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Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of…

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (original 2009; edition 2010)

by Paula Byrne

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187663,175 (3.75)7
Title:Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
Authors:Paula Byrne
Info:Harper (2010), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 384 pages
Collections:To read
Tags:literature, Waugh, literary analysis

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Mad world: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne (2009)



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Paula Byrne set out to write this book because she believed that Evelyn Waugh had been consistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist. I, for one, am very glad that she did. Paula Byrne eschews the "cradle to grave" approach, instead focussing on those key moments in Evelyn Waugh's life, and in particular those that informed his work.

A few weeks before reading 'Mad World: Evelyn Waugh And The Secrets Of Brideshead', I read and thoroughly enjoyed 'Brideshead Revisited'. 'Brideshead Revisited' is an absorbing and sumptuous eulogy for the end of the golden age of the British aristocracy and, if you haven't read it yet, I envy you. I recommend reading both books fairly closely together. I felt I gained a lot from having Brideshead fresh in my mind. That said, I found I also gained plenty of interesting insights into other Evelyn Waugh books I'd read (Decline and Fall, Scoop, A Handful of Dust, and Black Mischief) - some of which I read many years ago.

'Brideshead Revisited' is Evelyn Waugh's magnum opus, and I was amazed at the extent to which it was based on Evelyn Waugh's own experiences and those of people he knew. When one of Evelyn's friends asked him how he got away with using real life models for fictional characters, his reply was that you can draw any character as near as you want and no offence will be taken provided you say that he is attractive to women. That may be so, however there must have been plenty of people portrayed in Evelyn Waugh's fiction, particularly those he disliked, who would surely have taken offence. The other remarkable thing about Evelyn Waugh's biographical approach to fiction is how, frequently, the truth was stranger or more outrageous than the fiction it inspired. One notable example is the Lord Marchmain character in 'Brideshead Revisited', for whom Evelyn Waugh drew heavily on Lord Beauchamp (of the Lygon family who inspired many of the characters in 'Brideshead Revisited'), with one significant difference. In deference to the Lygon family, he removed almost all traces of Lord Beauchamp's homosexuality. It was this homosexuality that was at the centre of a scandal that caused his downfall, and exile from England. The real story is far more surprising and tragic than the backstory hinted at in 'Brideshead Revisited'.

The best biographies bring their subjects alive, and so inspire their readers to investigate further. This biography succeeds in bringing Evelyn Waugh, and his world, vividly to life. Before reading this biography I was already convinced that Evelyn Waugh was one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century. After reading 'Mad World: Evelyn Waugh And The Secrets Of Brideshead', I feel I understand him better and feel inspired to read those books I have not read, and to re-read those that I already know. If you have any interest in either Evelyn Waugh, or the era and social milieus he depicts in his books, then I feel sure you'll devour this biography - as I did. ( )
  nigeyb | Jun 14, 2013 |
I love the early novels of Evelyn Waugh simply because they are so funny, filled with epigrammatic sentences and a humor that verges on the fantastic and surreal. "Decline and Fall" is as sparkling as Voltaire's "Candide," and in some ways funnier for the twentieth-century reader, while "Vile Bodies" is a masterly period piece, the definitive satirical portrait of the 1920s "bright young things." 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.

In Mad World, Paula Byrne spends much of the book showing just how deeply the novelist drew on real people, places and events to produce his best known and most controversial novel, "Brideshead Revisited". 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. Byrne pursues the autobiographical connections between Waugh, Tony Last of A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited’s Charles Ryder. One link, says Byrne, is Madresfield Court, much of its architecture used as model for both Hetton Abbey and Brideshead Castle, many of its inhabitants used as model for his characters — notably, the gay Lord Beauchamp, squire of Madresfield, inspired Tony Last, and Beauchamp’s gay son Hugh Lygon, one of those with whom Waugh had an affair while at Oxford, inspired Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte. Byrne’s title plays off Madresfield’s informal name of Mad Court or “Madders”; her title is also inspired by the nervous breakdown of Waugh’s later years:
He went mad, began hearing voices in his head. One of them kept telling him that he was homosexual. He wasn’t — he loved women too much for that — but there is no question that the creator of Sebastian Flyte and admirer of Lord Beauchamp had one of the great bisexual imaginations of the English literary tradition.
Byrne's biography is somewhat narrow in focus, concentrating on just the first 40 years of the writer's life, and with this focus she is able to maintain a fast pace and mirror the fun of his novels. Only in her last section does the story slow, becoming somewhat 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. ( )
  jwhenderson | Sep 3, 2012 |
Evelyn Waugh used his entire life and those of his friends as copy for his many novels, so this literary biography that concentrates on his years in Oxford and through World War II is an excellent decoder ring to the novels from his most prolific and best-written period. As the title suggests, the bulk of the book concentrates on his relationship with the Lygon family who were the models for the Marchmains, and their beautiful home of Madresfield, the model for Brideshead.

