EVELYN WAUGH NEWSLETTER AND
Adam and Evelyn: "The
Balance", The Temple at Thatch, and 666
There are more and stronger parallels between the
Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) and Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) than some partisans of
the latter may care to recognize, but one of the oddest is also, at first
glance, one of the most innocent. De Sade and Waugh both wrote novels
that are now, short of the invention of a chronoscope or -scoop, permanently
lost to literature. Even the titles of these novels were oddly similar,
for de Sade’s was called Les Journées à Florbelle, or The Days at Florbelle,
and Waugh’s The Temple at Thatch. Their fates were even more
similar, for they were both burnt in manuscript, de Sade’s by his own son in
about 1814 and Waugh’s by the author himself in 1925.
Waugh’s novels are almost invariably autobiographical: he unpacked hampers of "fresh, rich experience" for Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), Scoop (1938), Put Out More Flags (1942), and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), from which the above lines are taken, and hampers of slightly less fresh but still rich experience for Brideshead Revisited (1945) and The Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61). Only The Loved One (1948) and Helena (1950) stand outside this autobiographical tradition, and even then not very far. Waugh wrote about what he experienced and that in itself should make The Temple at Thatch, on his own admission, of peculiar interest in the career of a writer who later became a partisan and some might even say bigoted Roman Catholic:
That was written in his public autobiography at a distance of nearly forty years, long after his conversion; this was written in a private letter at no distance at all, and some years before his conversion:
His diary contains several entries referring to the "little novel" but the entry for "Monday 6 October 1924" is perhaps the most interesting, because it offers a second valuable clue to the themes of The Temple at Thatch:
Prima facie, a book that Waugh read with "vast delight" might seem unsuitable to supply a title for a book about "madness and magic". If you sample A Cypress Grove, however, you discover that his reaction not only offers a second valuable clue to the themes of The Temple at Thatch: it also offers a valuable insight into his state of mind at the time. A Cypress Grove, which was first published in 1623, is not a book many young men will read with "vast delight":
Waugh’s delight in sentiments like those seems an obvious foreshadowing of the themes of Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies and also, of course, of his attempted suicide in 1925. A Cypress Grove is described in one history of English literature as "the fullest exposition of Drummond’s Christian Platonism" but it seems to me much more Stoic and pagan than Platonic or Christian, as in the passages just quoted and in the passage from which Waugh considered renaming The Temple at Thatch:
A Cypress Grove is about death, as its title suggests: like the yew in northern paganism, the cypress in southern paganism was a symbol of death and mourning. But William Drummond’s lapidary prose and book about death are much less famous than another seventeenth-century writer’s lapidary prose and book about death, and if Waugh was familiar with the former one would expect him to be familiar with the latter. He was, in fact, and the proof of that is another example of the autobiography in his writing. Waugh considered renaming The Temple at Thatch from a phrase in Drummond; in "The Balance" (1925), an early, experimental, and autobiographical short-story, he name-checked the other and much more famous seventeenth-century writer. Or rather, he did not, because the other writer is so famous that only the title of his book about death was needed. The story’s hero, Adam, has gone to an antiquarian bookseller to raise some money by selling his books:
Hydriotaphia, or "Urn-Burial", was published in 1658 and written by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), another soi disant Christian Platonist who seems to me much more Stoic and pagan than Platonist or Christian, although Plato does appear in the passage from which Mr. Macassor’s "noble phrase" is taken:
Waugh was perhaps mocking Browne’s fame and reputation through Mr. Macassor, but if he took "vast delight" in A Cypress Grove he seems likely to have taken some delight in Hydriotaphia too, and the way he wove what must have been his own reading into "The Balance" is another example of the autobiography in his writing. If he wrote about an undergraduate experiencing madness and magic in The Temple at Thatch, this and the evidence of all his other writing suggest that, as an undergraduate, he himself experienced madness and magic. In fact, we have proof that he experienced madness as an undergraduate:
And The Temple at Thatch is not the only piece of strong if indirect evidence that he also experienced magic as an undergraduate. Publication of The Complete Short Stories has now introduced many readers for the first time not only to "The Balance" but also to "Unacademic Exercise: A Nature Story". It was published in 1923 in Oxford’s undergraduate magazine The Isis and describes how four undergraduates perform a ceremony to transform one of their number into a werewolf:
The story is interesting for more than its theme: it ends prematurely with a note "The rest omitted owing to blind stupidity of editor and printer", which may suggest deliberate censorship, and the initials of three of the undergraduates cover the first four letters of the alphabet: Dick Anderson; Billy Donne; Craine. This leaves "E" for the unnamed narrator. Evelyn, perhaps? And is it stretching things too far to note that Craine, the disturbingly knowledgable primum mobile of the story, has a name rather like the French crâne, or skull? Perhaps it is, but it raises an echo from a much later work by Waugh also set in Oxford and describing the life of an undergraduate who at one point sits in a friend’s room reading a book about a form of lycanthropy:
Lady Into Fox (1922) was a popular novel by the writer David Garnett (1892-1981), and the undergraduate reading it is Charles Ryder in Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. Earlier in the novel, when Cousin Jasper is engaged in his "Grand Remonstrance", a crâne or skull is among the litany of his complaints about Charles’s extravagance:
This "mottoe" mentioned so fleetingly
in parenthesis in fact gives its name to the entire first section of Brideshead and has been significant in mysticism
and the occult for centuries. The French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), for example, used it in 1630 and
1640 for paintings of classical figures examining a mysterious tomb.
