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Mr. Wu & Mrs. Stitch
by Brooke Allen
On the letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper.
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Mr. Wu & Mrs. Stitch
reviewed by Brooke Allen
Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper first met in 1932. He was twenty-eight, the author of two successful and outrageous novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. In the three years since he had separated from his first wife and been converted to the Roman Catholic Church, he had traveled and drifted about with no fixed abode, written a good bit of popular journalism, and played to the hilt the role of fashionable young novelist.
Lady Diana Cooper was more than ten years his senior, and already something of a legend. The youngest daughter of the eighth Duke of Rutland (though many, including Diana herself, believed her natural father to be the poet and editor Harry Cust), she had as a young girl been at the center of the inner circle of the Lost Generation, loved by such promising luminaries as Raymond Asquith, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Edward Horner, and other young men who were to lose their lives in the First World War. In 1919 she had married Duff Cooper, an impecunious Foreign Office clerk, one of the very few survivors of their prewar coterie. Theirs was a love match, hardly a parti in the eyes of the Rutlands. But Duff Cooper’s talents justified Diana’s faith, for he rose in the Conservative Party to become Secretary of State for War and First Lord of the Admiralty, from which post he resigned with great honor during the Munich crisis. In Churchill’s wartime government he acted as British Representative to the French Committee of Liberation in Algiers, eventually becoming British Ambassador in Paris after the Armistice, a post in which he was retained, surprisingly, until 1948, by Attlee’s Labour government.
At the time she met Waugh, Diana was taking advantage of her title and beauty to act the part of the Madonna in Max Reinhardt’s spectacle The Miracle, using her earnings to help finance her husband’s parliamentary career. The two met at a party and became instant friends (“I knew then,” wrote Diana in her autobiography, “that I wanted to bind Evelyn to my heart with hoops of steel, should he let me”), and the friendship that had begun so sunnily and auspiciously endured, through countless storms and rages, until Waugh’s death in 1966. One record of that friendship, of course, is Waugh’s indelible portrait of Diana as Mrs. Algernon Stitch in Scoop. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper helps to complete the picture.
This edited correspondence is the latest product of Artemis Cooper’s one-woman Diana Cooper cottage industry (the Letters follow her edition of her grandparents’ correspondence, A Durable Fire: The Letters of Duff and Diana Cooper, 1913-1950, and The Diana Cooper Scrapbook). It is also the latest item in the more venerable Waugh industry. Though a general interest in Waugh’s life is constantly perpetuated by the enduring freshness of his novels, one might wonder why Diana Cooper, a hundred years after her birth, continues to be an object of curiosity; the temptation is to put it down to public prurience, a natural voyeurism into the lives of the rich and famous however out-of-date. It is difficult today to discern Diana’s beauty, which lives by legend and not through her photographs, for with an old-fashioned Pre-Raphaelite notion of how a beauty should look, she refused to smile before the camera; the essential element in her looks, their vitality, is lost to us.
But the vitality is still there in her letters, along with her lifelong youthfulness. “The youngest of a family remains a baby until she dies,” she wrote about her middle-aged self in her autobiography. “I still automatically sat on the strapontin, accepted inferiority as normal, loved chocolates, found many books ‘too grown up,’ and … relied upon being older to understand better.” All this is in radical contrast to Waugh, who seems to have been born old and who joyfully embraced the frostiness of age. This difference in habit and outlook was exacerbated by the fact that in its way, Diana’s personality was as forceful and unyielding as Waugh’s own. As a result, relations between the two were often tempestuous, causing Diana to speak of “that jagged stone, our friendship.” The very frequency and violence of their quarrels, however, indicates the genuineness of the love underneath, for no merely casual friends could possibly have put up with the rough treatment it was their custom to mete out to each other.
Waugh’s difficult character is well known: the pomposity, the bad temper, the oft-cited snobbery. He himself remarked that “the only human relationships I abide are intimacy, formality and servility. What is horrible … is familiarity.” The free-wheeling Diana loved adventure and even a certain amount of squalor, and exulted in familiarity with all and sundry; she gave Waugh’s pomposity~dash\both real and affected—extremely short shrift. Speaking of his near-collapse at the absence of a wine-list or wine-waiter in the Ritz, she gloated that “all this is a great joy for me. Poor Evelyn doesn’t know and is too proud to realize his ignorance and learn.” This sort of friction occurred throughout their lives. While visiting the Coopers in Chantilly, Cecil Beaton heard “Diana and Evelyn being appallingly rude to one another—really vilely, squalidly rude”; the blow-up had occurred, apparently, when Diana had brought Waugh breakfast in bed only for him to criticize the tray as not “properly furnished.” “Well, I let him have it,” she later related. “I said, ‘Really Evelyn, it’s too much to put on such an act!’ and I gave him the full benefit of everything that I’d been bottling up about his pretentiousness.”
Such squalls were all in a day’s work, but there were more serious rifts, arising from a very real difference in character and philosophy. Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism seems to have made him less “catholic” and broad-minded, more puritanical and judgmental (he considered tolerance, in fact, to be the prevailing deadly sin of the century, and wrote that “it is better to be narrow-minded than to have no mind, to hold limited and rigid principles than none at all”). Puritanism had always played a strong role in Waugh’s character (this might surprise readers of the early novels but not those of the still earlier juvenilia); conversion allowed him to formulate this instinctive puritanism into a creed of intolerance toward all save himself. Diana, wholly areligious for better or worse, could not abide this. “We all have grave weaknesses,” she wrote him admonishingly; “Baby’s [her own] is melancholia and cowardice. You have some too.”
