Mad World by Paula Byrne
Evelyn Waugh's fans will find much to admire in this account of the troubled family who inspired Brideshead Revisited, says Selina Hastings
The Observer, Sunday 16 August 2009
One of the first to see a copy of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited was his old friend Nancy Mitford. "A great English classic in my humble opinion," she told him, a view now shared by millions of readers worldwide. Since its publication in 1945, a vast amount has been written about the novel and about the striking similarities between two families, the fictional Flytes and the real-life Lygons. The parallels seem almost infinite – between Lord Beauchamp and Lord Marchmain, Hugh Lygon and Sebastian, and the two great houses, magnificent Brideshead and Madresfield, the Lygons' moated manor house in Worcestershire.
Paula Byrne is the latest to explore the people and the story that inspired the book and she does so with acuity and panache. Her stated aim is to portray Waugh through his friendship with the Lygons, and in the process reveal some substantial new information about the high-society scandal that in 1931 electrified the country. The very grand Lord Beauchamp, Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, Lord Steward of the Household, Lord President of the Council, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and father of seven children, was outed as a practising homosexual and forced into exile abroad by his crazy brother-in-law, Bendor, Duke of Westminster. ("Dear Bugger-in-Law, You got what you deserved," wrote Westminster, triumphantly, after Beauchamp's disgrace.) Lady Beauchamp, horrified, fled the house never to return, leaving Madresfield, fully staffed, at the disposal of five of the children, with only a governess to keep an eye on them. And it was here one evening, shortly after their father's departure, that Evelyn Waugh arrived for the first time to stay.
Evelyn had been at Oxford with Hugh Lygon, the middle son, with whom, according to one not wholly reliable source, he had conducted an affair. Certainly, he had been bewitched by gentle, charming Hughie, many of whose characteristics – girlish beauty, floppy blond locks, the ubiquitous teddy bear – famously reappear in the portrayal of Sebastian, with whom Charles Ryder is so infatuated in the novel. Yet for all his charm, Hughie was rather a dull dog, and hopelessly alcoholic, and it was with Hugh's sisters that Waugh formed a far more fruitful friendship, especially with Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy, or Maimie and Coote as they were more informally known. His letters to the girls – comic, tender, playfully obscene – are some of the most delightful he ever wrote.
Byrne understands very well the powerful enchantment that Madresfield, or "Mad" as the girls called it, cast over Waugh. The beauty of the place, the limit-less freedom, the traditions of centuries juxtaposed with childish high spirits and silliness, all proved irresistible to the penniless young man from Golders Green. Byrne entertainingly summarises his career up to this point – the childhood, the schooldays, the melancholia and debauchery of Oxford, the schoolmastering and the first published works – and layers in with this the story of the Lygons, of Lord Beauchamp's early life, and of those of his wife and children. Inevitably, the grander family suffers by comparison; they are none of them half so fascinating as Waugh and it is only when the novelist walks on that the stage properly lights up. Byrne shows remarkable perception in her interpretation not only of Waugh's relationship with the Lygons, but of theirs with each other. The girls in particular remained fiercely loyal to their father, taking turns to accompany him on his eternal circuit of grand hotels, in Paris and Venice, in New York and in Australia, where in happier times he had presided as governor of New South Wales.
Most poignant is the story of Maimie, one of the most beautiful debutantes of her generation, once even considered as a future royal bride, who ended up drunk, lonely and fat after a miserable marriage to a penniless Russian prince. It is Waugh's friendship with Maimie that leads Byrne to one of her most interesting insights. Discussing Waugh's failure in depicting the sexual relationship between Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte, she says: "The irony is that the relationship between Charles and Julia would have been more successfully portrayed if it had been closer to that in real life between Evelyn and Maimie: a deep friendship, not a love affair. But Waugh's hand was forced … [by] the structure of the novel."
Essentially, what Mad World provides is a lively introduction to Waugh and to Brideshead, and to the rarefied social world in which much of the novel is set. To this is added a small amount of new material, to which, understandably, much emphasis is given. There is, too, a good deal of trumpeting of the superiority of the author's critical sensibilities to those of her predecessors, many a blithe dismissal of those poor old dinosaurs, authors of "biographical doorstoppers", which nobody wants to read nowadays.
As one of those dinosaurs, I have to concede that Byrne has a point: such big books are currently out of fashion, although I am delighted to see this has not prevented her from making copious use of their contents. Of her own discoveries, two are particularly intriguing: the information that Waugh was confirmed in Rome in 1932, and the physical details of what Lord Beauchamp actually did with all those handsome footmen behind the green baize door.
Much as I admire Mad World, I do have some reservations: source notes, disgracefully, are almost non-existent and the index is virtually useless. The author's assertion that Noël Coward was a Roman Catholic would have earned her a vigorous finger-wagging from "the Master" for claiming anything so "veddy, veddy silly". And she might like to know that Waugh's jokey habit of substituting the words "lascivious beast" for "priest" in his letters to the Lygons derives from the following limerick:
There was a young lady of Devon
Who was had in a garden by seven
The lascivious beasts,
And of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
• Selina Hastings' books include Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. Her new book, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, is published by John Murray in September
Evelyn Waugh's mad world
A warm study brings to life the real Brideshead family
By Philip Womack in The Telegraph
6:30AM BST 14 Aug 2009
Brideshead Revisited must surely rank as one of the best-loved novels of the 20th century. Aloysius the teddy bear, Sebastian Flyte being sick through Charles Ryder’s window, Anthony Blanche declaiming TS Eliot through a megaphone – these images offer us a glimpse into an Arcadia we can never hope to enter. Evelyn Waugh believed the novel to be his masterpiece – only later did he come to disapprove of its sentimentality.
