Tuesday, July 05, 2016

How Evelyn Waugh's disastrous marriage shaped his fiction

Evelyn Waugh with his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, in 1928
Evelyn Waugh with his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, in 1928

Evelyn Waugh’s first marriage was a notorious failure. “Well you can’t call life dull!” exclaimed his wife, Evelyn Gardner, when she learnt that Waugh was suing for divorce after only a year. Her throwaway remark has been made to count against her. She has long been blamed not just for the break-up of their marriage but for unleashing her ex-husband’s bitter, capricious side, which later stung so many of those who crossed his path.

Biographers have cast Gardner as the inspiration for his brutal depiction of Brenda Last, the casually unfaithful wife in A Handful of Dust. In later life, by then divorced from her third husband, she sequestered herself in the country but was repeatedly sought out by literary sleuths, eager for her version of events. She more or less kept them at bay but when she died in 1994 she left behind a 20-page memoir of the marriage and its break-up with a view to posthumous publication. Now, for the first time, we have her side of the story.

“She-Evelyn” or “Shevelyn”, as their friends soon began calling her, first met Waugh in the spring of 1927, an unhappy time for him, having crowned his heady Oxford career the previous summer with a third-class degree. He had recently been sacked from his second teaching job, was struggling to establish himself as a writer and was forlornly in love with Olivia Plunket Greene, a notorious tease who gave Waugh the impression of being available to everyone – apart from him. But in April, he noted in his diary: “I have met such a nice girl called Evelyn Gardner.”

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