Evelyn Waugh's Grandson on the Secret Behind 'Brideshead'

Alexander Waugh, the novelist's grandson, reviews a new history, Mad World, about the real family that inspired Brideshead and explores why his grandfather was so obsessed with them.

Evelyn Waugh (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Many years ago I wrote a lively biography of God, but the fun of it was spoiled, for me at least, when press interest seemed to revolve entirely around my grandfather. “What would Evelyn Waugh have thought of this?” they asked, “Was it written as an antidote to Brideshead Revisited?” One magazine even asked me to review it (my own book) in the manner and style of my grandfather. All this was red rag to a bull and when a feeble-minded editor on the Daily Telegraph rang to suggest that instead of running excerpts from my book, as he had previously agreed, he was now intent on a pull-out guide to Evelyn Waugh’s attitude to God, I exploded: “Whether you believe in God or not, He is the most influential character in the history of human civilization and surely, therefore, more interesting to your readers than Evelyn Waugh!” There was a painful silence down the other end of the telephone, during which I realized that I was wrong.

The enormous house with its painted chapel, crystal staircase, treasure filled halls, colossal library and vast staff of servants became a giant, idyllic playground for the younger generation and their friends.

So after my father died I wrote a book, Fathers and Sons, with the intention of casting the Wavian phlegm out of my system. It was a history of the father and son relationships over five generations of Waughs. “You’re an ass,” people said. “You will never live it down and rather than get away from the Waugh thing you will be forever branded by it.” My plan, of course, was just the opposite. I reasoned that if I wrote books on interesting topics in the future, and people asked, “What would your grandfather have thought about that?” I could simply refer them to the family biography previously written and move on. But of course things didn’t work out like that. The main reason for the failure of my scheme was that I had myself become addictively hooked on Evelyn Waugh. My fascination has only grown with the years. I am now a morbid collector, with an archive of tens of thousands of documents relating to his life and works as well as editor in chief of a 47-volume scholarly edition of Evelyn Waugh for the Oxford University Press. Why? It’s not that I’m interested in Waugh just because he was my grandfather (I think I have long got over that), nor is it because he was a great novelist (there are plenty of those); what really draws me to him as a subject of study is the extraordinary magnitude of his egomania.

He left a trail about himself fuller and denser, I suspect, than any other human being has ever left. As a boy he was always the first to leave his handprint in wet cement or to carve his initials onto an attic beam. From his earliest age he showed compulsive need to leave a mark, and to this end he unflinchingly dedicated his entire life. I have, in my collection, a letter written by him when he was 3 years old and another written on the morning of his death. On some days he wrote 10 letters of a thousand words each, as well as keeping a diary, writing books, essays, articles, and reviews. Taking these alongside his novels, which are themselves scrambled and re-ordered autobiography, Waugh seems to have left an unparalleled record of what he was doing and thinking on almost every day of his life. So there is practically no limit to the number of fascinating books that can be usefully and entertainingly written about him.

Paula Byrne taps a particularly rich seam in writing about Waugh’s connection, or should we say “love affair,” with the Lygon family. In October 1931, famous, but homeless and recently divorced, 28-year old Waugh decided to take riding lessons at an equestrian Academy in Malvern, Worcestershire. After a week in the saddle he fell off injuring his back, and spent most of his time fooling around with the Lygons at the their nearby moated stately home, Madresfield Court. Over the next few years he stayed there more than 20 times, wrote large parts of Black Mischief and Remote People in an upstairs nursery, and based two of his greatest novels ( A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited) on the house and family. What made Madresfield particularly exciting to Waugh was that there was no grownup host to whom he needed to defer or in front of whom he was expected to behave. The head of the Lygon family, Lord Beauchamp, was exiled from England after a homosexual scandal (graphically described for the first time by Ms. Byrne in her book). His estranged wife, Lady Beauchamp, was persona non-grata, at Madresfield for having connived with her brother, The Duke of Westminster, to have Beauchamp arrested for buggery. So without Lord and Lady Beauchamp the enormous house with its painted chapel, crystal staircase, treasure filled halls, colossal library and vast staff of servants became a giant, idyllic playground for the younger generation and their friends.

Waugh had befriended the oldest boy, Lord Elmley at Oxford in 1922. They were co-members of a riotous drinking club called The Hypocrites and had acted together in a silent film (scripted by Waugh) with Elsa Lanchester in her first screen role. Some say (and Paula Byrne is definite on this point), that Waugh had a homosexual affair with Elmley’s younger brother, Hugh Lygon, while at Oxford. They were certainly very close friends and nearly died together in on an expedition to Spitzbergen in 1934, and, as is widely acknowledged, Waugh modeled much of the character of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited on Hugh.

Elmley turned into the pompous bore, later lampooned as the matchstick collecting older brother in Brideshead Revisited, and Hugh, a heavy drinker, died bankrupt after a mysterious accident on a trip to Germany in 1936. But the real bond between Waugh the Lygon siblings (and the emotional core of Paula Byrne’s splendid new book) concerns Waugh’s relations with two of the four sisters—Mary and Dorothy, which lasted, Platonically, from 1931 until Waugh’s death in 1966. Dorothy (little Cordelia in Brideshead) never married in Waugh’s lifetime, Mary failed at marriage and money and drank too much, but Waugh supported her to the end. Theirs was the most touching of friendships which provides a strangely moving and compelling form to the book.

Paula Byrne has taken great care to get her facts right and has unearthed a great deal of new material not just about Waugh and the Lygons, but Oxford and Eton and the aristocratic way of life in England in the 1930s. While displaying the research values of a scholar she is also manages to write with the panache and timing of a top popular novelist. The book works so well because makes every effort to understand Waugh’s motivations. Where so many commentators on Waugh are prepared to fall back on the old clichés of drunk, snobbish, difficult, Byrne’s portrait is sympathetic and therefore, automatically, far more interesting.

But what stands out best for me is the author’s very astute literary criticism. She sifts her way through the kaleidoscopic world of Waugh’s fiction to expose all those elements that she senses to be directly inspired by the Lygons and Madresfield Court, many of which have never been shown before. Was Tony Last’s jungle exile from Hetton Abbey at the end of Handful of Dust drawn from Lord Beauchamp’s real-life exile from Madresfield? Did Waugh intend, in his short story "The Balance," to draw portraits of two sides of his own nature in two separate characters? Is a snapping poodle in the short story "On Guard," based on Mary Lygon’s odious Pekingese, Grainger? Ms. Byrne is convincing and entertaining in all she writes. It really doesn’t matter how many books about Evelyn Waugh you have already read. This one is a real winner.

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Alexander Waugh is the grandson of Evelyn Waugh and the son of columnist Auberon Waugh. He has written several books, including, most recently, The House of Wittgenstein, Fathers and Sons, and God. He lives in Somerset, England, with his wife and three children.