Holy Week of 1937 found Evelyn Waugh—thirty-three years old, solidly established in his literary career, and on the verge of a second marriage—at a Benedictine monastery in Ampleforth, in Yorkshire, where, as he noted in his diary, he whiled away the time “entertaining dumb little boys and monks.” It was not his first sojourn with these particular monks. He had come to Ampleforth before, and would come again, with his old friend Alfred Duggan, a stepson of Lord Curzon whom Waugh had first befriended at Oxford, and whose alcoholism the novelist was, with a touching doggedness, trying to cure—not least in the hopes of returning Duggan to the Catholic faith he had abandoned. (Some of these retreats were more successful than others; on one of them, Duggan appeared to be behaving until he suddenly disappeared, only to be discovered later, in the midst of a major binge, in Scarborough.)
During his prenuptial visit of March 1937, however, Waugh was alone, apart from the dumb boys and monks, and his diary records nothing more dramatic than a visit to Castle Howard, the fabulous country seat that Vanbrugh had designed for the Earls of Carlisle, members of the recusant Howard family, who eventually left it to a cadet branch.
Great country houses forsaken by their loftily titled owners were likely to have been much on Waugh’s mind just then. The preceding summer had seen a wrenching drama played out following the premature death of another of Waugh’s Oxford friends, Hugh Lygon. Along with his older brother, Lord Elmley, “Hughie” had been a glamorous figure at the center of the Hypocrites, the outré “aesthetic” set with whom Waugh fell in not long after he went up at the beginning of 1922. Outrageousness ran in the family: Hughie’s father was the disgraced Earl Beauchamp, who several years before had been forced to resign most of his titles and leave the country when it was revealed—by his vindictive brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster—that he was homosexual. In August 1936 Hughie, whose life after Oxford had failed to gel, died while traveling in Germany, precipitating an anguishing crisis for his father, who was by now living in Venice.
Only months before, when the earl’s estranged wife had also died suddenly, he was intimidated into staying away from the funeral by the threat of arrest on morals charges, a warrant for which had been issued by the Home Office at Westminster’s insistence. Now, devastated by the death of his son, the earl insisted on returning to Madresfield, the great house in Worcestershire he had not seen in six years, in order to attend Hughie’s funeral, at whatever the cost. As it turned out, the Home Office was moved to suspend the warrant, and Beauchamp was allowed to return. He was left in peace during the few extended visits to his ancestral home that he made in the two remaining years of his life.
The better part …