Evelyn Waugh and the Origins of Brideshead Revisited

[Gay Community News, July 1982]

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh's epic novel of life, death and spiritual renewal among the English Catholic gentry, is now widely described as Waugh's greatest work, and has certainly been the most popular of his many novels. The magnificent television re-creation of Brideshead now dominating our Tuesday evenings has given it renewed popularity. Brideshead Revisited is now so widely acclaimed that it is hard to believe that it was not always so. Yet the fact is that both book and author were heavily criticised at the time of its first publication in 1945. How was it that such an enduring favourite should have met with such a hostile reception?

Evelyn Waugh and the World in 1945

The experience of the Second World War had produced a profound transformation in British politics and attitudes, one which had completely passed Waugh by. The political bankruptcy of the old establishment had been starkly exposed by Spain, appeasement, Munich, the Phoney War and Dunkirk. The blame for the war and Britain's unpreparedness for it had been ruthlessly sheeted home to the old upper-class politicians by socialist journalists like Tom Driberg, George Orwell and Michael Foot, whose brilliantly successful Guilty Men (1940) permanently discredited the 'Munich generation'. The Conservative Party, which had been in office since 1931, was blamed for the failures of the pre-war period, and Churchill's personal popularity was not enough to save it. The public mood in Britain by the last year of the war was for a complete break with the past, a rejection of the old institutions and values. The realisation of this desire for change came at the elections of June 1945, in which the Labour Party won an overwhelming and unprecedented victory.

At this exact juncture, in May 1945, came Brideshead Revisited, a novel that appeared to many to be a straightforward eulogisation of three of the most conservative elements of English society; the old universities, the landed aristocracy and the Catholic church. To many critics (mainly but not exclusively those of the left), Brideshead seemed like a deliberate spit in the eye for the British public's recent ordeals and aspirations for their future. The novel's lush sentimentality, its loving portrayals of people who were, when one came down to it, a set of upper class drones, its exclusive preoccupation with the personal lives of its characters, its religiosity and its general air of nostalgia for the old society all went against the democratic, optimistic mood of the country and aroused an intense antipathy in many quarters. Waugh's hostile portrayal of Lieutenant Hooper, a representative of the new class of plebeian army officer thrown up by the war, as an ignorant boor oblivious both to regimental tradition and to the refined sensibilities of Ryder/Waugh, was particularly noted and criticised. Among critics, defence or condemnation of Brideshead became something of a dividing line between right and left, between the shiny new socialist future and the dead aristocratic past.

How had Evelyn Waugh, the devastatingly accurate satirist of the foibles of the upper classes in the twenties and thirties, fallen so far out of sympathy with the times as to have become the idealiser of these same classes in the forties? The answer lies in Waugh's political and intellectual background, and his political evolution during his career as a writer.

The Satirist as Conservative

For a start, there is a difference between satirisation and attack. While some of Waugh's satirisations of the English upper classes are quite devastating, he was never opposed to them in a political sense, any more than was, say, P G Wodehouse with his mockery of Bertie Wooster. In fact, both Waugh and Wodehouse admired the aristocracy and wished to emulate them. Waugh's most biting portrayals are actually reserved for parvenus such as Brendan Bracken or Lord Beaverbrook (who appears as the odious Lord Copper in Scoop and elsewhere).

Waugh's whole background led him naturally to the political right. The Oxford intellectual push under whose influence he fell (the 'aesthetes' of the Hypocrites Club) was radical only in its aesthetic iconoclasm. It never developed a political criticism and most of its followers later settled happily into the lives of privilege to which their class backgrounds destined them. This is in sharp distinction to the almost contemporary Cambridge-centred group now known as Bloomsbury. This group, dominated by figures such as Maynard Keynes, E M Forster, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Duncan Grant, was, like the Aesthetes, mostly made up of upper-class homosexuals, but its politics leaned distinctly to the left. Had Waugh gone to Cambridge rather than to Oxford he might have been a very different writer; but then he would never have given us Brideshead.

Waugh's career as the angry young satirist, made with books like Decline and Fall, Black Mischief and Scoop, came to an end with his unhappy marriage to Evelyn Gardner in 1928-29, the failure of which led directly to his conversion to Catholicism and his renunciation of his former sinful ways (of which more shortly). While at first he wore his faith fairly lightly, he became gradually more pious as the thirties progressed. In 1932 he began, as a kind of evidence of his new convictions, to write a life of Edmund Campion, the sixteenth century English Jesuit martyr. This work took him deeper into Catholic theology and deepened his beliefs. Correspondingly, his political conservatism hardened and became more specific.

In 1935 he married again, to Laura Herbert, another convinced Catholic convert, and he embarked upon the life of a country squire, the nearest he could get without making a fool of himself to emulating the landed aristocracy he admired and whose houses he frequented. His Catholicism, his conservatism, and the profound cynicism about the futility of all human endeavour which these two elements, together with his generally misanthropic and pessimistic outlook produced were deepened by his experiences in the second world war. His four years in the Army and as a Special Operations Officer in Yugoslavia convinced him that the course of the war represented a betrayal of the ideals for which it allegedly fought, and the final destruction of the traditional English society he revered. He later recounted his wartime travails, and the deep bitterness and pessimism they produced, in his Sword of Honour trilogy (1952).