People have always tried to pinpoint the “sources” for Waugh’s characters. While acknowledging that Waugh’s supreme artistry lay in his ability to create originals out of composites, Paula Byrne has written a highly accomplished book about the family that came to inspire the Flytes of Brideshead: the Lygons (pronounced Liggon) of Madresfield. It was the family with whom Waugh fell in love, one that had more than its share of tragedy as well as laughter.
Byrne is excellent at sketching in the early lives of Waugh and the Lygons, switching between the two milieux with ease. She shows convincingly that Waugh had a tendency to fall for whole families – first the homely Flemings, then the dashing Plunket Greenes and finally the waiflike Lygons. While Waugh grew up in the comfort of suburbia, the Lygons had a childhood of unimaginable luxury at Madresfield. One of three houses lived in by the Earl Beauchamp and his Countess, Madresfield had its own private railway station and the family and its entourage would shuttle between houses in their own train.
It was rumoured that their footmen’s fingers were covered with diamonds. (Footmen, unfortunately, were to become the downfall of the Lygons.) It was not a perfect idyll, though. The Countess’s idea of parenting was savage: when one of her daughters was stung by a jellyfish, she responded by pelting her with a bucketful. The Earl, on the other hand, was devoted to his children.
Waugh was largely unhappy at Lancing (the school to which he was sent after his brother Alec had published a scandalous novel, The Loom of Youth, about homosexual affairs at Sherborne), finding refuge in japes and pranks and in adoring a heroic schoolmaster. At Oxford, rather like his alter ego Charles Ryder in Brideshead, he consorted with clever, middle-class types, all the time yearning for something essential that he felt was eluding him. Eventually, through the aesthete Harold Acton (who really did declaim Eliot and Sitwell into Christ Church meadows), he was inducted into the Hypocrites Club, a collection of heavy drinkers led by Lord Elmley – the Earl Beauchamp’s elder son – and his brother, the ethereal Hugh Lygon.
Hugh Lygon is the most tragic figure in this book. His sisters always said he suffered from second-son syndrome, and perhaps they were right. He was the favourite of his father, and had been popular at Eton. Owing to his beauty he was always given female parts in plays – even appearing as Helen of Troy in a production of Dr Faustus. It was this fragility that drew Waugh to Hugh – he wanted to protect him. The Hypocrites’ lives were full of day-long lunches, outrageous clothes, plovers’ eggs and strenuous homosexual activity – there wasn’t much else to do, after all. Waugh had affairs with at least two men – delicately beautiful, hard-drinking, self-destructive boys – and almost certainly slept with Hugh.
Hugh Lygon probably formed the basis for Sebastian Flyte: hating himself and his homosexuality, though charming to a point. Among these revellers and rebels Waugh had finally found the love and acceptance he had been looking for, although he “was still the outsider looking in, glimpsing rather than actually passing through the low door in the wall that opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden”. He was the boy from Golders Green among the golden aristocrats, partly in awe, partly in disgust. Though firm friends with Elmley and Hugh, Waugh was never invited to Madresfield.
Waugh left Oxford in comparative disgrace, without a degree, and returned to London where he sponged off his brother, spending most of his time in nightclubs. He wrote a novel, fell in love, taught at a dull Welsh school and attempted suicide; the kinds of things, in fact, that rootless, imaginative young men do when they leave university. His second novel,Vile Bodies, was a satire of the world into which he had been plunged: it is pleasing to note that its most amusing scene, in which Agatha Runcible unwittingly gatecrashes 10 Downing Street, has its origins in fact. Two Lygon sisters, on finding they had left their latch key at home after a party, had gone to their friend Stanley Baldwin, who happened to be the prime minister, for rescue.
The catastrophe for the Lygons was the Earl Beauchamp. Devoted to public service and a man of deep culture, he had “a persistent weakness for footmen”. When interviewing them he would squeeze their buttocks and emit the same noise that grooms do when inspecting horses. His children would warn their good-looking male friends to lock their bedroom doors at night; Lady Christabel Aberconway, on arriving at the Beauchamps’ London house for tea, found the flamboyant actor Ernest Thesiger naked from the waist up and adorned with ropes of pearls. Scandal was inevitable: the Earl was brought down by his wife’s brother, the obscenely wealthy Duke of Westminster, who, when he had succeeded in hounding him out of the country, wrote: “Dear Bugger-in-law, You got what you deserved, Yours, Westminster”. Beauchamp was to become the inspiration for the exiled Lord Marchmain, Sebastian’s father.
After the Earl’s exile, Waugh spent many months staying at Madresfield, known by its young inhabitants as “Mad”. And it was a mad world – there was no one to keep an eye on the young people, as the Countess was in Cheshire. It was the libertarian Arcadia for which Waugh had always longed. It didn’t last long. The war changed everything: Hugh Lygon became an alcoholic and died young; the Lygon sisters made unsuitable marriages (one to an impoverished Russian prince; another, at the age of 70, to a notorious homosexual). Waugh remained fiercely loyal to them.
Byrne has written a marvellous book, warm, witty, and enormously readable. She shows intelligently that as the Lygons had an enormous effect on Waugh, so the Flytes do on Charles Ryder. There’s no point looking for direct correspondences. She notes that “all Waugh’s fictional people and places are subtle transformations, not direct portrayals, of ‘reality’” – the true gift of the artist. The epitaph to Brideshead still stands: “I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they”. It’s a mad world, my masters, and this book is a calm pool of sanity among the tumult of massed humanity.
Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
by Paula Byrne
367pp, Harper Press, £25
A photo cutout of the Lygon family: from left, Coote, Maimie, Lettice, Sibell, Lady Beauchamp, Boom, Elmley, Hugh, and Dickie. Photograph by Nic Barlow.