From The Times Literary Supplement THE SUNDAY TIMES October 14, 2009
Brideshead Revealed What does the story of the real Flyte family tell us about Waugh himself? Peter Parker On March 13, 1944, Evelyn Waugh informed his friend Lady Dorothy Lygon: “I am writing a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich people, beautiful, high born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves and those are mainly the demons of sex and drink which after all are easy to bear as troubles go nowadays”. This book would be published the following year as Brideshead Revisited, and would portray a family not unlike the Lygons of Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, who were indeed rich, (mostly) beautiful, high born and had more than their fair share of troubles with sex and drink, which they in fact found quite hard to bear. Paula Byrne’s object in writing Mad World was “to find the hidden key to Waugh’s great novel, to unlock for the first time the full extent to which Brideshead encodes and subtly transforms the author’s own experience”. The important words here are “the full extent”, since anyone who knows anything about Waugh will find few startling revelations in this account. As soon as Brideshead Revisited was published, indeed, people recognized that the Lygon family had inspired the Flytes. In receipt of an advance copy of the book, “Chips” Channon wrote in his diary: “It is obvious that the mise-en-scène is Madresfield, and the hero Hugh Lygon. In fact, all the Beauchamp family figure in it”. Asked by Waugh what people were saying about the novel, Nancy Mitford replied that the “general view” was that “It is the Lygon family”. William Lygon, the seventh Earl Beauchamp, was a philoprogenitive though essentially homosexual Liberal politician. In 1902 he married Lady Lettice Grosvenor, the pious sister of the second Duke of Westminster, and the couple produced seven children: William (known by his courtesy title of Viscount Elmley), Hugh, Lettice, Sibell, Mary (known to everyone as Maimie), Dorothy and Richard. Waugh had met Elmley and Hugh at Oxford and would become an intimate friend of the family – establishing a particularly close relationship with Mamie and Dorothy. Beauchamp may have been a doting father, but in 1931 his “exquisite taste in footmen” and reckless liaisons with the more handsome of his employees led to his downfall, which was brought about by his vindictive brother-in-law. Always known as Bendor, the Duke of Westminster was a philandering Tory of extreme right-wing views, who was already on his fourth wife but had failed to produce a surviving male heir. He was therefore outraged that his “bugger-in-law” (as he charmingly called him) had managed to produce three sons. Furthermore, Beauchamp was the Liberal Party’s leader in the House of Lords: destroying him would be politically advantageous. Bendor hired private detectives to gather evidence and took his findings to George V, after which Beauchamp was faced with two alternatives: public exposure and probable criminal proceedings, or an undertaking to separate from his wife, resign all his public duties, and live abroad for the rest of his life. He took the latter course, while Lady Beauchamp went to live in a house on the Grosvenor estate in Cheshire with her youngest son. The couple’s other children remained at Madresfield and all but Elmley took their father’s side: Lady Beauchamp had never shown much maternal affection and her offspring now expressed their feelings by removing a bust of her from its place in the hall and flinging it into the moat. Byrne’s greatest coup has been to find Lady Beauchamp’s divorce petition containing the damning evidence gathered by Bendor’s detectives, in which dates, venues and sexual acts are brutally catalogued. Byrne further contends that George V may have not only approved Bendor’s action but actually instigated it because two of his younger sons, Prince Henry and Prince George, had been occasional visitors to Madresfield: it even seemed possible that George might propose to Mamie. The contents of a box belonging to the Grosvenors labelled “The Beauchamp Papers” was destroyed in the 1960s, so it is impossible to know exactly how far the King was involved. It is equally hard to gauge the nature of Waugh’s relationship with Hugh Lygon. Relying principally on hearsay and the word of A. L. Rowse, Byrne states categorically that the two young men had become lovers at Oxford. They may well have done – after all, Waugh’s “extreme homosexuality” at Oxford is well documented and was mentioned by his first biographer back in 1975; but the fact that Rowse “remembered a conversation” with Sibell Lygon, who said of Waugh “He was in love with my brother” does not necessarily imply a sexual relationship. More to the point, whether or not Lygon and Waugh went to bed together is not particularly important, any more than exactly what Sebastian gets up to with Charles Ryder matters greatly in Brideshead