Waugh and the Coronation at Piers Court

This week, Britain is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s reign, which began on 6 February 1952, and was consummated with the Coronation on 1 June 1953. The Platinum Jubilee itself will extend from tomorrow, 2 June to Sunday, 5 June.

The Waugh family also marked the occasion, most pointedly on Coronation Day itself. Waugh comments in his diaries and letters that his daughters arrived from school on 30 May with several friends whose parents were resident in Africa. The “sterner” Downside School regime apparently released its students later. On Sunday 31st May, Waugh received complaints about lack of decorations at Piers Court, and the next day, he writes that he caused to have erected a “triumphal arch with our curved lion on the top,” apparently at the gate to the estate. That same day, he entertained the “Dursley Dramatic Society and some of the village. The Silver Band played and got very drunk. The children, both ours, Donaldsons and Annabel behaved admirably.”  On Coronation Day itself (Tuesday, 2nd June) he attended Mass. “Then great upheaval providing fancy dresses and decorating the marc and cart. Cold and windy but no rain. Sports. After dinner older children with Donaldsons looking at bonfires.” (Diaries, 720-21)

On Wednesday, 4 June, Susan Mary [Alsop] arrived. The Waughs had met her in France where her husband was an American diplomat. She was a friend of both Nancy Mitford and Diana Cooper, as well as a fairly long term mistress of Duff Cooper with whom she had a child. She had taken up Waugh’s invitation to visit Piers Court, and stopped there after attending the coronation. Waugh told Nancy that he expected that the visit will be “nice for us” and next day (after a “gala dinner” chez Waugh) he escorted her to Gloucester Cathedral, Stanway and Stratford in a chauffered limousine he had hired for the occasion (LNMEW, 313-15; Diaries, 721). They attended a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Waugh summed up the visit, describing her as “a tough & appreciative little guest on whom I spent great trouble & money. She enjoyed herself no end.” (LNMEW, 315)

As reported by Susan Mary in her memoirs, she was met on arrival by Laura whose leg was in a cast, but Laura assured her that she would be “all right for the party tonight.” Susan Mary had expected no party and brought only a simple evening dress. She had been given to understand that Waugh had refused to attend the coronation and prohibited his children from watching it on TV (although he had erected a “God Save the Queen” banner over the entry to his driveway). She arrived at dinner to find all the Waugh children in their best clothes, with Waugh in white tie and decorations and Laura in a ball dress and tiara. On the other hand, no servants were in evidence and Laura struggled to get the food on the table “crutches, ball dress and all.”

After dinner, Waugh told his children that Susan Mary would give them a first hand description of the coronation: “Mrs. Patten [as she then was] had been in Westminster Abbey watching the Queen’s liege lords drop to one knee as they rendered homage to her.” In fact, as Waugh well knew, she had viewed the procession from the War Office, using Isaiah Berlin’s tickets, and had been “nowhere near the Abbey.” Given the children’s rapt attention and high expectations, she described the ceremony as she had seen it on TV. She concluded, “I shall never know what the point of all this was.” Had Waugh felt sorry for the children and tried to make it up to them for denying them TV or was it only a joke to make fun of her? The day after the coronation dinner, “another Evelyn emerged” as he accompanied her in his country gentleman mode while touring the countryside. (Susan Mary Alsop, To Marietta from Paris 1945-1960, Garden City, NY, 1975,  pp. 225-6).

Nancy Mitford wrote that, after Susan Mary’s return, it was all around Paris about Waugh’s “torturing” her on that visit and the “poor little thing looks more like a Nazi victim than ever” (apparently referring to her anorexic thinness) (LNMEW, 314).

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