Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
A selective biography, detailing the relationship between Evelyn Waugh and the members of the Lygon family, who inhabited an enormous country house called Madresfield. The family of the Lygons, a disgraced Earl and his seven children, were clearly the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited, Waugh's most popular novel, and one of my all time favorite books (a book I will probably read every decade of my life). Waugh went to Oxford (and had a romantic relationship) with Hugh Lygon, the beautiful and alcoholic second son of the family, then, in subsequent years, became close friends with three of the Lygon sisters, often living at Madresfield for long stretches of time. (Evelyn Waugh essentially owned no home during his entire twenties, going from hotel to country house to hotel. Does anyone do this any more? It seems like a reasonable way to live.)
The book is hit and miss, partly because Paula Byrne, the author, keeps feeling the need to explain the connections between the Lygons and Brideshead Revisited. It's best when she just focuses on the Lygon family who are, in and of themselves, a fascinating subject. All the children had fairly desolate fates--this was the saddest part of the book, the way that all their lives were haunted by the fortunes and excesses of the roaring 20s.
About limited biographies, I love the idea. The biggest problem with reading biographies is getting through all the early stuff about the subject's childhood. Some childhoods must be interesting but most aren't. Face it: biographies get interesting when the subjects start sleeping with people.