Like many men now in their seventies, I have suffered from Sudden Accidental Reflection Syndrome. It can be upsetting. Most men have, until their first exposure to it, lived with the easy and comforting assumption that inwardly they remain about thirty-five, even if they are twice that age. They keep reasonably fit, they don’t smoke or drink too much, or dress their age; all the things their fathers did before them. Day by day they discount the erosions of age hinted at in their shaving mirrors: those, that is, who have not adopted the comforting hedge of a beard. But one fateful day as they advance confidently along the pavement and wait for a lull in the traffic, there comes an awful collision, not physical, but none the less shattering: they cross the road and see advancing towards them an irritatingly undodgeable old fool, and realize this man is their unsuspected, horribly real self reflected in the plate-glass window of a shopfront.
To the novelist Evelyn Waugh, such a moment helped to precipitate a mental breakdown and to inspire his autobiographical novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. It came very early: he was only 50 in 1953, and at the height of his fame as a bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist, but he was also a man who preferred to live in almost Victorian seclusion in his country house with his family.
In that year he celebrated – if that’s the word – Christmas at home. He had be
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Like many men now in their seventies, I have suffered from Sudden Accidental Reflection Syndrome. It can be upsetting. Most men have, until their first exposure to it, lived with the easy and comforting assumption that inwardly they remain about thirty-five, even if they are twice that age. They keep reasonably fit, they don’t smoke or drink too much, or dress their age; all the things their fathers did before them. Day by day they discount the erosions of age hinted at in their shaving mirrors: those, that is, who have not adopted the comforting hedge of a beard. But one fateful day as they advance confidently along the pavement and wait for a lull in the traffic, there comes an awful collision, not physical, but none the less shattering: they cross the road and see advancing towards them an irritatingly undodgeable old fool, and realize this man is their unsuspected, horribly real self reflected in the plate-glass window of a shopfront.To the novelist Evelyn Waugh, such a moment helped to precipitate a mental breakdown and to inspire his autobiographical novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. It came very early: he was only 50 in 1953, and at the height of his fame as a bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist, but he was also a man who preferred to live in almost Victorian seclusion in his country house with his family. In that year he celebrated – if that’s the word – Christmas at home. He had been unwell and depressed for some time. Chronic insomnia was only partially alleviated by drugs and alcohol. The tax man and rheumatism plagued him. His memory had begun to play alarming, vividly detailed tricks. But let Waugh’s account, only lightly fictionalized from his own life, take up the story:
The children’s holidays were a time when Mr Pinfold felt a special need for unconsciousness at night and for stimulated geniality by day. Christmas was always the worst season. During that dread week he made copious use of wine and narcotics and his inflamed face shone like the florid squireens depicted in the cards that littered the house. Once catching sight of himself in the looking-glass, thus empurpled and wearing a paper crown, he took fright at what he saw. ‘I must get away,’ said Mr Pinfold later to his wife.To judge by Waugh’s letters and journals and the accounts of his friends, this was a pretty accurate description of Waugh’s own state. To try to recover his health, he booked a passage on a cruise ship, the Staffordshire, that was to sail through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean to what was then Ceylon. There is no direct contemporaneous record of what happened to Waugh while he was travelling, except for a few cables and letters he sent to his wife Laura. These were alarming enough, complaining of a devilish conspiracy against him involving the use of radio waves and telepathy. When he came home he was profoundly shaken and he did not begin the novel until 1956. As The Ordeal opens, Gilbert Pinfold is a successful novelist in his late forties, but looking and feeling much older. He lives comfortably in the country with his wife and children. He does not consider himself rich but he can afford servants and good wine. Even so things are not going well. ‘He had become lazy . . . he spent most of the day in an armchair. He ate less, drank more and grew corpulent . . .’ Not surprisingly, indolence and indulgence mean that his health is not good and the lack of daily activity causes him to suffer from chronic insomnia. Creative work uses only a small part of the day and for the rest he is ‘merely bored’. His trips to the outside world are mostly confined to London, where he gets drunk in visits to his clubs and to old friends and is uncomfortably conscious that he has developed an unpleasant persona somewhere between ‘eccentric don and testy colonel’. After the Christmas fright, he is relieved to join his cruise. His ship, ominously, is called the Caliban. Pinfold feels a little better as he settles into his cabin. He is a good sailor and even when the steward who brings his tea tells him that many of his fellow passengers are seasick, Pinfold goes out to take the air.
