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22 November 2019

Evelyn Waugh and Vivien Leigh: Telegraphic Messaging

a guest blog by Milena Borden, who has been engaged with the Evelyn Waugh Society, the University of Leicester and the British Library in research for the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. and has published on the topic ‘Evelyn Waugh and the Second World War’. She completed her PhD at UCL and is interested in perspectives of intersections between history and fiction. These papers, and many more by Evelyn Waugh, are available to consult, for free, in our Reading Rooms.

 

Portrait

Evelyn Waugh, photographed in about 1940

Post Office

Telegram

19 July (19)57

 

PTY 12.25 SLOANE

 

PRIORITY EVELYN WAUGH CARE FOLYLES 119 CHARINGCROSS ROAD WC2=

 

HOW WONDERFUL WE ARE GOING TO SEE YOU TODAY YOU

KEPT ME AWAKE NEARLY ALL NIGHT LAUGHING AND

CRYING AT YOUR MARVELLOUS BOOK LOVE = VIVIEN +

Add MS 81067

Vivien Leigh (famous for playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, 1939) sent this telegram a few hours before the Foyle’s Literary Luncheon dedicated to Evelyn Waugh’s novella, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). [1] It is preserved in a collection of three related items at the British Library, and offers a glimpse into the celebrity milieu which both sender and receiver inhabited at the time (although Leigh’s husband, Sir Lawrence Olivier, who was implied in the 'we' of Leigh's telegram didn't turn up to the party, in the end). Despite its short length, this SMS-like burst of twenty-five words is packed with energy. One can almost see Leigh dictating it enthusiastically to the Sloane Square Post Office -- no-punctuation; cigarette in hand.

But what information can we glean from these papers about their friendship and the book? Leigh cabled that she had spent the night before reading and laughing and crying. Inevitably one wonders what did she, who suffered from a bipolar disorder from around the age of 25, find funny or not so funny in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold - a semi-biographical account of a deeply disturbed human being based on Waugh’s own experience with psychosis.

Gilbert is a carefully constructed character underpinned by a single and powerful belief, which is also a hallucination, that he is persecuted; because he is a German and a Jew; a Roman Catholic and a fascist; a communist homosexual and a suicidal drunk. Gilbert is more or less the same as Waugh. His hallucinatory conversations with imaginary enemies are full of distinctly autobiographical features.  Like Waugh, Gilbert is somebody who “abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz”, a member of the S.O.E. during the Second World War and a fake aristocrat who allegedly sympathized with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

Medically inclined readers of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold often find Waugh’s self-parodying style unconvincing as a description of a clinical psychosis or delusion, although they recognize that there might be an element of alcohol induced hallucinatory experience in it. Alexandra Pitman argues that the novel illustrates “the difficulty in distinguishing alcoholic hallucinations from psychotic illness” but proves that in the case of the former if one stopped drinking the problem would resolve quickly, as in the case of Gilbert.[2]

Maybe Leigh could laugh and cry with laughter at the fictionalized telescopic look Waugh took towards his own character because it had very little in common with her own highly volatile life, which behind the scenes was dominated by  battles with mental illness. Ten days after the Foyle’s event Leigh discovered that Olivier was having a affair and slashed him across the eyes with a wet face cloth while hitting her head on a marble bedside table.[3]Her depressive and aggressive drinking habit drove her professionalism but also aggravated her illness and eventually killed her at the age of 53. She would die ten years later, a victim of her illness, at her flat at 54 Eaton Square, the very same place from which she'd sent the breezy telegraph to Waugh. What the actress Maxine Audley said about Leigh could probably be said about Waugh too: “When she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was awful!” [4]

Also included in the collection is an earlier Leigh letter addressed to Waugh, dated 21 February 1955. This letter spreads over three square pages of blue letter-headed paper of enlarged handwriting, and thanks Waugh for his Spectator review of Peter Brook’s Titus Andronicus (1955). [5] “I am quite unaccustomed to such very pleasant laudatory language”, Leigh writes. She also asked Waugh if he would be going to see Macbeth, a production directed by Glen Byam Shaw in the same year in which she played Lavinia, offering to book seats and inviting him to dinner with her and Olivier afterwards.

The third item is a handwritten telegram dated 21 February 1957 addressed to Combe Florey House: “Hurray we are so delighted for you Vivien and Larry”. This is catalogued as being sent by Olivier and presumably congratulated the Waughs for the move to their new home in late 1956.

In the end, these telegrams -- constrained as they are by form and function -- can only gesture towards the deeper friendships between those that wrote them. Nevertheless, if we're willing to look at them more closely, certain currents become more visible; of shared troubles and triumphs; laughter and tears. 

[1] Martin Stannard, Evelyn Waugh: No Abiding City 1939-1966, London: Dent,

1992, pp. 390-91

[2] BMJ, 337: a2791, issue 7683, 2008

[3] Hugo Vickers, Vivien Leigh, London:Hamilton, 1988 pp. 250-260

[4] Ibid., p.2

[5] Spectator, 2 Sept. 1955

Happy 200th Birthday George Eliot

By Laura Walker, Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1851-1950. The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is a free exhibition space at the British Library, which will feature a one case display on George Eliot until 26th January 2020. 

Today (22nd November) George Eliot celebrates her 200th birthday. To mark her bicentenary a one case exhibition in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery displays five items relating to Eliot’s life and work.

Image1

Eliot was born near Nuneaton, Warwickshire and her contrasting experiences of rural and urban life during her childhood in the Midlands inspired many of her novels. Following a good education and the freedom to pursue her own scholarly interests, Eliot grew up well read, intellectually curious and a was gifted writer. She moved to London in 1851 to pursue a journalistic career, where she met and fell in love with the critic George Henry Lewes –  a married man who was estranged from his wife. From 1853 Eliot lived with Lewes openly and started referring to herself as Marian Evans Lewes, in defiance of Victorian notions of propriety.

