Friday’s Forgotten Books: Mad World


Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
Paula Byrne
Harper 2009 (though my Sunday Times edition gives the date as ‘2099’)

One of the things that interested me in this book was Byrne’s declaration that the heyday of the “heavily footnoted biographical doorstopper” was over and the ‘selective’ approach should be recognised. She was inspired to write the bio because she thought Waugh “had been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist” and found this lazy caricature annoying. She found illumination in his relationship with the Lygon family of Madresfield, who in so many ways provided the models for aspects of the characters in Brideshead Revisited.

If you’re a fan of the novel, this is probably the best thing you can read to accompany it, not only to see the real models for the house and family, but to see the importance of the family’s charm as the real draw. As Waugh’s dear friend Nancy Mitford wrote upon her first reading, the novel is “so true to life being in love with a whole family.” Byrne shows how Waugh always sought that group he could belong to — hence his first fascination with the Pre-Raphaelites (his first major non-fiction work) and his adoration of the smart set who adopted him (eventually) at Oxford, including Hugh Lygon and his older brother, but also the families that came before them like the Plunkett-Greenes who gave him a taste of belonging that his own family had denied.

‘The truth is that self-respecting writers do not “collect material” for their books, or rather, they do it all the time in living their lives.’
Ninety-Two Days

Byrne sees Waugh’s acceptance of his own bisexuality (and his friends’ tolerance of it) as the lynchpin in understanding his easy transition from his male lovers at Oxford and his (often misguided) affairs with women afterward as well as his eventual very happy marriage. In contrast, Hugh Lygon, whose father had been hounded out of society because of his gay lovers, knew that he would never be able to live as he desired openly. Though Waugh may have written that “I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth” his life long friendships with a handful of women suggest that those relationships went furthest in ameliorating that sense of disconnect.

The Lygon sisters Mary (Mamie) and Dorotthy (Coote) in particular played an important role in giving Waugh that home he always longed for as well as positive support with both his work and his often tragic love affairs. His other important relationships were also those with women like Nancy Mitford (and for a time her sister Diana until she took up with the fascists), Diana Cooper and Ann Fleming (wife of Ian).

A lot of people pooh-pooh the idea of men and women being friends — something I’ve never understood. The loyalty between these friends — their humour (including long, complex running jokes) and their tolerance for one another’s foibles, as well as their long-standing support for each other makes for wonderful reading.

Catch up on more recommendations at Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books.


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