Mad World, By Paula Byrne

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The Independent Culture

Considering that the life of Evelyn Waugh is such a well-ploughed field (four biographies plus Humphrey Carpenter's The Brideshead Generation), the creation of another absorbing work on the same topic is no small achievement. Paula Byrne has broken new ground with a detailed, gossipy account of Waugh's relationship with the Lygon family, the louche aristos who inspired the Marchmains in Brideshead Revisited. Madresfield, their Worcestershire pile, was the real Brideshead, not Granada TV's Castle Howard.

The parallels are very close. Like the Marchmains, the Lygons were Catholics with their own gilded chapel. The eldest son was a dull clod, while the second son was a charming, beautiful, homosexual drunk who died at 31. The numerous daughters tended to be irreverent individualists, overflowing with jokes. The father lived in stylish exile. Invited to Madresfield in 1931, Waugh fell for them in a big way. No wonder he felt obliged to state in a preface to Brideshead: "I am not I. Thou are not he or she. They are not they."

There were good reasons why Waugh could not follow the template too closely in the case of the father, William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, known to the family as Boom. He was forced to flee the country at great speed ("Luckily he always carried a thousand pounds") for "the usual reason". A guest at Madresfield was astounded to hear him say "Je t'adore" to his butler, though Harold Nicolson tried to cover this up by insisting it was "Shut the door". Boom's sudden departure "to take a rest cure" prompted jokes about mud baths from the yellow press, while his brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster was more blunt: "Dear Bugger-in-law, You got what you deserved. Yours, Westminster."

If Byrne makes the most of such rich material, the secondary theme of her book is nothing less than the rehabilitation of Waugh himself. Numerous witnesses testify against the commonly held view that he was a snobbish boor. After an expedition to the Arctic, where his lack of fitness was a major hindrance, the leader recalled: "I found him sweet." After Waugh's death at the age of 63, his son Auberon insisted that "The main point about my father... is simply that he was the funniest man of his generation." This is not to say that he was not also desperately bored in his final years. Byrne's cocktail of biography, gossip and literary criticism is both insightful, and transporting fun.