been making so much of. After all, as John Heygate later said in a letter to Christopher Sykes, on the appearance of the latter's biography of Waugh in 1975: 'I wish I hadn't lost the photo taken of us on Olivia Wyndham's "Departure for Cythera" party on the "Friendship". It was this photograph which bust things up.'
The photograph may have bust up the Evelyns' marriage, but equally it may have contributed to the making of He-Evelyn's book. Dear reader, I hope that my use of digital technology has helped to demonstrate this and that I am not belabouring the point.
Back to the old Penguin. In chapter nine, Adam goes for the second time to see NIna's father to say that he and Nina are to marry now that Adam has a job. NIna tells Adam that she and Ginger will write his Chatterbox column for him. Later that evening, after Adam has returned from Colonel Blount's, NIna tells him that she (no mention of Ginger this time) filled the column with some imaginative conceits. Like what? Adam asks. Like saying she saw Count Cincinnati going into Espinoza'a wearing a green bowler. This leads to Adam getting sacked, as Lord Monomark has expressly forbidden any further mention of green bowlers. Which means that Adam and NIna can't afford to get married after all.
In chapter ten, Adam goes motor racing. Nina and Ginger do not even get a mention in this long aside, easily the longest chapter in the book. It was written while Evelyn was on his own in the Devon pub, in September 1929, recalling his own visit to the Belfast races of the month before. I wonder if it was while finishing the book in the pub that he came up with the final cover design. Pity my Chapman and Hall doesn't still have its jacket, though the full colour image is there as a frontispiece. Which gives me an idea.
From the frontispiece I turn to chapter 11, which is just two pages of dialogue, beautifully typeset over a double page in this edition. Adam phones Nina at home and she tells him that she's going to marry Ginger.
In chapter 12, Adam bumps into Nina at a party. They spend the night together at Shepheard's but NIna leaves early. In the morning, Adam is confronted with the bill from the start of his lodging there, which he persuades Ginger to pay in return for transferring to Ginger all rights to Nina. Later in the chapter, NIna and GInger marry and fly to Monte Carlo on honeymoon... It's no good I get tense handling the old Chapman and Hall. I must revert to the Penguin.
But when I approach the table, looking down on Living, I realise I need to remind myself of that book's relevance. The book is set in Birmingham and concerns the lives of a factory's owners, and some of its workers. Gender relations as well as class ones are given prolonged thought and exemplary literary treatment by Waugh's Oxford croney.
We know Living was read by Waugh at the beginning of June, just after the Evelyns had got back from the cruise. But he placed it in the photograph he took of the living room at Canonbury Square on August 1st or 2nd, presumably because the book and its author were still important to what Evelyn felt he was doing: an exploration cum critique of a certain privileged class and of male-female relations within that class.
When Waugh was at the pub in Appledore, writing the second half of Vile Bodies, he wrote to Henry Yorke (aka Green). In fact, it's the only letter in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh that was written from the Royal George, although a couple of other letters were written by Waugh to his agent during that month or so. In the letter to his friend, Waugh says:
'Dear Henry, I put off going abroad and came here to make a last effort at finishing my novel. It has been infinitely difficult and is certainly the last time I shall try to make a book about sophisticated people. It all seems to shrivel up and rot internally and I am relying on a sort of cumulative futility for any effect it might have.'
Waugh goes on to invite Henry and Dig (Yorke married her in July 1929, and the Waughs attended the marriage during their fortnight of attempted reconciliation) to join him for a weekend, admitting that the journey was long and that the accommodation wasn't very comfortable. Indeed, the only thing Evelyn could say in favour of the idea was that there was interesting bathing in the sea, full of unexpected currents! So why the invite? I guess Waugh felt a strong desire to talk to a fellow novelist whose technique he so admired just as he was reaching the climax of his own book.
So let me look at Living again. Young Mr Dupret who inherits his father's business (and so corresponds to Henry Yorke himself) pursues a MIss Glossop, but the relationship does not work out:
'He thought in his mind here was end of another chapter, another episode done with (Miss Glossop had been rude to him whenever she could be rude). He thought his mistake had been at all to mix with these people, he had no place here, he was like his father in that who had never really mixed but had led his own life. Why, he asked in mind, should you leave your life lying about to be cut in pieces by MIss Glossop. And, when it was cut to ribbons, for other Miss Glossops to watch it lying there and be diverted by it. One should go away he thought.