Now that I've read this book, I want to go back & read Brideshead Revisited again. I think I'll understand many of the nuances much better. ( )
1 vote etxgardener | Jul 30, 2011 |
Very readable ( )
  Faradaydon | Nov 12, 2010 |
There was a time, in particular before World War One (AKA 'the Big Show'), when the aristocratic class ran the country. They went to the best schools, went to university and then proceeded smoothly to some position in Government until they arranged for their father to be killed in a hunting accident and took their seat in the House of Lords, looking forward to a succession of good dinners and putting a serious dent in the global supply of claret. Of course the War changed all that as the upper class were exposed as not fit to lead a conga line, never mind a charge at the enemy.

Reading 'Mad World', one is left with the profound impression that it's a wonder the aristocracy managed to stop buggering one another long enough to do anything at all. There's so much sodomy going on that it's a rare page that doesn't see somebody plunging into a chum with indecent haste before getting hammered and making a spectacularly bad marriage to a wife who turns increasingly ill tempered as she discovers that she is second in her husband's affection to the entire male staff (indoor and outdoor) of the estate.

With all the men drinking and buggering the help, it's little wonder that the women get a little bitter and come over as somewhat brittle. At least that's the impression that one gets from the author. One also gets the distinct feeling that the author doesn't like any of the people she is writing about. This makes for an uncomfortable read, quite appropriate for a book largely about buggery.

There's not a lot to like in the characters described here. Fun in literature, in real life somebody who is bent on self destruction can be quite dull. What it did do very well was draw a very clear line between being a drunk and being an alcoholic.

There is, at the heart of the book, a tragedy that is profound, and profoundly well described. It's the idea, the very idea, of unfulfilled promise. It is quite apparent that if one goes to Eton, those are the best days of your life. Everything else is a failure to fulfil your early promise. When you go to college you don't dazzle as well as you did at school, and then your career isn't the success that was expected when you were at college. Basically, unless you go straight from school to be the first man on Mars, you're a disappointment.

It's profoundly sad. Who is anyone to say that another has not fulfilled their promise until the lid is firmly screwed down on the box - and even then?

The aristocracy are portrayed as wild and brittle. Everyone's drunk, everyone's screwing one another, or others, everyone's either rich or festering in poverty and there is a constant merry go round of aristocracy staying with one another. This allows the bed-hopping, buggery and boozing that marked the era. Luckily everyone looks really well dressed and has sensible hair, and the veneer of respectability and glamour lends the whole of the proceedings a sort of louche charm.

Madersfield Court is described well. I've actually been there and loved the house and gardens - any house that comes with its own moat sends a certain message, which is usually: 'stay that side of the water while I reload my blunderbuss'. The gardens are stunning and contain a pet cemetery. This is what we expect from the aristocracy - beat the servants but honour your Labrador.

It's a fascinating insight into the life, as was lived then, of the aristocracy. At the same time, one could see the same drama of family disgrace, heavy drinking, infidelity and bad behaviour as being played out on any sink estate in the country. If you drinking your breakfast of car-boot vodka from a bottle, it's squalid, if you get your butler to decant your breakfast Champaign into jugs, it's glamorous.

Interesting but not enjoyable, and it's not a book I would recommend to others - though I would like to discuss it with others that read it - because I'm not sure that buggery and alcohol is everybody's cup of tea. ( )
2 vote macnabbs | Jul 28, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Paula Byrne is the latest to explore the people and the story that inspired [Brideshead Revisted] and she does so with acuity and panache.

Essentially, what Mad World provides is a lively introduction to Waugh and to Brideshead, and to the rarefied social world in which much of the novel is set. To this is added a small amount of new material, to which, understandably, much emphasis is given. There is, too, a good deal of trumpeting of the superiority of the author's critical sensibilities to those of her predecessors, many a blithe dismissal of those poor old dinosaurs, authors of "biographical doorstoppers", which nobody wants to read nowadays.
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So true to life being in love with a whole family (Nancy Mitford, on first reading Brideshead Revisited)
For Timothy and Clare Byrne
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Early 1944 and Captain Evelyn Arthur St John Waugh has fallen out of love with the army.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060881305, Hardcover)

Evelyn Waugh And The Secrets Of Brideshead Evelyn Waugh was already famous when Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945. Written at the height of the war, it was the story of a household, a family and a journey of religious faith - an elegy for a vanishing world and a testimony to a family he had fallen in love with a decade earlier. In this engrossing biography, Paula Byrne sets out to capture Waugh through the friendships and loves that mattered most to him. She uncovers a man who, far from the snobbish misanthropist of popular caricature, was as loving and complex as the family that inspired him.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:47:47 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"A terrifically engaging and original biography of Evelyn Waugh and the family that provided him with the most significant friendships of his life and inspired his masterpiece, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED"--Provided by publisher.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 3 descriptions

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