In early 1944 Evelyn Waugh applied to his commanding officer for three months leave of absence from the army to write a book. He gave various reasons for why the army wouldn’t miss him, including the disarming admission that he was unsuited for a desk job as he was no good at admin, he was also honest enough to admit that the book would be no use whatsoever for propaganda purposes. Eventually he got his way and Waugh retired to Devon to explore the idea that was obsessing him – the idea that became Brideshead Revisited.
Paula Byrne’s fascinating book is about Waugh and the Lygon family who were the inspiration for the Flytes in Brideshead Revisited. The Lygons were from the very top echelons of the English aristocracy, their father Earl Beauchamp was a good looking bon-viveur, charming, fabulously rich and one of the most important men in the Liberal party, they were brought up in Madresfield Court, a huge rambling house in Worcestershire, there were seven children, three of whom became close friends (and a lover in one case) Waugh’s, Hugh the second son, feckless, not very bright but utterly charming and loved by all;
Lady Mary – known as Maimie, the most beautiful of the sisters,
and the youngest daughter Lady Dorothy, usually called Coote, who was the model for Cordelia. The Lygon’s should have led untroubled, gilded lives of luxurious ease yet the family was ripped apart by one of the biggst scandals that had ever hit the English aristocracy, something that was made even more bitter by it being Lord Beauchamp’s brother in law, the Duke of Westminster, who orchestrated his downfall.
Mad World works magnificently on two levels, firstly it’s an absolutely riveting story of the times and the people. Paula Byrne is very good at describing the anger that Evelyn Waugh’s generation felt towards that of the previous one for allowing and fighting in the first world war and how much it separated them from what went on before. The Lygon’s were hardly your usual stuffy, hunting, shooting, fishing members of the aristocracy either, the girls behaved with a surprising freedom, one, Lady Sibell, was the mistress of Lord Beaverbrook for many years and Maimie, the most beautiful of the sisters, had a series of lovers. Hardly the demure, heavily chaperoned debutantes that were supposed to epitomise well brought up girls of the 20’s and 30’s.
Secondly Mad World satisfies the inner geek of people like me who love finding out background information about favourite books.
It’s particularly rich pickings for the literary geek in fact as Evelyn Waugh wove his stories around events in his own life, people he knew and places he’d been too. Madresfield Court appeared in one of his earlier books, Brideshead is modeled on Castle Howard – just like the TV series, though the chapel at Brideshead is an exact description of the real one at Madresfield down to the angels wearing arts and crafts printed cotton smocks.
Waugh was no straightforward reporter though, his genius lay in the way he could take two or three people he knew and twine them together to make something different with his or her own voice. And he wrote dialogue beautifully, was a consummate writer of prose and was very funny too – in short he was a superb writer…
The final reason why I enjoyed this book so much is a very personal one because it re-established Waugh as a reasonably decent human being for me. About fifteen years ago I read Selina Hastings’ biography of Waugh which presented him as such a deeply unpleasant person that it put me off reading his books. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its author’s personality but sometimes it’s hard not to be coloured by it. Paula Byrne’s Waugh is far from faultless but he’s human and a very good friend, when Maimie Lygon fell on hard times in the 5O’s Waugh sent her substantial sums of money and no-one who had so many people who were very fond of can be all bad. So I can start re-reading Waugh with unalloyed delight. I’m off to England today and I know what books I’m looking out for.
Re-reading waugh after fifteen years, it’s going to be such a pleasure.