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on 2 January 2010
Having been brought up in a working class family in the village of Madresfield during the 1950's until the age of 14,I have been aware for many years of the connection between Waugh and the Lygon family living at Madresfield Court. As a child growing up there and attending the village school, church etc the scandal about the 7th Earl's sexuality was passed down from generation to generation. When I was older and told friends that Brideshead Revisited had been based on the Lygon family, there was a little disbelief as everyone associated it with the TV version and the family from Castle Howard! I have read several books on Waugh and the Lygons, but this one was the most revealing. Perhaps if I hadn't lived there and known a little of the history of the family and their predessors I wouldn't have been so interested, but in saying this the research undertaken by the author from new letters and papers of the 8th Earl's sisters that have now come to light give the book a wonderful insight into the decandant and priveledged life the aristocracy lived during the 19th and 20th Century. It is said that the truth is stranger than fiction, and this book lays no stone unturned!
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on 19 November 2009
I freely admit to an aversion to most biographies; those half ton tomes stuffed to overflowing with regurgitated facts that so often represent the flotsam and jetsam of the life in question as opposed to actual milestones and achievements. Happily, this is not the case with Paula Byrne's Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, a biography as witty and amusing as its subject.

Mad World follows Waugh's life from cradle to grave. As we trek along we are treated to brief portraits of Waugh's parents and brother Alec, all those Mitford sisters, his annulled first marriage and life-long second, his conversion to Catholicism, as well as pointedly detailed descriptions of his published works, including Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited.

The pace quickens (and never flags) once Waugh enters Oxford, where he quickly develops friendships with the likes of Harold Acton and Brian Howard, and embarks upon a series of homosexual relationships, the most profound and lasting with Hugh Lygon, second son of the 7th Earl Beauchamp, and the inspiration for Sebastian Flyte.

Waugh is taken under Lygon's wing, and is introduced to the family, becoming a life-long friend and confidante of sisters Mary and Dorothy, as well as a fixture at the family manse Madresfield (hence "Mad World"). He witnessed, and remained steadfast throughout the family's dishonor and the disgrace of the Earl, who fled the country rather than face charges of Gross Indecency.

Byrne has painstakingly researched her material, and though her finished text is rich in detail and critical observances, it seems never heavy handed or in the least tedious. Indeed, her work reads as though it were a novel, a brilliant modern day retelling of Waugh's classic Brideshead, which is the kindest compliment it could be paid.
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on 22 December 2009
Although I acknowledge he was a great writer, I felt Waugh was a character I didn't like very much after reading various published letters he had written to his friends such as Anne Flemming and also the biographies written after his death. Paula Byrne's account of his time with the members of the Lygon family however was especially jaw dropping because it reveals a more vulnerable side to his character. I could not put this book down. The goings on at Madresfield was especially interesting because I had lived in Malvern for years and had no idea that the gothic pile, up the road, was the scene of an enormous scandal many years ago. I almost started to like Waugh because Byrne wrote movingly about the sadness of the breakdown of his first marriage and his inability to win over women he loved deeply. I always thought he was an horrendous snob and unfortunately Byrne does not convince me that he wasn't . I would recommend this book highly - it reveals so much about the society which Waugh enjoyed being part of and also motivated him to write Brideshaead.
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on 13 August 2010
Being in my middle 80s and just touching the hem of this period and in fact knowing one or two of the people mentioned I found this book not only very well and amusingly written but completely fascinating socially and historically with its taboos and customs revealing a vanished class which needs to be recognised as an important influence in the run up to the second world war. Apart from this it shed such a marvellous spotlight on the books of Evelyn Waugh and I rushed to my aged Penguin editions to check them over. My favourite book so far this year!

Evelyn himself becomes the hero of a book and it sheds a glittering light on the workings of his mind - my congratulations to Paula Byrne showing affection for a subject who could become an object of satire himself.
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on 29 July 2010
It had always mystified me why Charles Ryder was so easily accepted by the Flyte family in the book 'Brideshead Revisted'. He was, after all, from another world and quite a provincial one at that. I think Evelyn Waugh did not invest Charles with the wit and intelligence that Waugh himself possessed though Waugh was clearly writing about himself in the guise of Charles Ryder.

