Interview with Paula Byrne

13 mins read

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne

HarperCollins ($25.99)

Interview by Allan Vorda

Allan Vorda: What was your inspiration to write a biography of Evelyn Waugh primarily focusing on his involvement with the Lygon family at Madresfield?

Paula Byrne: I started this book with one question in mind—why do people fall in love with other people’s families? That led to other questions about Evelyn Waugh and the family which inspired his masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, such as: Where and when was he happiest and unhappiest? What were the relationships that mattered to him most? What was he looking for in life, and how did his quest shape his best novel?  I kept coming back to his relationship with the Lygons of Madresfield.  I came to the conclusion that his feelings about them provided a key that could unlock the door to his inner world.

AV: Please stress the importance of Brian Howard and Harold Acton (both of whom were flagrant homosexuals and had American mothers) upon Evelyn Waugh and the other students at Oxford.

PB: Brian Howard and Harold Acton had a huge influence on the young Evelyn Waugh. They were undoubtedly the most notorious figures of the Brideshead generation; they were Old Etonians, charming, intellectual, artistic, stylish and hilariously funny. They were unlike anyone Evelyn Waugh had ever met and they were a huge inspiration. Brian Howard was also the model for Ambrose Silk, a flamboyant homosexual, who regularly appears in his novels. Evelyn had mixed feelings about Howard, but he adored Acton and dedicated his first novel to him.

AV: Waugh said to a friend shortly after arriving at Oxford University: “All I can say, is that it is immensely beautiful and different from anything I have ever written about except perhaps, ‘Know you her secret none can utter?’” This is a reference to Arthur Quiller-Couch’s poem “Alma Mater” that alludes to homosexuality.  Aside from the lack of female students, why was homosexuality so prevalent at Oxford?  Your book seems to make it seem this was just a phase for many of students including Waugh, but I think a lot of readers would be inclined to think this was their actual preference.  Please comment on the sexual atmosphere in the 1920’s at Oxford among the students.

PB: Homosexual relations were more acceptable than heterosexual relations at Oxford in the twenties. There were very few women at Oxford and the Dons, many of whom were homosexual themselves, frowned upon male/female liaisons.  The majority of young men came from single sex boarding schools, had little experience of female relationships, and shared intense romances with other young men fuelled by alcoholic excess. Some of the young men were in rebellion with their fathers, some were homosexual and remained that way all their lives (such as Acton and Howard); others, like Evelyn, went through a homosexual phase that they outgrew.  The twenties was a time of unprecedented freedom and experimentation.

AV: Evelyn began to write after leaving Oxford.  His first novel, The Temple of Thatch, was rejected (by Harold Acton) and later the manuscript was burned by Waugh.  Do you think the rejection helped Waugh write a better first novel with Decline and Fall?

PB: Yes, the rejection of his first novel was probably a good thing.  Decline and Fall is one of the funniest novels in the English Language.  It is hard to imagine a more perfect debut novel. Thank God he burned his first novel about black magic.

AV: After Waugh divorced his first wife, he basically had no permanent home from 1930-37.  It seems his relationship with the Lygon family, especially the sisters, seems intrinsically tied to his development as a writer.

PB: Yes, after his divorce, Evelyn had no permanent home. He did not find his own family home a congenial place and Madresfield became the closest place to a home. He was able to write in peace, drink to excess, chat with his friends, and enjoy their lavish hospitality. Most importantly, it was a home without parents, an arcadia, where the rules were made up by the young people.

AV: The relationship of Waugh with the homosexual Hugh Lygon and his sister Mamie (“she was a female version of a beautiful Hugh”—p. 163) might seem strange to an outsider.  The relationship was subtly played upon in both the novel as well as the movie Brideshead Revisited that was directed by Julian Jarrod.  As close as Waugh was with all of the Lygon sisters, it seems strange there was no romantic involvement.  Why?

PG: There was no romantic involvement with the Lygon sisters because first and foremost they were friends. Evelyn was a little in love with beautiful Maimie, but he would not have dared to spoil the friendship. He knew that he was not her type and valued the friendship above all.


AV: Lord Beauchamp’s ouster from politics and England, due to his flagrant homosexuality, inspired Waugh’s writing of Brideshead Revisited.  This is an historical incident little known to Americans, but certainly famous in British history.  He was a fascinating and very cultured man who was loved by his children as evidenced that the Lygon sisters took to his defense.  The relationship was so strained that, many years later, Coote and Maimie did not attend their mother’s funeral.  What did you find in your research about Lord Beauchamp that made him such an interesting figure?

PB: Lord Beauchamp started off as a rather marginal figure in my book, but by the end of my research I was enthralled and fascinated by him.  He was cultured, adored by his children, a patron of the Arts and Craft Movement, a talented artist. The treatment of him was outrageous.  He was hounded out of the country for being homosexual and yet he refused to let society break him. The love and adoration of his children towards him speaks volumes.

AV: It is interesting that Waugh dedicated Brideshead Revisited to his wife, Laura, yet she never read the novel.  Any reason why she didn’t and what kind of marriage did they have?

PB: Laura Waugh was not a great reader. I think that Evelyn would have felt deeply sad that she never wanted to read Brideshead.  He dedicated the novel to Laura and, as it was about Catholicism, I believe he thought she would love it.  Nevertheless, they had a strong and happy marriage and he had plenty of female friends to discuss literature with—I’m thinking here of Nancy Mitford!

AV: How do you look upon Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism?  Do you think it inspired him as a writer?  On the other hand, do you think the conversion scene in Brideshead Revisited is a weakness in the novel as some critics have suggested?

PB: Evelyn’s Catholicism was deeply central to his life. Though critics disliked the conversion scene in Brideshead, Evelyn said that it was ‘all true’ and a piece of reportage of a death-bed conversion that he witnessed.

AV: Waugh’s life was drastically affected in 1961 when Ann Fleming (wife of Ian Fleming) told Waugh that Lord Hailes and his wife found Waugh to be a great bore.  This was something Evelyn could not accept and made him reclusive.  How could such a seemingly bland comment affect Waugh as greatly as it did?

AV: Ann Fleming’s unkind remark hurt him deeply.  It was one thing to be a bore, but as he tried to explain to Nancy Mitford, what was far worse was not to realize that one is a bore.

AV: You state (p. 349) that Evelyn Waugh “was the funniest man of his generation.”  How do you think his reputation as a writer has evolved over the years?  Do you think it has been enhanced or has it dwindled, both in England and America, by readers of British literature?

PB: Evelyn Waugh’s reputation in England continues to grow and grow. His reputation has not diminished since his early success.  He is valued very highly as a satirist, and a great stylist. In my view, he is unable to write a bad sentence.

Paula was born in Birkenhead in 1967, the third daughter in a large working-class Catholic family. She studied English and Theology at the college that is now Chichester University and then taught English and Drama at Wirral Grammar School for Boys and Wirral Metropolitan College. She then completed her MA and PhD in English Literature at the University of Liverpool. She is now a full-time writer, living with her husband, the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, and their three young children (Tom, Ellie and Harry) in an old farmhouse in a South Warwickshire village near Stratford-upon-Avon. Her books include Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson, Jane Austen and the Theater, and Jane Austen’s Emma: A Sourcebook. (More on Paula Byrne here.)

Allan Vorda received degrees in English from Creighton University and his M.A from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Previous publications include Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary Novelists (Rice University Press) and Psychedelic Psounds: Interviews from A to Z with ’60s Psychedelic and Garage Bands (Borderline Productions/U.K.).  He previously interviewed former University of Arizona teacher and writer Ron Hansen for two separate issues (1987 and 2009) with the Sonora Review.