interior banner image

‘Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead’ by Paula Byrne

‘Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead’ by Paula Byrne

Author: J. E. Knowles

April 25, 2011

Lambda Literary Award Finalist

In the original manuscript of Englishman Evelyn Waugh’s most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited (1945), Lord Marchmain is described as “the last, historic, authentic case of someone being hounded out of society.”

Mad World (Harper Perennial) shows high “society” and how it drives its sexually misbehaving members into exile. Paula Byrne also makes the case for Evelyn Waugh as a master of a great tool of fiction writing: the bisexual imagination.

Readers need not already be fans of Waugh’s books to enjoy reading about “Mad,” or Madresfield, the country estate on which Brideshead is based. The main thing I remembered about Waugh was his advice that “you can draw any character as near to life as you want and no offense will be taken” provided you say that he, or she, is good in bed.

The “secrets” of the subtitle are the major characters in Brideshead Revisited based on members of Madresfield’s Lygon family, especially the lord and his second son. The real-life lord was driven out of England by a homosexual scandal, while Hugh Lygon, who was also homosexual, is thought by Byrne to have been one of Waugh’s lovers.

This suggestion is not implausible. Waugh wrote about having two other male lovers as an undergraduate at Oxford. Byrne’s nonjudgmentalism mirrors Waugh’s own: he is portrayed as never feeling guilt about these love affairs, and although he uses terms like “pansies,” he’s no more mocking of homosexuals than of everyone else.

Waugh comes across as matter-of-fact about sex in general, describing it in terms no more or less romantic than an elaborate meal, and referring frankly to the less savory consequences of sexual practices. His 1930 novel, Vile Bodies, sounds like a Jazz Age precursor of Larry Kramer’s Faggots, satirizing a hedonistic subculture.

Byrne argues that the female love interest in Brideshead Revisited is a flat character, and that is how the women in Waugh’s life appear here. What Byrne shows of Waugh’s relationship with his second wife and their children evinces very little warmth. The impression is that Waugh’s sexuality was on a spectrum with the “intimate friendship” he shared with women.

It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Waugh’s deepest loves were same-sex, and at Oxford. No one who has fallen in love at, or with, the university should find this remarkable.

If there’s a failing in Mad World, it is Byrne’s nonjudgmentalism to a fault. All sexual behaviour is presented in the same objective tone, including some schoolmasters’ with boys. This seems to accord with the view at the time, reflected in Waugh’s own life, of a “homosexual phase” one grew out of, as opposed to the lifelong homosexuals (and pederasts) who would get into trouble, if they were too indiscreet.

Byrne states that Hugh’s self-destructive alcoholism, and that of the character resembling him, is related to his guilt over homosexuality, but her picture of Hugh suggests rather that he drank himself to death because he had no prospect of inheritance and no real talent.

By contrast, his father, hounded out of high society for his own homosexual indiscretions, seems to have made the best of things. His long-term relationship with a male “secretary” in later years raises the possibility that, in a less judgmental time, he might have avoided the sham marriage altogether and lived a happier homosexual life.

Byrne is scrupulous enough not to speculate on things for which there isn’t evidence, and that is to her credit as a biographer, but it’s also frustrating. One longs for insight into why, for example, most of the Lygon children and in particular the daughters sided with their father after the scandal, becoming almost completely estranged from their mother.

We are told that the lord buggered his footmen and that his wife was pious; this doesn’t seem an obvious reason to prefer him to her. Mad World also leaves more questions than answers about what really drove Waugh, deep down. His conversion to Roman Catholicism is described as an important part of his life, to the point that Brideshead Revisited was criticized for being Catholic apologetics.

Yet Waugh’s religious faith seems not to have inhibited his “rogering” women, married or otherwise, or broken his stride in any practical way. Why was an atheist of Waugh’s tastes and opinions drawn to this form of Christianity? The only reason given is his love or attraction for a Catholic girl, for whom he went to the trouble of annulling his first marriage (in vain).

But these unanswered questions may just be the limitation of biography. To see inside the minds of people, we have to turn to fiction. The greatest potential strength of a literary biography is to make us want to read books by the original writer. In this, Mad World succeeds.
Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
By Paula Byrne
Harper Perennial
Paperback, 9780060881313, 384pp.
March 2011

J. E. Knowles photo

About: J. E. Knowles

J. E. Knowles’s first novel, Arusha (Spinsters Ink), was a 2010 Lambda finalist in the Bisexual Fiction category. An excerpt from her forthcoming novel appears in Toe to Toe: Standing Tall and Proud.

Subscribe to our newsletter