Evelyn Waugh's fans will find much to admire in this account of the troubled family who inspired Brideshead Revisited, says Selina Hastings
Selina Hastings The Observer, Sunday 16 August 2009
Paula Byrne is the latest to explore the people and the story that inspired the book and she does so with acuity and panache. Her stated aim is to portray Waugh through his friendship with the Lygons, and in the process reveal some substantial new information about the high-society scandal that in 1931 electrified the country.
Evelyn had been at Oxford with Hugh Lygon, the middle son, with whom, according to one not wholly reliable source, he had conducted an affair. Certainly, he had been bewitched by gentle, charming Hughie, many of whose characteristics – girlish beauty, floppy blond locks, the ubiquitous teddy bear – famously reappear in the portrayal of Sebastian, with whom Charles Ryder is so infatuated in the novel.
Byrne understands very well the powerful enchantment that Madresfield, or "Mad" as the girls called it, cast over Waugh. The beauty of the place, the limit-less freedom, the traditions of centuries juxtaposed with childish high spirits and silliness, all proved irresistible to the penniless young man from Golders Green. Byrne entertainingly summarises his career up to this point – the childhood, the schooldays, the melancholia and debauchery of Oxford, the schoolmastering and the first published works – and layers in with this the story of the Lygons, of Lord Beauchamp's early life, and of those of his wife and children.