The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold
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The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

4.5 2
by Evelyn Waugh

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Gilbert Pinfold is a reclusive Catholic novelist suffering from acute inertia. In an attempt to defeat insomnia he has been imbibing an unappetizing cocktail of bromide, chloral, and creme de menthe. He books a passage on the SS Caliban and, as it cruises towards Ceylon, rapidly slips into madness. Almost as soon as the gangplank lifts, Pinfold hears sounds coming out


Gilbert Pinfold is a reclusive Catholic novelist suffering from acute inertia. In an attempt to defeat insomnia he has been imbibing an unappetizing cocktail of bromide, chloral, and creme de menthe. He books a passage on the SS Caliban and, as it cruises towards Ceylon, rapidly slips into madness. Almost as soon as the gangplank lifts, Pinfold hears sounds coming out of the ceiling of his cabin: wild jazz bands, barking dogs, and loud revival meetings. He is convinced that an erratic public-address system is letting him hear everything that goes on aboard ship . . . until instead of just sounds he hears voices. And not just any voices. These voices are talking, in the most frighteningly intimate way, about him!

Editorial Reviews

John Leonard
The very model of the modern paranoid novel.
New York Times
William Boyd
Unblinking candor informs Waugh's dark, comic vision.
Daily Telegraph
Gerald Sykes
Waugh's 'portrait of the artist in middle age' . . . is a genuine gothic horror, a gargoyle to terrify anyone who has ever contemplated a literary career. . . . The acid bath so often prepared for others has now found its way into his own tub. . . . Waugh draws an intimate picture of a distinguished author at bay.
New York Times Book Review
Gerald Sykes - New York Times Book Review
"Waugh's 'portrait of the artist in middle age' . . . is a genuine gothic horror, a gargoyle to terrify anyone who has ever contemplated a literary career. . . . The acid bath so often prepared for others has now found its way into his own tub. . . . Waugh draws an intimate picture of a distinguished author at bay."
William Boyd - Daily Telegraph
"Unblinking candor informs Waugh's dark, comic vision."
John Bailey
"The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is a masterpiece of self-portraiture, one of the very best in English fiction."
A. N. Wilson
"A masterpiece. . . . Waugh's clear-sightedness about himself . . . is something which, in this taut, brilliantly phrased and crafted story, is itself an assertion of order out of chaos."
John Leonard - New York Times
"The very model of the modern paranoid novel."
From the Publisher
"The very model of the modern paranoid novel."—John Leonard, New York Times"

Unblinking candor informs Waugh's dark, comic vision."—William Boyd, Daily Telegraph"

Waugh's 'portrait of the artist in middle age' . . . is a genuine gothic horror, a gargoyle to terrify anyone who has ever contemplated a literary career. . . . The acid bath so often prepared for others has now found its way into his own tub. . . . Waugh draws an intimate picture of a distinguished author at bay."—Gerald Sykes, New York Times Book Review"

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is a masterpiece of self-portraiture, one of the very best in English fiction."—John Bailey"

A masterpiece. . . . Waugh's clear-sightedness about himself . . . is something which, in this taut, brilliantly phrased and crafted story, is itself an assertion of order out of chaos."—A. N. Wilson

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Little, Brown and Company
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The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

By Evelyn Waugh

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2012 Evelyn Waugh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316216654


Portrait of the Artist in Middle-Age

It may happen in the next hundred years that the English novelists of the present day will come to be valued as we now value the artists and craftsmen of the late eighteenth century. The originators, the exuberant men, are extinct and in their place subsists and modestly flourishes a generation notable for elegance and variety of contrivance. It may well happen that there are lean years ahead in which our posterity will look back hungrily to this period, when there was so much will and so much ability to please.

Among these novelists Mr. Gilbert Pinfold stood quite high. At the time of his adventure, at the age of fifty, he had written a dozen books all of which were still bought and read. They were translated into most languages and in the United States of America enjoyed intermittent but lucrative seasons of favor. Foreign students often chose them as the subject for theses, but those who sought to detect cosmic significance in Mr. Pinfold’s work, to relate it to fashions in philosophy, social predicaments or psychological tensions, were baffled by his frank, curt replies to their questionnaires; their fellows in the English Literature School, who chose more egotistical writers, often found their theses more than half composed for them. Mr. Pinfold gave nothing away. Not that he was secretive or grudging by nature; he had nothing to give these students. He regarded his books as objects which he had made, things quite external to himself to be used and judged by others. He thought them well made, better than many reputed works of genius, but he was not vain of his accomplishment, still less of his reputation. He had no wish to obliterate anything he had written, but he would dearly have liked to revise it, envying painters, who are allowed to return to the same theme time and time again, clarifying and enriching until they have done all they can with it. A novelist is condemned to produce a succession of novelties, new names for characters, new incidents for his plots, new scenery; but, Mr. Pinfold maintained, most men harbor the germs of one or two books only; all else is professional trickery of which the most demonic of the masters—Dickens and Balzac even—were flagrantly guilty.

