Pinfold, Waugh, and Vivien Leigh

Waugh Society member and frequent contributor Melina Borden has posted on the British Library’s Weblog a brief article based on the BL’s archives of Waugh’s correspondence. The item of primary interest is a telegram Vivien Leigh sent Waugh in advance of the 1957 luncheon convened at Foyle’s bookstore in connection with the publication of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold:


Borden goes on to discuss how Leigh’s own ordeals with mental illness may account for her fascination with Waugh’s book:

…Inevitably one wonders what did [Leigh], who suffered from a bipolar disorder from around the age of 25, find funny or not so funny in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold – a semi-biographical account of a deeply disturbed human being based on Waugh’s own experience with psychosis.

Gilbert is a carefully constructed character underpinned by a single and powerful belief, which is also a hallucination, that he is persecuted; because he is a German and a Jew; a Roman Catholic and a fascist; a communist homosexual and a suicidal drunk. Gilbert is more or less the same as Waugh. His hallucinatory conversations with imaginary enemies are full of distinctly autobiographical features.  Like Waugh, Gilbert is somebody who “abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz”, a member of the S.O.E. during the Second World War and a fake aristocrat who allegedly sympathized with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

Medically inclined readers of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold often find Waugh’s self-parodying style unconvincing as a description of a clinical psychosis or delusion, although they recognize that there might be an element of alcohol induced hallucinatory experience in it. Alexandra Pitman argues that the novel illustrates “the difficulty in distinguishing alcoholic hallucinations from psychotic illness” but proves that in the case of the former if one stopped drinking the problem would resolve quickly, as in the case of Gilbert.

Maybe Leigh could laugh and cry with laughter at the fictionalized telescopic look Waugh took towards his own character because it had very little in common with her own highly volatile life, which behind the scenes was dominated by  battles with mental illness. Ten days after the Foyle’s event Leigh discovered that Olivier was having a affair and slashed him across the eyes with a wet face cloth while hitting her head on a marble bedside table. Her depressive and aggressive drinking habit drove her professionalism but also aggravated her illness and eventually killed her at the age of 53. She would die ten years later, a victim of her illness, at her flat at 54 Eaton Square, the very same place from which she’d sent the breezy telegraph to Waugh. What the actress Maxine Audley said about Leigh could probably be said about Waugh too: “When she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was awful!”

The article goes on to discuss two other items in the archive. One is a three page letter from 1955 thanking Waugh for a review of a performance of Titus Andronicus in which she appeared and inviting him to attend a later production of Macbeth in which she would also perform. There is also a brief 1957 telegram congratulating him on the move to Combe Florey signed jointly with her husband Lawrence Olivier.

The article concludes with this brief assessment of these communications:

constrained as they are by form and function — [they] can only gesture towards the deeper friendships between those that wrote them. Nevertheless, if we’re willing to look at them more closely, certain currents become more visible; of shared troubles and triumphs; laughter and tears.

Waugh must have responded to these communications. As Auberon Waugh (I believe it was) once noted, Evelyn shared with Arthur Waugh the habit of being incapable of leaving a friendly message, no matter how brief, unanswered. These responses to Leigh are apparently not housed at the BL which holds the archives of Waugh’s incoming correspondence. A copy of Pinfold inscribed to her was recently sold (perhaps this was the one she was reading when she sent the telegram). This is mentioned in a previous post.

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