At his worst, Waugh could be appallingly blunt and hurtful. He was at no time an admirer of Duff Cooper (perhaps because rather intimidated by him), and finally picked an almost unmendable quarrel with the offhand comment, “I am very sorry to hear that Duff was surprised and grieved to learn that I have detested him for 23 years. I must have nicer manners than people normally credit me with.” Though Diana adored her husband, she was able to find it in her heart to forgive her friend even this piece of gratuitous malice. “Poor Wu,” she wrote to a friend. “He does everything he can to alienate himself from the affection he is yearning for.” The mutual recriminations that pepper this correspondence become tiresome, and Waugh is not in every case at fault. Diana needed to be adored—adored visibly—and it was clearly not in Waugh’s nature to shower adoration on anyone. “O do spoil—I spoil you,” she pleads: but always in vain.
However, the reader is often compensated for pages of unedifying bickering with Waugh’s disarming, because always unexpected, apologies. After his mother’s death he wrote to Diana:
I am full of regret for failures in gratitude and patience and service and that has made me think of my failures towards all I love, and you come very high on the list—so ungrateful, so deliberately mischievous—well, you know better than I. Please forget my constant failures and believe always in my love …
Diana’s surprised reply sums up the predominant tone of the relationship. “I know you have a great heart but you hate to put it on your sleeve—rightly up to a point—but rather than sometimes letting it fly there by its own dear volition, you pin a grinning stinking mask on the site.” Harsh, but tonic, words.
The edited correspondence, like the friendship itself, is not always satisfactory. Diana kept many more of Waugh’s letters than he did of hers—at least in the early years—and the extant letters between 1932 and 1945 are almost exclusively from Waugh. A satisfactory give-and-take between the letter-writers is not really achieved until the Fifties, and unhappily these later years are years of diminished excitement in their lives; Waugh’s professional peak was long over, Diana’s and Duff’s careers were at an end. As a result much of the potentially best material is missing altogether. Waugh’s wartime duty in Yugoslavia with Randolph Churchill, for instance, goes by the wayside—for this the reader must consult Lord Birkenhead’s hilarious account (in which he likens Churchill and Waugh to a couple of “belligerent robins”) in Alan Pryce-Jones’s Evelyn Waugh and His World. Likewise, the frustrating, rich, and comical details of Duff’s unenviable years of mediating and being crushed between “those two millstones,” Churchill and de Gaulle, are scarcely mentioned; here the reader must turn to Cooper’s own autobiography, Old Men Forget.
But when all this has been said, it is difficult to see what Artemis Cooper could have done to improve on the situation, for it would have been a pity to abandon the material from the Thirties and Forties, spotty though it is. And in general she has done a remarkably thorough job of editing. Indeed, as in so many books of this ilk, the footnotes sometimes take on a life of their own and usurp center stage from the letters themselves; one finds oneself obsessively poring over irrelevant details, flipping back to the index, and pointlessly tracing the genealogies of this much-married and much-intermarried circle of friends. For those who like that sort of thing, all this is riveting; and anyone who might still be under the illusion that Waugh’s novels are grotesque exaggerations of reality need only consult these pages, where names like Lady Helen Vane-Tempest-Stewart and Jewel Sebag-Montefiore-Magnus-Allcroft abound.
For those who don’t like that sort of thing, the notes might be considered a bit excessive, and Miss Cooper does sometimes get carried away with her task: a passing reference to Princess Margaret or Horace Walpole, to take a couple of random examples, should not necessitate a lengthy footnote. She has perhaps been overzealous, too, in her corrections of the writers’ spelling. Both Waugh and Diana were notoriously bad spellers, and the retention of a few of “the more inspired mistakes” only whets the reader’s appetite, for inspired they surely are—Diana laments her “mealancholia and hyperchondria,” and is afraid her autobiography will not prove scandalous enough to attract “eves droppers.”
From its rather unpromising beginning, the collection ends by triumphantly bringing this unlikely twosome to life. Waugh himself, of course, is inevitably disappointing as a character. The innate perversity which caused him to repel so many of his friends must in most cases repel the readers of his letters and diaries as well. His great mystery, like that of Ernest Hemingway (the writer Waugh admired above all other moderns), lies in the question of how any man could be at once so superbly gifted and so deeply foolish. But when Waugh tries to measure his character against that of Diana, whom he loved, he can become sympathetic and even moving. “You have stuck by [your friends] heroically—me especially despite every sort of provocation,” he wrote to her. “I lose mine fast. Not I think from not loving them but from expecting them to be different. You find something agreeable in almost everyone. I am put off by anything not wholly agreeable. Wiser and happier baby.”
Always a depressive, Waugh starved, drank, and drugged himself into a premature grave. It is saddening to witness his deterioration, even at second-hand, through these letters. A more modern or less strictly religious man might have consulted a psychiatrist for his problems. But Waugh lived by his own unpitying creed, and even his dearest friends were powerless to help him. Diana was horrified by their last visit: “He has lost all joie de vivre, eats nothing, drinks a fair amount and thinks a journey to London a labour of Hercules. I attribute it to sleeping-pills, parendahyl in massive quantities, etc. O dear, O dear, it haunts. I’m so very fond of the little monster!” Waugh was indeed a monster; but thanks to the record of this long, tempestuous friendship, the reader can almost see him with the mellow eyes of a friend.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 January 1992, on page 69
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