At the beginning of this fifty-first year of his life Mr. Pinfold presented to the world most of the attributes of well-being. Affectionate, high-spirited, and busy in childhood; dissipated and often despairing in youth; sturdy and prosperous in early manhood; he had in middle-age degenerated less than many of his contemporaries. He attributed this superiority to his long, lonely, tranquil days at Lychpole, a secluded village some hundred miles from London.

He was devoted to a wife many years younger than himself, who actively farmed the small property. Their children were numerous, healthy, good-looking, and good-mannered, and his income just sufficed for their education. Once he had traveled widely; now he spent most of the year in the shabby old house which, over the years, he had filled with pictures and books and furniture of the kind he relished. As a soldier he had sustained, in good heart, much discomfort and some danger. Since the end of the war his life had been strictly private. In his own village he took very lightly the duties which he might have thought incumbent on him. He contributed adequate sums to local causes but he had no interest in sport or in local government, no ambition to lead or to command. He had never voted in a parliamentary election, maintaining an idiosyncratic toryism which was quite unrepresented in the political parties of his time and was regarded by his neighbors as being almost as sinister as socialism.

These neighbors were typical of the English countryside of the period. A few rich men farmed commercially on a large scale; a few had business elsewhere and came home merely to hunt; the majority were elderly and in reduced circumstances; people who, when the Pinfolds settled at Lychpole, lived comfortably with servants and horses, and now lived in much smaller houses and met at the fishmonger’s. Many of these were related to one another, and formed a compact little clan. Colonel and Mrs. Bagnold, Mr. and Mrs. Graves, Mrs. and Miss Fawdle, Colonel and Miss Garbett, Lady Fawdle-Upton, and Miss Clarissa Bagnold all lived in a radius of ten miles from Lychpole. All were in some way related. In the first years of their marriage Mr. and Mrs. Pinfold had dined in all these households and had entertained them in return. But after the war the decline of fortune, less sharp in the Pinfolds’ case than their neighbors’, made their meetings less frequent. The Pinfolds were addicted to nicknames and each of these surrounding families had its own private, unsuspected appellation at Lychpole, not malicious but mildly derisive, taking its origin in most cases from some half-forgotten incident in the past. The nearest neighbor whom they saw most often was Reginald Graves-Upton, an uncle of the Graves-Uptons ten miles distant at Upper Mewling; a gentle, bee-keeping old bachelor who inhabited a thatched cottage up the lane less than a mile from the Manor. It was his habit on Sunday mornings to walk to church across the Pinfolds’ fields and leave his Cairn terrier in the Pinfolds’ stables while he attended Matins. He called for quarter of an hour when he came to fetch his dog, drank a small glass of sherry, and described the wireless programs he had heard during the preceding week. This refined, fastidious old gentleman went by the recondite name of “The Bruiser,” sometimes varied to “Pug,” “Basher,” and “Old Fisticuffs,” all of which sobriquets derived from “Boxer”; for in recent years he had added to his few interests an object which he reverently referred to as “The Box.”

This Box was one of many operating in various parts of the country. It was installed, under the skeptical noses of Reginald Graves-Upton’s nephew and niece, at Upper Mewling. Mrs. Pinfold, who had been taken to see it, said it looked like a makeshift wireless-set. According to the Bruiser and other devotees The Box exercised diagnostic and therapeutic powers. Some part of a sick man or animal—a hair, a drop of blood preferably—was brought to The Box, whose guardian would then “tune in” to the “life-waves” of the patient, discern the origin of the malady and prescribe treatment.

Mr. Pinfold was as skeptical as the younger Graves-Uptons. Mrs. Pinfold thought there must be something in it, because it had been tried, without her knowledge, on Lady Fawdle-Upton’s nettle-rash and immediate relief had followed.

“It’s all suggestion,” said young Mrs. Graves-Upton.

“It can’t be suggestion, if she didn’t know it was being done,” said Mr. Pinfold.

“No. It’s simply a matter of measuring the Life-Waves,” said Mrs. Pinfold.

“An extremely dangerous device in the wrong hands,” said Mr. Pinfold.

“No, no. That is the beauty of it. It can’t do any harm. You see it only transmits Life Forces. Fanny Graves tried it on her spaniel for worms, but they simply grew enormous with all the Life Force going into them. Like serpents, Fanny said.”

“I should have thought this Box counted as sorcery,” Mr. Pinfold said to his wife when they were alone. “You ought to confess it.”

“D’you really think so?”

“No, not really. It’s just a lot of harmless nonsense.”

The Pinfolds’ religion made a slight but perceptible barrier between them and these neighbors, a large part of whose activities centered round their parish churches. The Pinfolds were Roman Catholics, Mrs. Pinfold by upbringing, Mr. Pinfold by a later development. He had been received into the Church—“conversion” suggests an event more sudden and emotional than his calm acceptance of the propositions of his faith—in early manhood, at the time when many Englishmen of humane education were falling into communism. Unlike them Mr. Pinfold remained steadfast. But he was reputed bigoted rather than pious. His trade by its nature is liable to the condemnation of the clergy as, at the best, frivolous; at the worst, corrupting. Moreover by the narrow standards of the age his habits of life were self-indulgent and his utterances lacked prudence. And at the very time when the leaders of his Church were exhorting their people to emerge from the catacombs into the forum, to make their influence felt in democratic politics and to regard worship as a corporate rather than a private act, Mr. Pinfold burrowed ever deeper into the rock. Away from his parish he sought the least frequented Mass; at home he held aloof from the multifarious organizations which have sprung into being at the summons of the hierarchy to redeem the times.

But Mr. Pinfold was far from friendless and he set great store by his friends. They were the men and women who were growing old with him, whom in the nineteen-twenties and thirties he had seen constantly; who in the diaspora of the forties and fifties kept more tenuous touch with one another, the men at Bellamy’s Club, the women at the half-dozen poky, pretty houses of Westminster and Belgravia to which had descended the larger hospitality of a happier age.

He had made no new friends in late years. Sometimes he thought he detected a slight coldness among his old cronies. It was always he, it seemed to him, who proposed a meeting. It was always they who first rose to leave. In particular there was one, Roger Stillingfleet, who had once been an intimate but now seemed to avoid him. Roger Stillingfleet was a writer, one of the few Mr. Pinfold really liked. He knew of no reason for their estrangement and, inquiring, was told that Roger had grown very odd lately. He never came to Bellamy’s now, it was said, except to collect his letters or to entertain a visiting American.

It sometimes occurred to Mr. Pinfold that he must be growing into a bore. His opinions certainly were easily predictable.

His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom. There was a phrase in the thirties: “It is later than you think,” which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought. At intervals during the day and night he would look at his watch and learn always with disappointment how little of his life was past, how much there was still ahead of him. He wished no one ill, but he looked at the world sub specie aeternitatis and he found it flat as a map; except when, rather often, personal annoyance intruded. Then he would come tumbling from his exalted point of observation. Shocked by a bad bottle of wine, an impertinent stranger, or a fault in syntax, his mind like a cinema camera trucked furiously forward to confront the offending object close-up with glaring lens; with the eyes of a drill sergeant inspecting an awkward squad, bulging with wrath that was half-facetious, and with half-simulated incredulity; like a drill sergeant he was absurd to many but to some rather formidable.

Once upon a time all this had been thought diverting. People quoted his pungent judgments and invented anecdotes of his audacity, which were recounted as “typical Pinfolds.” Now, he realized his singularity had lost some of its attraction for others, but he was too old a dog to learn new tricks.

As a boy, at the age of puberty when most of his schoolfellows coarsened, he had been as fastidious as the Bruiser and in his early years of success diffidence had lent him charm. Prolonged prosperity had wrought the change. He had seen sensitive men make themselves a protective disguise against the rebuffs and injustices of manhood. Mr. Pinfold had suffered little in these ways; he had been tenderly reared and, as a writer, welcomed and over-rewarded early. It was his modesty which needed protection and for this purpose, but without design, he gradually assumed this character of burlesque. He was neither a scholar nor a regular soldier; the part for which he cast himself was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel and he acted it strenuously, before his children at Lychpole and his cronies in London, until it came to dominate his whole outward personality. When he ceased to be alone, when he swung into his club or stumped up the nursery stairs, he left half of himself behind, and the other half swelled to fill its place. He offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright, and antiquated as a cuirass.

Mr. Pinfold’s nanny used to say: “Don’t care went to the gallows”; also: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Mr. Pinfold did not care what the village or his neighbors said of him. As a little boy he had been acutely sensitive to ridicule. His adult shell seemed impervious. He had long held himself inaccessible to interviewers and the young men and women who were employed to write “profiles” collected material where they could. Every week his press-cutting agents brought to his breakfast-table two or three rather offensive allusions. He accepted without much resentment the world’s estimate of himself. It was part of the price he paid for privacy. There were also letters from strangers, some abusive, some adulatory. Mr. Pinfold was unable to discover any particular superiority of taste or expression in the writers of either sort. To both he sent printed acknowledgments.

His days passed in writing, reading, and managing his own small affairs. He had never employed a secretary and for the last two years he had been without a manservant. But Mr. Pinfold did not repine. He was perfectly competent to answer his own letters, pay his bills, tie his parcels, and fold his clothes. At night his most frequent recurring dream was of doing The Times crossword puzzle; his most disagreeable that he was reading a tedious book aloud to his family.

Physically, in his late forties, he had become lazy. Time was, he rode to hounds, went for long walks, dug his garden, felled small trees. Now he spent most of the day in an armchair. He ate less, drank more, and grew corpulent. He was very seldom so ill as to spend a day in bed. He suffered intermittently from various twinges and brief bouts of pain in his joints and muscles—arthritis, gout, rheumatism, fibrositis; they were not dignified by any scientific name. Mr. Pinfold seldom consulted his doctor. When he did so it was as a “private patient.” His children availed themselves of the National Health Act but Mr. Pinfold was reluctant to disturb a relationship which had been formed in his first years at Lychpole. Dr. Drake, Mr. Pinfold’s medical attendant, had inherited the practice from his father and had been there before the Pinfolds came to Lychpole. Lean, horsy, and weather-beaten in appearance, he had deep roots and wide ramifications in the countryside, being brother of the local auctioneer, brother-in-law of the solicitor and cousin of three neighboring rectors. His recreations were sporting. He was not a man of high technical pretensions but he suited Mr. Pinfold well. He too suffered, more sharply, from Mr. Pinfold’s troubles and when consulted remarked that Mr. Pinfold must expect these things at his age, that the whole district was afflicted in this way and that Lychpole was notoriously the worst spot in it.

Mr. Pinfold also slept badly. It was a trouble of long standing. For twenty-five years he had used various sedatives, for the last ten years a single specific, bromide and chloral which, unknown to Dr. Drake, he bought on an old prescription in London. There were periods of literary composition when he would find the sentences he had written during the day running in his head, the words shifting and changing color kaleidoscopically, so that he would again and again climb out of bed, pad down to the library, make a minute correction, return to his room, lie in the dark dazzled by the pattern of vocables until obliged once more to descend to the manuscript. But those days and nights of obsession, of what might without vainglory be called “creative” work, were a small part of his year. On most nights he was neither fretful nor apprehensive. He was merely bored. After even the idlest day he demanded six or seven hours of insensibility. With them behind him, with them to look forward to, he could face another idle day with something approaching jauntiness; and these his doses unfailingly provided.

At about the time of his fiftieth birthday there occurred two events which seemed trivial at the time but grew to importance in his later adventures.

The first of these primarily concerned Mrs. Pinfold. During the war Lychpole was let, the house to a convent, the fields to a grazier. This man, Hill, had collected parcels of grass-land in and around the parish and on them kept a nondescript herd of “unattested” dairy-cattle. The pasture was rank, the fences dilapidated. When the Pinfolds came home in 1945 and wanted their fields back, the War Agricultural Committee, normally predisposed towards the sitting tenant, were in no doubt of their decision in Mrs. Pinfold’s favor. Had she acted at once, Hill would have been out, with his compensation, at Michaelmas, but Mrs. Pinfold was tender-hearted and Hill was adroit. First he pleaded, then, having established new rights, asserted them. Lady Day succeeded Michaelmas; Michaelmas, Lady Day for four full years. Hill retreated meadow by meadow. The committee, still popularly known as “the War Ag.,” returned, walked the property anew, again found for Mrs. Pinfold. Hill, who now had a lawyer, appealed. So it went on. Mr. Pinfold held aloof from it all, merely noting with sorrow the anxiety of his wife. At length at Michaelmas 1949 Hill finally moved. He boasted in the village inn of his cleverness, and left for the other side of the county with a comfortable profit.

The second event occurred soon after. Mr. Pinfold received an invitation from the B.B.C. to record an “interview.” In the previous twenty years there had been many such proposals and he had always refused them. This time the fee was more liberal and the conditions softer. He would not have to go to the offices in London. Electricians would come to him with their apparatus. No script had to be submitted; no preparation of any kind was required; the whole thing would take an hour. In an idle moment Mr. Pinfold agreed and at once regretted it.

The day came towards the end of the summer holidays. Soon after breakfast there arrived a motor-car, and a van of the sort used in the army by the more important kinds of signaler, which immediately absorbed the attention of the younger children. Out of the car there came three youngish men, thin of hair, with horn-rimmed elliptical glasses, cord trousers, and tweed coats; exactly what Mr. Pinfold was expecting. Their leader was named Angel. He emphasized his primacy by means of a neat, thick beard. He and his colleagues, he explained, had slept in the district, where he had an aunt. They would have to leave before luncheon. They would get through their business in the morning. The signalers began rapidly uncoiling wires and setting up their microphone in the library, while Mr. Pinfold drew the attention of Angel and his party to the more noticeable of his collection of works of art. They did not commit themselves to an opinion, merely remarking that the last house they visited had a gouache by Rouault.

“I didn’t know he ever painted in gouache,” said Mr. Pinfold. “Anyway he’s a dreadful painter.”

“Ah!” said Angel. “That’s very nice. Very nice indeed. We must try and work that into the broadcast.”

When the electricians had made their arrangements Mr. Pinfold sat at his table with the three strangers, a microphone in their midst. They were attempting to emulate a series that had been cleverly done in Paris with various French celebrities, in which informal, spontaneous discussion had seduced the objects of inquiry into self-revelation.

They questioned Mr. Pinfold in turn about his tastes and habits. Angel led and it was at him that Mr. Pinfold looked. The commonplace face above the beard became slightly sinister, the accentless, but insidiously plebeian voice, menacing. The questions were civil enough in form but Mr. Pinfold thought he could detect an underlying malice. Angel seemed to believe that anyone sufficiently eminent to be interviewed by him must have something to hide, must be an impostor whom it was his business to trap and expose, and to direct his questions from some basic, previous knowledge of something discreditable. There was the hint of the underdog’s snarl which Mr. Pinfold recognized from his press cuttings.

He was well equipped to deal with insolence, real or imagined, and answered succinctly and shrewdly, disconcerting his adversaries, if adversaries they were, point by point. When it was over Mr. Pinfold offered his visitors sherry. Tension relaxed. He asked politely who was their next subject.

“We’re going on to Stratford,” said Angel, “to interview Cedric Thorne.”

“You evidently have not seen this morning’s paper,” said Mr. Pinfold.

