The “mad world” here referenced is Madresfield, the ancestral home and the family lineage of the Earl of Beauchamp, stomping ground and heritage of Hugh Lygon, almost certainly the model for Sebastian Flyte,
the golden boy of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited.
Paula Byrne, author of the biography Perdita and contributor to the (London) Times Literary Supplement, has pulled the quilt off the backstreet assignations and highbrow debauchery that comprised a great portion of the long, flamboyant life of Evelyn Waugh, one of England’s most prolific and at times profound novelists. From a rather common upbringing, Waugh wormed his way into Oxford.
There his real education began, as a member of several notorious clubs whose main purpose was to allow a free flow of alcohol and the mixing of the male gender in every possible way, from the sport of breaking of window panes and the initiation ritual of puking in people’s bedrooms to the tolerance
(if not downright encouragement) of homosexual liaisons said to be a mere youthful substitute for the embrace of pure women, sadly unavailable at university. Waugh was probably bisexual, and the allusions to the kind of love his hero Charles Ryder had for the tragic and beautiful Sebastian are doubtless more than the “naughtiness” he speaks of, more like the wine he describes: “heady stuff full of dark ingredients.”
In fact the book, and this book about the book, are inextricably entwined with the theme of men loving men. Lygon’s father, the Earl of Beauchamp, was disgraced and forced into exile because of his outrageous proclivities that included his insistence on having sex-able males on his staff and his attempts to seduce the male staff and guests at every house party he attended.
Catholicism is another persistent theme: Waugh himself converted to it, and his fictional Flytes were Catholic. Brideshead Revisited plays with the blood-and-bone-deep affects of strong religion, strong passions, and the tragedy of youthful sacrifice. Charles Ryder is a man immersed in images of war and young men’s sacrifice; Sebastian is the sacrificial lamb of his family, taking on himself all their hidden sins and twisted attempts at virtue.
If you ever wondered if the English ever let their hair down, you will need no further proof that they do than this fascinating, almost lurid examination of how they do it, and how the results often made great art - and great madness.