'One might go to foreign countries but what was in these but nausea of travelling, hotels, trains, languages you did not know, Americans? Besides it was work he wanted.
'So gradually he decided he would go to Birmingham. Hadn't mother told him it was his own fault now if works were not satisfactory. He would take Walters and Archer and they would spend a week or two there. They would have a grand clear out. Tarver was not having a square deal - an early spring cleaning. Work, that was it, he would work.'
Actually, it's work that Evelyn feels he needs as well. He ends his letter to Henry by asking if he has anything to suggest he might do after Christmas 1929. He'd already thought of digging in the bogus gold mine that belonged to Lord Redesdale, the father of the MItfords. And he'd thought of hunting for whales. But Evelyn was open to suggestions from Henry. Perhaps he was hinting at receiving a job offer to work in Henry's factory in Birmingham. If so, it didn't come about.
OK, I think I've done justice to Living, even though my own copy is a 1948 edition without dust-wrapper and printed on much thinner paper, it deserves to take its place in the scheme of things as I get back to the final throes of Vile Bodies.
In chapter thirteen, Adam and NIna stay at Colonel Blount's over Christmas, Adam pretending he's Ginger. He's got the opportunity to do this because Ginger is off the scene, having been called up by his regiment. Presumably another reason Adam was given the opportunity of spending Christmas with NIna was because that's how Nina wanted things.
In the last chapter, we learn that NIna is pregnant and that Ginger thinks the child is his, whereas the implication is that Adam is the father. If this seems like Waugh, rather pathetically, trying to have the last word on his own love triangle with She-Evelyn and John Heygate, the final scene in the book effectively undermines any such interpretation.
'In the biggest battlefield in the history of the world,' Adam has to share the back seat of an army vehicle with the drunk Major, who is seducing the woman once known as Chastity. 'And Chastity in the prettiest way possible fingered the decorations on his uniform and asked him all about them.'
For me, Evelyn ends the writing of his book with the above image in mind. In the background, Heygate and She-Evelyn dressed as a Victorian youth, with a fag and a drink in her hands. In the foreground, confused Chastity with her hand on the drunk Major's manly chest. Fiction mirroring life, though some might say it's the other way around.
So that's that. Happenings in Waugh's life - and images planted in his mind - led to literary equivalents: plots and pictures created out of words and called Vile Bodies. Reality and fiction, text and image, memories and fantasies, constantly at play.
Enough. I've got to the very centre of another human being's life. Standing alongside Evelyn at the beginning of August 1929, considering his car crash of a marriage.
I can't seem to stop this process. On the one hand, adding layer upon layer to the original photograph that Evelyn Waugh took. On the other, digging down into his misery.
In both A Little Learning, published in 1964, and a diary entry for May 1947, Waugh refers to the most miserable day in his life. Not the day that he stood considering his broken marriage in 1929, but Ascension Day, 1917, when he was a schoolboy at Lancing College on the South Downs. It was a public holiday that he hadn't known about, and all the other boys left the school leaving Evelyn alone. He couldn't get into the House Room or the library. No dinner was laid on that day and he had to make do with some bread and 'a ghastly kind of sausage'. The boy wandered out with his damp packet of food and after a while took shelter among the trees called Lancing Ring. There he ate a little and - for the first and last time in many years, he tells us - wept.
That day at Lancing he learned that food, shelter and company were essential to human happiness. He knew already that love was important too. In the photo I've added to the mix below, Evelyn's father, mother and brother are gathered around a bench in the garden of Underhill, the Waugh family home in Golders Green. Perhaps the photo was taken the day Arthur Waugh announced that Alec was his favourite child. Evelyn asked his mother how she felt about that. She replied that she loved both her sons equally. "Then I am lacking in love," announced logical Evelyn.
Lacking in love; unlucky in love. Not an easy condition to do anything about once the consciousness of it has come upon you. All you can do is carry on in the hope that sooner or later you'll stumble across someone you can love and who will love you back. Very difficult not to despise the rest of humanity in the meantime, though. Very difficult for Evelyn.