"Not His Sort of Story": Evelyn Waugh and Pauline Melville in Guyana

By Ness, Robert | ARIEL, October 2007 | Go to article overview

"Not His Sort of Story": Evelyn Waugh and Pauline Melville in Guyana


Ness, Robert, ARIEL


On December 12, 1932, Evelyn Waugh set sail from England for what was then the colony of British Guiana. (1) Recently divorced, and suffering the mortification of the cuckold, he had left London with a "heart of lead" (Diaries 354), driven away by the craving to put substantial distance between himself and home. South America seemed suitably "far flung ... [with its] impenetrable Guiana forests" (Hastings 266). The resulting narrative, Ninety-Two Days (1934), suggests by its title less an excursion to lands appealingly far-flung than a tribulation or penitential act to be gotten through. Though Waugh claims in Ninety- Two Days to be interested in "distant and barbarous places, and particularly in the borderlands of conflicting cultures and states of development" (11), he did not pay much attention to his surroundings in Guiana. Indeed, one of his biographers, Selina Hastings, sums up his attitude as follows: "[T]here can have been few travel writers ... who show less curiosity about their surroundings. Although prepared to note the architecture, go to Mass, and drink with members of the expatriate population, Evelyn rarely displays more than a superficial inquisitiveness about the country or its indigenous inhabitants" (269). (2)

His first sight of Georgetown harbor was not encouraging: "hope dried up in one at the sight of it" (Ninety-Two Days 12). Waugh's recorded his general impression of Georgetown in his Diaries: "I don't care how soon I leave it" (360). He traveled by canoe and horse through the forests and savannahs of Guiana and Brazil, suffering considerably from heat, hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, vampire bats, and especially insects. The rivers he thought "unendurably monotonous" and the Amerindians he dismissed as "unattractive, squat and dingy, with none of the grace

one expects in savages" (122). Though Waugh acknowledged that the Indians could on occasion be cheerful and well-disposed, and were chiefly fond of hunting, pets, and strong drink (which Waugh fancies as an English resemblance), he found them mostly elusive and obscure, solitary, suspicious, lazy, and without ambition, drifting by on their "unexplained and pointless errands, moving invisibly like the tides" (78). In his Diaries, he noted that the "negroes" on the other hand were more cheerful and "comic," though ramshackle and "hobbledehoy" (359).

In Georgetown, he spent most of his time drinking rum swizzles at the local expatriate club; on the savannahs he sought out relative measures of comfort with ranchers and priests (Waugh was a recent Catholic convert), where he could dine on food more palatable than the unvarying "farine" (cassava) and "tasso" (dried meat) he was served up along the route. Along the way he encountered a number of eccentrics, including the descendants of the "highly romantic ... Mr. Melville" (Diaries 24), which I will go on to address further. Upon his return from the bush Waugh summed up Guiana as a "civilization in its retreat ... a place returning to solitude and desolation frivolously disturbed ... a destructive and predatory civilization" (161-62). Back in England, he confided to a friend that he had just returned from "a journey of the greatest misery. ... Am getting rid of some of the horrors of life in the forest" (Hastings 281).

Pauline Melville, author of The Ventriloquist's Tale (1997), was born in Guyana and is part British. Her mother's family were "a tribe of AngloSaxons if there ever was one, blonde and blue-eyed," and she is also part Guyanese and describes her father's family as "a genetic bouquet of African, Amerindian and European features, a family gazing out from dark, watchful eyes" ("Beyond the Pale" 739-40). (3) Melville descends from the "highly romantic Mr. Melville" of whom Waugh wrote in 1933, and thus she has made an autobiographical investment in her own fiction by introducing both her forebears and Waugh as characters in The Ventriloquist's Tale. In fact, she has laid Waugh's travel book and diary under requisition to help provide several characters and events in her novel. …

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