Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The ordeal of Evelyn Waugh

Stephen McWilliams
Dublin, Ireland

Evelyn Waugh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

In Evelyn Waugh’s second-last novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), the eponymous character experiences some singular and troubling symptoms. Mr. Pinfold is a successful writer, not unlike Waugh himself, who embarks on a sea voyage in an effort to cure the chronic insomnia and fatigue he suffers from consuming too much alcohol, bromide, and chloral. He starts to hear derogatory voices, which continuously taunt and insult him, and even follow him when he leaves the ship in fear and frustration. He returns to England, where his physician—Dr. Drake—diagnoses him with bromide poisoning, but Mr. Pinfold begs to differ and wonders whether he has just defeated the forces of evil in his head.

Waugh often referred to The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold as his “mad book,” mostly because it is a lightly fictionalized account of a psychotic episode experienced by the author himself three years before its publication. Waugh’s friends and colleagues praised the book but some critics did not, although the columnist and critic A.N. Wilson subsequently referred to it as “A taut, brilliantly phrased and crafted story… One reads it with tears of laughter streaming down one’s cheeks.”1 While the depiction of Waugh as Mr. Pinfold was generally well received (although some readers suggested that the author simply fictionalized the exaggerated persona he often cultivated in company to protect his privacy), the rest of the story, and particularly the ending, were felt to be weak. Still, some real-life endings are weak, and the book was nevertheless dramatized subsequently for radio and the stage.

Waugh was born in London on 28 October 1903. The second son of Arthur Waugh, a publisher and literary critic, he was educated at Lancing and then attended Hertford College, Oxford, where he read Modern History. He embarked on a short-lived career as a schoolmaster before taking to writing full time and enjoying the lifestyle that went with it. He consorted with the wealthy and the fashionable; many of his friends were aristocrats who lived in large country houses. In the 1930s, Waugh traveled extensively in a journalistic capacity, visiting most of Europe, the Near East, Africa, and Central America. He covered the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, and published Waugh in Abyssinia the following year. His other travel books include Labels (1930), Remote People (1931), and Ninety-Two Days (1934). During World War II, he was commissioned first in the Royal Marines and later in the Royal Horse guards, and served in the Middle East and Yugoslavia.

Waugh’s instinctive understanding of human nature, well-honed through experience and humanized through wit, was evident in his most famous novels. These included Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), Scoop (1938), and his masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited (1945). The latter was made into an award-winning television series in 1981, starring Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons, and Sir Laurence Olivier.2 Men at Arms (1952), the first volume in the Sword of Honour trilogy, was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.3 Waugh himself was modest about his abilities. He once remarked, “I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me.”4

Yet by 1953, Waugh was a little out of vogue. Having converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930, shortly after the failure of his first marriage, he had become increasingly traditionalist by the 1950s. He believed, for example, that the Latin Mass should be retained, and he strongly opposed the changes made by the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). He no longer commanded the generous publishers’ advances that he once did and, bearing in mind his lavish lifestyle, he was running out of money. His health was also beginning to fail. As Waugh was getting harder of hearing, he was also getting grumpier. Indeed, there is an often-repeated anecdote about Waugh and his ear trumpet, which famously sold for £2,200 at Forum Auctions, Westbury Hotel, London on 30 March 2017.5 If you were seated next to him at a country house dinner and started to bore him with your polite conversation, he would gently lower the ear trumpet to the table while he continued to smile and nod as though he could hear you. To be fair, Waugh was also reputed to be kind and generous to his friends and to his wife and six children.

Waugh’s increasingly impecunious circumstances led him to accept a radio interview at the BBC in November 1953. It did not go well, according to an article by Mark Brown in The Guardian in 2008.6 Brown noted Peter Fleming’s comment in the Spectator that he “had never heard an interview conducted in public on such ill-natured terms,” comparing it to “the goading of a bull by picadors.” A very similar radio interview is described in the first chapter of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, in which the protagonist remarks, “They tried to make an ass of me. I don’t believe they succeeded.”7 As late autumn sets in, we learn of Mr. Pinfold’s “sleeping-draught.” We are told that he “suggested to his chemist that it would save trouble to have the essential ingredients in full strength and to dilute them himself” and that “after various experiments he found that they were most palatable in crème de menthe.”8 Moreover, “He was not scrupulous in measuring the dose” and “splashed into the glass as much as his mood suggested.”

The results are as unfortunate as they are predictable. By mid-November, Mr. Pinfold observes himself to be “disagreeably flushed, particularly after drinking his normal, not illiberal, quantity of wine and brandy.” At Christmas, “During that week of dread, 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.”9 Dr. Drake puts it all down to an allergy, but Mr. Pinfold is not so sure and suspects that his medicine is to blame. He notices “the behaviour of his memory,” which “began to play him tricks.” Specifically, “He remembered everything in clear detail but he remembered it wrong,” resulting in some episodes that would later cause him embarrassment.10 His joints begin to ache severely, “especially the feet, ankles, and knees, agonized him.”11 He becomes clumsy, finding “his buttons and laces intractable, his handwriting in the few letters which his journey necessitated, uncertain, his spelling, never strong, wildly barbaric.”12 He becomes paranoid and irritable, dispatching telegrams to acquaintances he thinks are associated with his travel agent, urging them to “Kindly investigate wanton inefficiency in your office.”13 All of this brings Mrs. Pinfold to observe, “Either you’re drinking too much, or doping too much, or both.”14

Presumably experiencing symptoms similar to those of his autobiographical protagonist, Waugh set off on his own ill-fated winter voyage early in 1954. On 29 January, he boarded a ship bound for Ceylon in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, like Mr. Pinfold, “He hobbled on two sticks, one of blackthorn, the other of Malacca cane.”15 Like Mr. Pinfold, Waugh hoped to finish a novel but, within days of departure, he was sending home messages citing a belief that the other passengers were whispering about him; indeed, he even wrote that he could hear the voice of Stephen Black, one of his recent interviewers on the BBC. He disembarked in Egypt and flew on to Colombo, but the voices seemed to follow, leading him to believe that he was possessed by the devil. On his return to England, it was quickly established by his doctor that he was suffering bromide poisoning from his medications. He made a full recovery, and died instead of heart failure on 10 April 1966.

We do not see bromide poisoning much anymore, but there was a time in the early twentieth century when the long-term consumption of bromine—usually through bromine-based sedatives such as potassium bromide and lithium bromide—could result in psychosis and a consequent admission to a psychiatric hospital. Neurological and psychiatric symptoms included restlessness, irritability, ataxia (loss of balance), confusion, hallucinations, persecutory delusions, weakness, stupor, or even coma.16 Other symptoms typically included gastrointestinal disturbance and rash. Once identified, bromide poisoning was generally treatable, and death was rare. As such, both Mr. Pinfold and Mr. Waugh were thankfully able to put their unpleasant ordeals behind them and get on with life.

End notes

  1. Wilson, AN. “World of Books: Merciless and Mad – Waugh at his Best.” The Telegraph, 12 December 2005. Accessed 15 November 2022. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3621682/World-of-books.html.
  2. Winner of the 1982 British Academy Television Award for Best Drama Series or Serial (Granada Television) and Best Actor (Anthony Andrews), among other accolades including Golden Globes and a Primetime Emmy Award (Sir Laurence Olivier).
  3. The other two volumes in the trilogy were Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961).
  4. Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. London: Penguin, 1962, p.1.
  5. Chesters, Laura. “Waugh’s ‘disgusting’ ear trumpet sells for £2200 at auction.” Antiques Trade Gazette, 10 April 2017.
  6. Brown, Mark. “Waugh at the BBC: ‘the most ill-natured interview ever’ on CD after 55 years.’” The Guardian, 15 April 2008.
  7. Waugh, Evelyn. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. London: Penguin, 1957, 19.
  8. Gilbert Pinfold, 21.
  9. Gilbert Pinfold, 24.
  10. Gilbert Pinfold, 22.
  11. Gilbert Pinfold, 25.
  12. Gilbert Pinfold, 26.
  13. Gilbert Pinfold, 26.
  14. Gilbert Pinfold, 24.
  15. Gilbert Pinfold, 31.
  16. Olson, Kent R. Poisoning & Drug Overdose, Fourth Edition. Appleton & Lange, 1 November 2003, 140–141. See also: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bromine-properties-incident-management-and-toxicology/bromine-toxicological-overview#:~:text=Acute%20inhalation%20exposure%20to%20bromine,acute%20dermal%20exposure%20to%20bromine. (Accessed 15 November 2022).

STEPHEN MCWILLIAMS is a Consultant Psychiatrist at Saint John of God Hospital, Dublin, and Associate Clinical Professor at the School of Medicine, UCD. He is a graduate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, London. His higher degrees include a doctorate of medicine (MD) from UCD. He is Medical Editor of Hospital Doctor of Ireland and has authored around 300 publications to date. His books include Fiction and Physicians: Medicine through the Eyes of Writers (Liffey Press, 2012) and Psychopath? Why We Are Charmed by the Anti-Hero (Mercier Press, 2020).

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 15, Issue 2 – Spring 2023

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