Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘My Last Case of Claret’ (Part 1)

By Chris Hopkins

Today our literary food blog is taken over by Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, for a two-parter on Evelyn Waugh.

The book is infused with a kind of gluttony … which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.

Evelyn Waugh, Preface to Brideshead Revisited, 1945, revised edition, 1959.

Philip Eade, one of Waugh’s most recent biographers, writes that Waugh was ‘repelled’ by ‘the abysmal wartime food as a result of which he experienced real hunger for the first time in his life’ (1). He and a fellow officer refused to eat the sheep’s heart served to them in one billet in March 1942 – they were told they must then find their own food in future (2). Some, of course, might consider these experiences a potentially beneficial experience for an author whose social attitudes were not always inclusive. However, like many others with the wherewithal, Waugh did his best to ameliorate wartime conditions wherever possible, and being myself fond of fine cooking, I am inclined to sympathise to an extent with his wartime food and wine cravings, at least. Sometimes, especially early in the war, his pessimistic culinary expectations were not met. Eade reports that when in early December 1940 Waugh went to join the Royal Marines at Chatham as a lieutenant (his application having received ‘strong’ support from Winston Churchill), he wrote to his wife Laura about a welcome surprise:

The food is absolutely excellent … on the first evening there was a cold supper on account of a play which was being given to us in our own theatre. I was led to the supper table with profuse apologies, and found lobster, fresh salmon, cold birds, hams, brawn, exactly like the cold table at the St James’s. Afterwards, several rounds of excellent vintage port. (p. 284).

In civilian clothes. Evelyn Waugh in 1940s. By Carl Van Vechten Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress). Public domain.

Things were, of course to get worse, as pre-war cellars and stocks were eaten into.

Lieutenant and then Captain Evelyn Waugh’s diary for the war years refer to meals taken as a guest at friends’ houses, as well as in restaurants and at his club, White’s. Some meals are judged as good, others as bad, but generally little further detail of what was eaten is given. However, what he and fellow diners drink is always recorded in detail, as are any cigars smoked. For example, here is part of his diary entry for the weeks from 1 April to Saturday 11 April, 1942:

[arrived at a dinner-party] rather tipsy from drinking champagne at White’s [club], where wine is now rationed – no port in the bar and only one glass in the coffee room (pp.519-20).

Or for 12 October 1942:

I have reached my last Havana cigars – fifty left in reserve. And my last case of claret (p. 529).

Or for 24 October, 1942:

Basil and I drank a bottle of Dows 1920 before dinner and another after it (p.529).

Or for 3 April, 1944:

drank a great deal of good wine which is getting scarcer daily but still procurable by those who take the trouble (p.561).

Part of the diary entry for 4 May 1944 is an exception, for the whole menu and accompanying wines are detailed, perhaps because Waugh as host is (justifiably) proud of its splendour, four years into rationing:

That night —- and John Sutro dined with me. I gave them a fine dinner – gulls’ eggs, consommé, partridge, haddock on toast, Perrier Jouet ’28, nearly a bottle a head, liqueur brandy, Partaga cigars – an unusual feast for these times (p. 562).

In uniform. Evelyn Waugh by Howard Coster. Circa 1940. National Portrait Gallery collection. Creative Commons licence.

Waugh generally-speaking seems to have managed to find wine and more-or-less decent food throughout the war, no doubt because he had the right contacts, and spent some of his literary income on the matter. In his diary entry for his thirty-ninth birthday, in addition to parenthood, he certainly thought wine (and cigars) worth mentioning and seemed to have enjoyed both on the majority of days in that war-time year:

A good year. I have begotten a fine daughter, published a successful book [Put Out More Flags], drunk 300 bottles of wine, and smoked 300 or more Havana cigars. I have got back to soldiering among friends … health excellent except when impaired by wine.

Evelyn Waugh, Diaries, 28 October 1942, p. 530. Also quoted by Eade. p. 315).

However, this does not mean he was not feeling the effects of rationing (as well as wine) – he was a bon viveur with a strong liking for French wines and cuisine in particular – and Europe was, of course, completely cut off for most of the war so that new supplies of many luxuries were often unobtainable. In Part 2 of this blog, we shall see how rationing affected not just Waugh’s dining habits (to an extent), but also his literary style.

Read Part 2 here.

NOTES

Note 1. Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2016, p.73, in a kindle edition. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text.

Note 2. The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Michael Davie, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1976, p.531, entry for Saturday 20th March 1942. All subsequent diary references are to the same edition and page numbers will be given in the text.

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