This book 'Mad World', clearly shows the connection between Ryder and Waugh and explains, or at least makes real, so many of the unclear obsessions and relationships described in Brideshead especially those of a religious and sexual kind. It is a splendid read, very well researched and written providing an excellent insight into Waugh himself - his sexuality, intelligence, snobbery, and religious perspective. The book really is easy to read and quite sensational in places (especially the entries in the charge sheet made against the 7th Earl). I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and was sorry when it was finished.

In truth, all of Waugh's books now make sense, not just Brideshead Revisited. If you enjoyed either the book or the television series but like me, could not quite understand the point of view of Lady Marchmont or Sebastian, then read 'MAD' - all the answers will be found there.
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on 19 October 2009
I have just finished reading this book and I found it absolutely enthralling. As Paula Byrne explains in her preface her approach is to look at Evelyn Waugh's relationship with the Lygon family of Madresfield Court and their influence on his great novel Brideshead Revisited rather than attempt another full length biography.So this is the back story to Bridehead.

Paula Byrne begins by contrasting the respective childhoods and schooling of the middle-class Waugh and the aristocratic Hugh Lygon - one of the models for Sebastian Flyte until their paths converge at Oxford. And later as Evelyn Waugh bcomes one of the Bright Young Things of the Twenties. The book charts the relationship between Waugh and Hugh Lygon but even more so the more important one with his two sisters Maimie and Coote who introduced him to their world at Madresfield and became his life-long friends. Evelyn Waugh fell in love with the whole Lygon family and with their home Madresfield Court which had a profound and lasting influence on his life and work. Paula Byrne traces this intricate and multifaceted relationship with sensitivity and explains all the influences for the prototypes of the characters of Brideshead. Woven into the narrative is the impact of his religious conversion to Rome had on his personal life and work.

There are brilliant cameos of other members of Waugh's and the Lygons' circle and a marvellous evocation of the uninhibited party-going and eccentricity of the upper classes in the 20s and 30s which gave Waugh such marvellous copy. Paula Bryne shows how most of Waugh's fictional characters were a composite of two real people so the creation of Sebastian Flyte was inspired not only by Hugh Lygon but also Wuagh's Oxford undergraduate lover Alistair Graham though it is hard to see the rest of the Flyte siblings as other than straight copies of the Lygons.

Paula Bryne writes like a dream and the book is, in turn, funny, outrageous, scandalous and tragic and it perfectly captures the era of the Brideshead generation. Evelyn Waugh's imagination was so absorbed by the Lygons that after the Second World War when age and time had destroyed the joyous abandon of that era and the people he loved Waugh lost himself and his writing failed while he degenerated into an irascible caricature of his former self.
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on 23 October 2011
Evelyn Waugh is to literature what Hitchcock was to cinema: During their prime years, artists who were capable of pleasing the critics and the public alike. A rarer combination than you might imagine. Still being talked about - still being enjoyed long after their passing.

The appearance of this book conforms that time is not only a great healer it is also the fairer judge. For this is not only the best book yet on Waugh (and I have read a few), but it is also the most even minded. It remains broadly forgiving of Waugh the would-be playboy (only lack of money clipped his wings), the dreamer and the misanthrope. Maybe trying to view the man by his age (and his "bad company" influences) rather than from the PC world of today.

Waugh's homosexuality (or leanings) remains something that no author can quite fathom. Author Paula Byrne simply puts the facts before us. Such are the "facts" in biography and re-told story. Was it a "passing phase" or "wanting to join a secret - walled garden - club." The biographers view of many popular artists is that they could have "gone both ways." With Waugh this is well supported by evidence.

(Without using any swift summation or clear phrase, here Waugh "grew out of it" - although his health was wrecked early and wrecking your health is hardly good for your outside-of-marriage sex life.)

For a celebrated man Waugh saw a great deal of failure. He failed at college (he only got a third class degree), he was sacked as a school teacher, sidelined in the army ("brave" is about as good a word as he gets), tried to get involved in printing and furniture making, and only having tried all this did he become a "man of letters." But what a busy man of letters he was. Did he really read all the books he reviewed? Seems doubtful given the time restraints.

The life of Waugh - and therefore this book - is uneven. Late middle-age didn't suit him, indeed he may well have been the other side of sanity while still in his fifties (he died at only 62). Signing-up for work that he had no ability to complete.