Revisited. Consummated or not, both relationships were undoubtedly serious romances. That the homosexual and alcoholic Lygon was one of the models for Sebastian has never been in doubt, though as with many “portraits” in Waugh’s fiction, this one is a composite. The fact that the first name of Alastair Graham (the young man Waugh described in A Little Learning as “the friend of my heart”) occasionally appears in the place of “Sebastian” in the manuscript of Brideshead Revisited is proof that he too inspired the character. The beautiful Mamie Lygon clearly contributed to the portrait of Julia Flyte, her plain but enchanting sister Dorothy is a near match for Cordelia, and Elmley and his wife bear a striking and insulting resemblance to Bridey and Beryl Muspratt. Lord Marchmain’s disgrace and exile (“the last, historic, authentic case of someone being hounded out of society”, as Anthony Blanche puts it) is evidently based on that of Lord Beauchamp, though made heterosexual, while Lady Marchmain’s chilliness and piety owe a good deal to Lady Beauchamp. For all the talk of hidden keys and “a secret that dared not speak its name”, none of this is particularly new; but Byrne usefully fills in the details. Her case would have been considerably helped if she had properly itemized her sources. Because she does not regard her book as “a complete, scholar’s work”, she thinks it does not require source notes. This is to misunderstand the purpose of source notes, which are not optional extras of interest only to academics, but are essential for providing a context for quotations. If Waugh is writing a letter, we need to know both the date and the identity of the correspondent, since both will have a bearing on what he says: in Byrne’s text it is sometimes unclear whether Waugh is being quoted or someone else altogether, and numerous quotations remain unidentified. Byrne directs the reader to what she calls “source notes” on her website, but these prove to be little more than a catalogue of the material she has drawn on and do not provide the chapter and verse needed to assess her arguments and evidence. This is particularly unfortunate because the reader’s faith in Byrne’s reliability is undermined by a number of errors and misapprehensions in her text. She claims that there was no Baedeker for Berlin in 1931 (an English-language edition, frequently revised, had been available since 1903); believes the Lord Chamberlain controlled film censorship; and imagines “crabs” to be “a sexual disease” rather than an infestation of lice. Noël Coward was not, as she states, a Roman Catholic, and Forthampton Court was the family home of Henry Green, not of his “in-laws”. More worrying, her grasp of Waugh’s work is not always as sure as it ought to be. She repeatedly describes the Arts and Crafts chapels of both Madresfield Court and Brideshead Castle as “art deco”, and refers to the Flytes’ “startling beauty (like faces carved out of Aztec stone)” – an image inexpertly appropriated from the novel’s description of Sebastian’s less attractive older brother who has “the Flyte face, carved by an Aztec”. Paul Pennyfeather’s mistress in Decline and Fall, Margot Beste-Chetwynde, who is at least ten years his senior, is referred to as “the upper-class girl he adores”, and Apthorpe in the Sword of Honour trilogy is inexplicably bracketed with Trimmer and Brideshead’s Hooper as “the symbol of the new age of the common man – half-educated, blasé, an insensitive bore”. Though clearly entranced by Waugh’s world, Byrne is not entirely at home in it, and her book contains some jarring failures of register. Harold Acton’s La Pietra is “an exquisite Tuscan mansion stuffed with paintings and antiques”; a short story Waugh wrote in the early 1930s is “a wildly exaggerated riff on his brief experience in the world of movie-making”; Basil Seal is an “incorrigible scam-master”; 1920s undergraduates are “dermatologically challenged”. To write of the “outing” of Lord Beauchamp is not merely anachronistic but inaccurate: to be “outed” is to have one’s homosexuality publicly revealed, whereas Beauchamp was merely threatened with this fate if he did not leave the country. Byrne’s command of idiom, even when appropriate, can be shaky (“locked in aspic”), and is embarrassingly awry when she describes Waugh’s feelings of inadequacy as a schoolboy, “sensing that he was never first choice in anything, always a sloppy second”. The notion of focusing on Waugh’s involvement with the Lygons and its effect on his work is a good one, but for all its incidental detail Byrne’s book never comes to life. The reader learns a good deal about the main players, but does not come to know them. Even so, it would be hard not to be both moved and dispirited by the closing pages, in which the individual lives of the Lygons spectacularly unravel. The words inscribed on the sundial at Madresfield – “That day is wasted on which we have not laughed” – seem suddenly a very long way away indeed.