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Mad World: Evelyn Waugh And The Secrets Of Brideshead

3.86  ·  Rating Details ·  608 Ratings  ·  96 Reviews
This is an engaging and original biography of one of England's greatest novelists, and the glamorous, eccentric, debauched & ultimately tragic family that provided him with the most significant friendships of his life as well as inspiring his masterpiece, 'Brideshead Revisited'.
Hardcover, 367 pages
Published by HarperPress (first published 2009)
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This is perhaps less a review of this book than a reflection on Brideshead Revisited.

Brideshead Revisited is one of those odd books: I don't think it can really be read now. Or at least, read and understood the way Waugh meant it to be understood. You need a religious sensibility that has long since been lost to the world: a belief that God wants you to deny yourself pleasure; that in denying yourself earthly pleasures, you accrue merit in Heaven. And that that love for God is better and more i
Sep 15, 2015 Nigeyb rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Paula Byrne set out to write this book because she believed that Evelyn Waugh had been consistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist. I, for one, am very glad that she did. Paula Byrne eschews the "cradle to grave" approach, instead focussing on those key moments in Evelyn Waugh's life, and in particular those that informed his work.

A few weeks before reading 'Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead', I read and thoroughly enjoyed 'Brideshead Revisited'. 'B
Mar 25, 2010 Ivan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I freely admit to an aversion to most biographies; those half ton tomes stuffed to overflowing with regurgitated facts that so often represent the flotsam and jetsam of the life in question as opposed to actual milestones and achievements. Happily, this is not the case with Paula Byrne’s Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, a biography as witty and amusing as its subject.

Mad World follows Waugh’s life from cradle to grave. As we trek along we are treated to brief portraits of
Jenny Brown
Mar 16, 2012 Jenny Brown rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
A tedious, excruciatingly detailed portrayal of the lives of a group of people about whom I really wish, now, I knew less.

If you had have respect left for the British ruling class, this book will rid you of it. Wealthy, selfish drunkards whose path in life was smoothed for them thanks to the connections they made in the public schools and University where a culture of sexual predation flourished, they dabbled in a kind of homosexuality that did not blink at sexually abusing boy prostitutes, and,
Nov 19, 2010 Terry rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I really wanted to like this book. I didn't. The author says up front she feels Waugh's reputation has been somewhat maligned and that he was a much more sensitive, kind person than his legacy of behavior (and literature) would have one believe. However, she did absolutely nothing to show him being anything but what she says most people think of him: a snobbish, cranky, occassionally quite vulgar, selfish social-climber. Also, she seems to feel that he had a deep relationship with the Lygon fami ...more
May 14, 2016 Brian rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I never really thought literary biography was my thing, but this is the second one I've read recently and I enjoyed them both. The organizing theme of the book is EW's relationship with the aristocratic Lygon family, first the second son Hugh, whom he knew (and, Byrne hypothesthizes, perhaps slept with) at Oxford, and later Hugh's sisters, particularly Mary ("Maimie") and Dorothy ("Coote"), with whom he kept up a voluminous correspondence until his death. The family's resemblance to the Flyte fa ...more
Jul 21, 2011 Basicallyrun rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Very interesting account of Waugh's relationship with the Lygon family. Byrne's theme seems to be that nearly everything in Brideshead Revisited can be traced back to the Lygons, which isn't exactly improbable - the parallels are quite extraordinary. It's a biography of an entire family - two families, really: the Waughs and the Lygons - as well as snapshots of their friends, and it's an evocative look at a period of history through that extremely focused lens.

My one gripe is Byrne's approach to
Mar 12, 2012 Sarah rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: brit-lit, nonfiction
This book had both good and bad parts in equal measure. For the good, as a Brideshead lover, it was enjoyable to be let in on some of the background that inspired the characters and settings. For the bad, well...ok, the bad outweighs the good. First, Byrne spends nearly a third of the book writing in agonizingly simple sentences, "Waugh met the Lygons. He went to Madresfield. They greeted him. Then they ate breakfast". etc. which drove me nearly insane (I love a good semicolon). She emphasizes t ...more
Elizabeth (Miss Eliza)
Jul 20, 2015 Elizabeth (Miss Eliza) rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bios
*Special Content only on my blog, Strange and Random Happenstance, during Jazzy July to celebrate the release of Lauren Willig's The Other Daughter, including introductions by Lauren! (July 2015)

Evelyn Waugh was one of the writers who immortalized the 20s generation of "Bright Young People" through his books. But his book, Brideshead Revisited, more then any of his other work, was a touchstone for a generation and one of the greatest books of the 20th century. Yet the story didn't emerge fully f
Oct 06, 2014 Bibliophile rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very readable biography of Evelyn Waugh, focusing on his relationship with the aristocratic Lygon family, the model for the Marchmains of Brideshead. The roaring twenties really make for the smuttiest biographies. It was all debauchery, all the time. Hard drugs, jazz, all-night partying, sex with friends, sex with footmen, sex with prostitutes. And they managed to combine all that with being devout Catholics.

