Obituary: Evelyn Nightingale

Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred Gardner: born London 27 September 1903; married 1928 Evelyn Waugh (died 1966; marriage dissolved 1930), 1930 John Heygate (died 1976; marriage dissolved 1936), 1937 Ronald Nightingale (died 1977; one son, one daughter); died Ticehurst, East Sussex 11 March 1994.

EVELYN NIGHTINGALE is guaranteed a place in English literary history because she was Evelyn Waugh's first wife, but she deserves to be remembered for more than that unhappy episode: she was a generous and warm-hearted person in her own right. By those who have written about Waugh she has usually been portrayed as a light- minded - even frivolous - figure. The breakdown of the marriage has been credited with releasing the black, despairing side of Waugh. Thus she paid the penalty of a brief connection with a subsequently famous novelist.

She was born Evelyn Gardner, in 1903; her father was the first Lord Burghclere, a successful Liberal politician, and her mother the eldest daughter of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon; Evelyn's uncle, the fifth Earl, discovered the treasures of Tutankhamun. The young Waugh was not unimpressed by these connections.

She grew up intimidated by her formidable mother, and escaped as soon as she could to London, where she worked for the Evening News. Harold Acton described her as 'a fauness, with a little snub nose'; Nancy Mitford, then her closest friend, said she looked like 'a ravishing boy, a page'. She met Waugh in 1927 at a party given in Portland Place by the Ranee of Sarawak. He proposed over dinner at the Ritz six months later, and next day she accepted.

Waugh used a fatal phrase when he proposed: let's get married, he said, 'to see how it goes'. This gave Evelyn Gardner the impression, she explained later, that Waugh was not wholly committed to the marriage. Besides, her acceptance was partly influenced by her housing problem: her friend Lady Pansy Pakenham, with whom she shared lodgings, was about to marry the painter Henry Lamb, and Evelyn was reluctant to go back home.

From fear of parental disapproval, the marriage took place hurriedly, at St Paul's, Portman Square, in June 1928. Harold Acton was best man; Robert Byron gave Evelyn away; Alec Waugh, the popular novelist and Waugh's elder brother, and Pansy Pakenham were witnesses.

Before long, strains began to show. In February 1929, in the wake of his modest success with his first novel, Decline and Fall, Waugh was given free tickets for a Mediterranean cruise. She-Evelyn, as she was known to some of her friends, became ill; Waugh plied her with creme de menthe as a cure, and from Port Said, when she was taken to hospital with pneumonia, sent her sister a postcard saying that by the time it arrived She-Evelyn would probably be dead. These jokes, to She-Evelyn, did not seem particularly funny.

When they returned to London Waugh went off to the country to write his second novel, Vile Bodies; and while he was away She-Evelyn fell in love with John Heygate, a BBC news editor and son of an Eton housemaster. Divorce followed. She met Waugh only once thereafter, over lunch at the Ritz in connection with an annulment from the Catholic Church, which Waugh had by this time joined.

She-Evelyn married Heygate in 1930, divorced him in 1936, and next year married a civil servant, Ronald Nightingale. By him she had two children, the drama critic Benedict Nightingale and the landscape architect Virginia Nightingale.

She spent the latter part of her life, a widow, quietly in Sussex, devoted to her children and grandchildren. After the Waugh divorce, she was dropped by almost all the members of Waugh's circle, except for the novelist Anthony Powell. This was an irony, since She-Evelyn had introduced Waugh to many of them. It is certainly true that Waugh was made deeply unhappy by the marriage's collapse, but not everyone blamed She-Evelyn alone. The pair of them were sexually inexperienced and immature. Waugh's publisher father said he would never speak to her again. But his brother Alec and his mother, who said that he had left his wife too much alone, were far more sympathetic - as, in later years, was his eldest son, Auberon.

She had scarcely spoken of her first marriage for 40 years when I asked her help while I was editing the Waugh diaries in the early 1970s. She still felt guilty, though she refused to take responsibility for propelling Waugh towards Rome, saying he had already been travelling in that direction before the marriage broke down. She was a much more substantial person as well as a much nicer one than the propaganda spread by Waugh's circle had led me to expect.

The character of the casual and unserious adultress Brenda Last in what many people consider to be Waugh's best novel, A Handful of Dust (1934), is said to reflect his verdict on She-Evelyn. If so, Waugh was being less than fair.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game