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Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  761 ratings  ·  112 reviews
A terrifically engaging and original biography of one of England’s greatest novelists, Evelyn Waugh, and the glamorous, eccentric, debauched, and ultimately tragic family that provided him with the most significant friendships of his life and inspired his masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited. Fans of The Mitfords, D.J. Taylor’s Bright Young People, and Alexander Waugh’s Fathe ...more
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published March 30th 2010 by Harper (first published 2009)
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3.93  · 
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 ·  761 ratings  ·  112 reviews

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Mar 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Brideshead Revisited" is one of my favourite novels, so I was interested to read this book; which is partly a biography of Evelyn Waugh's life and partly a portrait of the Lygon family, used as a model for the characters in the novel. This is a fascinating portrait of an era, with Waugh himself very much the Charles Ryder outsider, from a minor public school and seemingly doomed to spend his time at Oxford with those dull associates from his restricted circle. However, as we know, he is enticed ...more
Jun 09, 2013 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'. '
Roman Clodia
Mar 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars

This is immensely readable, especially the first third, but Paula Byrne is a writer who tends to oversimplify the relationships between life and fiction (I found the same flaw in her book on Jane Austen), and to overstate her case: here she claims, in her prologue, to 'find the hidden key' to Brideshead - when all she means is that she's going to make connections between characters, not just in Brideshead but in all of Waugh's fiction, and people he knew in real life. Hardly revolutiona
Sep 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jenny Brown
Mar 16, 2012 rated it did not like it
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 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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 o
Nov 19, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
Elizabeth (Miss Eliza)
Jan 06, 2015 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
Apr 12, 2016 rated it liked it
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
Jun 17, 2011 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
Jan 24, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, brit-lit
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
Oct 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, group
Mad World is the world of the Lygon family, particularly as lived at their country estate. Evelyn Waugh was a part of that world and used elements of the lives of the Lygons and their friends in his fiction.
The author points out that this is a partial biography of Waugh and that she focuses on just a few aspects of his life. Within those limited parameters this is a very readable and enjoyable book, but it would be of limited appeal to anyone who had not read Brideshead Revisited.
May 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Engaging and readable account of Evelyn Waugh's relationship with members of the Lygon family - first Hugh, a contemporary of his at Oxford, and then Hugh's sisters at their family home Madresfield - and the influence of the family upon Brideshead Revisited, Waugh's most famous work.

I must admit I was rather anxious when I read in the Prologue "Charles Ryder manifestly is Evelyn Waugh." A reason I rarely read literary biographies is the tendency to equate characters who only exist in a limited
Sep 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 29, 2010 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
Feb 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
Having just read Brideshead, I found this very interesting. It gave me a better idea of Evelyn Waugh's life and the experiences/people that he used for the fictional Brideshead. Very well written.

Just re-read this. Very good. Now that I've read a bit more Waugh, it gave me an even better idea of Waugh the man.
Beth (bibliobeth)
Dec 10, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Dec 12, 2011 rated it it was ok
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 rated it did not like it
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.
Jan 08, 2010 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Brideshead Revisited is one of my top ten favorite novels.
Dec 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
Please read my full review here:
Sep 19, 2017 rated it really liked it

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, every generation is secretly convinced that they’re the ones who invented sex.

Thus, books like Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead are always slightly shocking. The book chronicles – in the most exhaustive detail – Waugh’s youthful indiscretions both at Oxford and as the self-appointed chronicler of the Bright Young Things, which is what they called Generation X in the UK back in the 1920s.

These blurry buttocks belonged to Alistair
Jack Bates
Dec 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Basically this is a biography of EW but with a focus on the Lygon family and their home, Madresfield, inspiration for Brideshead. It's very dense and detailed, with much quoting of Waugh's letters to and from the Lygon girls, Coote and Mamie in particular, as well as Dianas Cooper and Mosley and Nancy Mitford. Since he knew more or less everyone who was anyone between the wars it is particularly good about the 20s and 30s. Well written and well researched but showing once again that it's hard to ...more
Nov 02, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: book-club, 2017
I did not enjoy this book from the very first page. Disclaimer it was chosen by my book club to read. I have not read Brideshead Revisited, so that was the first problem. I feel like homosexuality was such a big focus of this book, almost as a way to be "scandalous." Maybe if I had read any of his books then I would have had a connection to all the characters he had in his life and thus used in his many works of fiction.
Apr 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a very informative telling of Evelyn Waugh’s life experiences that eventually became the basis of the novel Brideshead Revisited. Funny, outrageous, sad and always engaging. I highly recommend this if you’re an Evelyn Waugh fan.
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Paula Byrne is a British author and biographer. She is married to writer Jonathan Bate, the Shakespeare scholar.