Book review: Michael Dirda reviews "Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead," by Paula Byrne

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 1, 2010; C07


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).

In her opening chapters, she shifts back and forth between young Evelyn's early life as the son of a prosperous publisher and Hugh Lygon's jeunesse dorée as the favorite child of the powerful and wealthy Lord Beauchamp. She then brings the two young men together at Oxford, where she surmises that the undergraduates enjoyed what was then euphemistically called a romantic friendship. Her evidence for this liaison is circumstantial, but her argument seems reasonable enough. Passing through a brief homosexual phase, Waugh certainly did fall for two other young men, the pale-skinned, blue-eyed and very scholarly Richard Pares and the alcoholic Alastair Graham, the latter yet another partial model for Sebastian.

Like Sebastian, "Hughie" gradually sank into drink, as he drifted aimlessly through his 20s and 30s. He eventually died at 36 from a cracked skull, suffered in a fall, probably while drunk. But by then Waugh had transferred his primary allegiance to the Lygon sisters, especially the glamorous Mary, who was transmuted into Julia Flyte, and the serious and bespectacled Dorothy, the model for the saintly Cordelia.

Waugh never slept with Mary, but he knew about her affairs, including two with royal princes. After all, it was a mad, mad world, a constant round of masquerades and treasure hunts and country house parties and cross-dressing and lots of sex and heartbreak. Even the young Barbara Cartland -- later the doyenne of the chaste romance novel -- succumbed to the Lygon family's eldest son, Viscount Elmley, who "did not reciprocate the affection, though he did take Miss Cartland's virginity." Like Lord Marchmain in "Brideshead Revisited," Lord Beauchamp lived in exile, but not because he hated his pious and controlling wife: The cultivated nobleman was fleeing a warrant for his arrest on morals charges. While he may have fathered six children, that didn't preclude an active interest in handsome male servants or prevent him from whispering to the butler at a stately dinner: "Je t'adore."

Such scandalous detail enlivens every page of this delicious biography. After all, the dramatis personae of the "Brideshead Generation" have passed into legend for their flamboyance, promiscuity and wit. In Byrne's pages appear the epicurean critic Cyril Connolly; the fabulous Mitford sisters; Robert Byron, whose "Road to Oxiana" founded modern travel writing; Diana Cooper, widely regarded as the most beautiful woman in England; the composer and eccentric Lord Berners; the learned don Maurice Bowra (the original of the loathsome Mr. Samgrass in "Brideshead"); and that arbiter of elegance, Harold Acton: "My dears, I want to go into the field and slap raw meat with lilies." Acton -- with whom, amazingly, I used to correspond 30 years ago when, in old age, he reviewed occasionally for Book World -- provided many of the traits for Waugh's lisping, campy arch-aesthete, Anthony Blanche.

Over the years I've read all the major biographies of Evelyn Waugh, and Byrne's is perhaps the narrowest in focus, concentrating on just the first 40 years of the writer's life, but also the fastest moving and the most fun. Only in her last section does she grow slightly academic in needlessly highlighting all the correspondences between the world of Madresfield and the world of Brideshead. But she makes her case. As she says in her prologue, "Mad World" illuminates the obsessions that shaped Waugh's life: "the search for an ideal family and the quest for a secure faith." Her book also reminds us just how much our lives are enriched and sustained by friendships.

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