'A Kind of Gluttony'

It was in this black frame of mind, amid the privations and austerity of England in 1944, that Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited during a period of leave. This was wangled for him by Brendan Bracken, the Minister for Information, whose job included encouraging patriotic literature.

Brideshead was not exactly what Bracken would have considered a patriotic novel, though of course its thoroughgoing Englishness is a great part of its charm. It is an unashamedly sentimental book filled with rich descriptions of elaborate feasts and long summer days in great houses and ancient universities. Its characters have unlimited time to indulge their emotions and their eccentricities. Brideshead is, in fact, an evocation of all the things Waugh knew the war was destroying and that he feared the democratic future would abolish forever. Although he considered it his finest work when it was published, he later rejected it. In his introduction to the 1959 edition, he blamed the times: "the period of present privations and threatening disaster." He conceded that "the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, for rhetorical and ornamental language."

Later, in Unconditional Surrender (1961) he even turned his own satirical pen against Brideshead. One of his characters, Corporal Ludovic, spends his war writing an impossibly baroque novel, described as "a very gorgeous, almost gaudy, tale of romance and high drama. . . The plot was Shakespearian in its elaborate improbability. The dialogue could not have issued from human lips, the scenes of passion were capable of bringing a blush to readers of either sex and any age. . . [it was a book] which could turn from the drab alleys of the thirties into the odorous gardens of a recent past transformed and illuminated by disordered memory and imagination." This analysis of Brideshead 's origins, and criticism of its weaknesses, were more penetrating than most of those it received at the time of its publication. They also demonstrate Waugh's saving grace, his ability to laugh at anything, including himself. This quality saved Waugh's later novels from mere moralising and saved Waugh himself from being merely a misanthropic old reactionary. Even the most didactic of his later works, like Helena or the war trilogy, is still fresh, lively and very funny despite its serious political and pietistic intent.

'Evelyn Entered an Extreme Homosexual Phase'

Most of Evelyn Waugh's work contains a strongly autobiographical element. From Paul Pennyfeather in his first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), to Guy Crouchback in his last, Unconditional Surrender, most of his heroes are at least in part representatives of Waugh himself. All of Waugh's most important life-experiences (Oxford, teaching, journalism, the Army, religion, marriage, drink and insanity) were worked through and his reactions to them explained to the world and to himself in his novels. It is therefore fair and natural to ask: is the hero of Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder, a portrait of Evelyn Waugh?

The answer must be, not really. He is a character occupying Waugh's time and space, and there are certain parallels in their lives, but his personality and behaviour bear little relationship to the author's. We are shown a rather serious-minded, introspective young man, being brought out of himself by the radiant personality of Sebastian Flyte. In fact, the young Waugh, once at Oxford, flung himself headlong into the riotous decadence of the postwar aesthetic movement, launched and dominated by Harold Acton and Brian Howard (who appear in Brideshead as a composite character, Anthony Blanche). Even Waugh's reticent and protective biographer, Christopher Sykes, concedes that "at this period Evelyn entered an extreme homosexual phase", a phase he describes as "unrestrained, emotionally and physically." Sykes does not like homosexuality and says so, so this admission about his hero cannot be an exaggeration. Sir Harold Acton, in Memoirs of an Aesthete, describes Waugh as "a prancing faun, thinly disguised by conventional apparel. His wide-apart eyes, always ready to be surprised under raised eyebrows, the curved sensual lips, the hyacinthine locks of hair, I had seen in marble and bronze at Naples. . . Though his horns had been removed, he was capable of butting in other ways."

Many have tried to play down the fact of Waugh's homosexuality at Oxford and the homosexual origins of Brideshead Revisited. Waugh himself, after his conversion to Catholicism in 1930, destroyed his Oxford diaries. Derek Grainger, the producer of the television series, allowed himself in a recent interview (Campaign 78) to talk a load of nonsense about "powerful attachments" and "tender affections" caused by the unfortunate absence of women. He says Waugh's feelings were "very strong toward this sense but he was fairly chaste." Grainger may be excused a desire to preserve the family viewing status of his production, but this really is rubbish.

Two of Waugh's closest friends at Oxford were Alistair Graham and the Hon Hugh Lygon (pronounced Liggon). The balance of probability is that they were among his many lovers there, but this is now unprovable (although Graham is still alive). The personal character of Lord Sebastian Flyte is apparently based on Graham, as are many of the details of the relationship Waugh describes between Sebastian and the narrator. (According to Sykes, the name 'Alistair' occasionally appears in the Brideshead manuscript in place of 'Sebastian'.) This has led many to completely identify Graham and Sebastian. However, it is clear that Sebastian's appearance and family circumstances are derived from Hughie Lygon, not Graham. Most of the other major characters in Brideshead Revisited are either derived from or occupy the places of members of the Lygon family. Their history forms an important background to the book.

