Lady Burghclere’s Maid

The Mail on Sunday has published extracts from letters relating to the break-up of Evelyn Waugh’s first marriage. These letters were written by Ethel North to a friend of hers (Elsie Merrall) over a a period of years (1919-33) during which Ethel was maid to the mother of Evelyn Gardner, Waugh’s first wife. They were discovered only recently by Elsie Merrall’s grand daughter, Melissa Lawrence, who plans to publish them. There are several names and titles associated with Evelyn Gardner’s mother who was born Winnifred Herbert, daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon. They lived at Highclere Castle near Newbury, Berkshire, which was the setting for the TV series Downton Abbey. Whether she was entitled to be referred to as Lady Winnifred isn’t stated, but as the daughter of an earl, she probably was. In the Mail’s article she is referred as Lady Burghclere and that is the name used by Waugh’s biographers. After her first husband died, she married Herbert Gardner, Baron Burghclere, entitling her to be called Winnifred Gardner or Lady Burghclere or (possibly) Lady or The Lady Winnifred Burghclere. They had four daughters, one of whom was Evelyn Gardner. At the time of Waugh’s marriage, Lady Burghclere was a widow but seems to have preferred to use her married name and title.

Ethel North first mentions Waugh shortly after his marriage:

Writing in August 1928 of the marriage of the youngest daughter of her mistress, Lady Burghclere, to Evelyn Waugh, one of the 20th Century’s greatest prose stylists, Ethel said: ‘As far as we can judge [he is] a very unsatisfactory young man whose only living is an occasional book. Time alone will show, of course.’

The Waughs’ marriage took place secretly in June 1928 but it apparently had become known to Lady Burghclere as early as August. The only other mention of Waugh comes in a letter written after the marriage had failed:

The couple had four daughters whom Ethel found ‘moody’ and ‘selfish’. The youngest, Lady Evelyn, left Evelyn Waugh (they were known to their friends as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn) after less than a year of marriage. Ethel, writing in August 1929, said it caused Lady Burghclere great concern. ‘Wicked Miss E left her husband a fortnight ago to go off with another young man, worse off than her husband… These girls were never meant for marriage.’

That may be the first published mention of the family’s assessment of John Heygate who became Evelyn Gardner’s second husband. For more information on Lady Burghclere and Ethel North, see this link.

At the risk of informational overload, it may be worth mentioning that Waugh’s second wife, born Laura Herbert, was the daughter of Lady Burghclere’s half brother, Aubrey Herbert.  She and Evelyn Gardner were cousins (or would that be half cousins?)

UPDATE (20 October 2017): The discussion of the possbile titles applicable to Lady Burghclere has been modified but the last alternative is still in some doubt. Her daughter Evelyn, as daughter of a baron, would have been entitled to use  “The Honourable” before her name and (possibly) “The Lady Evelyn Waugh” after her marriage but, again, the latter alternative is offered subject to some considerable doubt, particularly given the further confusion caused by sharing the same Christian name as her husband. The reference to her in the Mail’s story as simply “Lady Evelyn” (without a “The” preceding), according to my researches, may not be quite correct. Use of these titles is a minefield better avoided where at all possible.  It may help explain why Waugh’s biographers have chosen to refer to her as “She-Evelyn” rather than the less twee but possibly inaccurate Lady Evelyn as the Mail has done.

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