Penelope Betjeman and Helena

The Daily Telegraph has published an excerpt from a book about Penelope Betjeman, a close friend of Evelyn Waugh to whom he dedicated his historical novel Helena (1950). The book about Penelope (to be entitled Mrs Betjeman), is described as a “fictionalized memoir” and is written by Mary Alexander. It will be published later this year. The excerpt summarizes Penelope’s life and her marriage to John Betjeman, which was not without difficulties. Waugh knew both of them:

… Penelope Betjeman gathered admirers without trying. Evelyn Waugh, in particular, fell in love with her when he was in between wives. He dedicated his 1950 novel Helena to her, having asked for her advice on its heroine while writing it: “I describe her as hunting in the morning after her wedding night feeling the saddle as comforting her wounded maidenhead,” he said. “Is that OK?” Penelope read several extracts of the novel before publication and declared the descriptions “very good”. She would go on to dodge questions about the precise nature of her relationship with Waugh for the rest of her life.

The quote in the letter from Waugh is reproduced in Letters, pp. 217-18 (15 January 1946). The Betjemans’ marriage continued on a fairly strained basis until after the war when Penelope decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. The extract in the Telegraph does not discuss the degree to which Waugh was instrumental in this decision or his relentless persecution of John Betjeman before and after it took place.

Both Betjemans had a strong Christian faith and he, a High Anglican, had always maintained they would stay together while they “knelt in the same pew”…But in 1948 Penelope finally decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. Waugh, fearing that her conversion would be beyond the pale for John, wrote: “Penelope seems determined to enter the Church in the autumn and John to leave her when she does so.” And so it turned out. In 1950 John met Elizabeth Cavendish, the sister of the Duke of Devonshire 25 years his junior, and began a relationship that was to last for the rest of his life.

Waugh’s quoted concerns about Penelope’s conversion are from his diary for 4 August 1947 (Diaries, p. 634). There seems to be no definitive answer to the question of whether an affair between Waugh and Penelope was ever consummated or existed only in Waugh’s imagination. In the recent biography by Philip Eade, there are positive hints from Waugh’s side but nothing but negativity from Penelope’s (Eade, p. 273). Whether the new book will address this matter remains to be seen.

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