18 September 2010

Mad World; Paula Byrne

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of BridesheadMad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not a biography in the sense one might think - it's not about one person, it's about a man's relationship to a family and the book that they inspired him to write. If you watched the original Grenada adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (and please, ignore the more recent movie) and wanted to know how Evelyn Waugh came up with the story, well, this book is for you.

Waugh's background is not Etonian, not artistocratic (although it's certainly more upper middle class than seriously middle class), and there's little in the book about his early years. There is some discussion of his life at home, his distance from his parents and older brother (Alec, the author, for those wondering) and then we're off to the world of public school and Oxford. His background is mostly used to compare it to that of Hugh Lygon, the role model for Sebastian Flyte.

Like Anthony Powell, Waugh seemed to know a great many people from all different walks of life - Randolph Churchill and Nancy Mitford, to name two. His association with the Bright Young Things and the between war eras seems so different from the world we now have, and this book brings that to life rather well.

When the lives of the Lygons and Waugh intersect, at "Mad", the book really comes alive. I found myself being reminded of scenes from Brideshead (both book and adaptation), as well as other depictions of that era in England, like Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. After Brideshead is published, the book gets a little abrupt: according to the author, Waugh's life changed dramatically after the war. It would have been interesting to read about the Lygon sister's impressions of the adaptation, but I suppose that can be found in their papers (if it's there at all).

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