Fierce friends, bitter rivals: Evelyn Waugh and Robert Byron
Christopher Sykes was a close friend and touring companion of both Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) and the intriguing but nearly forgotten travel writer Robert Byron (1905-41). On a trip to Istanbul in 1951, Sykes and Waugh visited Santa Sophia, built as a Byzantine church and converted into an Ottoman mosque. In his biography of Waugh, Sykes recalled that Waugh, a self-styled connoisseur of architecture, “did what he could to make it impossible for me to enjoy and admire that defaced but splendid cathedral. He kept up a continual commentary of denigration.”
Waugh also went on to denigrate the late Robert Byron, renewing his lifelong conflict with a man who had once been a close friend. In his outburst Waugh insisted that Byron did not have a degree (like Waugh, he took a Third) and maintained that his passion for Byzantine art was a merely a bogus perversion and fad: “He hadn’t done his work and was sent down without a degree so he turned against the classics, and proclaimed post-classical Greek art as the ideal. He was so embarrassingly ignorant that he thought he’d discovered it. Imagine [St Sophia] a small building and it’s nothing, whereas a small Baroque church can have all the beauty of the Gesù  in Rome and more. [St Sophia is] impressive because it’s big, like a great big toad.” When Sykes asked if he’d ever told Byron his opinion of this supreme Byzantine masterpiece, Waugh replied with astonishing rage: “I hated him! I hated him! I hated him.”
Sykes (1975) and Waugh’s other biographers – Martin Stannard (1986), Selina Hastings (1994), Douglas Patey (1998) and Philip Eade (2016) – follow each other with superficial accounts of Waugh’s extraordinary hatred of Byron, but never provide a convincing explanation of the animus behind their emotional and professional rivalry. Both were close contemporaries, born in London with middle-class origins: Waugh’s father was a publisher, Byron’s father an engineer. But Byron’s name was illustrious; though his connection to the poet was remote, it carried great prestige during his travels in Greece. Waugh’s first name seemed effeminate and embarrassing and the risible Waugh seemed to rhyme with laugh. Both men were short, plump and physically unattractive. Waugh was not pleased when Byron teased him about his notable resemblance to Dylan Thomas – lower-class, obese and slovenly. Byron had been educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford; Waugh at the less prestigious Lancing and Hertford College.
At Oxford, Waugh and Byron were both homosexuals, and appeared wherever people cross-dressed and were drunk together. Both struck poses and pretended to admire Victorian bad taste. Byron bore a peculiar resemblance to Queen Victoria and did a star-turn imitating her costume and demeanour. They snobbishly sucked up to aristocrats, rejoiced in outrageous behaviour and indulged in extreme rudeness. After Oxford they suffered mental breakdowns. Their similar temperaments were both the basis of their friendship and a principal reason for Waugh’s reaction against his youthful companion. Waugh came to see Byron as an extreme embodiment of the characteristics he loathed in himself.
Anthony Powell described Byron’s extraordinary looks. He was “stocky, very fair, his complexion of yellowish wax, popping pale blue eyes, a long sharp nose.” Waugh, with ill-concealed revulsion, called him “short, fleshy and ugly in a painfully ignominious way. His complexion was yellow. He dealt with his ill looks by making them grotesque”, dressing eccentrically to heighten the effect and attract attention.
Byron’s ill-favoured appearance did not restrict his sexual activity. After Oxford, and on his travels where he had more sexual freedom, Byron continued to exhibit his flamboyant manner, while Waugh concealed what he considered a shameful episode. Powell, the only close friend who discussed Byron’s homosexuality, was told that on a train “in the Far East somewhere Robert was having an affair with the Japanese wagon-lit man.” Powell also quoted Byron’s most outrageous statement without explaining what he meant. Asked what he would like best in the world, Byron exclaimed, “To be an incredibly beautiful male prostitute with a sharp sting in my bottom.” In his no-holes-barred fantasy Byron wanted to attract unlimited lovers while punishing them, like a sadistic wasp, for sodomising him. Orwell famously condemned these “so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging.”
