The Ordeal of Evelyn Waugh

Review of Sykes, C., Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. London, Collins, 1975.

British Medical Journal, 13 December 1975, 638 

His fifty-first winter was a miserable one for Evelyn Waugh. The house was cold, and he was not well. He was getting deaf. He was always a bad sleeper, and now he was sleeping worse than ever despite the heavy use of hypnotics, He was drinking steadily. His memory was playing him tricks, so that he would "remember" clearly and precisely things which in reality were quite different. He felt persecuted, and had come to believe that a BBC team that had interviewed him were now engaged in a conspiracy against him. He began to fear that his mind was giving way.

    So in the second half of January 1954 he sailed for-Ceylon in a small ship, hoping to continue with his writing on the way. While on board ship he suffered from a hallucinatory psychosis, which lasted into the early part of March. It began with hearing his name in the air, and, when he went to bed, half-heard conversations in which his name constantly occurred. Soon he was unable to sleep and getting no respite by day or night. He believed he was being persecuted by a party of "existentialists," who had perfected a form of long-range telepathy. When he wrote letters home he found it difficult to write coherently when every sentence he wrote was immediately repeated by a bodiless voice. He broke off his journey and came home. He told his priest that he was the victim of diabolic possession and asked for exorcism. Eric Strauss, the Barts psychiatrist and a fellow Catholic, came to see him. He thought the illness was probably due to a combination of phenobarbitone and alcohol, and he gave him an effective sleeping draught. From that night the voices ceased. A physician who saw him later found him anaemic and suffering from an infected right antrum; but he put the mental illness down to bromide poisoning. From that opinion there seems now no reason to dissent. Evelyn Waugh had certainly overused a variety of sedatives and narcotic drugs, as well as alcohol. But once he had run out of his medicines on board ship, the persistence of his hallucinations over some weeks fits best with bromism, which would clear up only very gradually.

    Waugh's recollections of his illness seem to have been incomplete and variable. To different friends he gave different versions; and there is no first-hand documentary evidence since his wife did not keep his letters. Two years later, in February 1956, he set himself to write a fictionalised story of his experiences in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which, though quite short, took him six months. This must be accepted for what it is, a novel and not a medical document. A lot of novelist's work has gone into it, with its elaborately interwoven conspiracies and hallucinatory voices speaking in perfect syntax. Nevertheless, one finds evidence that Waugh's psychotic episode was passed in a state of clouded consciousness. Pinfold describes defective memories and disorientation in time. Most telling of all, the characters of the story have not been observed at all, least of all with Waugh's habitually penetrating and sardonic eye. The story is an absurdity. Gilbert Pinfold is presented as a hero of titanic strength. He defends himself against his persecutors, confident he will be the victor. He unravels the "truth" of the conspiracies, defies the conspirators, reduces them to pleading for mercy, and eventually to silence. On his return home he sees no priest, no psychiatrist, no medical specialist. He knows he has endured "a great ordeal and, unaided, had emerged the victor." Waugh v the Powers of Hell.

    Given his personality it is no wonder that Evelyn Waugh had a paranoid psychosis; the wonder is that it needed drug intoxication, on top of alcoholism and his increasing deafness, to produce it. All his life he was apt to suspect persecution. He got no promotion in the Army all through the war because of his total unfitness to be an officer. He could not be put in command of men because he bullied them and they hated him. He antagonised others by his delight in causing offence or by his ostentatious indiscipline. Unaware of his failings, he put it all down to plots and machinations.

    An overgrown boy Evelyn Waugh was never properly house-trained. On social occasions he could be unspeakably rude, without provocation. Both as a host and as guest he was selfish and inconsiderate. He could be pitilessly cruel to a weaker personality, once he had probed the weak spot. All the characters of his books can be identified as caricatures of his friends and acquaintances, surprised to find themselves reduced to contemptible cranks or toadies or crooks. Yet he had many friends, some of whom loved him. This must be in part due to rare but endearing evidences of warm affections, generosity, schoolboy honour. And he was forgiven too because of the riches he gave to the world as an exquisite delineator of character, a great wit, an irrepressible farceur, and in black humour a genius without equal.

    At one point in his biography,' Mr Sykes remarks that novelists never quite grow up: it is after all children who are fascinated by telling and listening to stories. We can perhaps understand a little better the bundle of contradictions who was Evelyn Waugh, if we think of him as an overgrown boy, Dickens's fat boy who, in another age, has grown adult but has kept all his malice. In his photographs he looks like a fat baby. He was boyish in his amusements, in the vulgar ostentation of his style of dress, his hamming of the role of an English country gentleman, his greedy indulgence of his belly, his public tantrums, bellowing like a 2-year-old in a restaurant when momentarily denied a book he wanted. He was cruel; he was a bully; but he was no coward, and-was a doughty fighter. He was absurdly superstitious, and would pay large sums for prayers for his success in a libel suit, or for good weather when he was giving a party. He needed his Catholicism to provide him with some kind of exoskeleton for his anarchic and chaotic soul. The firmer the better. The more rigorous the doctrine, the more it appealed to faith rather than reason, the more did he welcome it; he saw no difficulty in the doctrine of Hell and eternal punishment. Frequently quoted, but worth quoting again is his own judgment: "You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being."

    Those who mature late often decline early. Evelyn Waugh did not run the allotted span. His hearing began to go in his late thirties. His memory-which matched his powers of observation in keenness, clarity, comprehensiveness, and grasp of detailearly began to show faults. He noticed himself how much older he was on his forty-fourth birthday than a year before. The moods of depression, which had caused him a serious attempt at suicide in his youth, became blacker and longer. More and more he became the victim of the demons of self-pity, selfhatred, and despair. He died at the age of 62, mercifully of a sudden and instantly fatal heart attack.

    Mr Sykes's biography is factually comprehensive, always interesting, often amusing. It is quite candid, and seems to be just and true, a worthy memorial to a very remarkable man. No matter now if he was, in psychiatric jargon, a manic-depressive and a sadistic and paranoid psychopath. He lived for his art; and it was in the main his puppets that he tortured, for our entertainment, our wonder, and our lasting delight.