AN ARSONIST'S PROGRESS




ONE


Evelyn Waugh finished
Helena in March 1950. He began Men at Arms in June 1951. His state of mind in the fifteen months in between was rather strange, I've come to realise. What do I mean by 'strange'? You'll soon see.

He wasn't keeping a diary at the time, so the fifteen-month period is not known about in detail. But there are letters and biographies. So we know that he read many books, and had a few guests staying with him for short periods at Piers Court. In addition, Evelyn took four holidays abroad. In April 1950, he went to Italy via Paris, and stayed with Harold Acton, amongst others. In July, he went to Holland to deliver lectures to audiences in The Hague and Amsterdam. In October, he went to New York for a fortnight with Laura to see the few friends they'd made from earlier trips across the Atlantic. And in January to March of 1951, he was travelling through Israel, Jordan, Syria and Turkey with fellow Roman Catholic, Christopher Sykes.

And in between these trips? As Martin Stannard puts it: '
Each day, killing time, Waugh would read his newspaper from front to back and did the crossword. Often he would use up his afternoons in the darkness of Dursley cinema.'

That is a bleak picture and I think a fair one. But it needs further investigation. It needs layering.

Fifteen months is a long time for an established writer not to be writing about anything apart from the odd review. In summer he wrote to his literary agent:
'I keep squeezing the old lemon for a short story, but not a drop comes.' Waugh did manage to write something ambitious in September of 1950, a short story called 'A Pilgrim's Progress'. It was rejected in no uncertain terms by a couple of editors at the time. 'It seems to me sad that this man's talent should be wasted on such a story,' said one. 'The theme is almost implausibly apt for satire by Waugh, and yet his handling of it is, for the most part, dull-witted and tedious,' said another. Criticism, indeed.

Waugh soon withdrew 'A Pilgrim's Progress' from circulation. As we'll see, he kept working on it, turning it into the novella
Love Among the Ruins, which was published as a book in itself in 1953. I'll talk about the published work in part two of this essay. But here I want to focus on the unpublished first draft since, damp squib though it may have been, it reveals Waugh's strange (that word again) state of mind between two accomplished and successful works, the religious Helena and the backward-looking and diary-based Men At Arms.

I haven't got free access to the manuscript of 'A Pilgrim's Progress', which is in the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas, along with most of Waugh's manuscripts and the books from his personal library. But Robert Murray Davis has seen it, and describes it in some detail in chapter 14 of his 1989 book,
Evelyn Waugh and the Forms of His Time. So I'll be quoting from that, and from Waugh's letters that are included in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, to show that, as usual (Helena being a noticeable exception), this piece of Evelyn Waugh fiction is strongly autobiographical. Though, on the face of it, the book's protagonist, Miles Plastic, a twenty-year-old man who was invented to show what Waugh thought of the Modern Age and the Welfare State, was surely intended to be anything but.

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Wood engraving by Evelyn Waugh, August, 1923

Robert Murray Davis summarises Waugh's intentions when writing the story as follows:
'The future, secularised and levelled according to socialist platforms of the 1930's and practices of the 1940's, will be sterile and boring beyond sane endurance.'

Beyond sane endurance? Not much fun then.

RMD goes on: 'Waugh sets the opening scenes at a handsome country house, first calling it Malfrey, then rejecting the impulse to link his new story with Put Out More Flags (where Malfrey is the home of Barbara Seal Sothill...) and altering the name to Mountjoy. Ironically, the mansion and its grounds, planned decades earlier, come to fruition for the benefit of prisoners. Life in prison has been made far more comfortable than life outside. MIles Plastic, sent to Mountjoy for arson with the first group of prisoners, is about to be released as cured.'

Country house as prison? Twice in January of 1950, Waugh, living in Piers Court, wrote to a close correspondent about the (not entirely serious) possibility of having to go to prison.

To Penelope Betjeman: 'Laura... is £6,420 overdrawn. I have spent £10,000 and not put any aside for taxation (£7,500) so it looks like prison pretty soon, where I am told one has the wireless playing ceaselessly night and day.'