Despite his effeminate behaviour Byron could be surprisingly strong and aggressive. Humphrey Carpenter wrote that, at Oxford, Byron once led the aesthetes in an attack that inflicted serious injuries on the hearties: “One heroic evening they fell like ninepins before a barrage of champagne bottles flung by Robert Byron from a strategic position at the head of the stairs with a force and precision that radically changed the pattern of Oxford rowing for the rest of the term.”
Byron struck so many poses at Oxford that it was difficult to determine when he was serious. His homosexual friend Harold Acton recalled that Byron “believed that never had Britain been more resplendent than between 1846 and 1865. The vision of a ‘large-limbed, high-coloured Victorian England, seated in honour and plenty’ was constantly before him.” But in his best book, The Road to Oxiana (1937), on travels through Persia and Afghanistan, Byron praises the anti-decorative and perfectly chaste Palladian style: “You cannot analyse it – nothing could be more lucid.” His Victorianism, including imitations of the old Queen, was actually a camp joke, aimed both at his father’s values and the deterioration of English taste in the nineteenth century.
Byron also expressed hostility to the superficial and derivative work of Bloomsbury artists by punning on the morbidity of Museum Street and recommending a much livelier but unfashionable district in West London: “Paddington is the symbol of all that Bloomsbury is not. In place of the refined peace of those mausoleum streets, here are public houses, fun-fairs, buses, tubes and vulgar posters. Also here are small brick houses, Gothic mews, and great tapering tenements in which to live” – though he never chose to live there himself.
At Eton and Oxford, Byron emphasised his insularity and pretended to be horrified by going abroad and confronting foreigners, but actually spent most of his adult life on adventurous journeys. Like Waugh, Powell was a shrewd observer, both fascinated and repelled by Byron. He wrote that Byron “was energetic, ambitious, violent, quarrelsome, with views in complete contrast with those of the typical precocious schoolboy of the period. Anti-Nineties, the very words “intellectual” or “good taste” threw him into paroxysms of rage. He was in any case habitually in a state of barely controlled exasperation about everything. There was a great deal of toughness, mental and physical, both camouflaged by wild buffoonery and exotic behaviour.” Powell called Byron, who adored his “artistic” mother and ignored his philistine father, “the Mum’s Boy to end all Mum’s Boys,” but did not connect his maternal adoration to his homosexuality. All Byron’s friends commented on his violent temperament and ferocious manners, his furious enthusiasms and tyrannical antagonisms. When an eminent bore droned on and on at dinner, Byron screamed at him with shocking rudeness, “Can’t you shut up, you hideous old relic of the Victorian age?”
Byron’s fierce opposition to the prevailing glorification of Classical Greece was the basso ostinato of his entire existence. He believed that the Byzantine Empire (330-1453) was the acme of Hellenic greatness. Acton, whom Byron visited in China in 1937, remarked that “Byzantium had captured his one-track imagination: it was the fount of all true art; so long as an object was Byzantine he saw a meaning in every line and curve. Now every ray of his searchlight was directed towards El Greco, the culmination, for him, of the Byzantine ideal” — an ideal which the Greek-born painter had introduced to Western art. Just as Waugh would later violently condemn St Sophia when traveling in Istanbul with Sykes, so Byron amused and irritated Acton, who recalled that he “inveighed against Chinese architecture, which he refused to accept as architecture. He exaggerated his contempt for my benefit. ‘These are tents, booths and summer-houses, pshaw!—contraptions for bazaars.’ ”
Sykes’ description of Byron’s egoistical blundering and comical performance when catching a boat in Cyprus exemplifies his assertion, when abroad, of superiority in act as well as in art: “I saw a round figure dressed in jodhpurs and a tweed jacket, and with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, fairly charging along the jetty to a sound of clattering cameras, pencil-cases and folios which hung about him. A gigantic Negro followed at a half-run with his bags. I watched from the deck. Arrived at the boat he showed his ticket, returned it to his pocket, and then made a sort of dive at the officials, swam through them on a breast-stroke and mounted the gangway. ‘Hallo, I’m late.’ ”
What accounted for the confrontational behaviour and pathological extremism of Roberto Furioso? Apart from an obscure organic disturbance, he always wanted to attract attention to himself, had a megalomaniacal belief in his own importance, was frustrated by his lack of the wealth that many of his friends had inherited, and felt insufficiently respected and rewarded for his arduous travels and hard work.
