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.
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.
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.
This is a partial biography of Evelyn Waugh, and most of it is about his connection with the Lygon family. In fact the book effectively ends in 1945, twenty one years before Waugh's death, with the publication of `Brideshead Revisited'. It begins with chapters about the school days of Waugh and of Hugh Lygon, the Sebastian of the novel. Evelyn, from a middle class background (his father was a publisher), was already an aesthete and a bit of an outsider at Lancing. Hugh, the second son of the 7th Earl Beauchamp, was good-looking and charming, for which qualities he was adopted, despite being rather philstine, by the large circle of aesthetes at Eton, many of whom would become distinguished cultural figures in future.
The Eton aesthetes went on to Oxford, as did Evelyn in 1922. After two terms in which (as at Lancing) Evelyn had no real friends, he found one in Harold Acton who, as he had been at Eton, was the leading spirit among a group whom he called `aesthetic hearties' - i.e. not aesthetic decadents like Oscar Wilde; and Acton introduced him to Hugh Lygon. The group went in for heavy drinking and homosexuality: Waugh, too, now for a while indulged in both, and Hugh became one of his lovers.
It is, incidentally, astonishing how fearlessly these young men flaunted their homosexuality at a time when its practice was still a crime. As it happens, none of them were ever prosecuted, perhaps because they belonged to the upper classes. It was only when they had made powerful enemies, such as Oscar Wilde and Hugh's father, the 7th Earl Beauchamp had done, that these enemies could stir the authorities into taking action against upper-class homosexuals.
After he went down Waugh became a prep school master and start on his career as a novelist: `Decline and Fall' (1928) was his first. But he remained nostalgic for Oxford and frequently went back there to meet up with his old friends. They also all became part of the London scene, where the rich gilded young met at party after party. Waugh took part, but he also regarded them with the eye of an outsider: he was becoming mildly disgusted with their sexual excesses and their giddy life-style. When, to his distress, his giddy wife, also called Evelyn, left him in 1929 for another man after they had been married for only a year, we can see a note of bitterness in his satirical portrayal of the madcap and shallow society he portrayed in `Vile Bodies' (1930), the novel which made him famous. That year he converted to Catholicism.
It was only in 1931, when Waugh was 28, that his connection with the Lygons became central to his life. Earl Beauchamp had just been forced into exile to avoid arrest for his homosexual behaviour - a story told in great and pathetic detail, as will be the sad story of his exile from his beloved home and the children who, unlike the Countess, sided with him. (His exile ended in 1937, but he died in the following year.) The Countess had gone to live in Cheshire; so Madresfield Court was actually run by three of their daughters, known as the Beauchamp Belles, all in their twenties, and with the freedom to have innumerable house-parties.
Waugh was first invited to Madresfield Court (referred to as `Mad' by the family), though not by Hugh, who had by this time become a self-destructive alcoholic; his good looks had gone; he would presently become briefly bankrupt; and he would die five years later, aged only 32. The invitation came from Hugh's sisters to whom Waugh was introduced by a mutual friend, the giddy flapper Teresa (`Baby') Jungman.
For Waugh Madresfield Court, with its richly ornate interior and its magnificent grounds, was like an enchanted world. Two of the sisters, Mary (`Mamie') and Dorothy (`Coote') took to Waugh, and pressed him to dine every night: he had no real home of his own (mostly living in hotels), and was practically adopted into the family. Jokes and laughter filled their days - noone who was incapable of this was welcomed at Madresfield. When he was away (travelling in Abyssinia, South America, Morocco) he regularly wrote to them and they to him.
But he was like a brother to them, not a lover. In fact he was successively in love with two Catholic women - one did not reciprocate his love; the other, "Baby" Jungman, would not marry a divorcee. By the time Waugh got his marriage annulled in Rome (the process took three years), he had fallen in love with a third, Laura Herbert, who became his second wife in 1937. He now had a home of his own in the Cotswolds, and his last recorded visit to Madresfield was in 1938. But he saw Mamie and Coote often and corresponded with them for the rest of his life. In any case, after the death of the 7th Earl, Madresfield became the seat of his solid eldest son, who had long ago shed the riotous friends he and Hugh had made at Oxford. "It was Mad World no longer." The girls now had to move out. Mamie married a Russian prince whom Waugh detested and who was the exiled nephew of the last Tsar. Coote took a house in the nearby Worcestershire village of Upton-on-Severn.
The last fifth of the book is about Waugh's life during the war. When it broke out he joined the army, which will provide him with material for his great Sword of Honour trilogy. To his dismay, apart from the disastrous episodes at Dakar and in Crete, he spent most the war stationed in England. In 1944 Randolph Churchill asked for Waugh to accompany him on a mission to liaise with Tito's Partisans. On the flight out, their plane crashed and Waugh suffered burns for which he was hospitalized in Italy and nursed by Coote, who happened to be stationed there with the WAAFs. When he and Randolph had recovered (Randolph from a damaged knee) they flew out to Croatia again, this time without mishap, but the mission was not a success: the Partisans distrusted the British, and Waugh and Churchill did not get on with each other either.
But what is most significant about the war years in Waugh's life is that it was then that he wrote `Brideshead Revisited', much of it while on leave from the army for the purpose; and Paula Byrnes' book ends with a long analysis of that novel, resuming in detail the extent to which it did (and the lesser extent to which it did not) reflect the personalities and events that Waugh had experienced. (The next book I read and reviewed on Amazon is of that novel.)
Because the book ends in 1945, the picture of Waugh himself, as a sociable man of charm, wit (which could be cruel and was sometimes gross) and a great capacity for friendship, is very different from that of the crusty, rude and embittered man he became after the war.
There is a long Coda (oddly placed after an interview with the author and other advertising material) which shows what happened to the characters after 1945. Mamie, divorced from her husband, sadly but serenely declined into poverty, alcoholism and mental illness. Coote had a number of humble jobs, and at the age of 73 married a man of the same age, nicknamed Mad Boy, whose life-style, including homosexuality, was still remarkably close to that of the Lygons in the 1920s. They separated shortly afterwards, but she kept her happy temperament and died at the age of 89. Finally there is a section about Evelyn, who was shattered when he was told in 1961 that one of his hosts had described him as a bore, and he was deeply distressed by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. He described a nervous breakdown of his in `The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold'. He suffered from heavy drinking, insomnia and from moods of melancholy. A sad end for someone who had once been among the Bright Young Things.