To Nancy Mitford:
'Well it's a sad prospect isn't it? I shall have to go to prison but that is hell nowadays with wireless and lectures and psychiatry. Oh, for the Marshalsea.'

Also pertinent is this comment made to Ann Fremantle in the same month: 'I am enveloped in the sloth of the Welfare State and do nothing.'

What does he mean by this sentence, which brings Martin Stannard's description of Waugh's cinema and crossword existence to mind? It connects to the previous quotes about taxation and prison. To pay for the post-war Welfare State, rates of personal taxation were very high. A large proportion of the income Waugh made from his writing had to be handed over to the government as income tax. This seriously demotivated Evelyn, and he refused to go along with it. Result: sloth, bitterness, indignation.

But by September of 1950 he couldn't resist putting pen to paper and drafting 'A Pilgrim's Progress'. So let's get back to that.

Miles Plastic was brought up in the State Orphanage. Why was he sent to prison? From the orphanage, Miles joined the Air Force, though there were no planes at the station to which he was posted. Robert Murray Davis includes the following quote from Waugh's unpublished story:

'Here he tended a dish-washing machine until after a few weeks, he moodily burned the place to the ground. He found the blaze exhilarating, a notable experience in a life sadly lacking in such spectacles, and when taxed with the matter, proudly avowed its authorship. Eminent authorities testified at his trial. The charges of multiple manslaughter were reduced to plain arson and he was committed to the new experimental prison which was just opening at Mountjoy Castle, the ancestral home of a one-legged V.C. who was evicted to receive him.'

The words 'taxed' and 'authorship' jump out at me. I can't help thinking that Mountjoy Castle is effectively Piers Court rather than Malfrey. The one-legged V.C. that gets evicted is one version of Evelyn Waugh - the war hero - and he's replaced by another - the arsonist. In any case, we have our first fire. So let's mark it with appropriate imagery.

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What happens next? Let me paraphrase Robert Murray Davis. The Governor of the prison and the Minister of Welfare congratulate Miles on being the first successful product of Mountjoy and inform him of his new job in the Euthanasia Service. RMD quotes the manuscript:

"A position has been found for you in our neighbouring town. You will be janitor at the Euthanasia Ward."
"You are now an integral part of Welfare", said the Minister. "We have put your foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. It is there for you to climb, not competitively of course but by natural (Service) stages. In a year or two you may move up to Voluntary Sterilization, perhaps even to Compulsory Sterilization, a department which demands the highest qualities of Service. Who knows one day you may even become Minister. Ha, ha."
"Ha, ha, ha ha", said the Governor.


Miles spends a month at the Health Centre in an unnamed city, meets a girl whose red flame-like beard is the result of Voluntary Sterilization, and, rendered inactive by a strike, walks to Mountjoy, burns it to the ground, and returns refreshed to the Centre. Love flourishes between Miles and the whiskered Pamela, partly because her red beard reminds him of flames.

Pertinent to this are the following quotes from Evelyn Waugh's letters of early 1950. To Nancy Mitford in January: '
Gas chambers were not a Nazi invention. All 'Progressives' like Lord Ponsonby believed in them and called it Euthanasia and had a Society all the Fabians belonged to simply to build gas chambers and that is what Health Centres are for besides castrating men and sterilizing women and giving French letters to children. Didn't you know?'

Good job Waugh added: 'Didn't you know' to his penultimate sentence. Otherwise one might think he was being serious. Don't you know?

And to Nancy in August: 'You can have no idea, living as you do in lively theatrical circles when you come here, of the awful flat dreariness of England under Welfare.'

Evelyn Waugh was not a fan of the Welfare State, then. Particularly as it was dependent on HIS
Brideshead and Loved One income. Burn it down! Not the Welfare State, even clever Evelyn couldn't manage that. Just his own house. It's called cutting off your nose to spite your face, something that Evelyn had been no stranger to since Oxford drinking days. In any case, we have our second fire:

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I should say in passing that Evelyn did have a history of burning books. The manuscript of his first novel,
The Temple at Thatch, went into a school boiler in 1925. And he accidentally burned much of his father's library after falling into a drunken sleep, cigar presumably in hand, in his parents' home in Highgate in 1935. As Evelyn later put it in a magazine article: 'I inadvertently set the house on fire, destroying the carefully garnered fruits of a lifetime of literary friendships.'

Robert Murray Davis describes the next section of 'A Pilgrim's Progress' as follows:
'The third chapter is a single scene in which the Minister of Welfare, his public relations staff, and the gruesome Miss Flower tell Miles of the plan to have him lecture throughout the country as evidence that the new penology is successful and to display the model of the new Mountjoy. Going beyond the recent Festival of Britain's architectural form, an Egg in a Box, this is a Box in an Egg. The staff rejects Miles' plan to marry Pamela, he their plan to marry him to Miss Flower, in a paired series of No's which conclude the chapter.'

Relevant to this, surely, is the following paragraph written to Penelope Betjeman in January, 1950:
'I have had a year of great suffering because last Easter I made a penitential vow to accept every popish invitation to lecture for a year. At first it was easy because I had built up over the years a fine iron curtain by curt refusals. But it leaked out and I have had an autumn and winter of unspeakable boredom culminating in a 'Book Lovers Week End' at Grayshott. Next Sunday I speak at Middlesborough and Leicester. There are those who like the sound of their own voices. Not me.'

This is a little perverse. Miles Plastic was to lecture about the success of the Welfare State, something the protagonist and the author did not believe in. However, Evelyn's miserable experience was while lecturing on something he really did believe in - Roman Catholicism. The reason that Evelyn may have found this story so difficult to write at length, or with a light touch, was that he was drawing on his own experience, fine, but then using it to put over an ideological point. Some such disconnect seems to have disturbed the fictional flow.

RMD:
'Chapter four summarizes Miles lecture tour; reproduces his orthographically heterodox letter to Pamela, whose beard again reminds him of flame; and recounts the incineration, under a full moon, of the Bevan City Hostel, Miss Flower, and the model.'

Picture Evelyn at the end of a lecture, sitting in the 'Bevan City Hostel' on the outskirts of Grayshott/Middlesborough/Leicester, visibly aged by his latest lecturing experience, itching to set fire to himself, his immediate surroundings, the whole unsatisfactory world. That's what Evelyn might have written about if he'd stuck to the methods that had been so successful for him in his earlier fiction.

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Moreover, here are Waugh's non-fictional words, written to wife Laura (called 'Whisker' in this same letter of July 26, 1950) after what Martin Stannard calculates to have been a 36-hour drinking bout. He had been dressed as a sailor for a ball given by Deborah Devonshire, Nancy Mitford's sister. But at 5am in the morning he had turned up (looking grotesque, apparently) at the party given by Ann Rothermere.
'Next day woke rather drunk and kept happily drinking all the morning...Jolly drinking in hot afternoon. Went to sleep and woke up sad and from then on all euphoria departed and melancholy, insomnia, nervous nausea, lack of appetite, sore eyes, breathlessness and other symptoms set in and got worse. A sad lonely Saturday, a sadder lonelier Sunday. A Monday of despair.'

A sad lonely Saturday. Evelyn fidgets with something small and hard which he finds in his pocket...

A sadder lonelier Sunday. The small hard thing is identified as his cigar lighter...

A Monday of despair. Evelyn presses the catch and instantly, temptingly, tantalisingly, there bursts out a tiny flame.

How does 'A Pilgrim's Progress' end, if I've not given that away already?

The scene shifts to the Ministry, where officials are attempting to deal with the loss of Miss Flower, the more serious question of replacing the model, and the still more detrimental association in the public mind of Mountjoy and fire. Their solution to the last problem is to ship Miles Plastic to America,
'where he is last seen entrained in the Midwest, passing numerous wooden houses, awaiting a full moon, and bearing a box of matches'.

Something of a surprise ending that, shipping Miles off to America. But maybe Evelyn wrote it because he'd arranged a trip to America to take place as soon as he'd finished the story. He completed the draft on October 3. Just before that, on September 27, he'd written to Nancy Mitford:

'Well, next week I take Laura to New York for a fortnight. I originally planned the trip as a stimulant for her after childbirth but now it is I who need it the more. It is the most wonderful health resort in the world. I look to it to revivify me. In fact at the moment I am like a patient lying comatose waiting for the doctor to come round with his needle.'