The latter painting is also known as Les Bergers
d’Arcadie, or The Shepherds of Arcadia,
and the tomb it shows was traced, before its recent demolition, to those
heterodox regions of southern France in which various popular works have
located descendants of Jesus Christ and even his mummified corpse. The Knights Templar are always involved in
these theories about Christ and secret societies, and is it fanciful to see
some reference to them in the title of Waugh’s lost novel?
These are lines from "The Balance", the early, experimental, and autobiographical short story that may now contain the best surviving clues to the locale of The Temple at Thatch. The story was written in 1925 shortly after Waugh burnt the manuscript of The Temple at Thatch and in some ways it anticipates Vile Bodies, which itself looks back to The Temple at Thatch in at least one important way. The hero of "The Balance" is called Adam Doure and has a beautiful girlfriend called Imogen Quest. The hero of Vile Bodies is called Adam Fenwick-Symes and during his work as a gossip-columnist he invents a beautiful girl called Imogen Quest:
If Imogen Quest were based on a real person, it is reasonable that she should have been single in 1925, when Waugh wrote "The Balance", and married by 1930, when he wrote Vile Bodies. Perhaps she also appeared in The Temple at Thatch, whose fate may have inspired the incident in Vile Bodies when Adam, returning from Paris, has the manuscript of his autobiography confiscated and burnt by customs officials at Dover:
The loss of the manuscript is as heavy a blow to Adam as Harold Acton’s "courteous but chilling" response to The Temple at Thatch had been to Waugh. In chapter nine of his autobiography A Little Learning (1964), entitled "In Which Our Hero’s Fortunes Sink Very Low", he wrote of how he burnt the manuscript after receiving Acton’s letter:
Shortly afterwards he attempted suicide, like the hero of "The
Later Adam visits Oxford, his alma mater:
Finally, a party of young men and women arrive at Thatch for food and malicious gossip about Adam:
From these references, Thatch seems to be a country house like Brideshead in Brideshead
Revisited or Hetton in A Handful of Dust or
even, as a place of exile for youngsters entangled in unsuitable love
affairs, Blandings Castle in P.G. Wodehouse’s novels.
This slightly contradicts what Waugh says of Thatch in A Little Learning:
"a property of which nothing was left except an eighteenth-century
classical folly". Then again Waugh also expressed a possibly
factitious uncertainty about what the hero got up to in the folly, where
"he set up house and, I think, practised black
magic". If Thatch and what went on there were based on a real
place and real activities, the devout Catholic Waugh who wrote A Little
Learning in 1964 might have decided to disguise the former and express
uncertainty about the latter.
Black magic appears when Adam visits an unpopular acquaintance, Ernest Vaughan, at Oxford:
And remember that Mr. Macassor, the manipulative bookseller to whom Adam sells his small library, was reading "a treatise on Alchemy" when Adam called at his shop. This enforced sale of books was autobiographical too: when he fell into debt at Oxford Waugh had been forced to sell his library, as described by the historian of art (later Sir) Peter Quennell (1905-93) in his autobiography The Marble Foot (1976):
Quennell was a close friend of Waugh’s at the time but later estranged him and became a target of his malicious gossip, perhaps because of an insufficiently enthusiastic review he wrote of Waugh’s biography of Rossetti. At Oxford, when the friendship still flourished, Waugh was presumably aware of Quennell’s interest in the occult:
These Oxonian experiences were all translated into "The Balance", as were his experiences after he graduated. Adam Doure is an alumnus of Oxford studying art at a college in London who contemplates a suicide glossed by a "mottoe" in malgrammatical Latin:
The phrase is an adaptation of the gladiatorial salute to the emperor and
literally translates as "Hail immortal Empress!
The-one-about-to-die they-salute thee": moriturus
is a singular masculine future particle but the verb salutant
is plural. The Latin should probably read "AVE IMPERATRIX IMMORTALIS,
MORITURUS TE SALUTAT", or "Hail immortal Empress!
The-one-about-to-die salutes thee", and although the mistake was
undoubtedly intentional and self-mocking it is so elementary as to strain
The film would still seem of great interest to scholars of Waugh and may
shed new light on the dabblings in the occult that
certainly went on among the undergraduates of Waugh’s day and that Waugh
himself may have been involved in. This might be true even if
the film was a jeu d’esprit
like the much more famous film The Scarlet Woman, which was about a
plot to return England to the Catholic fold. Waugh wrote the script,
whose tone was "akin to that of Decline and Fall", and played "the villainous Dean of
Balliol", who attempts to convert the Prince of Wales but is thwarted
when the Prince falls in love with the Scarlet Woman of the film’s title, an
evangelical nightclub singer played, in her first role, by Elsa Lanchester of Bride of Frankenstein fame.
