News that the house where Evelyn Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited has been sold – despite “super-fan” tenants who pay only £5 a week and are not moving out – reminds me of his doomed attempt to become an Irish resident in the late 1940s.
He was still living then in Piers Court, the listed Grade II Cotswold Mansion that went for £3.16 million last week, even though estate agents had to warn potential buyers to seek legal advice on the tenancy situation.
But like other rich English conservatives after the second World War, Waugh found the new Labour-ruled Britain, and the modern world in general, uncongenial.
He had in 1930 converted to Catholicism. He was now flush with funds thanks to Brideshead. And romanticising Ireland’s beauty and tradition – an infatuation from which he would soon recover – he decided to move here, subject to finding accommodation of the grandeur to which he was accustomed.
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Waugh came close to buying Gormanston Castle in Meath: a “fine, solid, grim” property as he called it. He was undeterred by its “countless bedrooms, many uninhabitable”.
And when expressing unease at the thought of being a “nouveau riche invader” of a home that had been in the same family for centuries, he was reassured about that too.
Referring to one of the many Viscount Gormanstons who had owned the castle, a local member of staff commented: “Ach, his lordship never came to this place but to kill somebody.”
But a desire for privacy was one of Waugh’s priorities in fleeing England. Combined with natural snobbery, this ensured that when, on a ship home, he read an evening newspaper report about plans for a Butlins Holiday Camp at Gormanston, he promptly lost any desire to live there.
The castle became a religious-run boarding school instead. Waugh continued his search elsewhere.
He considered a place in Carlow too. But eventually, neither Ireland’s big houses nor its brand of Catholicism met the standard required. Indeed, if a 1952 letter Nancy Mitford is accurate, his narrow escape from Irish property ownership only strengthened his faith.
“Among the countless blessings I thank God for,” he wrote, “my failure to find a house in Ireland comes first. Unless one is mad or fox-hunting there is nothing to draw one. The houses, except for half-a-dozen famous ones, are very shoddy [and] none of them have servants’ bedrooms because at the time they were built Irish servants slept on the bedroom floor. The peasants are malevolent. All their smiles are false as Hell. Their priests are very suitable for them but not for foreigners. No coal at all. Awful incompetence everywhere. No native capable of doing the simplest job properly.”
Another reason Waugh gave up on the move here was because he didn’t want it thought that he was fleeing his Labour enemies. But if he returned to face that fight, he was soon forced to flee intrusions on his privacy.
After a Daily Express journalist arrived at Piers Court uninvited in 1955, looking for an interview, Waugh considered the house “polluted”. A year later, he moved to Somerset.
What he would have made of the residency in his old home now of self-declared “super-fans” (or “tenants from hell” in the words of the Daily Mail, which also described one of the couple as the “Hyacinth Bucket of Cheshire”), is a matter for useless speculation.
Perhaps he would have been comforted by the philosophy of a fellow novelist who did once own a big house in Ireland, Elizabeth Bowen. Reviewing the history of her ancestral Bowen’s Court, near Mallow, she drew a parallel between architecture and literary fiction:
“In building as in writing, something one did not reckon with always waits to add itself to the plan. In fact, if this (sometimes combative) unexpected element be not present, the building or book remains academic, without living force.
“In raising a family house, one is raising a theatre: one knows the existing players, guesses at their successors, but cannot tell which plays may be acted there. Henry Bowen III [the house’s 18th-century builder] could not do more than indicate that life ought to be lived in a certain way. Time, the current of politics, debts, personalities, weather, were all matters for which he could not legislate.”
Elizabeth was the last of the Bowens to live there. She was forced to sell in 1959 and the house was demolished soon afterwards. During its latter years, it seems to have been an example of what changed Evelyn Waugh’s mind about moving here. A novelist who stayed there once, Virginia Woolf, declared it “merely a great stone box, [...] full of Italian mantelpieces and decayed eighteenth furniture, and carpets all in holes”.