Here is a photograph of Evelyn Waugh in America. Though it's from 1947, I dare say nothing much had changed for Evelyn there by autumn 1950. Cigar in hand, relaxed and going with the flow of small talk? Maybe...

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Or maybe not...

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Robert Murray Davis suggests that MIles would go on setting fire after fire whenever boredom overlapped a full moon.
'His condition was pathological, the (cheering) effects of the arson on him brief, his condition perhaps curable by the presence of Pamela, whose flame-like beard provides an adequate substitute as long as they are together.'

So maybe Evelyn didn't set fire to anything when he was in America because he had Laura by his side.

A few more general points about the first draft of the story, and Waugh in 1950, before we see where Evelyn took the story prior to its publication in 1953.

1) Waugh gives us Miles Plastic's private - indeed psychotic - response to the conditions which the State has created. But they resemble Waugh's own near-psychotic response to his own life, which he experiences as barely tolerable tedium. He may sometimes think it's the fault of the Welfare State and its system of taxation, but clearly the malaise lies closer to home. One would have thought that Waugh's upbringing - via a tolerant household, a relatively enlightened public school and wonderful Oxford - would have been a route to fulfilment and happiness. But apparently not.

2) MIles Plastic was given an education which featured
'halls adorned with Picassos', long periods of 'Constructive Play' and he never lacked the 'requisite cubic feet of air'. His diet was balanced and on the first Friday of every month he was 'psychonalysed'. Yet, as Robert Murray Davis points out, the conditioning fails. Evelyn Waugh was given an education which featured the gleaming spires of Oxford, the requisite number of drinking buddies, a range of lovers, and a fairly easy entrée into one of the most sought after and exclusive professions. Yet his conditioning failed too. At least that's what one would conclude from reading the angsty bits of his 1950 diary.

In the story, as RMD puts it:
'Programmed Dulness has reduced politics, art, private life, even dress to grey and spiritless flatness'. But why was Evelyn apparently the victim of grey and spiritless flatness? He had been raised pre-Welfare, and even in the very year in question had enjoyed access to the fruits of Renaissance Europe, the classical Middle East and fashionable New York. Centuries of civilisation in the palm of his hand. Yet all Evelyn could do was vegetate in between luxury trips.

3) George Orwell needs to be mentioned. As we've seen
here, Nineteen Eighty-Four was in part a response to Waugh's Brideshead Reviisted, both featuring female protagonist's called Julia. Waugh met Orwell once (or twice) in 1949, shortly after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which Waugh had written a letter of appreciation about. Orwell died in February 1950 and it seems quite reasonable to suggest that Waugh wanted to respond to his death and/or his literary legacy.

Winston Smith works in The Ministry of Truth rewriting history books to conform to the state's ever-changing version of truth. Miles Plastic is given a job in Euthanasia in the MInistry of Welfare. Miles Plastic, despite his name, is not as bendable as Winston Smith. His Julia (called Pamela in the draft, Clara in the published story) is taken away from him by the equivalent of Big Brother and his response is to strike back.

The trouble is, Waugh was not able to invest his vision with the necessary energy and invention. Why not? Well, the drinking binges must have taken it out of him, for a start. But, as I said earlier, he seems to have been intent on taking aspects of his experience and twisting them in order to make the political points he wanted to. Which does not encourage flow.

Or was it something else that sunk his story? It seems that I need to go over it again from another angle.


TWO


Communications with A.D. Peters, his literary agent, reveal that Waugh revisited 'A Pilgrim's Progress' several times.

Before leaving for New York on October 7, 1950, Waugh said it's beginning was better than its end. From New York he wrote saying that a final version would be twice as long as the one they were trying to sell. Back from New York in November, he reported that he was revising the story and much expanding it. In March 1951, he promised to work on the story
‘about the youth in the Euthanasia trade’. And then in November 1952, he sent three typed copies of a 9,000 word story 'Love Among the Ruins’, which was the final version of the old story. He suggested it was improved though not flawless, but that he could do nothing more with it.