“No, we left before it came.”

“Cedric Thorne has escaped you. He hanged himself yesterday afternoon in his dressing-room.”

“Good heavens, are you sure?”

“It’s in The Times.”

“May I see?”

Angel was shaken from his professional calm. Mr. Pinfold brought the paper and he read the paragraph with emotion.

“Yes, yes. That’s him. I half expected this. He was a personal friend. I must get on to his wife. May I phone?”

Mr. Pinfold apologized for the levity with which he had broken the news and led Angel to the business-room. He refilled the sherry glasses and attempted to appear genial. Angel returned shortly to say: “I couldn’t get through. I’ll have to try again later.”

Mr. Pinfold repeated his regrets.

“Yes, it is a terrible thing—not wholly unexpected though.”

A macabre note had been added to the discords of the morning.

Then hands were shaken; the vehicles turned on the gravel and drove away.

When they were out of sight down the turn of the drive, one of the children who had been listening to the conversation in the van said: “You didn’t like those people much, did you, Papa?”

He had definitely not liked them and they left an unpleasant memory which grew sharper in the weeks before the record was broadcast. He brooded. It seemed to him that an attempt had been made against his privacy and he was not sure how effectively he had defended it. He strained to remember his precise words and his memory supplied various distorted versions. Finally the evening came when the performance was made public. Mr. Pinfold had the cook’s wireless carried into the drawing-room. He and Mrs. Pinfold listened together. His voice came to him strangely old and fruity, but what he said gave him no regret. “They tried to make an ass of me,” he said. “I don’t believe they succeeded.”

Mr. Pinfold for the time forgot Angel.

Boredom alone and some stiffness in the joints disturbed that sunny autumn. Despite his age and dangerous trade Mr. Pinfold seemed to himself and to others unusually free of the fashionable agonies of angst.


Collapse of Elderly Party

Mr. Pinfold’s idleness has been remarked. He was half-way through a novel and had stopped work in early summer. The completed chapters had been typed, rewritten, retyped, and lay in a drawer of his desk. He was entirely satisfied with them. He knew in a general way what had to be done to finish the book and he believed he could at any moment set himself to do it. But he was not pressed for money. The sales of his earlier works had already earned him that year the modest sufficiency which the laws of his country allowed. Further effort could only bring him sharply diminishing rewards and he was disinclined to effort. It was as though the characters he had quickened had fallen into a light doze and he left them benevolently to themselves. Hard things were in store for them. Let them sleep while they could. All his life he had worked intermittently. In youth his long periods of leisure had been devoted to amusement. Now he had abandoned that quest. That was the main difference between Mr. Pinfold at fifty and Mr. Pinfold at thirty.

Winter set in sharp at the end of October. The central-heating plant at Lychpole was ancient and voracious. It had not been used since the days of fuel shortage. With most of the children away at school Mr. and Mrs. Pinfold withdrew into two rooms, heaped the fires with such coal as they could procure, and sheltered from drafts behind screens and sandbags. Mr. Pinfold’s spirits sank, he began to talk of the West Indies and felt the need of longer periods of sleep.

The composition of his sleeping-draft, as originally prescribed, was largely of water. He suggested to his chemist that it would save trouble to have the essential ingredients in full strength and to dilute them himself. Their taste was bitter and after various experiments he found they were most palatable in crème de menthe. He was not scrupulous in measuring the dose. He splashed into the glass as much as his mood suggested and if he took too little and woke in the small hours he would get out of bed and make unsteadily for the bottles and a second swig. Thus he passed many hours in welcome unconsciousness; but all was not well with him. Whether from too much strong medicine or from some other cause, he felt decidedly seedy by the middle of November. He found himself disagreeably flushed, particularly after drinking his normal, not illiberal, quantity of wine and brandy. Crimson blotches appeared on the backs of his hands.

He called in Dr. Drake who said: “That sounds like an allergy.”

“Allergic to what?”

“Ah, that’s hard to say. Almost anything can cause an allergy nowadays. It might be something you’re wearing or some plant growing near. The only cure really is a change.”

“I might go abroad after Christmas.”

“Yes, that’s the best thing you could do. Anyway don’t worry. No one ever died of an allergy. It’s allied to hay-fever,” he added learnedly, “and asthma.”

Another thing which troubled him and which he soon began to attribute to his medicine was the behavior of his memory. It began to play him tricks. He did not grow forgetful. He remembered everything in clear detail but he remembered it wrong. He would state a fact, dogmatically, sometimes in print—a date, a name, a quotation—find himself challenged, turn to his books for verification and find most disconcertingly that he was at fault.

Two incidents of this kind slightly alarmed him. With the idea of cheering him up Mrs. Pinfold invited a week-end party to Lychpole. On the Sunday afternoon he proposed a visit to a remarkable tomb in a neighboring church. He had not been there since the war, but he had a clear image of it, which he described to them in technical detail; a recumbent figure of the mid-sixteenth century in gilded bronze; something almost unique in England. They found the place without difficulty; it was unquestionably what they sought; but the figure was of colored alabaster. They laughed, he laughed, but he was shocked.