Lacking a private income and always short of funds to support his constant journeys, Byron was shamelessly greedy and unscrupulous when exploiting anyone who could help him. Yet Powell noted the self-defeating aspect of Byron’s self-centred quest: “Not at all averse from going out of his way to make himself agreeable to rich or influential people likely to be of use . . . at the same time [he was] prepared to have a blood row at a moment’s notice with anyone whomsoever, no matter how inconvenient to his own interests.” Waugh was circumspect when cultivating the rich. But he shared Byron’s anti-American streak, zest for foreign journeys and innovative travel writing. Sykes said Byron used “a typewriter as freely as a pen, with the cigarette never out of his mouth, and the wireless bellowing classical music at him.”
Powell emphasised Byron’s eccentricity and exoticism, and noted that he “was immensely competitive, which made him jealous of everybody, including Evelyn. Evelyn certainly didn’t care for Robert, while respecting him.” Their competition heated up as early as 1929 when Waugh enviously wrote to Henry Green, “Robert Byron has beaten us all by going to India in an aeroplane which is the sort of success which I call tangible.”
Byron’s role in Waugh’s first marriage the previous year (June 27, 1928) was a crucial turning point in their once amicable relations. In April 1927 Waugh recorded in his diary, “I have met such a nice girl named Evelyn Gardner and renewed my friendship with Robert Byron”. Three weeks before the wedding, Byron told his mother that they were all practically living together: “Evelyn Waugh has come to live opposite – Evelyn Gardner is living on the ground floor at Upper Montagu Street – so they both spend all their lives in here – as their own rooms are so disgusting.” Two days before the wedding he mentioned his strong-armed ceremonial duty: “I have to fetch Evelyn Gardner to the church and I know she won’t come.”
Waugh liked to pretend that their marriage was an impulsive whim: “Evelyn and I began to go to Dulwich to see the pictures there but got bored waiting for the right bus so went instead to the Vicar General’s [administrative] office and bought a marriage licence.” Acton described the hastily arranged and covert affair, at an unfashionable venue, with Evelyn Gardner’s flatmate attending: “I found myself standing, in the guise of ‘best man,’ at a secret wedding in a Protestant church off Baker Street. Robert Byron gave the bride away. So overcome was she that she could scarcely bring herself to breathe the words ‘I do.’ Evelyn’s brother Alec and Pansy Pakenham were the only others present, and I gave a ‘wedding breakfast’ at Boulestin’s after the ceremony.” Attended by two homosexuals, Gardner, whom Henry Green called “a very silly piece,” was a boyish, young woman, with a flat chest, short hair and long chin.
Following a disastrous honeymoon, Waugh’s marriage ended abruptly after only thirteen months when She-Evelyn confessed her love affair with the caddish Irish baronet and journalist Sir John Heygate. Shocked and humiliated, Waugh sought sympathy from Byron, who seemed to feel Schadenfreude about the foolish marriage. In February 1930 he told his mother: “I had a letter from Evelyn poor creature about his divorce – he is still paying for the furniture in the flat now inhabited by the other Evelyn and Heygate. They have both behaved abominably.” Devastated by She-Evelyn’s betrayal, Waugh sought refuge in religion and converted to Catholicism that year.
In 1936 Waugh pulled tassels to have his first marriage annulled and wed the homely “timid white mouse” Laura Herbert. She was a strict Catholic from an aristocratic family, and he engendered seven burdensome children to show he was a real (not queer) man. Waugh’s friends would have been pleased to know that Heygate came to a bad end. Heygate was divorced from She-Evelyn in 1936 and from his second wife in 1947, and became a widower when his third wife died. In 1976 he shot himself.