Although I can't be sure whether the aspects of the final story I'm about to discuss were written in autumn 1950, spring 1951 or autumn 1952, I'm placing the discussion here as it relates to what happened to its author in summer 1950. That's when Evelyn and Laura had their seventh and last child, Septimus.

Brief resumé: during April of that year, as I say above, Waugh went abroad to France and Italy, leaving Laura at home. She was seven months pregnant by then. He returned to England in late May. Laura soon disappeared to Pixton for her confinement. According to Martin Stannard, Waugh
'settled into a period of depression among servants and younger children, correcting the proofs of Helena'.

Laura's baby was late. Waugh invited Cyril Connolly to visit him at Piers Court, then he went off to speak at the Hague and Amsterdam as part of the Holland Festival. Returning to England, the baby was by then seriously overdue and even Laura's tough old mother was concerned. Waugh still didn't visit Pixton. Instead, he moved to Hyde Park Hotel for his London season. From White's he wrote to Laura on July 4, a letter which contains these gems:

'Darling, I am so very sorry to learn that you are still bearing your great burden... The Dutch not only have soup for luncheon but have two helpings of it... I have got much fatter... Debo is giving a fancy-dress river party so I must go and get an admiral's uniform fitted... I hope Bridget has forgiven me for being so drunk and your ma for (my) being so sour with hangover.'

And on July 8, he wrote again, this time from the Hyde Park Hotel:

'Darling, I look eagerly in the columns of The Times but every day am disappointed. I am very sorry for you in this tedious wait, but rejoice you are with your family and with a puppy to keep you amused... Ann Rothermere is giving a rival ball on the same night as Debo... I will come to Pixton soon. I am longing to see you.'

Septimus was born on 9 July. A week later, Waugh finally went to Pixton and stayed for two days before returning to London for a party.

'I did love seeing you. Do come back, I miss you sorely', wrote Laura.

Then Laura wrote again to Evelyn clarifying that she did want to see him but suggesting that perhaps it wouldn't be such a good idea if her brother Auberon was going to be there.
'The mixture of all the children and him would be intolerable to you'. Laura asked Evelyn to write and describe all his parties.

It's not that easy to decode what was going on between them. Clearly, Evelyn did not like the idea of being with his wife during childbirth. Indeed, he was not present at the birth of any of their children. Just as clearly, he did not get on with Laura's young brother, Auberon, who lived at Pixton. In fact, they had always detested each other, Auberon having begged Laura not to marry Evelyn. Less clearly, the letters that Evelyn wrote are intended to be loving, supportive and to make Laura smile. Though I don't suppose they always hit the spot.

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OK, now let's switch to Clara and Miles, always bearing Evelyn and Laura in mind. The formers' story in
Love Among the Ruins is so clunkingly plotted that several of the following paragraphs end with caveats.

Miles meets Clara when she is queuing for Euthanasia. She's beautiful and Miles likes her beard as well. The luxurious growth came about when Clara, a dancer, took voluntary sterilisation on the advice of her teachers so that her career wouldn't be destroyed by her one day becoming pregnant. (Alas, the beard in the final version is 'a long silken corn-gold beard, as opposed to the red flame-like beard of 'A Pilgrim's Progress'. So it's less easy to understand why Miles likes it so much.)

In 1934/35, when Evelyn was getting to know Laura, she was studying drama at RADA. It was at this stage in her life that Waugh wooed her, when she was 18 and he 31. In the end, she chose marriage to Evelyn over any career in acting. This is the opposite to what happens in Love Among the Ruins. Clara knows she won't be able to dance anything like as well after having a child. So she agrees to be sterilised. She chooses her own art over a family life.

But the operation goes wrong. Clara doesn't really want the services of Euthanasia, but has been persuaded to turn up by medics, embarrassed by their botched operation with its extraordinary side-effect, and teachers, because the beard would stop Clara from becoming a dancer. (An unconvincing reason for her to be at Euthanasia given that she had no intention of allowing herself to be killed, but it allows Miles to meet her.)