The second incident was more humiliating. A friend in London, James Lance, who shared his tastes in furniture, found, and offered him as a present, a most remarkable piece; a wash-hand stand of the greatest elaboration designed by an English architect of the 1860s, a man not universally honored but of magisterial status to Mr. Pinfold and his friends. This massive freak of fancy was decorated with metal work and mosaic, and with a series of panels painted in his hot youth by a rather preposterous artist who later became President of the Royal Academy. It was just such a trophy as Mr. Pinfold most valued. He hurried to London, studied the object with exultation, arranged for its delivery, and impatiently awaited its arrival at Lychpole. A fortnight later it came, was borne upstairs and set in the space cleared for it. Then to his horror Mr. Pinfold observed that an essential part was missing. There should have been a prominent, highly ornamental, copper tap in the center, forming the climax of the design. In its place there was merely a small socket. Mr. Pinfold broke into lamentation. The carriers asserted that this was the condition of the piece when they fetched it. Mr. Pinfold bade them search their van. Nothing was found. Mr. Pinfold surcharged the receipt “incomplete” and immediately wrote to the firm ordering a diligent search of the warehouse where the wash-hand stand had reposed en route and enclosing a detailed drawing of the lost member. There was a brisk exchange of letters, the carriers denying all responsibility. Finally Mr. Pinfold, decently reluctant to involve the donor in a dispute about a gift, wrote to James Lance asking for corroboration. James Lance replied: there never had been any tap such as Mr. Pinfold described.

“You haven’t always been altogether making sense lately,” said Mrs. Pinfold when her husband showed her this letter, “and you’re a very odd color. Either you’re drinking too much or doping too much, or both.”

“I wonder if you’re right,” said Mr. Pinfold. “Perhaps I ought to go slow after Christmas.”

The children’s holidays were a time when Mr. Pinfold felt a special need for unconsciousness at night and for stimulated geniality by day. Christmas was always the worst season. During that dread week 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. Once catching sight of himself in the looking-glass, thus empurpled and wearing a paper crown, he took fright at what he saw.

“I must get away,” said Mr. Pinfold later to his wife. “I must go somewhere sunny and finish my book.”

“I wish I could come too. There’s so much to be done getting Hill’s horrible fields back into shape. I’m rather worried about you, you know. You ought to have someone to look after you.”

“I’ll be all right. I work better alone.”

The cold grew intense. Mr. Pinfold spent the day crouched over the library fire. To leave it for the icy passages made him shudder and stumble, half benumbed, while outside the hidden sun glared over a landscape that seemed all turned to metal; lead and iron and steel. Only in the evenings did Mr. Pinfold manage a semblance of jollity, joining his family in charades or Up Jenkins, playing the fool to the loud delight of the youngest and the tolerant amusement of the eldest of his children, until in degrees of age they went happily to their rooms and he was released into his own darkness and silence.

At length the holidays came to an end. Nuns and monks received their returning charges and Lychpole was left in peace save for rare intrusions from the nursery. And now just when Mr. Pinfold was gathering himself as it were for a strenuous effort at reformation, he was struck down by the most severe attack of his “aches” which he had yet suffered. Every joint, but especially feet, ankles, and knees, agonized him. Dr. Drake again advocated a warm climate and prescribed some pills which he said were “something new and pretty powerful.” They were large and drab, reminding Mr. Pinfold of the pellets of blotting-paper which used to be rolled at his private school. Mr. Pinfold added them to his bromide and chloral and crème de menthe, his wine and gin and brandy, and to a new sleeping-draft which his doctor, ignorant of the existence of his other bottle, also supplied.

And now his mind became much overcast. One great thought excluded all others, the need to escape. He, who even in this extremity eschewed the telephone, telegraphed to the travel-agency with whom he dealt: Kindly arrange immediate passage West Indies, East Indies, Africa, India, anywhere hot, luxury preferred, private bath, outside single cabin essential, and anxiously awaited the reply. When it came it comprised a large envelope full of decorative folders and a note saying they awaited his further instructions.

Mr. Pinfold became frantic. He knew one of the directors of the firm. He thought he had met others. It came to him in his daze quite erroneously that he had lately read somewhere that a lady of his acquaintance had joined the board. To all of them at their private addresses he dispatched peremptory telegrams: Kindly investigate wanton inefficiency your office. Pinfold.

The director whom he really knew took action. There was little choice at that moment. Mr. Pinfold was lucky to secure a passage in the Caliban, a one-class ship sailing in three days for Ceylon.

During the time of waiting Mr. Pinfold’s frenzy subsided. He became instead intermittently comatose. When lucid he was in pain.

Mrs. Pinfold said, as she had often said before: “You’re doped, darling, up to the eyes.”

“Yes. It’s those rheumatism pills. Drake said they were very strong.”

Mr. Pinfold, who was normally rather deft, now became clumsy. He dropped things. He found his buttons and laces intractable, his handwriting in the few letters which his journey necessitated, uncertain, his spelling, never strong, wildly barbaric.

In one of his clearer hours he said to Mrs. Pinfold: “I believe you are right. I shall give up the sleeping-drafts as soon as I get to sea. I always sleep better at sea. I shall cut down on drink too. As soon as I get rid of these damned aches, I shall start work. I can always work at sea. I shall have the book finished before I get home.”