I found these people fascinating and wanted to know more about each and every one of
May 25, 2012 Alistair rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
there have been plenty of biographies of Evelyn Waugh and this one concentrates primarily on his lifelong friendships with the Lygon family and the fellow students he met at Oxford .
Waugh's love of stately homes is well known but a lot of this book revolves around the stately homos that he came across particularly Earl Beauchamp the pater familias of the Lygon family who after a long career with various footmen and butlers etc was hounded out of England by his brother in law .
Waugh arrived in Ox
Aug 28, 2011 Sarah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Mad World by Paula Byrne is a biography of the writer Evelyn Waugh. By the author’s admission, it is by no means a complete biography, but one which focuses on the experiences and relationships that provided the material for Waugh’s great novel, Brideshead Revisited, as well as several others such Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust. The book engrossed me from page one and I found it hard to put down.
I first read Waugh in college when A Handful of Dust was assigned as part of a 20th century novel
Feb 14, 2013 Helene rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's difficult for me to be detached and objective when reviewing anything having to do with "Brideshead Revisited". The first half of that book is probably one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. The second half I'm still wrestling with, not because of Waugh's writing, just because I find it overwhelmingly depressing. Nonetheless, it is easily my favorite book and, has been since before the BBC series.

Anyhow, at one time I'd read pretty much ever bio of Waugh both for interest and for
Lauren Albert
Admittedly, it was rather stupid of me to read this when I couldn't remember whether or not I had read Brideshead Revisited. I have read some Waugh novels, but I don't believe I read this one. But it was well-written and interesting as a look on a particular culture milieu, and as a portrayal of how one writer was inspired by life. It certainly made me want to read more of Waugh, Particularly, of course, Brideshead. Byrne certainly demonstrates that mockery can be generated from great love and a ...more
Byrne states from the beginning that she wants to make a themed biography of Waugh, focusing on his relationship with the Lygon family. Now admittedly I haven't read other biographies on the writer and perhaps she does skip important bits that doesn't add to this 'story' - but it doesn't seem that way. Instead it seems like a quite standard biography, where she adds comparisons to the Lygons (from long before they actually meet), and more or less skips the last twenty years of Waugh's life (or t ...more
Aug 04, 2010 Jessie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book exceeded my expectations. At the end I felt envy for not only Waugh’s life in general, but also his personality and great humour that entertained so many people throughout his wild and wonderful life. This book helped me in many ways, as I am currently studying ‘Brideshead revisited’ for my A Levels, it helped me unravel his world and the individuals engrossed within it. I found this book gripping, I felt an attachment not only to Waugh but to the Lygon family, the definite parallels b ...more
Elizabeth Moffat
I'm a bit of a beginner where Evelyn Waugh is concerned having only read two of his previous novels. The author focuses on the Lygon family, who were the inspiration for Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited. I enjoyed reading about this period in Waugh's life, and it was nice to hear favourable accounts of him for a change!

Please see my full review at
Sep 08, 2013 John rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
My overall impression is that the author is not very good at organizing her material. The book is not badly written, but the constant attention to the more titillating details (and there are many) was wearying. I found the ending rather abrupt and much less detail was given for the later parts of the lives of the people involved. The author had a deadline and had to speed things up?
Sep 23, 2012 Simon rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The problem with biography is knowing what to leave out. I get the impression that Ms Byrne left nothing out. I remain a huge fan of Evelyn Waugh's writing but despite this, not enhanced by this. It took me ages to read and it became a chore.
Dec 17, 2010 Meaghan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Please read my full review here:
Quite good.
Jan 08, 2010 booklady marked it as to-read
Brideshead Revisited is one of my top ten favorite novels.
Nov 01, 2013 Sean rated it it was amazing
A riveting read with so much explanation of and insights into Bridehead Revisited.
Terrific look at the loves and friendships that shaped Waugh's life, particularly the lifelong relationships he shared with various members of the Lygon family. The Lygons were part of the inspiration for the eccentric, aristocratic Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited—but there were others as well.

The author was able to get access to never-before-seen family documents, which deepen and enrich the unhappy tale of the Lygons. Highly recommended for Waugh & Mitford fans.
Jul 03, 2016 Evelyn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very thoughtful gift and great fun to read. Explores the mix of real life and imagination that went into Waugh's work (primarily Brideshead but also some very interesting aspects of Handful of Dust and other work) -- manages to do so without destroying the alchemy of his art. There were some areas that could have been more thoughtfully explored. For instance, there was a strange silence about beatings and pederasty in school culture. Or rather, the abuse was mentioned but not analyzed ...more
Sep 27, 2016 Angela rated it it was amazing
Fabulous book. Highly recommended.
Sep 03, 2012 James rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lit-biography
I love the early novels of Evelyn Waugh simply because they are so funny, filled with epigrammatic sentences and a humor that verges on the fantastic and surreal. "Decline and Fall" is as sparkling as Voltaire's "Candide," and in some ways funnier for the twentieth-century reader, while "Vile Bodies" is a masterly period piece, the definitive satirical portrait of the 1920s "bright young things." Waugh can shock, too: Near the climax of "Black Mischief" (1932), the hero actually finds himself at ...more
Yesterday evening I finished reading Paula Byrne's book 'Mad World. Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead'. I started with this book on Christmas evening. Can't really tell why ... I guess I needed a kind of escapism: big houses, money, dolce far niente, nobility and those without titles (s.nob = sine nobilitate).

Lovely book. It's theme is the historical background on Evelyn Waugh's (1903-1966) book 'Brideshead Revisited' (1945). Waugh had a middle-class background. His father was a publish
I read this book with an expectation of understanding Brideshead Revisited better. In a way it's achieved as it showed me the background and the world that Waugh lived. But, didn't someone said that it's useless to dwell on the author, the story is still a separate entity? (something of that extent, who was it, Alberto Manguel? Italo Calvino?someone who purposely wrote something completely different from his life to prove the point) I couldn't really take that view. Though I'm not always keen to ...more
Sep 18, 2010 Laura rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 cla
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Paula Byrne is a British author and biographer. She is married to writer Jonathan Bate, the Shakespeare scholar.
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