MIles and Clara have an affair. She puts on weight and discovers that, despite the operation, she has become pregnant. This reminds her that she will never be a professional dancer and she weeps. (But the beard was stopping her being a dancer anyway, so why the deep depression at this turn of events?)

Clara disappears. Miles fails to find her until a friend of hers tells him she's in hospital. Miles goes along and discovers she's had two operations. The first was an abortion. The second was the removal of her beard. The skin of the lower half of Clara's face has been replaced with plastic. Miles retches unobtrusively. (This is painful to read. Clara is
happy because, having got rid of the foetus and the beard, she can again hope to become a dancer, which is what she'd always wanted for herself. Selfish and self-absorbed Miles does not even begin to see things from her point of view.)

It's at this point in the final version of the story that Miles goes off to Mountjoy and burns down his old home, the pleasant prison. After which he returns to her bedroom. She says touchingly,
"I was half-afraid you wouldn't come. You seemed cross yesterday." He's still cross. He's only there to watch the report of the fire on her television. And when he's watched that, he leaves her for good with the chilling words: "That's all I came for."

On the face of it, Miles treats Clara as oddly - or badly - as Evelyn treated Laura. On the face of it, Evelyn behaves as destructively in the aftermath of visiting Laura as Miles does. Here are details from the letter Waugh wrote from Piers Court on July 26, having been to Pixton for a couple of days and having returned from there to London for more of the party season.

'Darling, It is nice to be out of London. I wish I were at home. There is no home without you.'

Good start, Evelyn. Keep it up.

'
But I agree that you would do far better to stay away until you are fully well enough to endure the horrors of the children's company.'

Laura had just given birth to Septimus, their seventh child. There were five others still 'below the age of reason', some of them to be found at Piers Court.

'When I left you (still in the great wave of euphoria that began as I escaped Holland, mounted at the jolly London parties, mounted still higher at the news of Septimus's birth and finding you so well and beautiful), I went straight to Highgate exhausted by the hot journey and short tempered.'

One would swear that Evelyn was getting ready to admit he had set fire once again to his parents' house at Highgate. In fact he reported being
'not at all nice to my poor mama and left with the first beginnings of bad conscience and melancholy'.

Thereafter, Evelyn shopped for an admiral's uniform, went to a cocktail party hosted by Graham Greene where he was beastly to a priest... went to a dinner party hosted by the Duke of Westminster's wife... then onto Debo's nautical party... then onto Ann Rothermere's rival party at 5am for breakfast... and the 36-hour binge was well underway.

And after the binge-blaze? A sad, lonely Saturday, a sadder lonelier Sunday. A Monday of despair.

On July 30, after two of his children had been on a visit to Pixton, he wrote again to Laura:

'Harriet and James were not able to give avery coherent account of your condition. They seemed obsessed by the fact that Septimus enjoyed his bath.

I miss you unendurably and go whistling about the house and fields never hearing an answer. My health is a little, well much, better. Yesterday I read
Put Out More Flags and thought it very amusing.

No other news. Let me know if Auberon looks like going and I will come quick.'


So what was Evelyn saying? That his intense summer of 1950 led to
Love Among the Ruins? That Clara's pregnancy owed something to Laura's? That Evelyn was the proud father of his books as well as his children? That even in the midst of life we are in death? That all summer he had been on fire and it was bloody well killing him? That birth and death, he and she, were as one, and that he was BURNING, BURNING, BURNING?

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Please note the beard on Whiskers. I don't want my limited Photoshop skills to go entirely unremarked.

Where was I? I mean before I began this essay. Oh, yes...

Evelyn Waugh finished Helena in March 1950. He began Men at Arms in June 1951. His state of mind in the fifteen months in between was rather strange, as I've tried to suggest. Have I proven my case? You tell me.







Acknowledgements:

1) This essay owes a debt to Martin Stannard, for his description of Waugh's 1950 in
Evelyn Waugh: No Abiding City.

2) And an even bigger debt to Robert Murray Davis for his essay on Love Among the Ruins in
Evelyn Waugh and the Forms of His Time.

3) Thanks also to Jeffrey Manley for reminding me about the existence of 'A PIlgrim's Progress'.