These resolutions persisted; there was a sober, industrious time ahead of him in a few days’ time. He had to survive somehow until then. Everything would come right very soon.

Mrs. Pinfold shared these hopes. She was busy with her plans for the farm which the newly liberated territory made more elaborate. She could not get away. Nor did she think her presence was needed. Once her husband was safely on board, all would be well with him.

She helped him pack. Indeed he could do nothing except sit on a bedroom chair and give confused directions. He must take foolscap paper, he said, in large quantities; also ink, foreign ink was never satisfactory. And pens. He had once experienced great difficulty in New York in purchasing pen-nibs; he had in the end had recourse to a remote law-stationer’s. All foreigners, he was now convinced, used some kind of stylo-graphic instrument. He must take pens and nibs. His clothes were a matter of indifference. You could always get a Chinaman, anywhere out of Europe, to make you a suit of clothes in an afternoon, Mr. Pinfold said.

That Sunday morning Mr. Pinfold did not go to Mass. He lay in bed until midday and, when he came down, hobbled to the drawing-room window and gazed across the bare, icy park thinking of the welcoming tropics. Then he said: “Oh God, here comes the Bruiser.”


“No fire in the library.”

“I’ll tell him you’re ill.”

“No. I like the Bruiser. Besides, if you say I’m ill, he’ll set his damned Box to work on me.”

Throughout the short visit Mr. Pinfold exerted himself to be affable.

“You aren’t looking at all well, Gilbert,” the Bruiser said.

“I’m all right really. A twinge of rheumatism. I’m sailing the day after tomorrow for Ceylon.”

“That’s very sudden, isn’t it?”

“The weather. Need a change.”

He sank into his chair and then, when the Bruiser left, got to his feet again with an enormous obvious effort.

“Please don’t come out,” said the Bruiser.

Mrs. Pinfold went with him to release his dog and when she returned found Mr. Pinfold enraged.

“I know what you two have been talking about.”

“Do you? I was hearing about the Fawdles’ row with the Parish Council about their right of way.”

“You’ve been giving him my hair for his Box.”

“Nonsense, Gilbert.”

“I could tell by the way he looked at me that he was measuring my Life-Waves.”

Mrs. Pinfold looked at him sadly. “You really are in rather a bad way, aren’t you, darling?”

The Caliban was not a ship so large as to require a special train; carriages were reserved on the regular service from London. Mrs. Pinfold accompanied him there the day before his departure. He had to collect his tickets from the travel-agency, but when he arrived in London great lassitude came over him and he went straight to bed in his hotel, summoning a messenger from the agency to bring them to him. A young, polite man came at once. He bore a small portfolio of documents, tickets for train and ship and for return by air, baggage forms, embarkation cards, carbon copies of letters of reservation, and the like. Mr. Pinfold had difficulty in understanding. He had trouble with his check book. The young man looked at him with more than normal curiosity. Perhaps he was a reader of Mr. Pinfold’s works. It was more probable that he found something bizarre in the spectacle of Mr. Pinfold, lying there groaning and muttering, propped by pillows, purple in the face, with a bottle of champagne open beside him. Mr. Pinfold offered him a glass. He refused. When he had gone Mr. Pinfold said: “I didn’t at all like the look of that young man.”

“Oh, he was all right,” said Mrs. Pinfold.

“There was something fishy about him,” said Mr. Pinfold. “He stared at me as though he was measuring my Life-Waves.”

Then he fell into a doze.

Mrs. Pinfold lunched alone downstairs and rejoined her husband who said: “I must go and say good-bye to my mother. Order a car.”

“Darling, you aren’t well enough.”

“I always say good-bye to her before going abroad. I’ve told her we are coming.”

“I’ll telephone and explain. Or shall I go out there alone?”

“I’m going. It’s true I’m not well enough, but I’m going. Get the hall-porter to have a car here in half an hour.”

Mr. Pinfold’s widowed mother lived in a pretty little house at Kew. She was eighty-two years old, sharp of sight and hearing, but of recent years very slow of mind. In childhood Mr. Pinfold had loved her extravagantly. There remained now only a firm pietas. He no longer enjoyed her company nor wished to communicate. She had been left rather badly off by his father. Mr. Pinfold supplemented her income with payments under a deed of covenant so that she was now comfortably placed with a single, faithful old maid to look after her and all her favorite possessions, preserved from the larger house, set out round her. Young Mrs. Pinfold, who would talk happily of her children, was very much more agreeable company to the old woman than was her son, but Mr. Pinfold went to call dutifully several times a year and, as he said, always before an absence of any length.

A funereal limousine bore them to Kew. Mr. Pinfold sat huddled in rugs. He hobbled on two sticks, one a blackthorn, the other a malacca cane, through the little gate up the garden path. An hour later he was out again, subsiding with groans into the back of the car. The visit had not been a success.

“It wasn’t a success, was it?” said Mr. Pinfold.

“We ought to have stayed to tea.”

“She knows I never have tea.”

“But I do, and Mrs. Yercombe had it all prepared. I saw it on a trolley—cakes and sandwiches and a muffin-dish.”

