The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh
Auberon Waugh says of his father’s diaries: “[They] show that the world of Evelyn Waugh’s novels did, in fact, exist.” The publishers have put this remark at the top of the blurb and deserve praise for seeing that it marks what is undoubtedly a striking fact about the diaries. When Waugh falls short by leaving some zany unexplained, his editor, Michael Davie, steps forward loyally and gives us the gist of the nut in the footnote or the appendix: the result, when author and editor are both straining like greyhounds in the slips, is as mad as the mysteries of the wildest religion, but with the huge advantage of being true. Waugh’s problem as a novelist, one sees suddenly, was to find even standing room only for the members of a society that can never have been equaled for eccentricity in the history of the world:
“[Sir Francis Laking], third and last baronet. Suffered from lisp; after his father died, he answered the telephone by saying: ‘Thir Guy Laking ith dead. Thith ith Thir Franthith thpeaking.’ Became secretary to Tallulah Bankhead…drank himself to death on yellow chartreuse, aged twenty-eight.” Bequeathed to Miss Bankhead “all my motor-cars”—but there were none left.
“Mr. Justice Phillimore was trying a sodomy case and…went to consult Birkenhead [the Lord Chancellor]. ‘Excuse me, my lord, but could you tell me—What do you think one ought to give a man who allows himself to be buggered?’ ‘Oh, thirty shillings or two pounds—anything you happen to have on you.’ ”
“[Hamish Guthrie]…married four times; all four wives attended his funeral.”
“Went to a quarry with four dogs where Mrs. G. bought mountains of mustard-colored stone from a deaf man with second sight who rode a tricycle.”
“Captain Hyde-Upward; it was his custom to polish and clean out his pipe while standing naked at his bedroom window.”
“I ran straight into a wall and found chalked on it ARE YOU WASHED IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB most disturbing.”
“[Earl of Rosse] said to me, ‘What is this hall I am in?’ I told him it was hired for the occasion. ‘What an extraordinary arrangement and who are all these people actresses I suppose or what?’ I told him that they were my friends. ‘Indeed and are any of them anyone one has ever heard of?’ I think his manners are not good.”
“Dawkins, R.M….professor of Byzantine archaeology and modern Greek at Oxford…observed by Osbert Lancaster perched in the upper branches of a large chestnut tree in Exeter College garden. Ordered his suits by postcard from the general store of a small village in Northern Ireland.”
“The 9th Baron Berners,…a composer, thought well of by Stravinsky; …had a piano built into the back of his Rolls-Royce.”
Hundreds more, but those should be enough to get us tricycling down the right road. And anyone who wishes may have the extra joy of a special treasure hunt, finding here, there, and everywhere his favorite Waugh characters as they were in reality (what genius to make them even more astonishing in prose than they were in the flesh!).
Here’s Apthorpe, the comic triumph of Men at Arms, a schoolboy with Waugh in 1919; his name is stored away for thirty-five years until his moment comes. And Apthorpe serves under Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, who proves to be Brigadier St. Clair Morford and tells Waugh in all earnest how Churchill bucked up the French when the German tanks were overrunning France: “The men have to get out sometimes to pee, don’t they? Shoot ‘em then.” Some famous Waugh characters were served up hot from the life: Lady Circumference and the corrupt headmaster at the school at which Waugh taught after leaving Oxford get into his first novel, Decline and Fall, without delay; so does the most lovable of his creations, Captain Grimes, in life a sodomite fellow teacher who “was expelled from Wellington [College], sent down from Oxford…forced to resign his commission in the army…has left four schools through sodomy and one through his being drunk six nights in succession.”
For many readers, the terrifying Mr. Todd (A Handful of Dust), the Dickens fan in the South American jungle, is Waugh’s most memorable creation, and they will find him under the name of Christie in the notes made by Waugh for his travel books. And, as once we leave the jungle to follow Waugh through so-called civilization it will be impossible to find a way back, here is the moment to remark that the dense mass of travel notes is work of extraordinary quality. A sort of shorthand in which neither punctuation nor construction play much part, it takes on repeatedly the intensity of an interior monologue and is the closest Waugh ever came to poetry. Here are some scraps from Ethiopia:
Empty bottles for holy water…. Descended precipitous path volcanic boulders surrounded naked boys covered sores also baboons…. Greeted fine bearded monk yellow sunshade unable read…. Books produced wrapped pretty shawls from whitewood cupboard…. Holy of Holies contained fumed oak tabor, old clothes, dust, umbrellas, suitcases, teapot, slop pail, hopeless confusion. Small shrine, prettier tabor containing cross that fell from heaven. Walked to look for baboons….
