"Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead" by Paula Byrne
By Paula Byrne HarperCollins, 384 pages, $25.99
The movie, they say, rarely surpasses the book. Notable exceptions of course come to mind, but none so forcibly as John Mortimer’s glorious adaptation of “Brideshead Revisited.” Nearly thirty years after its first airing, in 1981, the eleven-part television serial based on Evelyn Waugh’s eponymous novel of 1945 continues to overwhelm its beloved inspiration.
Waugh’s unforgettable portrayal of one young man’s deep infatuation with an ill-fated English Catholic dynasty always has enjoyed a cult following among young readers with, shall we say, elaborate aesthetic inclinations. Mortimer’s television adaptation merely swelled the ranks of devotees, and elevated the novel to a canonical status it scarcely could have attained on its own. A finer depiction of England’s aristocracy between the wars you will not find.
Perhaps there is no explaining the power of television to shape the course of a life. But if, like me, you were the only authentic teenage Anglophile living within several hundred miles of your Midwestern hometown, then watching all 659 minutes of “Brideshead” on PBS for the first time was a singularly transporting experience. At age fourteen, I’d never heard of Evelyn Waugh, or been ferried about in a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, or lived unattended among friends—totally uninhibited, without adult supervision—in a cavernous eighteenth-century country house staffed with liveried footmen.
But I knew what I liked. Daily life at Brideshead Castle, the baroque ancestral seat of the Marchmain family, unfolded with a thrilling sybaritic languor that felt agreeable to me. Before too long, I had made watching and loving “Brideshead” a condition of membership in my admittedly rather circumscribed social circle. And I wasn’t alone in my obsession, then or now. Oxbridge teems with Americans seduced across the water by the lingering memory of fresh-faced undergraduates—young Jeremy Irons among them—lunching on plovers’ eggs, lobster Newburg, and bottomless flutes of champagne. Suffice to say that identifying too powerfully with “Brideshead” can warp you, make your entire world—and everyone in it—seem insufferably pedestrian. (What? We’re staying in a hostel, in Venice? No palazzo?)
Followers of such things will know that connoisseurs take their Waugh and their “Brideshead” very seriously. Sometimes too seriously. So it must have been with mild trepidation that Paula Byrne set out to write yet another a book about this intensely complex man and the novel to which, for better or worse, he owes the lion’s share of his literary reputation. Hasn’t enough been said?
The right answer, of course, is that anything worth saying about Waugh and “Brideshead” bears repeating if it’s said well—especially if the author delivers on her promise to take us where we’ve not been before. In “Mad World,” her extraordinary account of Waugh’s relationship with the tragic Lygon clan that inspired “Brideshead,” Paula Byrne has written an utterly captivating and generous book with all the intimacy of a diary and the scholarly soundness of a fine biography. Byrne tells us that she went searching for “the hidden key to Waugh’s great novel.” She’s found it. And picking up “Mad World” feels like discovering that “Brideshead” had a companion volume, in which the characters have been drawn from the shadows and made to sit beside you.
No two people will likely agree on the meaning of “Brideshead Revisited.” Not unlike the bible, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. Scholars and critics have identified in its pages a struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism, an elegy for the glory days of the British Empire, a satirical meditation on class, a history of the English aristocracy, a paean to youth and lost innocence, a denunciation of war, remonstration against intolerance, and so on.
Waugh, for his part, understood that “Brideshead” was foremost a book about friendship. Byrne hasn’t lost sight of that, and we’re lucky for it.
“In Mad World,” Byrne settles on an array of intriguing and unsettling questions that have swirled around “Brideshead” for decades—and that dogged Waugh from the moment the novel appeared. Is Charles Ryder, the narrator of “Brideshead,” really Waugh? Are the Marchmains of Brideshead Castle really the Lygons of Madresfield Court? And then there is the matter of what Byrne calls “the love that dare not speak its name”: Did or didn’t Waugh have an affair with Hugh Lygon, the putative model for Lord Sebastian Flyte?
Waugh bristled through the years at anyone who posed such questions. A handful of people still do. Byrne isn’t an agnostic on the subject: “Charles Ryder manifestly is Evelyn Waugh,” she tells us. Overwhelming evidence suggests that she is right. If pressed, few would be inclined to disagree—at least in private. But acknowledging that connection and plumbing its depths are two separate enterprises. A dark cloud of prurient sensationalism seems to hang over anyone who seeks Waugh out among his treasured companions at Madresfield Court.
All novelists draw from life, fill their books with composites of people they love and despise. Waugh was no exception. If anything, he seems to have borrowed too conspicuously from life—and resented it mightily when others caught him out. “Fuck you,” Waugh once wrote to a dear friend who claimed to have unmasked a character in another of his novels. And there you have it.
“Mad World” is a brisk read. And you’ll be hard pressed to set it down once Byrne brings Waugh and Hugh Lygon together at Oxford and then again at Madresfield Court, where Waugh’s infatuation with Hugh—delicate, beautiful, doomed—gradually extends to his three sisters. Like Charles Ryder in “Brideshead,” Waugh ceases in this book “to be the outsider looking in, glimpsing rather than actually passing through the low door in the wall that opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden.”
Waugh could take readers only so far into that enchanted garden. Byrne escorts us through it and beyond, into as many disheveled bedchambers as Madresfield has arbors. Each chapter dazzles. She provides marvelous glimpses of Waugh’s friendships with individual family members, particularly Hugh’s sisters (“the Beauchamp belles”), with whom he remained friendly for years after Hugh's premature death. And Waugh seems a different person in their splendid company—his storied nastiness totally at odds with the gentle, self-effacing companion the Lygons adored. He would not be surprised to find that the Lygons frequently outshine him in “Mad World.” That was their irresistible charm.
What twenty-seven-year-old Evelyn Waugh saw in the Lygons is clear enough. The world he encountered at Madresfield Court bore no resemblance to any he knew. Waugh had not lived uncomfortably as a boy. Nor, according to Byrne, did he resent his comfortable middle-class upbringing. To be sure, Waugh’s devotion to the Lygons wasn’t about anything so crass as money. Had that been the case, he might have settled on any number of families.
The Lygons were a species apart, so the usual observation about truth being stranger than fiction applies. But with a delightful addition: the truth turns out to be vastly more absorbing as well. “ ‘Mad,’ as they called Madresfield Court, was a topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland world,” Byrne writes. “Fun and fantasy reigned, though always with an undertow of sorrow.” And sorrow there was. “Mad World” repays reading three times, if only for Byrne’s stunning evocation of Hugh Lygon’s father, Lord Beauchamp, a brilliant and debonair man ruined by his indiscretions. (“When interviewing male staff he would pass his hands over their buttocks, making a similar hissing noise to that made by stable lads when rubbing their horses down.”) He is easily the book’s most sympathetic character, and fascinating in his own right—a dashing man of empire who might have led a happier life in another time. The children’s loyalty to their father stands as a powerful tribute.
You might say that it ended badly for the Lygons. Yet this isn’t a sad book. “Mad World” leaves you feeling astonishingly close to a notoriously aloof man, who, no less than his novel’s hero—no less than any of us—found in the haunted denizens of Madresfield Court proof of all that is finest and cruelest in the human spirit.
This alone would have made “Mad World” a singular accomplishment. But Byrne has achieved something rarer by far. In the dense and aromatic incense smoke of Brideshead Castle, she has discovered another world altogether. And it is well worth knowing.
As Sebastian says to Charles, in one of the novel’s more poignant scenes: “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”
“Mad World” is just such a precious thing.
Kirk Davis Swinehart teaches history at Wesleyan University.