20 March 2010

The Real Brideshead

In the penultimate year of World War II, Evelyn Waugh obtained a three month leave. He asked for time off for the express purpose of writing Brideshead Revisited. Although based on events which focus on 1931, the urgency for writing this book was upon him. He told a friend he felt had to write the novel now or it would slip away forever. 

It took Waugh five months to complete the book. He wrote feverishly, two thousand fastiduously revised words every day on average.  He wrote the book in the same place where he fell in love with the Beauchamp family, the family upon which Brideshead is based on.

In 1931, Waugh had just converted to Catholicism when he befriended the Lygon girls. Their brother Hugh had just gone off with his father to France after convincing him not to commit suicide. Waugh had been close to Hugh at Oxford. 

Lord Beauchamp was a devoted father and a man of many talents. As Paula Byrne writes in Vanity Fair in an article based supporting the launch of her new book on Waugh, Lord Beauchamp was also a fan of embroidery. One of his works, "The Golfer", was showcased at the 1920 Paris Exhibition, "It depicts a naked golfer, raising his club as he concentrates on his shot. It was not just the golfers. Lord Beauchamp was said to have an 'exquisite taste for footmen'".

Homosexuality was accepted or ignored in aristocratic circles and Beauchamp's penchant was an open secret. His Lordship's brother-in-law, the second Duke of Westminster, hated him however and hired to private investigator to bring proof to King George. Many fabled retorts are attributed to the King as Westminster told the King that one of his knights of the Garter had dishonoured the "office'. One of them has King George replying he thought people went abroad to do such things. And abroad Beauchamp was dispatched, it was eternal banishment or dishonour at home. He left Britain accompanied by Hugh, an over-sensitive boy, who was the inspiration for Sebastian in Brideshead.

Beauchamp had just left Britain and his wife was divorcing him and also away from Madresfield when Waugh befriended the Lygon girls. They had been abandoned to the 136 room house which stood on four thousand acres, just like in the book, a group of kids running the place with only servants to look after them. Sibbell was twenty-four, Maimie 21 and Coote 19. Elmley, the eldest son served as an MP, dividing his time between London and his Norfolk constituency. The Lygon girls often gave parties but particularly adored Waugh who they asked over for dinner every night at Madresfield. It fascinated Waugh that the house was inhabited by the same family for eight centuries. Waugh was later closer to Coote who is Cordelia is Brideshead. Maimie was his favourite. She was a female version of Hugh.

Hugh would come back and forth. He had shaped Waugh's tastes and they had shared a great passion at Oxford. Homosexuality at Oxford was seen as a phase. It was chic to be queer and Hugh was a Peter Pan figure who refused to grow up. Very much like Sebastian in the book,it was adulthood that killed Hugh. His homosexuality, like his father's, did not regress upon graduation and he remained haunted by what happened to his father. Hugh succumbed to alcoholism and his family had to monitor him closely. 

The Lygon sisters refused to condemn their father and brother, both had given them so much love. Hugh died at the age of thirty-two. The girls were admitted to parties and led a full social life, but, tainted by scandal, they were not showered with respectable offers. Of the seven Lygon children (there was an older sister who was married and a younger son), only two left issue.

Upon reading a draft of Brideshead, Nancy Mitford recognised the Lygons at once. Waugh had a discussion with Coote before publication, explaining that the family was simply a inspiration. She did not appear to mind and often said that similarities between her family and Brideshead were exaggerated. It is well known Waugh remained exasperated at the focus on the family, insisting religion was the central theme of the book. Catholicism is the aspect most likely to unnerve both readers and critics of Brideshead.

We love to read a great story about an extraordinary family and Brideshead Revisited is certainly that. 

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