This is my review of Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne.
This very readable biography of Evelyn Waugh focuses on his fascination with the aristocratic Lygon family and the ambiance of their ancestral home Madresfield, which inspired his famous novel "Brideshead Revisited". Paula Bryne recaptures the poignancy of the drama to rival a Shakespearean tragedy in which the cultivated and socially conscious Earl Beauchamp, one of the last Liberal grandees, was driven into exile because of his blatant homosexuality,a victim to the hypocrisy of the day and the jealousy of his brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster. On the other hand, Beauchamp seems to have used his powerful position to prey upon attractive young servants, rather in the style of a modern celebrity disc jockey.
Paula Byrne paints a sympathetic portrait of Waugh, highlighting his wit, companionship and loyalty to those he liked or admired, his special gift for platonic friendships with women, his courage and cheerful resourcefulness under pressure, "for he liked things to go wrong". Admitting that he was snobbish and often sharp-tongued, she makes allowances for him continually: his outrageous comments were often "meant to be jokes", when in later life he played the part of the crusty lord of the manor "in love with the past" he became a parody of himself, but the knowledge that hosts he thought he was entertaining found him a bore "broke his spirit".
It is interesting how biographies differ. Perhaps wisely for the sake of the length and coherence of the book, the author glosses over his friendships with other writers like Grahame Greene, his unconventional conversion to Catholicism, his possibly neglectful or exploitative relationships with his second wife and children, and the details of the alcoholism and drug-taking which aged him prematurely, drove him into periods of temporary insanity and eventually killed him "before his time". She makes light of the selfishness as when, it must have been through lack of thought, he accidentally started a fire in his father's precious bookroom.
Whom is one to believe? Hugh Carpenter's biography claims that Waugh was not given men to command in World War 2 because he found it hard to relate to working class soldiers. Paula Byrne makes light of Waugh's insistence when in the Royal Marines on "etiquette and proper procedures" and his attempt "to convince the young men how much better the world was before the invention of electricity".
One of the most interesting aspects of the biography is speculation on the extent to which Waugh's writing drew on his own experiences, places he had visited but most particularly the people he knew, often amalgamated to create a character.
With only minor reservations over some repetition which suggests a lack of editing, this book sets Waugh in context and is an inspiration to read more of his work for the humour and quality of the writing, even if much of the social comment now seems very dated.