Ten dancing deacons with praying sticks and rattles swaying and swinging…. One woman with no face…whole scalp had slipped sideways. Ugly.
Slept badly. Blue birds.
To “protect…the reader from boredom” in these travels, Mr. Davie “removed occasional sentences” and “omitted altogether the staccato notes [Waugh] kept on his return journey to British Guiana in 1961-2.” This provides an opportunity to remark that any boredom which attaches to these diaries (as boredom always must to a degree in every man’s diary) is not in the brilliant travels but in the homely rows of lords and ladies to whom Waugh attached himself when he was climbing the ladder in his youth. The peer with a piano in his Rolls can stand comparison with ten dancing deacons and their rattles; take out the piano and there is only a peer.
There is an opposite extreme to the exotic triumph of the travel notes, and it is of the same high quality. It consists of a military memorandum written after the British flight from Crete in 1941—a shambles as harrowing as the retreat of Sir John Moore’s army to La Coruña in 1809 or Wellington’s to Portugal after his failure to take Burgos in 1812. Though “not intended for any official purpose,” according to Mr. Davie, this splendid piece of writing follows the rules of the game and is written in the dry, toneless manner of an official report. The author’s rage and despair (Waugh was in Crete with the Commandos), his disgust with all ranks from generals to privates, appear very rarely in the written words but imbue the whole report with violence and emotion. Whether it is an accurate report or not is a question for the military historian; for the literary man, the chosen form makes for an incomparable triumph.
The memorandum is followed closely by a day-to-day account of Waugh’s service under his friend Randolph Churchill in the British Mission to Tito and the partisans in Yugoslavia: one may assert safely enough that the only reason “Randy” got the job was that he was the prime minister’s son and thus, in the ancient tradition of a king’s lodging his son in the court of an ally, a token of his father’s earnest in acknowledging the partisan regime. The loathing that Waugh developed for this absurd, incompetent creature makes for another high point in the Diaries: the turbulent stream of well-conducted poison that pours over “Randy” is all the more impressive by contrast with the self-controlled hatred of the memorandum. The undying vindictiveness of which Waugh was capable is exemplified many years later in an entry remarking on the doctors’ removal of one of “Randy’s” lungs:
“It was announced that the trouble was not ‘malignant’…[and] I remarked that it was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.”
The reader will gather from this example that although the Diaries are full of well-bred ladies and gentlemen, there are few who could be described as civilized, least of all the author. Perhaps that is why the long section covering the war is so extremely good. It is made even better by the fact that although Waugh was as brave as a Zulu warrior, one of the war aims of the British was to win the war without him. He and Mr. Davie give examples of the ingenuity and trickery shown by Waugh’s senior officers in leaving him behind wherever they went, or quietly dropping him into the laps of others. The Diaries show that he never understood why, or rather, they show that he intended to be taken on his own terms—as drunk and disorderly as he pleased, as rude and offensive as he had always been. But he is not the first author whose heart was in an ideal opposite of himself. The good, brave, kindly figure of Guy Crouch-back, the perfect knight of Sword of Honour, was modeled by a man who had no resemblance to him at all but had seen such a figure in his dreams ever since he was a boy.
The Diaries begin when Waugh was a schoolboy and continue into the year before he died. Clearly, the important thing about them is what lies on the table in front of us—789 pages running from 1911 to 1965. But those who are as interested in the character as they are in the diarist and want to assemble an approximate picture of the whole man, will never succeed in doing so unless they balance what Waugh put in against what he left out. The sections he destroyed, the sentences he preferred not to write, are not only fragments of the whole but plain indications of their own importance to him. To put it broadly, what is suppressed explains a great deal of what is expressed—which will not seem a new idea to the psychoanalyst but must be brought forward in weighing the value of the Diaries.