The most obvious reason for the rupture of Waugh’s friendship was Byron’s virulent anti-Catholic attacks, which shook the precarious foundation of Waugh’s newly acquired faith. Byron’s hostility, favouring Byzantine over Catholic art and architecture, was aesthetic as well as spiritual. Douglas Patey pointed out that “all Byron’s books of the twenties pause to attack Rome, the papacy and Catholic art, favouring instead Byzantine and Islamic styles. Waugh also meant to irritate Byron by consistently mocking ‘the glamour of the East,’ by running down the Orthodox churches he visited (always unfavourably compared to Catholic), and by his wholesale, deliberately Blimpish condemnation of Islamic art and culture.”
Waugh shrewdly perceived that in The Road to Oxiana Byron had falsely attributed his own obsessive anti-Catholic ranting to an Orthodox priest. Sykes explained that Byron lived in great dread of a Vatican conspiracy – which he connected to Mussolini’s fascism and Pope Pius XII’s sympathy with Hitler: “He foolishly introduced this anti-Catholic mania into his book, and he did it in a way that Evelyn recognised as fraudulent. Robert was a very poor linguist. All the non-English conversations recorded in his book are invented. Among them is a supposed talk with a Greek priest in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Greek priest is represented as expressing his utter contempt of Roman Catholic pilgrims. Evelyn spotted that this was Robert up to his old tricks. I was there and can positively affirm that even if the nice-mannered young priest had descended to vulgar abuse, Robert would have missed it through ignorance of Greek.”
It was bad enough for Byron to inject venomous anti-Catholic propaganda into his books, but even worse when he was personally offensive. Sykes, a Catholic who often saw them together, was shocked when Byron became even “more violently and hysterically anti-Catholic than before. Whenever they met, Robert lost no opportunity of exasperating Evelyn by anti-Catholic tirades in which he often descended to the grossest blasphemy. After a while Evelyn . . . found it impossible to take this mixture of prejudice, ignorance, loutishness and sheer silliness with good humour. The friendship slowly terminated.” Out of control as usual, jealous and envious when Waugh’s career took off, Byron was either trying to test the limits of Waugh’s tolerance or attempting to sever their relations forever. Rebecca West, infuriated by Waugh’s convenient conversion, helped explain Byron’s hostility: “Waugh made drunkenness cute and chic, and then took to religion, simply to have the most expensive carpet of all to be sick on.
I DON’T LIKE IT.”
Byron never wrote about Waugh, but Waugh alluded to Byron in two of his books, reviewed works by and about him, and wrote a caustic analysis of his character. Byron told Waugh he was “very cross” about the satirical portrait of him as a freakish, offensive and effeminate character in Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall (1928). Lord Parakeet arrived late and drunk at Mrs Beste-Chewynde’s weekend party and “walked round birdlike and gay, pointing his thin white nose and making rude little jokes at everyone in turn in a shrill emasculate voice.”
Byron’s first book, Europe in the Looking-Glass (1926), whose title alludes to the fantasies of Lewis Carroll, describes his car trip from London to Constantinople. In his travel book Labels (1930) Waugh amusingly parodied – with a sting at the bottom – Byron’s typically pretentious, chromatic and swooning description of the Sicilian island of Stromboli: “I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting” (my italics).
Waugh’s review of The Road to Oxiana in the Spectator (July 2,1937) revealed his own competitive streak but was generous, despite Byron’s egregious faults, about his idiosyncratic opinions: “Mr. Byron is an inveterate and indefatigable professional; he began writing before most of his generation and will, I hope, long flourish when the rest of them have given up. He admits no limits to his insatiable aesthetic curiosity and no standards of judgment but his personal reactions. It is a grave handicap, but Mr. Byron’s gusto is so powerful that the reader can only applaud.”
In the Catholic Tablet (December 7, 1946), five years after Byron’s death, Waugh reviewed Sykes’ Four Studies in Loyalty, which contained a long chapter of over-the-top adoration of Byron. Waugh respectfully held fire, paid homage to Byron and only hinted at his extreme hostility to his political views: “Sykes quotes extensively from Byron’s published work. These extracts are pungent, bursting with life, exuberant, vehement in argument, rollicking in humour, like Byron himself.” In contrast to “the earlier, carefree aesthete and traveller,” Byron’s dark mood in the last years of peace “arose from the sense of a personal, frustrated mission to arouse his fellow-countrymen to the imminence of war.” Sykes admitted that Waugh, unwilling to offend Byron’s memory or provoke his friends, did not mean a word of his praise. As Waugh told Nancy Mitford, who adored Byron, Christopher Sykes has written “a lot of balls about the late Robert Byron.”
