A perceptive study of how Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966) emerged from middle-class beginnings to inhabit the tony corridors described in Brideshead Revisited (1945).
By the time of his death, Waugh had been dismissed as a pretentious snob whose best days were long behind him. Byrne (Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson, 2005, etc.) seeks to redeem her subject, and she makes her job easier by focusing the narrative almost entirely on Waugh’s best-known work. It makes for an incomplete biography, but Byrne more than compensates with a close reading of his defining experiences as a bisexual, a Catholic and especially as a young man eager to explore the upper class. At Oxford he fell into the orbit of a number of students born into wealth, and his time at college seemed more dedicated to heavy drinking and sexual experimentation than any formal learning. Among his peers was Hugh Lygon, the son of Lord Beauchamp, patriarch of Madresfield (aka “Mad”), the lavish estate that would serve as the model for Brideshead. The Lygons were abundantly wealthy but hardly trouble-free. Hugh eventually sank into a deep alcoholism, and Beauchamp was forced to leave England after his affairs with young men came to light. (Byrne is the first to see a divorce petition that describes his dalliances with young servants.) Regardless, Waugh struck up a close friendship with two of Hugh’s sisters, Maimie and Coote, who supported him through his writing career and failed romances. The author was seduced and inspired by Mad’s opulence, but Byrne doesn’t paint him as an opportunistic hanger-on—his affection for Beauchamp and the Lygon sisters was deep and respectful. Quoted letters capture the depth of their relationship, down to the private slang. Though Byrne’s exploration of Waugh’s Catholic faith is relatively slight, she smartly exposes how much it informed Brideshead and how much of the Lygons’ internal turmoil thrummed within the novel.
A sharp, entertaining literary biography that encompasses plenty despite its narrow focus.