Authors: Paula Byrne
Terence Greenidge later remembered Evelyn’s mother telling him that her son had changed profoundly by this time, that as a child he was loving, fun and trusting, but that something had happened to put him on his guard. Yet he was always, according to Greenidge, ‘joyously, healthily rude, as was the great Dr Johnson’. The combination of guarded watchfulness and unabashed smuttiness may suggest that Evelyn was simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the world in which he found himself.
The bohemian gatherings he attended with Alec were often ‘bottle parties’ in ‘unfashionable areas’. He hankered instead for the statelier world of engraved visiting cards and black velvets. The bohemian set didn’t really suit him. The parties were full of actors, painters, and men just down from the university who had no idea of what to do with their lives. Men, in other words, who were all too like himself.
In his diary he recalled one particularly memorable party at Mrs Cecil Chesterton’s flat in Fleet Street, at which ‘pansies, prostitutes and journalists and struggling actors’ all got ‘quite quite drunk and in patches lusty’. Among the guests he singled out a certain ‘Peter Pusey with whom Hugh Lygon sodomises’. Hugh’s taste for the crime that took its name from the City of the Plain was no secret. Alec, meanwhile, turned up late and a little drunk, then proceeded to carry off ‘the ugliest woman in the room’.
At another party Evelyn was so drunk that he ended up playing football
with the butler’s top hat. Parties in private houses were followed by hard drinking at nightclubs, but there was a seedy and unglamorous feel to it all. All the promise of his Oxford days seemed to have evaporated.
The Scarlet Woman
had been a reprieve, but Evelyn had no prospects. It seemed that all his richer friends had places to go after graduating, whereas he sensed himself becoming a hanger-on on the fringes of the artistic world, or, even worse, a sponger (the kind of character he would represent so mercilessly in the character of John Beaver in
A Handful of Dust
He was yearning for his lost paradise. Spiritually he was still at Oxford. Its lure, the knowledge that the city of dreams was ‘still full of friends’, made him quit art school. Invited to an Oxford party by John Sutro, he accepted gratefully, eager to be reminded of what he was missing. His unexpected attendance was greeted warmly. All the old Hypocrites were there: Harold Acton, Hugh Lygon, Robert Byron, even his first lover Richard Pares. It was a luncheon party that seemed to stretch on for ever, as in the old days. They ate hot lobster, partridges and plum pudding, drank sherry, mulled claret and ‘a strange rum-like liqueur’. Hugh, as usual, was drinking too much. Evelyn left in time for a tea party and then a beer at the New Reform Club with Lord Elmley and Terence Greenidge. A message then came from Hugh, by this time installed in the bar of the Dramatic Society, proposing a trip to Banbury. But instead they reconvened in the old Hypocrites’ rooms, where they drank whisky and watched
The Scarlet Woman
. Evelyn’s recollection of the rest of the evening was hazy: all he could remember was that he got hold of a sword and escaped from Balliol via a window after the college had been locked for the night.
The next morning he started drinking again with Hugh, and then they had lunch together. An umbilical cord connected him still to his alma mater. He found himself dressing as an undergraduate again, sporting the latest fashion of turtleneck sweater and broad trousers. He was delighted with the roll-neck top – it was ‘convenient for lechery because it dispenses with all unromantic gadgets like studs and ties’. The garment also served to hide the boils on the necks of dermatologically challenged young gentlemen.
The Jazz Age had come to Oxford. Cars full of flappers came up from London every weekend. There was a new smart set. They danced to the Harlem Blues and the strains of Gershwin. Evelyn threw himself into the
rowdy, partying atmosphere. He returned every weekend. But he knew that he was becoming self-destructive. He was often in the company of Hugh. Once he was drunk for three days – a condition that for Hugh was perfectly normal. After lunching together they would continue drinking until they were too drunk to stand.
The only way out from this alcoholic spiral was to get a proper job. And the only job that seemed suitable for an Oxford man who had failed to achieve Honours and who had no inclination for either physical labour or further study was schoolmastering. With great reluctance, he began to look for a position.
Before descending into the teaching profession, Evelyn fell in love again. This time, though, it was not with a fellow undergraduate but with an entire family. They were the Plunket Greenes. For Evelyn, they would prove to be the forerunners of the Lygons.