What is expressed is, to a large extent, a fabricated man. In the early days, this creature had the makings of a Crouchback; the piety is present (in High Anglican form) from the first page, as is the vision of a sword of honor and knightly devotion which first reached print in that neglected work, Rossetti, of 1928. A highly sensitive aesthete is present in the school years as well and is expressed in Waugh’s devotion to Francis Crease, whom the Appendix describes as an “unworldly amateur scribe of mysterious origins and effeminate manners….” Crease gave Waugh private lessons in writing technique, introduced him to the art of decorative design, served him tea in beautiful china, and, according to the Diaries, made school life worth living. For many years the decorative arts were Waugh’s main interest, his “favorite biography” Arthur Symons’s Beardsley. Even as late as his Oxford period his friend Harold Acton “thought he might become a minor William Morris, drawing and carpentering and designing stained glass.”
Side by side with this tender boy grows up an armor-plated youngster whose business it is to cover the first with a haughty toughness. This fabricated creature is the only one the Diaries allow us to know, although it is always obvious that such a creature could never have written the prose through which he is presented. It is the business of the toughie to do the strutting, the heavy drinking, the social climbing, and the acts of malice; he is also the clubman, the Commando fighter, the man who scorns his senior officers and makes himself “too unpopular to be employable” (in the words of one of his generals) even in time of war. But it would be wrong, surely, to speak of a dual personality and think of that as an explanation of the character. The toughie is an imposition, as much a private creation as the novels. His value to Waugh is enormous, because Waugh depends on him for protection and display. That the imposition becomes the dominant element eventually is a commonplace matter; the same thing happens in many people’s lives. What is interesting in Waugh’s case is the work he puts into making it and the public acceptance he achieves with it.
It is in this matter that the suppressing of parts of the Diaries is as expressive as what is actually put down. The whole Oxford period was destroyed by Waugh, and it was destroyed because it showed the sensitive coming to maturity and ousting the toughie. He tells us that at school he had avoided homosexual relationships, but Mr. Davie tells us that his “principal attachments” at Oxford were “to other male undergraduates.” To an old school friend he writes that he has “been nearly insane” in his unhappiness and “quite depraved morally,” but there is nothing even to suggest this in the Diaries.
The second important suppression is of any reference to his first marriage. Mr. Davie suggests that it failed because “Neither party had had much experience of the opposite sex,” which may not sound convincing coming after many pages describing riotous parties. But in his autobiography Sir Max Mallowan, the archaeologist, who was at school with Waugh, speaks of him as a contriver and an onlooker rather than a participant (“he had a way of getting others into trouble and himself invariably escaping…an exhibitionist with a cruel nature…”). It is as one who stands on the fringe and looks in that we find him in an extraordinary passage of the Diaries:
I came back to find an amazing orgy in progress. Everyone drunk or pretending drunkenness….——almost naked was being slapped on the buttocks and enjoying herself ecstatically. Every two minutes she ran to the lavatory and as soon as she was out of the room everyone said, “My dear, the things we are finding out about——.’ It was all rather cruel. She looked so awful, with enormous shining legs cut and bleeding in places and slapped rosy in others and her eyes shining with desire. She kept making the most terrible remarks, too, whether consciously or unconsciously I do not know, about blood and grease and to my surprise Olivia saw them all [i.e., grasped their meaning]. These girls must talk a terrible lot of bawdy amongst themselves…. I went to bed, as always, with rather a heavy heart.
Olivia Plunket Greene was a girlfriend with whom Waugh was much in love, and the passage shows Waugh not only as an onlooker but a relatively innocent and high-minded one, so Mr. Davie may be right about Waugh’s inexperience with women: one would only want to add that most women were probably inexperienced with Waugh. It would seem likely that his first wife (who ran away with another man after only a year with Waugh) never realized that the man she had married was not what he seemed to be on the surface. Waugh, too, may have expected a bride very different from what she was. That, at least, is what we are told in A Handful of Dust—that sorrowful tale of a romantic knight betrayed by a commonplace woman.
Mr. Davie tells us that the failure of this marriage was a “bitter humiliation” to Waugh and that thereafter his friends found a “harshness” in him that persisted through his life. The Diaries support this conclusion. Except in the last years, the sensitive hardly ever speaks; the bull-roarer with the ear trumpet does all the talking. There must be no self-exposure, as can be seen from the third and last major suppression, which is the period of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. This fine study of a paranoiac novelist has no counterpart in the Diaries: presumably, the fact was even more humiliating than the fiction. In the collection of essays called Evelyn Waugh and His World, the editor, David Pryce-Jones, speaks sarcastically of J.B. Priestley’s comment on Pinfold: “He will break down again, and next time may never find a way back to his study. The central self he is trying to deny, that self which grew up among books and authors and not among partridges and hunters, that self which even now desperately seeks expression in ideas and words, will crack if it is walled up again within a false style of life.”