This plot was a sly satire on the real Dean of Balliol, "Sligger" Urquhart, who was Catholic, homosexual, and
a snob and whom the undergraduate Waugh, rejected by Sligger
as neither rich nor aristocratic, had regularly regaled with the lyrics
"The Dean of Balliol sleeps with men", sung under his window to the
tune of "Here we go gathering nuts in May".
References to The Temple at Thatch in The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, edited Michael Davie:
Sunday 22 June 1924
Monday 21 July 1924
Wednesday 3 September 1924
Saturday 6 September 1924
Sunday 7 September 1924
Monday 6 October 1924
Monday 15 December 1924
Wednesday 17 December 1924
APPENDIX II: Translations of "thatch" in major European languages
In French "thatch" is chaume; in German Strohdach (literally "straw-roof": Dach itself is a cognate of "thatch" but means simply "roof"); in Spanish paja (literally "straw") or barda; in Italian the somewhat cumbersome copertura di paglia (literally "covering of straw"); in Latin stramentum; and in (modern) Greek, as in Italian, the cumbersome kalamine/akhyrine stege (literally "a reed/straw roof").
The Scarlet Woman: An
Though he was employed by
director Alexander Korda, Evelyn Waugh wrote only
one screenplay that turned into a film.
The Scarlet Woman has received little attention, partly because
it is an early, minor work, partly because the film has been rare. Recently Charles Linck
made The Scarlet Woman available on videotape, so that I (and probably
others) have been able to see it for the first time. The Scarlet Woman is no masterpiece,
but it is well worth watching, partly because it features Elsa Lanchester years before her unforgettable performance as
the Bride of Frankenstein, but mostly because the story is by Evelyn
Waugh. The Scarlet Woman
belongs to a crucial period, 1924-25, when Waugh left Oxford to hone his talent
as a writer. Recapitulating ideas
introduced in Waugh’s juvenilia, The Scarlet Woman also anticipates
themes developed in more mature fiction.
The Scarlet Woman is, moreover, a reflection of Waugh’s
thinking in the mid 1920s, an expression of opinion
about everything from brother Alec to Evelyn’s own sexuality.
Evelyn Waugh's Immortal Souls
Robbery Under Law, the product of Evelyn
Waugh's two-month journey through Mexico, has perhaps suffered from its
unavoidable comparison with Graham Greene's The Lawless Roads for,
until its publication by the Akadine Press in 1999,
the book had remained out of print since 1939. Originally commissioned
by Clive Pearson, the son of the founder of the Mexican Eagle oil company, as
an account of President Cardenas' nationalisation
of the mostly American- and British-owned oil industry, Robbery Under Law
has generally been dismissed as a transparently tendentious apologia prepared
on behalf of American and British capital. Evelyn Waugh himself
contributed to this perception--and to the book's obscurity--when he
explained that the book "dealt little with travel and much with
politics" and for this reason should be left in oblivion.
Much of the basis of Waugh's objection to this passage is that its author has denied the universality of God to humanity and has done so on the basis of wealth and caste: since the Indians are a "pestilential lot with whom no tourist cares to rub shoulders" it is "absurd to pretend that they are worshipping the same God as well-fed, expensively educated Americans and Europeans". For Waugh, the symbolism of the apparition at Guadalupe to an Indian in the sixteenth century is telling:
The modern, post-colonial mind might have some difficulty in digesting the paternalism which clearly informs this critique, as might the rational mind in digesting a critical explanation reliant upon miracles. The relevant factor is, however, Waugh's belief that all humans possess souls and that these souls are equal before God. It is this point that most readily distinguished Waugh's outlook from the outlooks of many of the other writers who appear in Carey's book. As Carey recognises, Nietzsche's view was that nothing had done more to undermine the natural hierarchy of humanity than the "poisonous Christian doctrine that all souls were equal before God", while D. H. Lawrence considered "most of mankind . . . soulless". For Waugh, there was no such thing as the "man in the street": there were "individual men and women each of whom has an individual and immortal soul, and such beings need to use the street from time to time".
Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared in the July-August
2000 issue of Quadrant (Australia), and it is reprinted by
permission. Saint Juan Diego, the Mexican who witnessed four
apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1531, was canonized on 31 July 2002.
Professor Salwen and the "Ignoble
Deadly Sins Republished
Two comments: first, as you recognize . . . , personal experience could change EW's attitudes (e.g., the portrait of ["Sligger"] Urquhart in the biography of his beloved Ronnie Knox), but such change would not be likely to lead him to retract or to justify his previous behavior: "never apologize, never explain" was always a favorite adage.
Second, as regards my own relationship with my late father-in-law, I'm inclined to think that my having been a student of Classical languages reassured him slightly, compensating for the horror of losing his daughter to a "penniless American" (see what he says about Greek and Latin in A Little Learning). Between the time of our marriage in 1961 and EW's death in 1966 I, in fact, had great fun during my times at Combe Florey, enjoying his company and his jokes hugely. But what a formidable challenge for any would-be son-in-law!
John D'Arms is survived by his wife Teresa and two children, Justin (one of the grandchildren to whom A Little Learning is dedicated) and Helena. (JHW)