Evelyn Waugh in Guyana
Updated: Jan 24
‘It was as lonely an outpost of religion as you could find anywhere.’
So wrote Evelyn Waugh of the Jesuit mission station of St Ignatius in the central Rupununi region of south-west Guyana.
In the winter of 1932-1933 Waugh had travelled to the interior of British Guiana (as it was then known) and Brazil. Waugh ostensibly had the travelling bug – in the foreword to Ninety-Two Days, the travelogue Waugh published in 1934 giving an account of this trip, he admits to ‘a fascination in distant and barbarous places, and particularly in the borderlands of conflicting cultures and states of development.’ At this point in his career, Evelyn Waugh had firmly established his reputation as a successful writer – Decline and Fall had been published to critical acclaim in 1928 and had been followed by two further novels – and as a leading light on the English social scene. The decision of the famous author and socialite to travel to one of the remotest corners of South America has, more recently, been interpreted as a desperate attempt by Waugh to escape the fallout from the breakdown of his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner.
The trip provided first-hand material which Waugh was to use in the short-story The Man Who Liked Dickens and in the novel A Handful of Dust. Published in 1934, A Handful of Dust features the character Tony Last who, after being betrayed by his wife, joins an expedition in Brazil. Last’s fate at the end of the novel is to be trapped in the Brazilian interior, held against his own will and condemned to read the complete works of Charles Dickens to his captor in perpetuity.
Whatever the true motive behind Waugh’s trip, Ninety-Two Days provides an insight into the life of two Jesuit missionaries. The mission station at St Ignatius was established in 1909 by Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes on the banks of the Takutu River, close to the settlement of Bon Success (now renamed Lethem) near the Brazilian border. After countless solo journeys in the region to establish the mission, the indefatigable Fr Cary-Elwes was forced to return to England in 1923 through poor health. Fr Henry Mather, a Jesuit priest who had newly arrived in British Guiana, was dispatched to the mission in 1924. Mather had barely settled at St Ignatius before he was struck by a debilitating bout of malaria. He recovered across the border in Boa Vista from where he wrote two lengthy letters to his sister in England describing his first journey into the Guyanese interior (our ref:
It was four years before Fr Mather returned to St Ignatius, in February 1928, with Fr William Keary. The two Jesuits were tasked with re-opening Fr Cary-Elwes’s mission station. Their first journey from Georgetown into the interior ended disastrously when their boat capsized on the Konawaruk rapids. Fr Mather was a seemingly regular correspondent to his sister but no letter has survived in the archives describing his 1928 adventure. However, Fr Keary described the incident in a letter to his brother (our ref: SJ/40/1):
The captain headed the boat for a rapid that poured down between two islets in the midst of the river. We got through for a few yards & then – despite the motor & the vigorous paddling of 8 men – the boat refused to advance, was forced into mid-channel, & gradually back towards the island on the right. The bow swerved to the right; the boat was forced suddenly down the current & caught the full onrush of the water which swept into it and sank it, leaving us all in the water.
Several of the party drowned but the two Jesuits were able to swim to one of the islands from where they were rescued by a passing Dutch ship. The missionaries did make it safely to St Ignatius on their second attempt. Once there Fr Mather served as Superior of the mission and was based at St Ignatius for most of the year, while Fr Keary led more of an itinerant existence making regular circuits of the region covering vast distances on horseback and on foot.
Evelyn Waugh arrived at St Ignatius on 23 January 1933 with no advance warning but with letters of introduction from Fr Martin D’Arcy and Fr Edward King. Waugh described Mather as ‘the kindest and most generous of all the hosts of the colony’ and paints a picture of the missionary living a quiet and simple life, saying daily Mass and contentedly working in his carpenter’s shed. Fr Mather fashioned new, sturdier walking sticks for Waugh and presented the novelist with a made-to-measure, waterproof camera case on his departure. Mather also made all the necessary logistical arrangements for Waugh to continue his journey to Boa Vista. Waugh also encountered Fr Keary, who had been away from the station when he first arrived. Waugh describes him as, ‘a tall, ex-army chaplain, with the eyes of a visionary, a large grizzled beard, an Irish brogue, a buoyant and hilarious manner.’
What, though, did the two Jesuits make of the presence of a celebrated novelist at their mission station?
There are no surviving letters from Fr Mather or Fr Keary describing Waugh’s visit. However, Mather’s 1933 diary (our ref: SJ/38/2/6) gives a few clues. In typically laconic style, Mather noted the arrival of ‘Mr Waugh’ in late January. During a week-long stay Waugh seems to have spent his time following and observing Fr Mather at work, and taking photographs. After Waugh had departed for Boa Vista, Mather made an interesting observation about an incident which is not recorded in
any earlier entries: ‘Mended leg (made a new one) of longue-chair which had snapped under Mr Waugh.’
Waugh returned to St Ignatius on 22 February 1933; he ‘rode up on his weary horse’ according to Mather. In Ninety-Two Days it is apparent how very close Waugh came to becoming utterly lost when he mistook one mountain range for another. During Waugh’s second stay, many more photographs were taken of Rupununi life and Fr Mather gave the novelist a good haircut. It was during this second stay that Waugh began reading Fr Mather’s collection of Charles Dickens, and in so doing, temporarily re-discovered the joy of reading for pleasure.
Fr Mather made more arrangements for Waugh’s onward journey (and more walking sticks). On 5 March 1933 he wrote, in perhaps the most expressive diary entry in this period, of Waugh’s final departure: ‘Mr Waugh v. appreciative of his sojourn. Mutual regards & good wishes at his parting.’ Waugh joined Fr Keary for part of his return journey to Georgetown. From Georgetown he sailed, via Trinidad, back to England and resumed his literary career.
For the two Jesuits, life in the lonely outpost of religion continued in much the same vein as before. Fr Mather went on to serve in the Rupununi until 1944 and Fr Keary until 1946.
The papers of Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes, Fr Henry Mather and Fr William Keary have been catalogued and are available to consult at the Archives. Please do contact us if you would like to find out any more about our holdings or about the Jesuit mission in Guyana.