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The truth about 'Shevelyn': how Evelyn Waugh's disastrous marriage

shaped his fiction


Philip Eade

Evelyn Waughs first marriage was a notorious failure. Well you cant 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. 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 she sequestered herself in the country but was
repeatedly sought out by literary sleuths, eager for her version of events. She 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, 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.
They were introduced at a party given by the Ranee of Sarawak on Portland Place.
Shevelyn recalled: I saw a young man, short, sturdy, good-looking, given to little gestures,
the shrugging of a hand which held a drink, the tossing of a head as he made some witty,
somewhat malicious remark. He was easy to talk to and amusing. Waugh never recorded his
initial impressions of Shevelyn, but she later assumed he had been drawn to her because I
was gay, boyish looking with an Eton crop and very slim. An additional draw, she hazarded,
was that I belonged so he thought to the society to which he not only wished to belong
but of which he wished to become an undoubted member.
Shevelyn had been born a month before Waugh in 1903, the youngest of Lord Burghcleres
four daughters. She grew up fond of her warm-hearted father but terrified of her formidable
mother, daughter of the 4th Earl of Carnarvon. Educated at home, Shevelyn never went to
school. By the time she was 11, all three of her sisters had married and the servants became
her only friends. She felt as it were in a cage with no knowledge of the world or the real
behaviour of others. One was enclosed and the bursting out when freedom came was not
good. Shevelyns longing to burst out was allied to a natural flirtatiousness, a slender
figure, pert little nose and round eyes men found seductive. By the time she was 23, she had
been engaged nine times.
The fact that Waugh was a writer appealed to her. Shevelyn had recently quit her job as a
vendeuse in a boutique in Mayfair to write a play, and was keen for an entre into the literary
world. When they met, he had just begun a trial on the Daily Express, but was sacked shortly
afterwards. In his seven weeks at the Express, not one of the pieces Waugh filed was
published.
After writing his first proper book, a biography of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in the
summer, Waugh resumed his courtship of Shevelyn. He had told friends that he was looking
for a wife, and began to feel that she might be the one. When, in December, she let slip that
she was thinking of going to Canada, he promptly took her out to dinner and proposed. Lets
get married and see how it goes, were his words, according to Shevelyn. There was no
mention of love. She asked for time to think about it but the next day rang up to accept.
She later admitted that, much though she liked Evelyn and admired him sincerely, she
should have considered it far longer than I did. But I was anxious to get married and settle
down. Decades afterwards, she told Michael Davie, the editor of Waughs diaries, that she
had inferred from his tone that absolute faithfulness would not be required.
Her mother, meanwhile, made it plain she was not at all in favour of the match. Waugh
later told Nancy Mitford that it never occurred to me to think I wasnt a gentleman until
Lady Burghclere pointed it out. She went to great lengths to try to prevent the marriage,
insisting Waugh get a proper job he was working on Decline and Fall then conniving to
ensure the BBC would turn him down. She also obtained a lurid account of her prospective
son-in-laws youthful misdemeanours from his embittered old tutor at Oxford. But when she
interviewed Waugh in May 1928, he stood firm, and wed Shevelyn the next month in secret.
Buoyed by his engagement and the progress of Decline and Fall, Waugh was as happy as
he had ever been that spring. His exuberance came through in the novel, which elevated him
to the ranks of literary lions when it was published in September. His old Oxford friend Cyril
Connolly visited them soon afterwards, and found this fantastic thing of the happily married
young couple whom success had just touched with its wand.
Throughout the autumn, Shevelyn was beset by ill health. On a belated Mediterranean
honeymoon in spring 1929, she developed double pneumonia and pleurisy and had to be
admitted to hospital in Port Said, in Egypt where Waugh feared she might die. But as she
recuperated, Waugh accepted an invitation from his old friend and lover Alastair Graham
to spend a few days in Cairo. I dont think he would have done that if hed really loved me,
would he? Shevelyn later remarked.
When they returned in May, friends noticed a strain. Waugh went off to an Oxfordshire
pub to write his new novel; Shevelyn made the fateful decision to remain in London for the
hectic season of costume balls, which Vile Bodies would later satirise. Among her escorts was
a handsome heir to an Irish baronetcy called John Heygate, already a friend to both Evelyns.
At a party, he got so drunk his girlfriend left without him, and Shevelyn went home with
Heygate instead. A manservant found them at his flat the next morning. The realisation she
was very seriously in love with Heygate came, Shevelyn later recalled, as an emotional
thunderbolt. Heygate took Shevelyn to another party aboard the schooner Friendship,
moored off Charing Cross pier. When The Tatler published an incriminating photo of them
lounging on deck in a very amiable position, as Heygate later put it, Shevelyn was thrown
into a desperate quandary. Nancy Mitford advised her to tell Waugh that her attitude in the
photograph was not what it appeared, and that she loved him. Shevelyn retorted: But I dont
love him. Anxious to come clean, she told Waugh in a letter that she was in love with
Heygate. When Waugh returned to London three days later, she confessed that she had
already slept with him.
Her desertion could hardly have come at a worse time for Waugh. Vile Bodies was barely
half-written and Labels the promised account of their Mediterranean voyage was not even
begun, although he had vowed to deliver it before the end of the month. The last few weeks
have been a nightmare of very terrible suffering, Waugh wrote to his publisher, which, if I
could explain, you would understand. You shall have the book, unless I go off my head, as
soon as I can begin to rearrange my thoughts. At present I can do nothing of any kind.
He told his parents he and his wife had been serenely happy and that her defection had
been preceded by no kind of quarrel or estrangement. But clearly Shevelyn had not been
happy. At the time, she whispered that her husband was bad in bed, and later told Michael
Davie that she suspected Waugh of being homosexual at base. But while Waugh was
candid about his love affairs with men at Oxford, by the time he married he far preferred
women. Their incompatibility probably had more to do with the fact that they were very
young, just 24, when they married a step both took primarily as a means of escape from
their parents.
Her defection hit Waugh hard. In a preface to a later edition of Vile Bodies, he admitted
that sharp disturbance in my private life had upset the latter part. In the seventh chapter the
tone shifts: the young novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes becomes a hard-pressed gossip
columnist Mr Chatterbox, who resorts to snaps and snippets about cocktail parties given in
basement flats by spotty announcers at the BBC a caustic dig at Heygate. When, in the
next chapter, Adam takes Nina, who he hopes to marry, and Ginger Littlejohn, the rival who
steals her, to a party on an airship moored in a degraded suburb, it is hard not to think of
Shevelyn and Heygate aboard the Friendship.
There are also allusions to their casual engagement: "'Nina, said Adam, 'lets get married
soon, dont you think? 'Yes, its a bore not being married. 'I dont know if this sounds
absurd, said Adam, 'but I do feel that a marriage ought to go on for quite a long time, I
mean. Dyou feel that too at all?
But while Waugh later wrote with venomous panache about unfaithful women (Brenda
Last, Virginia Troy), Shevelyn is not an especially convincing model for any. Beyond the fact
of her desertion, the only characteristic Shevelyn shared with Brenda Last was her dislike of
being read aloud to by her husband.
For his part, Waugh was more merciful than is often suggested towards his former wife and
her lover. In 1936, just before Waughs second marriage, Heygate wrote to ask his
forgiveness. Waugh sent him back a postcard: O.K, E.W.

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