The main deck, when he reached it, was almost deserted. Two wind-blown girls in thick sweaters were tacking along arm-in-arm past the piles of folded chairs. Mr Pinfold hobbled to the after smoking-room bar. Four or five men sat together in one corner. He nodded to them, found a chair on the further side and ordered brandy and ginger-ale . . . After a time two cheerful women entered. The men greeted them . . . Mr Pinfold studied this group with benevolence.Little does poor Mr Pinfold realize that he is shortly to be plunged into hell. When he returns to his cabin after lunch he is dismayed by the very loud playing of a jazz band in the next-door cabin. When that ceases he hears what he identifies as a dog pattering about in the corridor. The young man in the next cabin denies possessing either a gramophone or a dog. When Pinfold wakes during the night a religious service is taking place below his cabin. These sounds, he becomes convinced, must be the result of some sort of faulty public-address system. Perhaps the vessel had been a troopship and still has remnants of the intercom installed to make announcements to crew and passengers. But then the voices start . . . Two elderly generals discuss Pinfold’s drunkenness; two young men accuse him of being an impostor, a homosexual, a hypocrite in his religion, a coward in his war service, impotent, a cheat and thief, and they threaten to give him a good thrashing. One thing Pinfold certainly is not is a coward. When the young men challenge him through the lamp on his table at dinner, Pinfold barks back at the lamp, challenging them to meet him and have it out like men . . . No one appears at the rendezvous Pinfold has chosen for a showdown. When he is attempting to sleep the voices wake him. When he is up and about they follow him, and when they are absent he imagines that the ordinary (visible) passengers are audibly whispering about him. Even when the ship docks, voices follow him on to land. The persecution is incessant, though Pinfold does fight back by finding the most boring book he can in the ship’s library, Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!, and reading it aloud to them until they ask for mercy. It wouldn’t be fair to the prospective reader to give away the twists and turns of Pinfold’s often blackly comic fight against his pursuing demons. But the end is a happy and surprisingly tender one. Waugh was not generally a man to put himself into his own fiction and The Ordeal came as a surprise when it was published in 1957, as it was quite obviously an unsparing self-portrait. (The short, tubby, formally dressed figure shown on the dust jacket as unsteadily emerging on two sticks from the flames of hell should have killed any further doubt.) All autobiographical fiction is more or less than the truth, but the tale of Pinfold does appear very close to the one Waugh told to his friends. Frances Donaldson, in her book Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbour, recounts how after his return and recovery, Waugh related his hallucinations with detachment and much self-mockery: ‘all the actual happenings and incidents he described in detail are in the book as close to reality as suits the convention of a novel’. Indeed, Waugh acknowledged in a famous television interview with John Freeman that what happens to Gilbert Pinfold in the novel had been suffered by himself at far greater length and severity, but that it would have been both boring and inartistic to include every detail. The sufferings of Mr Pinfold do not invite our pity. Waugh was not a man who usually sought or inspired thoughts of pity or emotional empathy but what strikes one in reading the novel, and Waugh’s journals, is his utter honesty about himself. Despite the carapace he developed and the off-putting coldness shown to anyone he considered his social or intellectual inferior, he appears as a man morbidly unsure of himself, beset by suspicion of antagonistic conspiracies and a real fear of madness. For a writer who guarded his private life and cultivated a sometimes deliberately offensive public figure it was an extraordinary book to produce. But writers, who are often accused of using or misusing their families and friends in their work, are only truly honest if they can sacrifice themselves to their art. Novelists with an abiding interest in themselves as their subject matter are usually second-rate. Waugh was never that. He knew a good story when he saw one, even if he was the butt of it. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is a very dark comedy, but there is a touching nobility in its hero striding out at night to confront the host of enemies awaiting him on deck:
the ship came to life with a multitude of voices. This, Mr Pinfold decided, was his moment to act . . . Gripping his blackthorn he left the cabin. Immediately his communications were cut. The lighted corridor was empty and completely silent. He strode down it to the stairway, mounted to the main deck. No one was about . . . not a light anywhere on the dark horizon; not a sound from the bridge; only the rush and slap of the waves along the ship’s side, and the keen sea wind. Mr Pinfold stood confounded, the only troubled thing in a world at peace.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © William Palmer 2020
About the contributor
William Palmer is currently finishing a study of twentieth-century alcoholic writers entitled In Love with Hell. He is as paranoiac as the next writer, but not yet to a Pinfoldian extent.