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  • Evelyn Waugh During the Pinfold Years
  • James J. Lynch (bio)

On a trip to Ceylon in January and February 1954, Evelyn Waugh suffered the hallucinations that form the basis of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.1 Like the protagonist of his novel, Waugh believed he was being persecuted by a group of psychologists using some sort of electronic telepathy to listen in on his private thoughts and to tease, torment, and vilify him about his private life and his public reputation. It is clear both in the novel and in biographical accounts of the incident that Waugh's and Pinfold's ordeals were caused by the cumulative effects of chloral hydrate and bromide, combined with liberal doses of alcohol.2 Yet the paramount importance of the episode in Waugh's life is that he fictionalizes it as an artistic crisis—a thorough shaking of confidence in his imaginative powers. Pinfold emerges victorious from his ordeal first by maintaining his belief that the "voices" were real—real to him at any rate—and then by establishing control over his imagination through writing his own Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Waugh himself regains control by laying to rest many [End Page 543] of the frustrations about his literary career that plagued him during the postwar years and that converged about the time of the Pinfold ordeal.

Since his return to novel-writing after World War Two, Waugh had, in fact, experienced alternate periods of languor and frustration. Brideshead Revisited (1945)—a novel he described during its composition as "the first of my novels rather than the last" (Davie 566)—became a best-seller in America, ensuring him an annual income from America of $15,000 for at least five years. This income was supplemented by Waugh's earnings in England and by his occasional work for magazines. The unaccustomed financial security gave Waugh the freedom to reshape his postwar career in whatever way he chose. In "Fan-Fare," a 1946 article for Life responding to the American popularity of Brideshead, Waugh outlined what this new career would be. In his future books, he writes, "there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which to me means only one thing, man in his relation to God" (Gallagher 302). Waugh's commitment to style and to depicting man's spiritual complexity indicates that he is abandoning the purely satiric manner of his prewar novels. Indeed, in his first postwar project, a fictional life of St. Helen, it becomes clear that his new vocation as a writer is to write about vocation itself. The theme of Helena, as he describes it in a 1952 BBC radio broadcast, might just as well serve as the theme of the Sword of Honour trilogy as well: "What we can learn from Helena is something about the workings of God; that He wants a different thing for each of us, laborious or easy, conspicuous or quite private, but something which only we can do and for which we were each created" (Gallagher 410).

Despite a clear notion of his vocation, Waugh had great dificulty pursuing his new career. Whereas his early novels typically took Waugh two months to write, Helena—a work he called his magnum opus—took five years. Not only was he interrupted by more secularly-inspired works, such as Scott-King's Modern Europe (1947) and The Loved One (1948), but he also suffered from health problems and occasional bouts of boredom with his work—both of which became more pronounced during the Pinfold years. In addition, Waugh began to feel frustrated by his reputation as a novelist. The very fact that Brideshead became a best-seller caused Waugh to dislike it, so much so that he even toyed with the idea of rewriting it in 1950 (Amory 322). Like Pinfold, he thought his work "well made" but "would dearly have liked to revise it" (Pinfold 4). More importantly, Waugh became increasingly sensitive to hostile critics, many of whom panned Waugh's novels because of his religion and his reactionary politics.

During the Pinfold years, Waugh suffers many of the same kinds of troubles...


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