“The truth is my mother doesn’t like to see anyone younger than herself iller than herself—except children of course.”

“You were beastly snubbing about the children.”

“Yes. I know. Damn. Damn. Damn. I’ll write to her from the ship. I’ll send her a cable. Why does everyone except me find it so easy to be nice?”

When he reached the hotel he returned to bed and ordered another bottle of champagne. He dozed again. Mrs. Pinfold sat quietly reading a paper-covered detective story. He awoke and ordered a rather elaborate dinner, but by the time it came his appetite was gone. Mrs. Pinfold ate well, but sadly. When the table was wheeled out, Mr. Pinfold hobbled to the bathroom and took his blue-gray pills. Three a day was the number prescribed. He had a dozen left. He took a big dose of his sleeping-draft; the bottle was half full.

“I’m taking too much,” he said, not for the first time. “I’ll finish what I’ve got and never order any more.” He looked at himself in the glass. He looked at the backs of his hands which were again mottled with large crimson patches. “I’m sure it’s not really good for me,” he said, and felt his way to bed, tumbled in, and fell heavily asleep.

His train was at ten next day. The funereal limousine was ordered. Mr. Pinfold dressed laboriously and, without shaving, went to the station. Mrs. Pinfold came with him. He needed help to find a porter and to find his seat. He dropped his ticket and his sticks on the platform.

“I don’t believe you ought to be going alone,” said Mrs. Pinfold. “Wait for another ship and I’ll come too.”

“No, no. I shall be all right.”

But some hours later when he reached the docks Mr. Pinfold did not feel so hopeful. He had slept most of the way, now and then waking to light a cigar and let it fall from his fingers after a few puffs. His aches seemed sharper than ever as he climbed out of the carriage. Snow was falling. The distance from the train to the ship seemed enormous. The other passengers stepped out briskly. Mr. Pinfold moved slowly. On the quay a telegraph boy was taking messages. Mrs. Pinfold would be back at Lychpole by now. Mr. Pinfold with great difficulty wrote: Safely embarked. All love. Then he moved to the gangway and painfully climbed aboard.

A colored steward led him to his cabin. He gazed round it unseeing, sitting on a bunk. There was something he ought to do; telegraph his mother. On the cabin table was some writing paper bearing the ship’s name and the flag of the line at its head. Mr. Pinfold tried to compose and inscribe a message. The task proved to be one of insuperable difficulty. He threw the spoiled paper into the basket and sat on his bed, still in his hat and overcoat with his sticks beside him. Presently his two suitcases arrived. He gazed at them for some time, then began to unpack. That too proved difficult. He rang his bell and the colored steward reappeared bowing and smiling.

“I’m not very well. I wonder if you could unpack for me?”

“Dinner seven-thirty o’clock, sir.”

“I said, could you unpack for me?”

“No, sir, bar not open in port, sir.”

The man smiled and bowed and left Mr. Pinfold.

Mr. Pinfold sat there, in his hat and coat, holding his cudgel and his cane. Presently an English steward appeared with the passenger list, some forms to fill, and the message: “The Captain’s compliments, sir, and he would like to have the honor of your company at his table in the dining-saloon.”


“No, sir. Dinner is at seven-thirty. I don’t expect the Captain will be dining in the saloon tonight.”

“I don’t think I shall either,” said Mr. Pinfold. “Thank the Captain. Very civil of him. Another night. Someone said something about the bar not being open. Can’t you get me some brandy?”

“Oh yes, sir. I think so, sir. Any particular brand?”

“Brandy,” said Mr. Pinfold. “Large one.”

The chief steward brought it with his own hands.

“Good night,” said Mr. Pinfold.

He found on the top of his case the things he needed for the night. Among them his pills and his bottle. The brandy impelled him to action. He must telegraph to his mother. He groped his way out and along the corridor to the purser’s office. A clerk was on duty, very busy with his papers behind a grille.


Excerpted from The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Waugh. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

John Bailey
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is a masterpiece of self-portraiture, one of the very best in English fiction.
Malcolm Muggeridge
I was awed; [The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold] is a near-masterpiece...and the revelation of Waugh's conflicts...which no biographer can hope to equal in poignancy and truth.
A. N. Wilson
A masterpiece. . . . Waugh's clear-sightedness about himself . . . is something which, in this taut, brilliantly phrased and crafted story, is itself an assertion of order out of chaos.

Meet the Author

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), whom Time called "one of the century's great masters of English prose," wrote several widely acclaimed novels as well as volumes of biography, memoir, travel writing, and journalism. Three of his novels, A Handful of Dust, Scoop, and Brideshead Revisited, were selected by the Modern Library as among the 100 best novels of the twentieth century.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
October 28, 1903
Date of Death:
April 10, 1966
Place of Birth:
West Hampstead, London
Hertford College, Oxford University, 1921-1924; Heatherley's Art School, 1924

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The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Evelyn Waugh has captured the true agony of unwanted hallucinations caused by chemical misuses. Not an easy read by any means but one painfully true to the experience! I'd give this a one star rating for entertainment - but a 5 star rating for achievement.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago