Obituary: Evelyn Nightingale

Michael Davie
Sunday 18 September 2011 09:24

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)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments