Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead


Evelyn Waugh was already famous when Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945. The chronicle of a household, a family, and a journey of religious faith—an elegy for a vanishing world—Waugh's masterwork was a tribute and testimony to a family he had fallen in love with a decade earlier. The Lygons of Madresfield were every bit as glamorous, eccentric, and fascinating as their fictional Brideshead counterparts, their story just as compelling, filled with secrets and betrayals, ...

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Evelyn Waugh was already famous when Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945. The chronicle of a household, a family, and a journey of religious faith—an elegy for a vanishing world—Waugh's masterwork was a tribute and testimony to a family he had fallen in love with a decade earlier. The Lygons of Madresfield were every bit as glamorous, eccentric, and fascinating as their fictional Brideshead counterparts, their story just as compelling, filled with secrets and betrayals, scandals and unwavering love.

Mad World is Paula Byrne's innovative and engrossing biography of Evelyn Waugh, recalling the loves and obsessions that shaped his world and his writing, capturing Waugh through the friendships that mattered most to him, and exploring how he encoded the defining experiences of his adult life in his greatest literary work.

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Editorial Reviews

Heller McAlpin
“An engaging book…remarkably thorough…Deftly interweaving biographical details and textual analysis, Byrne makes the connections between Waugh’s art, Roman Catholic faith, and life dance.”
Michael Dirda
“Altogether excellent and wickedly entertaining…Scandalous detail enlivens every page of this delicious biography…Over the years I’ve read all the major biographies of Evelyn Waugh, and Byrne’s is…the fastest moving and the most fun.”
Alexander Waugh
“A splendid new book…While displaying the research values of a scholar Byrne also manages to write with the panache and timing of a popular novelist.”
Martin Rubin
“’Mad World’ is the perfect title for this sparkling book, a hybrid of family romance, incisive literary criticism, and deliciously hot gossip.”
Chicago Tribune
“An utterly captivating and generous book with all the intimacy of a diary and the scholarly soundness of a fine biography…A singular accomplishment.”
“Well-researched and absorbing.”
Michael Dirda
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…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.
—The Washington Post
Tara McKelvey
…Byrne tells [Waugh's] story with affection—like a true friend—and charms the reader, too.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The identity of the aristocratic family that inspired Brideshead Revisited has long been known to Waugh biographers: Byrne's (Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson) considerable contribution to literary history details Waugh's close relationship with Earl and Countess Beauchamp; their son, Hugh Lygon (the prototype for Sebastian Flyte); and the psychological circumstances through which Waugh transformed his experiences into a novel that mirrored his lifelong quest for an ideal family and the spiritual haven of Roman Catholicism. Waugh, the product of an obscure public school, suffered at Oxford until he was accepted as a comrade by a group of brilliant, gay former Etonians whose college years were characterized by decadence, drinking, and debauchery. Hugh Lygon, while intellectually mediocre, belonged to the circle by dint of his charm and lineage. The tragic history of Madresfield, from Earl Beauchamp's exile from England to Hugh's early death, are thinly disguised in Brideshead. Byrne obtained access to previously unseen documents—including revelation of the royal family's possible role in the earl's exile—and includes enough gossipy asides to intrigue readers. With its brisk narrative pace, this book will be valuable to admirers of Waugh's oeuvre and those interested in the behavior of English upper-class society between the wars. 16 pages of color photos. (Mar. 9)
Library Journal
A regular contributor to the Sunday Telegraph and the Times Literary Supplement, English-born Byrne is an executive trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and a Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Warwick. Her best-selling second book, Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson, was selected for the 2005 Richard and Judy Book Club and a British Book Awards Best Read nomination. In Mad World, she has done a remarkable job of researching the life and relationships of Evelyn Waugh, drawing on the archives of Alexander Waugh (Evelyn's grandson), the Harry Ransom Center, and Madresfield, among many others. She has painstakingly cobbled together his familial, social, and educational backgrounds, as well as his many loves, friendships, acquaintances, and the families he adopted, especially the Lygons of Madresfield. Byrne shows Evelyn Waugh to be a loving and loyal man, much deeper and more complex than the aloof social climber that he was popularly believed to be. VERDICT This is not only a meticulously researched biography but also an enjoyable read that brings to life what would normally be a list of dry facts and information. Highly recommended for Waugh enthusiasts and scholars. [See Prepub Exploded, BookSmack! 10/15/09.]—Mark Alan Williams, Library of Congress
Kirkus Reviews
A perceptive study of how Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) emerged from middle-class beginnings to inhabit the tony corridors described in Brideshead Revisited (1945). By the time of his death, Waugh had been dismissed as a pretentious snob whose best days were long behind him. Byrne (Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson, 2005, etc.) seeks to redeem her subject, and she makes her job easier by focusing the narrative almost entirely on Waugh's best-known work. It makes for an incomplete biography, but Byrne more than compensates with a close reading of his defining experiences as a bisexual, a Catholic and especially as a young man eager to explore the upper class. At Oxford he fell into the orbit of a number of students born into wealth, and his time at college seemed more dedicated to heavy drinking and sexual experimentation than any formal learning. Among his peers was Hugh Lygon, the son of Lord Beauchamp, patriarch of Madresfield (aka "Mad"), the lavish estate that would serve as the model for Brideshead. The Lygons were abundantly wealthy but hardly trouble-free. Hugh eventually sank into a deep alcoholism, and Beauchamp was forced to leave England after his affairs with young men came to light. (Byrne is the first to see a divorce petition that describes his dalliances with young servants.) Regardless, Waugh struck up a close friendship with two of Hugh's sisters, Maimie and Coote, who supported him through his writing career and failed romances. The author was seduced and inspired by Mad's opulence, but Byrne doesn't paint him as an opportunistic hanger-on-his affection for Beauchamp and the Lygon sisters was deep and respectful. Quoted letters capture thedepth of their relationship, down to the private slang. Though Byrne's exploration of Waugh's Catholic faith is relatively slight, she smartly exposes how much it informed Brideshead and how much of the Lygons' internal turmoil thrummed within the novel. A sharp, entertaining literary biography that encompasses plenty despite its narrow focus. Agent: Andrew Wylie/The Wylie Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060881313
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/8/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 486,245
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Paula Byrne is the author of the acclaimed biographies Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and The Secrets of Brideshead and The Real Jane Austen. She lives in Oxford with her husband, Jonathan Bate.