A dangerous comment to quote simply in order to make Mr. Priestley look silly. The evidence of the Diaries, both in expression and suppression, speaks for Mr. Priestley’s percipience. Waugh himself mentions the matter as “my late lunacy,” and though this is largely a figure of speech, there are entries that are much more than that. There is the “curious illusion” of having “handled an ornamental serpentine bronze pipe” supposedly attached to a Victorian wash basin—but there is no such pipe. “Clocks barely moving. Has half an hour past [sic]? no five minutes” is certainly owing to the shock of hearing of the sudden death of his old friend Duff Cooper, but how explain his having “showered” the widow, whom he loved dearly, with “letters of condolence beginning ‘My dear Diana’ and signed ‘Yours sincerely Evelyn Waugh’?” But the strangest of all the entries was made twelve years before the Pinfold period, when the buzz bombs were threatening London:
I have accordingly given orders for the books I have been keeping at the Hyde Park Hotel to be sent to Piers Court [his country house]. At the same time I have advocated my son [Auberon, aged six] coming to London. It would seem from this that I prefer my books to my son. I can argue that firemen rescue children and destroy books, but the truth is that a child is easily replaced while a book destroyed is utterly lost; also a child is eternal; but most that I have a sense of absolute possession over my library and not over my nursery.
This is a perfect example of what Adler called “the logic of the insane.” But it also has the smell of the impostor’s bravado, carried to an extreme of absurdity. The sensitive is not only trampled underfoot but treated as deserving of revenge.
It can be argued that there is no reason why a diary should tell everything about a man; most diaries don’t. It can also be argued that when bits that are suppressed in a diary—the first marriage; Pinfold—are given to the reader as fiction, and first-rate fiction at that, it is silly to complain. These would be good objections if Waugh’s Diaries were poor stuff, but the fact is that they are remarkable and present a period picture that no other diaries have given us as yet. The work of the onlooker has been splendidly done, no matter how prejudiced and mischievous his views may be. If one demands even more from the Diaries it is because they could have ranked with the very greatest, and one feels vexed that they should have fallen short.
There are no stated criteria for diaries; they can be what the diarist chooses to make them. We don’t expect politicians’ diaries to be much more than the transitory politics of their day and we don’t expect the whole truth from the diaries of bird watchers. But we ask everything or nothing from personal diaries, and everything is what we get from the great ones, such as Countess Tolstoy’s, Pepys’s, and Boswell’s. Their authors’ truthfulness about themselves is also to be found in great confessional works such as Augustine’s, or in the “essays” of Montaigne where truth is the very foundation of the structure. In all these, the shortcomings of the authors are of first importance—their fears, their weaknesses, their shames. We allow no selectiveness—no admitting to some sins while hushing up others, no personal decisions as to what is too ignominious to include and what is not. And the more we get of everything, the greater the diarist is likely to grow in our esteem.
Mr. Davie assures us that Waugh’s Diaries were “not written for publication.” But this has no bearing on our opinion of them, and what we miss in them are Waugh’s most valuable characteristics as well as his shortcomings. “The engagement is announced of the youngest Clifford sister to a low-born man with no legs and two wives”—this is all very well, but can we guess from it that the author was extremely good to others (when he wanted to be), generous with his help and his money, and full of respect for those whose standards of judgment were kinder and gentler than his own? These are all facts that are certain to come out in the future—for it is clear that we have not finished with Waugh by any means and that a large amount of material has still to emerge. Most of it, one would guess, will be of a warmer nature than what we find in the Diaries; until then, we must make do with a harsh life and a lonely end:
“24 March 1962. White’s [Club]. 7 pm. I sit alone in the hall. A member known to me by sight but not by name, older than I, of the same build, but better dressed, said: “Why are you alone?’ ‘Because no one wants to speak to me.’ ‘I can tell you exactly why; because you sit there on your arse looking like a stuck pig.’ ”