Newly Discovered Waugh Letter for Sale at Bonhams

A newly discovered hand written letter from Evelyn Waugh to Eleanor Watts, the girlfriend of the man who days later ran off with the novelist’s wife is to be sold at Bonhams Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Photographs sale in London on June 18. It is estimated at £1,000-1,500.

The letter is dated June 26 1929 a few days before Waugh’s wife of little over a year wrote to him saying she was in love with another man. Evelyn Waugh had married Evelyn Gardiner in June 1928. In May the following year He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn, as they were known, took a disastrous Mediterranean cruise—a delayed honeymoon and a working trip for Waugh who had been commissioned to write a travel book by Duckworths. (The result was Labels, A Mediterranean Journal, published in 1930). On his return, Waugh took up residence in the Abingdon Arms near Oxford to concentrate on writing what would become his second novel, Vile Bodies. His wife stayed in London partying with among others Eleanor Watts and her boyfriend, the BBC assistant producer John Heygate. An affair developed leading to a swift end to the Waughs’ marriage and Heygate’s dismissal from the BBC.

Waugh’s letter to Watts was written on the paper of the Hotel M Tokatliyan Istanbul where he and his wife had stayed on their ill fated cruise. He is replying to an invitation to a party and explains why he is unable to accept: “"I, alas, am less free as I am chained hand & foot to this novel I am writing—a welter of sex and snobbery,—I hope I shall have it finished by the middle of July in which case I shall love to visit you. Would you think it intolerably casual and altogether like the beastly people in the book I am writing, if I ask you to let me leave it open?"

Eleanor Watts—later Lady Campbell Orde—was a friend of Waugh’s at Oxford where she attended Lady Margaret Hall. Neither of them completed their degrees, both abandoning Oxford for art colleges. Watts went to the Central School of Art and Design and Waugh to Heatherley Art School.

By Waugh’s own admission, the rupture with his wife affected the mood of Vile Bodies which changes markedly in tone half way through. A subsequent novel, A Handful of Dust, written in 1934 is even more clearly marked by the author’s experience of marital betrayal. Shortly after his divorce Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism and after securing a Papal Annulment of his first marriage wed Laura Herbert in 1937. Eleanor Watts’ invitation to that wedding is included with this lot.

Bonhams Head of Books, Matthew Haley commented, “The discovery of a new Waugh letter is always a major event but this note is especially significant as it dates from a period of his life when very little of his correspondence survives. The events surrounding his divorce were pivotal in Waugh’s life and, arguably, the experience contributed to turning him from a good novelist to a great one.”

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