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments ix

Prologue 1

1 A Tale of Two Childhoods 5

2 Lancing versus Eton 22

3 Oxford: '... her secret none can utter' 44

4 The Scarlet Woman 66

5 In the Balance 77

6 The Lygon Heritage 88

7 Untoward Incidents 100

8 Bright Young Things 113

9 The Busting of Boom 129

10 Madresfield Visited 152

11 The Beauchamp Belles 161

12 Christmas at Mad 174

13 An Encounter in Rome 187

14 Up the Amazon 201

15 A Gothic Man 210

16 Fiasco in the Arctic 225

17 Ladies and Lapdogs 236

18 A Year of Departures 247

19 Three Weddings and a Funeral 258

20 Waugh's War 269

21 The Door to Brideshead 286

22 Brideshead Unlocked 299

Coda: 'Laughter and the Love of Friends' 333

Sources 350

List of Illustrations 355

Index 359

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 30, 2011

    Very Enjoyable Read!

    "Brideshead Revisited" is one of my favorite books so I couldn't pass this one up and I'm so glad I bought it. I couldn't put the book down. It's wonderfully written and gives the reader so much insight into the iconic era of the "Bright Young Things" and their way of life. If anyone thought the "Boomers" were wild when they were young one needs to read about Evelyn Waugh and his generation in the '20's.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    Wonderful background for Brideshead fans

    This book was scholarly but great fun: I stayed up late and woke up early to finish it. I didn't know the Brideshead backstory, so it was a treat to learn about the eccentric, wealthy, and scandal-marred Lygon family, the real-life models for Sebastian, Julia & Co. I especially enjoyed the ways in which the fictional Brideshead mansion were based on the Lygons' home, Madresfield Court It was an interesting portrait of Waugh during this period: generous, hilarious, and kind, not at all the cranky, sickly guy he became in later life. (I'd also recommend it for any fan of the Mitfords.)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2010

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