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Truer Than Fiction

Brideshead re-revisited.

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By HENRIK BERING
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Actually, he hadn’t. When Beauchamp’s children invited male friends to stay, they were encouraged to lock their bedroom doors. The next morning, His Lordship would grouse that “he’s very nice that friend of yours, but he’s damned uncivil.” All this was a well-known secret in aristocratic circles, but when Beauchamp’s behavior during a trip to Australia in 1931 caused a scandal, his brother-in-law the Duke of Westminster and (so circumstances suggest) Buckingham Palace took action. The royal princes had been guests at Madresfield, and Prince George, the future Duke of Kent, had a fling with one of Hugh Lygon’s sisters, Lady Mary. Prince George was what is known as a “problem” royal: an inveterate partygoer who could be seen kicking his top hat down London streets at dawn. Among his mistresses Byrne lists a Kenyan expatriate from the British enclave of “Happy Valley” named Kiki Preston, known as “the girl with the silver syringe,” who kept him supplied with cocaine. Of course, he was bisexual—Noël Coward was one of his lovers—but the royal family could scarcely afford a scandal connecting him to Lord Beauchamp and his merry footmen. The earl was forced to resign his posts and go into exile. 

Into this headless house Evelyn Waugh, now well on his way to becoming a celebrated novelist, was invited as a guest that same year. With the Beauchamp children, especially Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy, he formed a close bond, with its very own coded language. “The accumulation of common experiences, private jokes, and private language lies at the foundation of English friendship,” wrote Waugh. His role at Madresfield was court jester: “They loved a man who was willing to say the unsayable,” writes Byrne. 

According to Byrne, Brideshead Revisited offers a toned-down, compressed version of Waugh’s own story and the Lygon saga. The Oxford sections are generally regarded as among the best ever written about the place, and the dreaming spires, pealing church bells, exquisite meals, and golden paradise of youth, though dripping with decadence, are tastefully done and extremely funny. In Anthony Blanche, a composite of Acton and Howard, Waugh created one of his great comic characters. The affair between Ryder and Sebastian is handled, more or less, with discretion. 

Of course, the reality was more sordid. Byrne offers a catalogue of drunken debauchery and sexual depravity, with dons such as Maurice Bowra acting as go-betweens and arrangers for student liaisons. After the Oxford passages in Brideshead, the tone darkens: Retaining its sumptuous descriptions of exotic locales in Venice and Morocco, the novel becomes a religious drama of redemption though suffering and dissolution. In his downward spiral Sebastian Flyte (whose name is no coincidence) achieves a kind of sainthood, his sister Julia gives up marrying Charles Ryder to atone for her sins, and Lord Marchmain has his deathbed conversion. God allows his creatures to stray, Waugh suggests, but reels them back in at the end. 

Here, too, the raw material was cleaned up. The homosexuality of the Earl Beauchamp, whom Waugh met in Rome in 1932, was no doubt a little too rich to make it into the novel. Instead, in the Brideshead version, Lord Marchmain becomes an outcast because of a liaison with a mistress. The family saga did not end happily. Hugh Lygon descended into a Sebastian-like spiral—his turns as a bank official, car salesman, and horse trainer all failed—and he died at 31, fracturing his skull in a drunken stupor. When Earl Beauchamp died, his eldest son inherited Madresfield Court, which meant that the sisters had to move out. Tainted by scandal, they never married into the British aristocracy: Lady Mary, who provided much of the inspiration for Julia, married a penniless Russian prince in exile and became an alcoholic, supported discreetly by Waugh. Lady Dorothy—Cordelia in Brideshead—became an archivist at Christie’s, handling her changed circumstances with dignity and good humor. Even Evelyn Waugh, in many respects, became a caricature of himself as country squire and professional reactionary. 

And yet, as Byrne points out, he had a sharper eye than that: Sebastian Flyte is a Peter Pan who refuses to grow up, and is deeply self-destructive. The hearty members of the Bullingdon Club are described as bullies and barbarians, savages in dark blue tailcoats. As for his Roman Catholicism, as Waugh liked to point out, in Britain Catholics tend to be found among the poor, not the rich. Writing about Brideshead in the late 1950s, he admitted that it was “infused with a kind of gluttony for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now .  .  . I find distasteful.”

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