This is a fast paced book with breezy characters, plenty of whiffs of scandal and ever changing scenery. I am sure it will be fun to read even if you are not much of a fan of the man himself or would not pick up one of his books other than to kill a cockroach.
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on 24 September 2009
A biography needs to be framed by a Point of View. Usually it is its subject and should be so if he is unlikely to be portrayed more than once. Evelyn Waugh is not such a case. The interest in him is sufficiently wide to accommodate different Points of View. Mad World is written from the Point of View of the Lygon family, with whom Waugh was friendly and whose members are in part associated with individual characters in Brideshead Revisited.
Paula Byrne has done her subject proud and, if one puts a price on the pleasure something provides, it is hopelessly under-priced. Mad World reveals much of what I did not know of Evelyn Waugh, even though I have read about him to a considerable degree. It reveals much more about the Lygon family members. How interesting it is that seemingly insignificant events in Brideshead Revisited happened to one degree or another to people mentioned in this biography. Two villains make their appearance. The first is the second Duke of Westminster, a character as malignant to the seventh Earl Beauchamp as the appalling Marquess of Queensbury was to Oscar Wilde. The second villain is King George V. He abandoned his loyal servant Beauchamp to the Duke of Westminster's knavery in a manner only less reprehensible to the way he abandoned Tsar Nicholas II.
After Brideshead, life did not proceed smoothly for any of the people in this book. I remind myself of the conversation between Cordelia and Charles in Brideshead:
` ... such an engaging child, grown up a plain and pious spinster, full of good works.' Did you think "thwarted"?'
It was no time for prevarication. `Yes,' I said, `I did; I don't now so much.'
`It's funny,' she said, `that's exactly the word I thought for you and Julia when we were up in the nursery with nanny. "Thwarted passion," I thought...'
Thwarted. That's what happened to them all.
Paula Byrne's style is free of journalistic puffery, therefore this biography is authoritative. I find very few vague points. I will not mention them because I try to ration myself to just one personal point, which I have just mentioned. Such can be understood if the reader, like me, lives in a country like Australia where the state is presently governed by press release.
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"Brideshead Revisited" is one of my favourite novels, so I was interested to read this book; which is partly a biography of Evelyn Waugh's life and partly a portrait of the Lygon family, used as a model for the characters in the novel. This is a fascinating portrait of an era, with Waugh himself very much the Charles Ryder outsider, from a minor public school and seemingly doomed to spend his time at Oxford with those dull associates from his restricted circle. However, as we know, he is enticed by the glamorous, aristocratic set, seemingly exclusive (almost all Old Etonians) and, once infiltrated by Waugh, fodder for his sharp wit and imagination. Throughout his life, Waugh seemed attracted to eccentric characters and Oxford certainly opened his eyes to a lifestyle he had not previously encountered. This work does highlight that excess and debauchery are a dangerous lifestyle though, as many of the characters we meet as 'bright young things' are unable to withstand the pace and alcohol, especially, becomes hard to control.

This fascinating book explains how Waugh met Hugh Lygon at Oxford, second son of the Earl of Beauchamp, and was later introduced to the rest of the family at their ancestral home, Madresfield ('Mad'). His friendship with the family continued throughout his life, but the author deftly explains 'who is who' in the Brideshead world and uncovers Waugh's tendency to fall in love with families that he met, perhaps underscoring the difficulty he felt in the relationship with his own father. This is as much about the author as the novel and as much about a period of time as the characters. If you like Waugh's novels, his wit and his genius, then you will love this book. Mad World is now available on kindle, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (text-only), but disappointingly in a 'text only' edition. It is a shame to see that kindle users are still being shortchanged by some publishers, but if you do want the illustrations, then opt for the paperback version.
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on 1 January 2010
In terms of style, this book alternately sparkles and is a bit of a nightmare. The author's most distressing habit is to insert leaden passages regardless of context, like a not very good school essay. The quotes below follow one another directly, for no discernible reason:

"Elmley did not reciprocate the affection, though he did take Miss Cartland's virginity.

"It was clear to all the Eton and Oxford friends of the Lygon boys that their father's devotion to his children was extraordinary. And they repaid him amply with warmth and loyalty."

At other times she writes so tautly and so well it is worthy of Waugh himself. It makes one wonder what publishers' editors get paid for these days.

The subject matter, however, shines through, as fascinating as ever, and when we get to the outing of Lord Beauchamp - wow! - the book really takes off.
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