Waugh and Brideshead

Excerpted from Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, by Paula Byrne, to be published this month by HarperCollins; © 2010 by the author.

It is early 1944, and Captain Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh has fallen out of love with the army. He has just turned 40 and is considering his options. To become a screenwriter? An overture to Alexander Korda comes to nothing. To join M.I.5, the intelligence service? He is turned down without an interview. Only one possibility remains: to revert to his pre-war occupation as a novelist.

On January 24 he writes a letter to Colonel Ferguson, officer commanding, Household Cavalry Training Regiment. “I have the honour to request,” the letter begins, “that, for the understated reasons I may be granted leave of absence from duty without pay for three months.” The understated reasons are various—for instance, that his previous service in the Royal Marines, the Commandos, the Special Services, and the Special Air Service Regiment does not qualify him for his current position in a mechanized unit of the cavalry. The necessity of immediate action is stressed. There is a book he needs to write: “It is a peculiarity of the literary profession that, once an idea becomes fully formed in the author’s mind, it cannot be left unexploited without deterioration. If, in fact, the book is not written now it will never be written.”

By the end of January he has been granted his three months’ leave. On the morning of Tuesday, February 1, 1944, he is settled in a hotel, deep in the West Country: Easton Court, Chagford, Devon—a thatch-roofed 14th-century farmhouse with low, dark rooms and small windows. He has been there before: in the late autumn of one of the most momentous years of his life, 1931. It is a place that in his memory he cannot separate from a house and a family with which he had fallen in love that year.

In London he had regularly lain in till midmorning. At Chagford he is up at 8:30 and at work by 10. By dinnertime on that first Tuesday, he has written and re-written 1,300 words. By “close of play” on Wednesday the score is “3,000 words odd.” Through the ensuing weeks he works steadily at the rate of up to 2,000 words a day, occasionally more. He revises arduously as he goes. In the end it takes him closer to five months than three, but the book that he knows in his heart he has to write is completed.

The book’s original working title was The Household of the Faith. The story of a family. A journey shaped by religious faith. These are its key themes. The setting is an English manor house, the home of the Flytes—Lord and Lady Marchmain and their children. There is a sad and alluring son—an Oxford contemporary of the narrator. Scandal, drink, God, love, exile, forgiveness—all of this will be stirred in. But the working title does not find its way into print. When the book is published the following year, its title page reads Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder: A Novel. On the reverse side of that title page there is a mysterious author’s note, signed with Waugh’s initials. It reads: “I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they.”

Yet Charles Ryder manifestly is Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited contains as large a dose of autobiography as Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield or Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. So who, then, was the “thou” who was and was not “he or she”? The “they” who were and were not “they”? What was the household that was and was not Brideshead?

Nineteen thirty-one was a year that marked the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. It was the banking crisis of that year, more than the Wall Street crash of 1929, which ushered in the Great Depression. The frivolous age of the Bright Young Things had come to a sudden end.

Evelyn Waugh was also in a period of transition. He was a recent convert to Catholicism; he had divorced his wife; and he was fêted as one of the most accomplished young novelists of his age. But he had no fixed abode. Nineteen thirty-one was the year when he would meet and befriend the Lygon girls—Lady Sibell, Lady Mary (known as Maimie), and Lady Dorothy (known as Coote). Their brother Hugh had been an intimate friend of Waugh’s at Oxford. Hugh would die young, but Waugh’s friendship with the Lygon sisters would endure for the rest of his life. In 1931 he became part of the Lygon family as a whole, making their magnificent ancestral seat—Madresfield Court, in Malvern—the nearest place to a home at a time when he owned “no possessions which could not conveniently go on a porter’s barrow.”

He had just returned from five months in Africa as a special correspondent for The Graphic magazine. Eventually, he would get two books out of his experiences there, a comic novel, Black Mischief, and a work of witty reportage, Remote People, which covered the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie. For much of the year, he continued to drift among the houses of different friends. While staying with his brother, Alec, in the South of France he read the news of the scandal involving William Lygon, the Earl of Beauchamp, Hugh Lygon’s father, but he could hardly have suspected that his life was about to become closely entwined with that of the Lygon family.

Lord Beauchamp was the perfect aristocrat—tall, handsome, intelligent, cultured. He was an energetic and highly successful public servant, driven by progressive instincts and a sense of noblesse oblige. His children called him “Boom,” because of his loud, booming voice, which resembled a foghorn. Lord Beauchamp was also an artist and a craftsman. He was keenly interested in embroidery. He kept a studio at Madresfield Court, devoted mainly to sculpture. It was there that he produced his finest piece, The Golfer, which was displayed in the Paris Exhibition of 1920. It depicts a naked golfer, raising his club as he concentrates on his shot.

It was not just golfers. Lord Beauchamp was said to also have “exquisite taste in footmen.” When interviewing male staff he would pass his hands over their buttocks, making a hissing noise similar to that made by stable lads when rubbing their horses down. The diplomat and diarist Harold Nicolson recalled a dinner at Madresfield when he was asked by an astonished fellow guest, “Did I hear Beauchamp whisper to the butler, ‘Je t’adore’?” “Nonsense,” Nicolson replied. “He said ‘Shut the door.’” But Nicolson knew that the other guest had indeed heard correctly. At a certain exalted level of society, Lord Beauchamp’s homosexuality had been an open secret for years. Although homosexual acts were a criminal offense, it was not thought gentlemanly to make them a subject for public attack. Beauchamp felt confident that he could continue his double life without being exposed by his colleagues or the press.

And so he might have, had it not been for the jealousy and hatred of his brother-in-law Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster. The precipitating events are difficult to unravel, but in the end Westminster employed private detectives to spy on his brother-in-law. Early in 1931, when he had accrued enough incriminating evidence, he arranged a meeting with King George V. Westminster told the King that he had conferred the highest honor of Knight of the Garter on a licentious homosexual. The rumored response of King George, often repeated when the story circulated in aristocratic circles, may or may not be apocryphal: “Why, I thought people like that always shot themselves.” Another version had the King saying that he was under the impression that people only did such things abroad.

Whatever the truth, the King decided that a scandal of this nature must not taint the court, where Beauchamp had once been Lord Steward of the Household. Beauchamp was eventually given an ultimatum—either remove himself from Britain, agreeing never to return, or face trial and public scandal. Urged on by her brother, Lady Beauchamp filed for divorce and moved out of Madresfield. The children would never forgive her for what they saw as disloyalty to the father they deeply loved. In June of 1931, Beauchamp crossed the Channel. A few days later a notice appeared in The Times: “Earl Beauchamp, accompanied by his son, the Honourable Hugh Lygon, left for Nauheim yesterday to take a cure. His daughters will join him later.”

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