“Mad World” is the perfect title for this sparkling book, a hybrid of family romance, incisive literary criticism and deliciously hot gossip. The world portrayed in its pages is indeed mad, in the sense that much of what takes place is over the top - romps, scandal, transgressions of all kind, even bouts of actual insanity - but there is also a pun there. For Mad was what the Lygons - the family at the heart of this story - called Madresfield Court, their beloved manor house in the beautiful English countryside of Worcestershire. High jinks of all sorts took place there amid the Gothic Revival Victorian Arts and Crafts splendors of this originally Tudor/Jacobean stately home.
But although the Lygons were prominent on the British social and political scene, they and Madresfield would probably be only one of the myriad points of light in the once bright firmament of high society had Evelyn Waugh not used them and their tragic story as the catalyst for his greatest novel, “Brideshead Revisited.”
“So true to life being in love with a whole family,” wrote his contemporary novelist and dear friend, Nancy Mitford, when first she read what she (and others) immediately dubbed this “Great English Classic.” And fall in love he did with a family and their home, as anyone who has experienced the rich and evocative prose of that peerless novel will know. Now we have this exhaustively researched, deeply intuitive probe into the Lygons and Waugh’s fruitful relationship with them.
Never reductive, always truly enlightening, profoundly sympathetic to all concerned yet at the same time clear-eyed about them, “Mad World” is a splendid contribution to the literature about “Brideshead Revisited” and Waugh. So attuned to him is Ms. Byrne that the portrait of him amid so much else in these pages constitutes in itself one of the most revealing biographical studies we have of this complex individual.
Those who have already read “Brideshead” will find themselves so much better informed after reading “Mad World” that they may well want to revisit the novel, while those who encounter it for the first time only after reading this account will do primed with so much background material enabling them to appreciate it all the more.
There is a case to be made - and many have done so - that Waugh’s trilogy of novels about the World War II collected in one volume under the title “Sword of Honour” is an even greater work than “Brideshead.” Certainly, it has a political and moral depth, amid peerless social satire and some of the finest and most devastatingly realistic depictions of military disasters and debacles, to recommend it.
But the lushness of Waugh’s prose in the earlier novel - to say nothing of the intensely distilled emotions - as he looks back on the richness and sweetness of prewar life from the vantage point of the grim, straitened, stringent existence of wartime make “Brideshead” something very special. From its inception, he consciously set out to write his Magnum Opus and he indeed created the great work of his life, the crowning achievement in a magnificently productive career.
Of course, there was a lot more to this Great English Classic, this Magnum Opus, than the Lygons and their home that undoubtedly lit Waugh’s imaginative fuse. It is a tribute to Ms. Byrne that her work highlights the differences between art and life here as much as it connects them. Thus we get to see what Waugh added from deep within himself in addition to seeing the imaginative nectar that he sucked at Madresfield. For one thing, the intense Roman Catholicism that not only permeates the novel’s atmosphere and affect, but provides its intellectual and artistic underpinnings had nothing to do with the Lygons’ Anglican faith, and everything to do with Waugh’s own passionate intensity, his convert’s fervor. The artistic lens with which he viewed these rather brittle people, colored as it was with his own highly romantic view of them and their surroundings, in short his love, is what elevated what might have been a tawdry tale into the splendid, ornate literary edifice it became.
Ms. Byrne writes that she “set out to write this book because I believed that Evelyn Waugh has been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist. I did not recognise Waugh in the popular caricature of him. I wanted to get to the real Waugh. … In searching for the answers … I kept coming back to his relationship with a single family: the Lygons of Madresfield. I came to the conclusion that his inner feelings about them provided a key that could unlock the door into Waugh’s inner world.”
And in this quest, she has succeeded magnificently. Certainly, she shows that Waugh’s friendship with this family was very real and precious to him not only as a writer but as a person. He was no mere literary parasite, ruthlessly using his friends for fodder. Indeed such was his concern for the Lygons that far from magnifying in fiction the real story, “Brideshead Revisited” is an example of art being far tamer than life.
Nowhere has Ms. Byrne’s research been more revealing than in exposing the details of the real-life scandal that blew up the Lygon family’s world. Suffice it to say that it is a doozy and “Mad World” contains all the juicy details, some of them from previously sealed legal depositions. So this protean book has something for everyone, from serious devotees of literary criticism to those who love the most sizzling gossip. Who could ask for anything more?
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.