He of course knew David and Richard Plunket Greene from Oxford. They were members of the Hypocrites and very hard to miss: David was six foot seven inches tall and Richard a powerfully built young man. David, a ‘languid dandy devoted to all that was fashionable’, would die a heroin addict at a tragically early age. Coote (Lady Dorothy) Lygon remembered that he took drugs at a time when that was a very fast thing to do. When Hugh brought him home to Madresfield she used to swoon at the very sight of him. She developed a huge crush.
Evelyn became close friends with Richard, eventually serving as best man at his wedding. The boys’ father, Harry, was a singer and their mother a gifted amateur violinist. Harry Plunket Greene was friendly with England’s leading composer, Edward Elgar. He sang the baritone part in the first performance of Elgar’s
Dream of Gerontius
and was the first to sing settings of A. E. Housman’s poems,
A Shropshire Lad
. He frequently appeared in events at Elgar’s Malvern Concert Club. This brought him into contact with the Lygons, who were Malvern’s most famous family and leading patrons of the festival. Elgar was supposed to have composed the most enigmatic of his famous
as a musical portrait of Hugh’s aunt, Mary. When Plunket Greene married Gwen Ponsonby, he came into a family relationship with the Lygons, who were cousins to the Ponsonbys.
David was soon to marry and in short order divorce Babe McGustie,
the gold-digging stepdaughter of a prominent bookie. Richard fascinated Evelyn with his eccentricities and his tinge of melancholy. He was piratical in appearance, sporting earrings and a cravat, while smoking strong, dark tobacco. Evelyn described him as ‘good with boats’ and passionate in the way he threw himself into everything: ‘he brought to the purchase of a pipe or a necktie the concentration of a collector’. One moment he would be a connoisseur of wine, the next a racing motorist, then a jazz lover, and before long an aspiring writer of detective fiction. But he was never a bore with his passions. He brought to each new hobby ‘the infectious absorption of an adolescent’. Not a bore and always amusing: for Evelyn, this was the highest praise.
Evelyn’s admiration of the handsome Plunket Greene brothers in his Oxford years transferred itself into infatuation with their sister, Olivia. He lacked the experience and ‘force of purpose’ to conduct a proper courtship, so the relationship became instead an ‘intimate friendship’ of a kind that established a pattern for a succession of future liaisons with upper-class, sexually unavailable women. The pattern was always the same: ‘doting but unaspiring on my part, astringent on hers’. One cannot help but think of the adventures in unrequited love of Bertie Wooster’s friend Bingo Little.
Harold Acton said that Olivia had ‘minute pursed lips and great goo-goo eyes’. Evelyn considered this description unfair. She was not a conventional beauty (which her mother was), but she was fashionable and graceful, dressing in black and heavily made up with cosmetics that enhanced her enormous eyes in a pixie-like face. Evelyn loved her personality. He thought that she combined ‘the elegance of David with the concentration of Richard’. What drew him to her was the very quality that had drawn him to her brothers: her capacity for passionate but short-lived enthusiasms. She lived every moment to the full.
Some saw a mad streak in her, though for Evelyn this was always tempered by her essential delicacy and fundamental shyness. She did not seek others out: people were drawn to her. Evelyn accepted that she could be a nag and a bully, that she suffered from ‘morbid self-consciousness’ and was ‘incapable of the ordinary arts of pleasing’. Perhaps he loved her because these deficiencies were also his own. ‘A little crazy; truth loving and in the end holy’, she was his first true heterosexual love. But she made him miserable.
Fiercely loyal to those he loved, Evelyn withheld from his autobiography the information that Olivia went on to have a very unhappy life. She became an alcoholic and died a recluse, unmarried. It was no coincidence or mere ill fortune that so many of Evelyn’s friends fell victim to alcoholism: the art of heavy drinking was virtually a prerequisite for his friendship. In sharp contrast to his first male love, Richard Pares, Olivia could hold as much liquor as Evelyn. Like him, she lost her inhibitions when under the influence. Her aura of melancholy made her more like Hugh and Alastair: it added lustre to her beauty, but its corollary was alcoholic dependency and despair.
They met at pubs for lunch and spent days at Underhill. Once he turned up to see her, already drunk, carrying three bottles of champagne under his arm, which they proceeded to consume out of teacups and various pots and other china receptacles that they found around the place. He liked her extremes, her melancholy and wild excesses. They got drunk together, they quarrelled, they read Browning, Plato and Dostoyevsky. She teased him, she loved his intelligence, but she did not want to go to bed with him (even though she was highly sexed, rating her lovers on their performance and counting Paul Robeson among her conquests). ‘A ghost with a glass of gin in her hand’, she was also in love with religion – to a degree that later became maniacal. She once wrote Evelyn a ‘raving sixteen page letter describing a recent visit to heaven’.
