Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead

by Paula Byrne

reviewed by Laura Albritton

For the average Evelyn Waugh fan, the name “Lygon” probably means very little. One knows of his correspondence with British aristocrat and author Nancy Mitford, his passionate friendship with her sister Diana Guinness (later Diana Mosley), and with another Diana, socialite Lady Diana Cooper. But the Lygon family has receded into obscurity. Yet to understand Waugh’s attachment to the Lygons is to understand his magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited, and ultimately, author Paula Byrne argues, to gain an understanding of the man himself. Even the title of her new biography, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, suggests this: “Mad” is short for Madresfield, the ancient country seat of the Lygon family, who, for a time, adopted Waugh as a member of their witty, unconventional family and served as the inspiration for his best-known fictional work.

Byrne believes that the Lygon connection shows a side of Evelyn Waugh that his critics have willfully ignored: “I set out to write this book because I believed that Evelyn Waugh had been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist.” “The key mistake of his critics and biographers,” she argues, “would be to assume that his later pose—as the old buffer, the crusty colonel—revealed his true self rather than originating as a comic impersonation of the type.”

Byrne starts by making it clear that Evelyn Waugh, as evidenced by his autobiography, A Little Learning, was not “ashamed of his middle-class, suburban upbringing” as has often been alleged. In fact, Waugh recalled a happy childhood at Underhill in Golders Green. As he grew older, however, Waugh began to feel like an outsider in his own family, at least in part because his father, publisher Arthur Waugh, heavily favored Evelyn’s brother Alec. He also did not share his father’s sensibilities, which were Victorian and highly sentimental. Byrne reveals that, by way of compensation, Waugh befriended a family on his street, the Flemings, who “became the first of his substitute families, and remained so for more than a decade.” Throughout his life the writer would be adopted by various, often large families, who were able to appreciate his intelligence, his sense of fun, and his gift for friendship in ways that his own family never could.

The most influential of these families was the Lygons. Evelyn Waugh met Hugh Lygon at Oxford. Waugh may have had an affair with Hugh; he certainly fell in love with him. Through the charming, handsome Hugh, he later became friends with two of the Lygon sisters, Mary and Dorothy, nicknamed Maimie and Coote, as well as their father, the seventh Earl Beauchamp (nicknamed “Boom”), who shared Waugh’s love for art and architecture. Interestingly for a Catholic convert, he was never close to the Lygon matriarch, a strict Catholic and a woman of severe principles. It would be fair to say that Waugh also fell in love with Madresfield, the “red-brick, moated manor house with yellow stone facings around the doors and windows.” There were 4,000 acres of land and a garden with statues of Roman emperors. This is the house, full of ancestral portraits and priceless antiquities, which would become the model for Brideshead Castle.

The Lygon sisters helped Waugh through his divorce from his first wife, Evelyn Gardner; later they acted as confidantes as he vainly tried to woo another society beauty, Baby Jungman. But they also relied on him, and when their brother Hugh began to drink heavily, as Sebastian Flyte does in Brideshead Revisited, they turned to him for help. Waugh and the family kept up an extensive, faced-paced correspondence, which has provided Byrne with a great deal of material, and one thing that emerges from these wonderfully witty letters is the family’s enormous affection for Waugh.

The parents were often away from Madresfield, leaving the children to have the run of the manor. Surrounded by beauty, and loved for his intelligence and sense of fun, Waugh felt he had entered an enchanted, madcap paradise. The Lygon progeny took equal delight in him: “ ‘It was,’ recalled Coote, ‘like having Puck as a member of the household.’ ” Yet later, when the family fortunes dimmed, Waugh remained loyal and devoted. He tried his best to save Hugh from alcoholism and depression, traveling with him even to the Arctic on an expedition that nearly ended in catastrophe. When Hugh’s father was forced into exile for his homosexuality, in a plot devised by his wife, his brother-in-law, and the king, Waugh traveled abroad to see him and wrote supportive letters. He later based Sebastian’s father, Lord Marchmain, on Lord Beauchamp, depicting him as a misunderstood victim of society. When Maimie fell on hard times after a disastrous marriage, Waugh sent her money: “He always asked with great tact whether she would mind accepting cash rather than a present for Christmas.” Maimie became the model for Julia Flyte, and Coote the model for her plain, but generous sister Cordelia. The fictional, pious Lady Marchmain was based on their mother. It is, however, Sebastian Flyte, with his Hugh Lygonesque charm and warmth, who remains Waugh’s most memorable character. Brideshead Revisited would be a lasting tribute to a family who had taken him in when they were leaders of society, and whom he continued to love after society had turned against them.

Byrne explores Waugh’s bisexuality, his friendships, and his early conversion to Catholicism from a sympathetic point of view. Using letters, diaries, interviews, and quotations from his fiction, she gives us a delightful, sparkling character who could be surprisingly kind. Her insight into Waugh’s romance with and second marriage to Laura Herbert is likewise illuminating; there can be no doubt of the love and affection he felt for her. Finally, Bryne paints a portrait of a complex, at times contradictory man who adored both iconoclasm and orthodoxy. One caveat: this is a biography for those who have read Waugh, at the very least some of his early comic novels, such as Vile Bodies and Black Mischief. It would be preferable to have read his satirical but serious A Handful of Dust, and it is essential to have read Brideshead Revisited. Mad World is not an introduction to Evelyn Waugh but a rich and rewarding examination of aspects of the artist that others have all too often overlooked or misjudged.

Published on June 20, 2013