The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold


By Evelyn Waugh

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“The very model of the modern paranoid novel” (New York Times) and an ambitious work of semi-autobiographical fiction from one of England’s greatest novelists.

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!


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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."


  • "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

On Sale
Dec 11, 2012
Page Count
224 pages
Back Bay Books

Evelyn Waugh

About 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.

Learn more about this author