'Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead' by Paula Byrne

Unlike the subjects of almost all the previous postings to the Classic Readers blog, the book now under consideration is not a novel. It is instead essentially a biography - of the novelist Evelyn Waugh. But unlike several earlier biographers of the novelist, Paula Byrne very deliberately sets out not to provide a 'cradle to grave' account of her subject, but instead to focus on his relationship with a family and the stately home of that family, and to explore the ways in which that relationship fed into the creation of what is probably Waugh's most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited.

The family in question is the Lygons, the children of the seventh Earl Beauchamp, and the house is their country house Madresfield, commonly referred to by the family and their friends as 'Mad'. Waugh first visited it as a young graduate in 1931, and over the next few years he was a frequent visitor who greatly enjoyed the opportunities to partake of its comfortable aristocratic splendour and spend time with the family, and in particular three of the daughters, with at least two of whom he developed close and lifelong platonic friendships. The situation at Madresfield in the early 1930s was unusual, in that neither the earl nor his wife was present, and the young people had a fully staffed and functioning major English country house at their disposal. The earl had left England in disgrace to avoid the legal and social consequences of a homosexual scandal, and his wife had divorced him and moved with her youngest son to a house near a home of her brother, the Duke of Westminster, the earl's fiercest enemy. Waugh had known two of the Lygon brothers William and Hugh at Oxford, and had been particularly close to the younger, Hugh, generally agreed to be the main model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead, though at least one reviewer has expressed misgivings regarding Byrne's ready acceptance of the view that the two were involved in a homosexual relationship.

Paula Byrne vigorously asserts in her preface that she is writing a new kind of biography, and states that the heyday of the comprehensive biography is past. This has clearly somewhat riled some reviewers, who claim that most of what she presents is not new, though they acknowledge that she has ferreted out some previously unknown details, notably regarding the divorce of the earl and his wife, and Evelyn's Catholic confirmation in Rome. Whatever the merits of this criticism, Byrne had undoubtedly written a lively, entertaining, and generally very readable book which evokes the world it describes very vividly.

I found particularly fascinating the parts dealing with Waugh's boyhood and his time at Oxford, and the account of the Lygon family before Waugh's first visit to Madresfield. The narative of the visits, and his interactions with the Lygon's during the few years between 1931 and the house's passing into the ownership of the eldest Lygon son and his wife on the death of the seventh earl, is interesting, but perhaps the detailed account of this world of nicknames, in-jokes, and special jargon which united the participants does untimately become just a little tedious. The milieu described does seem to have been rather frivolous and self-indulgent.

A significant part of the book is involved in tracing the links between the Lygons and the characters in Brideshead Revisited , and between the house Madresfield and Brideshead in the novel. The existence of such a relationship has been known from the time the novel was first published in 1945, and Jane Mulvagh dealt with the topic in her book Madresfield. The extent to which one feels such analysis contributes to a literary appreciation of the novel will depend on one's approach to literary criticism. I had a literary education which discouraged exploration of such parallels and insisted on a focus on the novel itself, but it must be admitted that Byrne presents a lot of interesting material.

Eveyln Waugh (1903-66) has a reputation as a considerable writer and a rather unpleasant person - snobbish, rude, and curmudgeonly. Byrne sets out to correct this view of his personality, and she provides much evidence that he could be a loyal and generous friend. She suggests that to some extent he became a victim of a persona he created, acknowledging that it did in fact largely take over his being later in life, when he found himself increasingly out of sympathy with the postwar world and the post-Vatican II Catholic Church.

Mad World is an easy and entertaining read. For this reader, it dragged just a little in the middle, but it was thoroughly enjoyable as a whole.


Faye said...

Dear John,
I agree with your comments and sentiments overall. I particularly enjoyed parallels with the novel and the country house and household - which as you point out are not unknown.However ,it did make me want to "return" to "Brideshead" itself -and re-read this remarkable book . The story of the Earl of Lygon and his Sydney connection fascinated me too - especially because I didnt know about it before .
Thank you .

John Kennedy said...

I'd agree with both your points. I would like to re-read 'Brideshead' for the first time in thirty years, and yes, the Australian connection did add a layer of interest. One would like to know a bit more about how NSW responsed to its ex-governor returned in what then would have been very scandalous circumstances.