Evelyn acknowledged in his autobiography that his feelings for Olivia were a projection of his love for all the Plunket Greenes, who were so different from the Waughs: ‘I had in fact fallen in love with a whole family, and, rather as Mr E. M. Forster describes in
, had focused the sentiment upon the only appropriate member, an eighteen-year-old daughter.’
Harry Greene, whom Evelyn described as a ‘very handsome Irishman’, was only occasionally on the scene, having left to live with his mistress. The person who truly cast a spell over him was the matriarch of this magnetic though flawed family, Gwen Plunket Greene. Evelyn encountered her on New Year’s Day in 1925. He wrote in his diary: ‘I met Mrs Greene for the first time and loved her.’ She was a first draft for the magnificent but monstrous Lady Marchmain. Gwen exerted a magic spell over him with her beauty, poise and humour. He later realised that her serenity was a consequence of a ‘hidden life of prayer’. She would
later convert to Roman Catholicism and was already heading in that direction.
Evelyn’s diary records countless invitations to tea, dinner parties and family holidays with the Plunket Greenes. They were unsettled and moved house five times in ten years – ‘during which’, noted Evelyn, ‘I was practically a member of the family’. That the family was on the point of converting to Catholicism may have been an additional attraction.
Richard Plunket Greene was in the same position as Evelyn: ‘workless and penurious’. In his case, the position was aggravated by his desire to get married. His decision to apply for a position as a schoolmaster had prompted Evelyn to follow suit. It was the obvious option. As Evelyn once wrote to his school friend, Dudley Carew, ‘no one in our class need ever starve because he can always go as a prep school master, not a pleasant job but all roads lead to Sodom’.
The usual route was to sign up with the scholastic agency Gabbitas and Thring (W. H. Auden nicknamed them ‘Rabbitarse and String’). Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Graham Greene and the fictional Paul Penny-feather of
Decline and Fall
all passed through its door. Greene said that to do so was to ‘pawn yourself instead of your watch’.
In early January 1925, Evelyn was interviewed by the headmaster of the prep school Arnold House. The name may have been evocative of the great Thomas Arnold of Rugby, but the location was less promising: it was in Denbighshire in North Wales, which could hardly have been further from Oxford.
Mr Banks, the head, ‘a tall old man with stupid eyes’, offered the post forthwith. He was desperate and, if Evelyn is to be believed (he is probably not to be), only one question was asked: ‘Did he possess a dinner jacket?’ This was necessary to entertain the wealthier parents. With only a couple of weeks to go before the start of term, Evelyn threw himself into a farewell whirl of socialising with the Plunket Greenes.
There was a disastrous evening at the Café Royal, where champagne cocktails were drunk, followed by oysters and chablis. Olivia disgraced herself. A few days later Evelyn noted in his diary that he had attended a dinner party of his brother Alec’s that was ‘almost wholly spoiled by the abominable manners of the Greene family, who arrived fifty minutes late’. After dinner they went to the theatre and then on to a nightclub where,
drunk again, Olivia began kissing a handsome fellow called Tony Bushell. Evelyn tried unsuccessfully to get equally drunk himself. He was very rude to Olivia, but she was in no condition to take offence. The next day, ‘with a glowing resentment against the Greene family’, he sent word that he was leaving ‘for the country’. But that evening he spoiled his gesture by getting drunk and calling at the Plunket Greenes’ in the early hours of the morning, accompanied by two friends. He said that he would not leave until Olivia knelt down and apologised to him. She declined and he broke a gramophone record. A version of the episode was later incorporated into his novel
A Handful of Dust
Amends were made before he went north. Olivia came to see him at Underhill where she told him that he was a great artist and should not become a schoolmaster. He was upset at the thought that she was finally beginning to show interest just at the moment when he was leaving for North Wales: ‘I went to bed feeling more desolate than I had felt since the embarkation of Alastair.’ Whilst he knew that marriage was out of the question, he felt that he was getting close to a romantic and sexual relationship. Women, he was beginning to discover, were far more complex and tricky than men.