The Lygons are an old Worcestershire family, and acquired the title Earl Beauchamp (pronounced Beechum) in 1815. They occupy a magnificent country seat in Madresfield, which Waugh often visited (although the description of Sebastian's home in Brideshead is based on Castle Howard in Yorkshire, where the TV series was filmed). The head of the family in the 1920s, and therefore the person upon whom the character of Lord Marchmain is based, was William Lygon, the seventh Earl Beauchamp. There are similarities between Beauchamp and Marchmain, but the dissimilarities are greater - and far more interesting. Evelyn Waugh could have written an even more intriguing novel had he described Lord Beauchamp's career in full.

Lord Beauchamp's Proclivities

Lord Marchmain ran off to Europe in 1914 to live with an Italian mistress in Venice. Lord Beauchamp by contrast had a distinguished political career in Liberal cabinets from 1910 to 1918, having begun his career as Governor of NSW from 1899 to 1902. After the first war, he remained loyal to the dying Liberal Party, leading it in the House of Lords and supporting it with his fortune. By the 1920s he was Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Chancellor of London University and a Knight of the Garter. He was also, despite having married and produced a large family, a homosexual. This fact was reasonably well-known in political circles, but it was not thought proper to make it a subject for political attack (indeed the Tories could hardly do so when their own former leader, Lord Balfour, was known to his friends as Betty).

But Beauchamp was unfortunate in his choice of brother-in-law. His wife was the sister of the Duke of Westminster, the dissolute and bigoted head of a family of virulently Tory nouveaux riches, the Grosvenors. In 1931, seeking to ruin Lord Beauchamp and through him the Liberal Party, Westminster informed both King George V and Lady Beauchamp of the Earl's sexual proclivities. The result was not quite what Westminster hoped for; there was no public scandal. Lady Beauchamp had a nervous breakdown, the King prevailed upon Beauchamp to resign all his offices. He considered suicide, but was dissuaded by his son Hugh, instead emigrating to Venice, where he lived, like Lord Marchmain, in lonely splendour in a crumbling palazzo. When Lady Beauchamp died, he could not return to England for fear of arrest.

Although Hughie Lygon is partly the model for Sebastian Flyte, his fate differed somewhat from that outlined for Sebastian in Brideshead. It was sad enough. After leaving Oxford, he drifted from failure to failure and took heavily to drink. His health suffered and he became bankrupt. Waugh, in his unfinished autobiography A Little Learning, described him as "always just missing the happiness he sought, unhappy in love, a man of the greatest sweetness." He died in a car accident in Germany in 1936. Lord Beauchamp died in exile two years later.

Who s Really Who

The other members of the Flyte family are drawn from their counterparts in the Lygon family, but their characters are only marginally similar. Lord Brideshead, Sebastian's elder brother (not his father, as Campaign would have it), bears some similarity to Lord Elmley, Beauchamp's eldest son, now the eighth Earl, but Julia and Cordelia are in no way similar to Lady Mary and Lady Lettice Lygon, Hughie's sisters, and Lady Marchmain definitely bears no resemblance to the unfortunate Lady Beauchamp, whom Waugh never met. The true derivation of the characters of the Flyte women remains unclear. Julia seems to be partly derived from Olivia Plunkett-Greene, an unhappy love of Waugh's between his two marriages and instrumental in his conversion to Catholicism. Cordelia is probably a composite of the many precocious upper-class daughters Waugh met through his aristocratic connections. Lady Marchmain, in some ways the book's central character, has no identifiable model, which should not surprise us. Waugh was quite capable of creating major characters out of nothing: in fact Brideshead is unusual in having so few.

The identities of the minor characters have been deduced by Sykes and other writers without too much difficulty. Rex Mottram, Julia Flyte's ambitious husband, is a venomous portrait of Brendan Bracken, the pushy Canadian-born Tory politician who in a way made the book possible. Mr Samgrass, Sebastian's unctuous bodyguard, is apparently modelled on the eminent classical scholar Sir Maurice Bowra, who had been one of Waugh's tutors at Oxford. Bowra affected not to be offended at this caricature, which irritated Waugh greatly. Celia Ryder, Charles' insufferable wife, has not been identified in print, apparently because the person upon whom she is based is still alive and understandably not amused. It seems difficult to believe that she is not at least in part based on Waugh's first wife, Evelyn Gardiner, who left him after less than a year of marriage to live with John Heygate, a friend of them both. Waugh felt betrayed and embittered by this experience, which in some respects resembled the breakup of Charles and Celia.

In this light, the story line of Brideshead can therefore be understood partly as a cleaned-up reworking of Waugh's Oxford relationship with Hugh Lygon (with bits of his relationship with Alistair Graham grafted on), partly as various pieces of Waugh autobiography, with his own character, in the person of Charles Ryder, subtly heterosexualised and respectablised, and partly as a description of the decline and fall of the Lygon family, only with the family's central crisis, Lord Beauchamp's homosexuality, removed and replaced with a spurious tale of adultery and voluntary exile - which in turn is subtly blamed on the inoffensive Lady Beauchamp/Marchmain, who gets recast from victim to villain. Of such pettiness is great literature made.