To balance Sykes’ unseemly adulation, Waugh finally took revenge on Byron in two caustic pages of his late autobiography A Little Learning (1964). The title comes from Alexander Pope’s couplet in his Essay on Criticism: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” While Waugh was modest about his own considerable erudition, he was outraged that the astonishingly ignorant Byron was treated as the learned authority of distinguished books. As Thomas Gray also wrote, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” At Oxford, Waugh noted, Byron was a provincial, uneducated and awkward writer, who perversely thought Hamlet was an “emotional hoax”.
At the age of eighteen Robert gave no discernible promise of the adventurous journeys and the frantic craving for knowledge which obsessed his later years. Then he was as insular as I—“Down with abroad,” he used to shout when travel was mentioned. He learned little at school or at the university and later was disposed to think that masters and dons had concealed from him for their own ends the information he subsequently acquired. Anything they had tried to teach him—the Classics and Shakespeare—he dismissed as an imposture. He never learned to write elegant or perfectly correct English. His talent was for narrative, the sharply observed scene, the pungent anecdote, the fugitive absurdity. Later his aspirations grew vastly wider, but at Oxford he was purely a clown and a very good one.
Waugh thought Byron was deliberately provocative, specialised in bad behaviour and was an ugly drunkard: “He leered and scowled, screamed and snarled, fell into rages that were sometimes real and sometimes a charade. Wherever he went he created a disturbance, falling down in the street in simulated epilepsy, yelling to passers-by from the back of a motor-car that he was being kidnapped. . . . [He was determined] to force his way into the worlds of power and fashion; and he succeeded. Robert in his cups was pugnacious, destructive and sottish, lapsing before the evening was out into an unlovely sleep.”
Though Waugh’s travels extended from Guiana to Spitsbergen, he feared that Byron might surpass him. Waugh had initially forgiven his egregious faults and allowed that Byron “was much loved and, eventually, admired. I liked him and, until the fractious late ’30s, when his violent opinions became, to me, intolerably repugnant, I greatly relished his company.” When writing about Byron’s extensive travels, physical appearance, outrageous behaviour, offensive rudeness and frequent drunkenness, Waugh was also writing about himself. But he does not mention Byron’s homosexuality and attacks on religion, nor give the specific reasons for their political quarrel in the prewar years.
In an unusually sad and regretful comment about politics and the preservation of Georgian architecture in London, Byron said, “One spends one’s life trying to save things—Jews, buildings, not to mention the world as a whole.” He had seen the violent fascist demonstrations near Vienna in October 1928 and witnessed the rabid Nuremberg Rally in September 1938, when he and Diana Mosley sat close to Hitler. So he was one of the first British observers to recognise the fatal threat to European Jews. Acton reported that Byron “had no illusions about the Nazi menace: he could talk of little else. Tiresomely tactless, he scoffed at Chamberlain’s supporters”. When a dinner companion praised Chamberlain’s disastrous appeasement of Hitler, Byron leaned across the table and provocatively asked, “Are you in German pay?” Not entirely satisfied with that public insult, he sadistically added: “I’d like very much to have you under a glass case with a pin struck through you. I’d have a label tied round your neck. I’d show you to people with strong stomachs. A perfect specimen of the British ruling class today.”
Waugh was pro-Mussolini and anti-Semitic; Byron was anti-Hitler and pro-Zionist. Waugh hated him for his political views even more than for his anti-Catholic tirades. He mistakenly thought Byron was a Communist and, Sykes noted, regarded his politics “as no more than a violent expression of the fashionable Leftist silliness of Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman. In short Evelyn saw in Robert a phenomenon which invariably roused his ire, a thoroughly overrated man.”
Acton recalled that Waugh “was antagonised by the violence of Byron’s opinions and talked as if he might become a public menace.” He was even more furious in a letter to Acton of April 1948, when he exclaimed, “I greatly disliked Robert in his last years and think he was a dangerous lunatic better dead.” After the war against Germany, when the anti-Nazi warnings of the “lunatic” proved all-too-accurate, Waugh still refused to recognise the value of Byron’s prophecies. He could never accept the fact that Byron had been right and he’d been wrong.
Byron’s mysterious death has been described in vague, misleading and even quite mistaken ways by several journalists and biographers. His sister’s editorial note in Byron’s Letters Home (1991) states that his ship was “torpedoed by the Scharnhorst off the north of Scotland,” and Jeremy Treglown’s biography of Henry Green (2000) repeats this error. In fact, the Scharnhorst was a battle cruiser, not a submarine armed with torpedoes. It was not on the scene and was not involved in Byron’s death.
On February 24, 1941, Byron, listed as a war correspondent, was a passenger on the cargo ship Jonathan Holt. It was sailing in a wintry sea from Liverpool to the coast of West Africa, and he planned to continue around the Cape of Good Hope to Egypt. Instead of heading directly south to Africa, the ship sailed northwest from Liverpool to rendezvous with a convoy of warships that would escort them to their destinations. But before it reached them the Jonathan Holt was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-97, in the North Atlantic between Scotland and Iceland. Six men were saved; Byron and 51 others were drowned. Trapped in the sinking ship, he gasped for air as his lungs filled with water. In The Castaway the eighteenth-century poet William Cowper vividly portrayed the terror of drowning at sea:
Obscurest night involved the sky,
The Atlantic billows roared,
When such a destined wretch as I,
Washed headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.
Four of the ten passengers were agents of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), who carried out espionage and sabotage in Axis-occupied Europe. Byron may have been a spy posing as a correspondent. His friends would have been glad to learn that in June 1943 the U-97 submarine, which had sunk 16 ships, was itself sunk in the Mediterranean, west of Haifa, by a depth charge from an Australian plane.
Waugh’s self-loathing and competitive spirit combined with Byron’s tirades against Catholicism and vehement political views were the most obvious causes of Waugh’s violent hatred. But there were also more subtle reasons. Byron had been an eyewitness and painful reminder of the two most discreditable and humiliating episodes in Waugh’s life: his Oxford homosexuality and disastrous first marriage. The cuckolded Waugh wanted to suppress and forget them, while the antagonistic Byron always remembered and ridiculed them.
After Waugh’s marriage broke up, his competition with Byron continued with their emotional rivalry for the affection of the exceptionally beautiful Diana Mitford. Byron was chief usher at Diana’s wedding to Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewery fortune, in 1929, the year She-Evelyn left Waugh. Diana later divorced Guinness and married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascists. In March 1966, a month before his death, Waugh wrote a regretful letter to Diana explaining why, before she married Mosley and adopted his adoration of Hitler, their friendship petered out: “I was infatuated with you. Not of course that I aspired to your bed but I wanted you to myself as especial confidante and comrade. . . . I felt lower in your affections than Harold Acton and Robert Byron and I couldn’t compete or take a humbler place. That is the sad and sordid truth.” Waugh’s feelings had become even more anguished when he learned that Diana’s sister Jessica wanted to marry Robert Byron. But she misunderstood his kind of fashionable adult homosexuality, which confused and distressed her, and said “he was a total pederast. . . . This wretched pederasty falsifies all feelings and yet one is supposed to revere it” in sophisticated society.
Finally, Waugh felt guilty about the effect of the war on their lives and reputations. He had secured an army commission, had an undistinguished record during the British retreat from Crete and his military liaison with Tito in Yugoslavia. He survived the war and died straining himself on the lavatory. Byron, whose violent temper prevented him from getting a commission, was Waugh’s only close Oxford friend who died through enemy action. The dead Byron seemed to emerge from the war with more glory than the living Waugh. In venting his hatred, despite the great achievement of his novels, Waugh must have felt, as Gore Vidal sharply observed, “it was not enough to succeed, others [like Byron] must fail.”
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