Book review: Michael Dirda reviews "Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead," by Paula Byrne
Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
By Paula Byrne
Harper. 368 pp. $25.99
Many readers love the early novels of Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) simply because they are so funny, packed tight with epigrammatic sentences and a humor that verges on the fantastic and surreal. "Decline and Fall" (1928) is as sparkling as Voltaire's "Candide," while "Vile Bodies" (1930) remains a masterly period piece, the definitive satirical portrait of the 1920s "bright young things." Not only amusing, though. Waugh can shock, too: Near the climax of "Black Mischief" (1932), the hero actually finds himself at a cannibal feast where he ends up eating his girlfriend.
Waugh, then, is far more than just an edgier P.G. Wodehouse. He's a true moralist, both a savage critic of the way we live now and an elegist for all the beautiful lofty things that have been disdained or destroyed by the modern world. His masterpiece, "A Handful of Dust" (1934) -- like the T.S. Eliot poem from which it takes its title -- portrays the 20th century as a blighted wasteland, inhabited by barbarians. In its final chapters, the hero's magnificent country house is razed, while he himself is doomed to spend the rest of his life, lost in a South American jungle, reading Dickens aloud to a madman.
Like most writers, Waugh regularly adapted his own experiences in creating his fiction. In the altogether excellent and wickedly entertaining "Mad World," Paula Byrne convincingly shows just how deeply the novelist drew on real people, places and events to produce his best known and most controversial novel, "Brideshead Revisited" (1945).
Despite being exceptionally funny in places, "Brideshead Revisited" focuses, slowly but inexorably, on a religious theme: the working out of God's grace in human lives. In its pages Charles Ryder gradually progresses up a kind of ladder of love. At Oxford he first falls under the spell of the irresistibly charming and aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. Later he comes to know Sebastian's Roman Catholic family and eventually to embark on a passionate (and adulterous) affair with his sister, Julia. At the book's climax, we witness an improbable deathbed miracle and learn that Charles -- like his creator -- has become a convert to Catholicism.
What, though, differentiates Waugh's novel from the religious bestsellers of, say, his contemporary Lloyd C. Douglas, author of "The Robe"? First, the beauty and precision of its sentences. At times, Waugh may allow an almost fin-de-siècle lushness to his descriptions, but in general he writes the most shapely and elegant English prose of his time. If you would write perfectly, you would write like Evelyn Waugh.
Second, the book's first 100 pages offer an unforgettable evocation of a lost paradise, Oxford in the early 1920s. This section closely mirrors Waugh's own experiences at the university. As Byrne summarizes: "A lonely middle-class boy goes to Oxford and languishes in the company of dull but clever friends until he is befriended by a group of glamorous Old Etonians who introduce him to an enchanting world of cosmopolitan culture, heavy drinking, beautiful clothes, friendship, stimulating conversation, and a childhood that he has missed out on."
Even if you've never read the novel itself, there's a good chance that you've seen the celebrated miniseries, starring the young Jeremy Irons. The achingly wistful soundtrack, the golden glow that suffuses each scene, the beauty of Anthony Andrews as the doomed Sebastian, the melancholy voice-over of the older Charles as he looks back on a vanished time of unclouded happiness -- well, there had never been anything quite so cinematically beautiful on television before. And seldom since.
From the moment "Brideshead Revisited" was first published, Waugh's friends recognized that he drew strongly on his long association with the high-born Lygon family, especially Hugh Lygon and his sisters Mary and Dorothy. Byrne makes clear the near-identity of Brideshead Castle with the Lygons' country home, "Mad," short for Madresfield (136 rooms, with -- an important element in the novel -- a private Arts-and-Crafts-style chapel).