The Magazine

Truer Than Fiction

Brideshead re-revisited.

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By HENRIK BERING
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Mad World

Truer Than Fiction

Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
by Paula Byrne
Harper, 384 pp., $25.99

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Evelyn Waugh wanted to serve his country. At 36, he was not exactly in the prime of youth, but with Winston Churchill intervening on his behalf, he was commissioned in the Royal Marines and later transferred to the Commandos. As an officer, he initially enjoyed the easy camaraderie of the mess—though his impudence might occasionally have caused heartburn for his commander. As when he found it imperative to ask a visiting dignitary if it were really true that, in the Romanian Army, no one beneath the rank of major was permitted to wear lipstick.

Waugh was physically fearless. But his participation in some of the foul-ups of the war, notably the evacuation from Crete, soured him on military life, and while recovering from a minor parachute injury at the end of 1943 he was granted leave to write what became Brideshead Revisited. Describing it as his magnum opus, Brideshead was meant by Waugh as an elegy over a way of life that was becoming extinct and supplanted by egalitarian drabness. For him, the country house was the very essence of England; and like his alter ego, Brideshead’s narrator Charles Ryder, who captures these houses in paint before they become deserted and gutted, Waugh saw it his duty to preserve their spirit in print. 

How that novel came to be created is the focus of this elegant study. Desiring to “liberate biography from the shackles of comprehensiveness,” Paula Byrne has chosen to portray Waugh through his connections with one family, the Lygons of Madresfield Court (known familiarly as Mad) in the Malvern Hills, which provided much of the inspiration for Brideshead. In so doing, she provides keen insights into how his imagination operated and explores some of the accusations made against Waugh, particularly his snobbishness.

Evelyn Waugh came from a solid bourgeois background. His father was the managing director of Chapman and Hall, the publishing firm which owned the copyrights to Charles Dickens. Waugh attended Lancing, a second-tier public school, followed by Oxford where, in his third term, he suddenly found himself moving in more rarified circles. At a party he met Harold Acton, the flamboyant leader of the Oxford aesthetes in the early 1920s, and was invited to join the Hypocrites, a club dedicated to boozing and dining. The Hypocrites also had a strong homosexual bent, with Acton and his fellow Etonian Brian Howard setting the tone: Howard with his affected stammer, Acton with his fondness for declaiming the poetry of T. S. Eliot through a megaphone from his window. In manner, dress, and speech they offered a permanent challenge to what they termed “the bourgeois macabre.”

Just as important, Waugh also met Hugh Lygon among the Hypocrites, who became one of the three attachments Waugh formed in his homosexual phase at Oxford. Anthony Powell once described Lygon as “a Giotto angel living in a narcissistic dream,” strolling along High Street with a teddy bear. Back then, Byrne notes, Pembroke, Lygon’s college, was known for catering to the “cream” of Oxford; i.e., “the rich and thick.” 

The Lygon family was at the very apex of British society. Its head, the Earl Beauchamp, was a Knight of the Garter who carried the sword of state at King George V’s coronation. He was a prominent member of the Liberal party and chancellor of the University of London. He was also a rampant homosexual, with a “persistent weakness for footmen.” At Madresfield, Byrne writes, the servants’ hands “were said to be glittering with diamonds.” She quotes Harold Nicolson’s diary about a dinner party, where Nicholson was asked by his dinner companion, “Did I hear Beauchamp whisper to the butler ‘Je t’adore?’ ” 

“Nonsense,” Nicholson replied, “he said ‘shut the door.’ ”

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