She began writing fiction in 1856, publishing all of her novels under the pseudonym George Eliot. She took her partner’s first name, George, and chose Eliot as 'a good mouth-filling, easily pronounced word'. Female authors did not need to write under a pseudonym, but Eliot wanted the freedom to write outside the romance genre. She was also a known radical living in an anomalous social position with a married man, Mary Evans Lewes as such, was compelled to protect her identity. 

Image2

Letter from Charles Dickens to George Eliot, 18 January 1858, Add MS 41667 B

 

Following the publication of Eliot’s collection of short stories entitled Scenes of a Clerical Life in 1858, there was much speculation over who the author could be. Soon after publication Charles Dickens wrote to Eliot partly in praise of the author’s ‘extraordinary merit’ but also to propose that the writer was a woman. Dickens felt that there were ‘such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now’. Eliot revealed her identity as Marian Evans Lewes in June 1859 over a year after this letter was written, after persistent rumours that a Midlands man called Joseph Liggins was the author of Scenes of a Clerical Life and her first novel Adam Bede (1859).

Mill on the Floss was the second and the most autobiographical of Eliot’s novels. The characters of Maggie and Tom Tulliver greatly resemble Marian Evans (Eliot) and her brother Isaac. In the extract on display Maggie is visiting Tom at school where they discuss women's' education. Tom’s teacher, Mr Stelling, describes how he believes that women are ‘quick and shallow’, which leaves Maggie feeling ‘mortified’.

 

Image3

George Eliot, Mill on the Floss, Add MS 34023 f.291

 

Within the British Library’s collections are over 200 letters written to, by or about George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes. One correspondent of Eliot’s was Emilia Francis Strong (known as Francis), a writer, advocate of women’s rights and a close friend. Francis married Mark Pattison, a priest and Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford in 1861. There was speculation when Middlemarch was first published, that Francis was the model for Dorothea Brooke due to her strong religious views and unhappy marriage to a much older man.

Image4

Letter from George Eliot to Emilia Francis Pattison, 16 December 1872, Add MS 43907 f.56v

 

One volume of Middlemarch is currently on display at the Library alongside a letter from Eliot to Emilia Francis Pattison from 16 December 1872. This letter offers a glimpse into Eliot’s life with her ‘husband’ George Henry Lewes.

‘But it is a holiday to sit with one’s feet at the fire reading one’s husband’s writing- at least when, like mine, he allows me to differ from him’.

Eliot goes on to write that ‘I hope we are not the happiest people in the world, but we are amongst the happiest’. Eliot led an extraordinary life, full of difficult decisions and challenges, but she also found happiness and love. She took a strong interest in the world around her, which inspired the strong sense of  the ‘ordinary’ and the attendant realism of her novels. The letters and manuscripts on display give a sense of the interrelationship between her life and her work. Eliot is one of the rare authors to achieve both critical and commercial success during her lifetime. She is undoubtedly one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian age and beyond.

21 November 2019

'Anything But Petering Out' - celebrating Peter Nichols at Trafalgar Studios

by Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives

In tribute to Peter Nichols who sadly died in September, Trafalgar Studios is staging an afternoon of readings on 27 November to celebrate his theatrical legacy, generously supported by the British Library Collections Trust. Directed by his grandson, George Nichols, and starring Roger Allam and other special guests to be announced, the event will take a look at Peter Nichols’ vast literary contribution with excerpts from his much-loved television and stage plays including Promenade (1959), The National Health (1969), Forget-Me-Not-Lane (1971) and Poppy (1982), as well as passages from his personal diaries and rare unproduced plays from Nichols’ archive at the British Library.

IMG_2221 - Copy

Peter Nichols, photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios

Also on show in the Trafalgar Studios’ bar is a display about the evolution of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Nichols’ most famous play which is currently being revived by the Trafalgar in a new production by Simon Evans. You can see reproductions from Peter Nichols’ archive in the Studio Bar, tracing the play’s difficult birth from initial doubts over the first draft, to wranglings with the Lord Chamberlain’s censors and its ultimate glowing reception at its premiere in 1967.

IMG_2228 (1) - Copy

'The Evolution of Joe Egg', display curated by the British Library for Trafalgar Studios' Studio Bar, until 30 Nov. Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios. 

If that has whetted your appetite for further research, the wider archive is available to consult at the British Library. Acquired 20 years ago this month, the Peter Nichols Papers comprises 256 volumes of personal and professional papers from 1945 to the 2000s. You can listen to Peter Nichols reflecting on his career on BL Sounds, and various other interviews and theatre recordings are available to listen to onsite at the Library (search our Sound & Moving Image catalogue for details).

In light of Peter’s recent passing, it’s difficult not to read fresh significance into his words. In the programme for the current production of Joe Egg, Jamie Andrews from the British Library recalls one particular email exchange amongst many:

I see that at one point, feeling the physical challenges of ageing, his subject line was a typically self-deprecating ‘Petering Out’; but that a few emails later, it had changed to ‘Anything But Petering Out’…. A far more accurate assessment of his later years.

Just as Peter’s words will live on in all who knew him, his work survives in the archive he left behind and the potential it holds for many more revivals to come.


Peter Nichols: A Celebration will take place next Wednesday 27 November at 3pm. Tickets are available from ATG Tickets.


Peter Richard Nichols CBE, playwright, born 31 July 1927; died 7 September 2019, aged 92.