Waugh and the Great Ladies

Lyndsy Spence, founder of The Mitford Society and editor of their annual collection of essays, articles and reviews (which recently published its 4th volume) has also written a series of essays about aristocratic women of the interwar period. This is entitled These Great Ladies: Peeresses and Pariahs and consists of studies of eight examples, including Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, Mariga Guinness, and Venetia Montagu. In her introduction, Spence credits Evelyn Waugh for having provided the inspiration for the book and its title:

When the stage adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies was to appear in a London theatre, aristocratic women, young and old, scrambled for tickets. Dedicated to Diana and Bryan Guinness, the book, when published in 1930, set high society ablaze. It was read by everyone, adored and vilified in equal measures, and through time it has become a life enhancer. Likewise when tickets were made available for the play, a socialite’s revolt took place. Emerald Cunard got her manicured claws on one, but complained about the location of her seating and about having to take Prince George to the eighteenth row. ‘Old trout,’ snapped Waugh, ‘she’s only an American anyway.’ A snob to his fingertips, even he was beyond forming a literary tease when Emerald, formerly named Maud, needled him. And Doris Castlerosse, a wily, willful courtesan known in lower echelons as Jessie Doris Delevingne, refused to pay for her ticket. ‘Oh dear,’ Waugh appeared lost for words, ‘these great ladies.’ Like Waugh, I am attracted to the glamour and artifice of their lives. From an outsider’s perspective nothing infiltrated their exclusive worlds. But dig a little deeper and one will find women with ordinary, universal problems while living extraordinary lives. I was drawn to women who were stars in their day but have fallen into obscurity, in the mainstream anyway. As such, I have chosen women who not only dazzle me but who were pioneers on the social front, albeit their fame for the sake of being famous or their social consciences. However behind the scenes they were quite naughty and lived by their own rules.

The quotes are from Waugh’s letter to Dorothy Lygon, dated 16 April 1932 (Letters, pp. 61-62) as cited in John Howard Wilson, Evelyn Waugh: A Literary Biography 1924-1966, p.92.


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