Biography Showdown Pt 1: Evelyn Waugh

My biography reading can be divided into categories of "Never heard of 'em, should be interesting" and "I like them, and I want to know more." The former describes my extremely enjoyable foray into the world of the Mitford sisters years ago. Through the Mitfords I became more interested in Evelyn Waugh, whom I've heard of, of course, but had never read. So I picked up a copy of Brideshead the next time I saw it, and it was easily the best thing I read that year. A year or so ago, I picked up Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead from the wonderfully anglophilic Nicolas Hoare. It languished rather long on my To be Read pile until the Toronto Public Library strike forced my hand.  

Mad World sets out to do a couple things differently than previous Waugh biographies. First, author Paula Byrne proposes to look not just at Waugh, but closely at the family that inspired Brideshead (and so much other writing), the Lygons. The title, Mad World, is a description of the way of life at Madresfield, a home left entirely to the young-adult children during the furiously fun 1920s. Waugh first came to know Hugh Lygon (the inspiration for Brideshead's Sebastian Flyte) while at Oxford. Waugh's first two terms were rather quiet, but soon after he fell into a group of friends from a rather different social circle: pedigreed boys from Eton, going to Oxford on expectation rather than want. Membership to the Hypocrites' Club (an informal group, bonded more through drinking than anything else) was predicated on wit, beauty, connections, or a combination thereof. Waugh had charm to spare, and was welcomed into the fold. His life would thereafter move in hard-partying, aristocratic circles. Hugh Lygon, unlike Sebastian Flyte to Waugh's Brideshead alter Charles Ryder, would be less of an influence and friend to Waugh than his sisters, most notably the youngest, Coote*. The lives of the Lygon family are followed in close detail, from school-days to death, mirroring the story told of Evelyn Waugh (though the writer remains the main focus).

Paula Byrne also ensures that formerly too-salacious details are left in, in order to create a complete portrait of Waugh, his friends and contemporaries, and the times they lived in. Colin Firth's stuttering King George gives no hint of the womanizing, drug-taking, and homosexual liaisons he was apparently known for.
Prince George, known to his friends as Babe, was bisexual. In 1923 he began a nineteen-year affair with Noel Coward. The threat of scandal was ever present. On one occasion, the royal household had to pay a substantial sum of blackmail money to a Parisian boy to whom Babe had written compromising letters.
It's suggested that Lygon patriarch Lord Beauchamp's exile was in part facilitated by the Royal family's worry that Babe and Beauchamp would be connected. "If the stories of the earl and his footmen reached the press, in however veiled a form, the consequences could be catastrophic. One imagines the King's advisers having nightmares about newspaper headlines along the lines of: 'Royal Princes in Immoral Country House Parties.'" Lord Beauchamp (fictionalised as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead) is forced to leave England in disrepute when his jealous brother-in-law outs him, and recounts Beauchamp's serial exploits with male members of his staff to Beauchamp's wife and law enforcement officials. Despite theses sorts of  very real consequences of being found out, the homosocial/sexual  bonds of a certain set of English young men are presented as expected, normal, and somewhat fashionable for the time. (There's quite a lot about this in Sexual Anarchy as well.)
Homosexuality was considered by many to be a passing phase, which young men would grow out of once they had left Oxford and began to meet young women. In those days it was chic to be ‘queer’ in the same way that it was chic to have a taste for atonal music and Cubist painting. Even old Arthur Waugh acknowledged as much: ‘Alec called on me the other day with a new friend of his, a sodomite, but Alec tella me it is the coming thing.
Of course, this depended a lot on the sorts of circles one moved in.  I suspect the middle and working-classes didn't see it the same way.  The Hypocrites Club at Oxford was "the epicentre of what would now be called the university's gay scene."  What struck me about this aspect of the book, was the ease of (certain) men in their bisexuality.**   Moreover, these affairs aren't simply sexual experimentation; Byrne notes that "there were real love affairs" at Oxford, and that Evelyn later teased a friend for "not having a homosexual phase, saying he had missed out on something special." The difference is striking in that expected and accepted bisexuality is simply not an option today; for men you're either gay or straight, and there's little room in the middle of the spectrum. This led me to a discussion in which it was proposed (by my more learned friend) that homosexuality in general has moved from "a behaviour to an identity." This is not to say that the book examines only, or mostly, this aspect of Waugh's circle, but it was what was most notable to me as a societal comparison.

It is odd, given the examination of Waugh's relationships, sexual and otherwise, that little mention is made of his second wife and mother of all his children, Laura. She's described in teasing — almost unflattering — terms in Waugh's letters before they are married
'She is thin and silent, long nose, no literary ambitions, temperate but not very industrious. I think she will suit me ok and I am very keen on her.'
and then rarely afterwards. Even his first short and ill-advised marriage to "she-Evelyn" gets more time and attention. Byrne is a fine researcher and talented story teller, and the lack of Laura in the narrative leads me to believe that Byrne simply had little to go on. By the time Waugh marries (again), his interest is possibly elsewhere, and as in the above letter, Laura will simply be enough for a wife.  Waugh's loyalty and thoughts — not for nothing — were with the Lygons. Laura is mentioned after marriage almost always in the context of having children (she would have seven), usually while Waugh is away somewhere writing. Raising these children mostly on her own through WWII, Laura perhaps proved to be industrious after all.  When Brideshead was published, "the response of the Lygon girls was what he most wanted and feared," not just because the book contained composite characters of them (and other society ladies), but because it was their opinion that mattered most to him.

*Previous to his close relationship with the Lygon girls, Waugh had a very close — though not romantic — relationship with Diana Guinness, née Mitford (later Mosley). He even lived with her and her husband in London during an indigent period early in his career.  
**And of course it's just not that way for women, who are expected to perform bisexuality, regardless of their actual sexual orientation, for the viewing pleasure of men. Among other issues, this erases any real sexual agency of women who love women.

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