Madresfield: The Real Brideshead Jane Mulvagh

Dovecote Press, pp.384, 20

The new Brideshead Revisited film, out in September, was, like the 1981 television version, filmed at Castle Howard. For Jane Mulvagh, however, the ‘real’ Brideshead was Madresfield Court near Malvern in Worcestershire, a lovely moated house that has been in the Lygon family, headed by successive Earls Beauchamp, for nearly 1,000 years. This new book is a lovingly descriptive account of the house and the family history.

The architecture of Brideshead — which does not have a moat — draws on Castle Howard, but Waugh’s famous description of the art nouveau chapel is based precisely on the one designed for Madresfield by the great Arts and Crafts artist, C. R. Ashbee: ‘Angels in printed cotton smocks, rambler-roses, flower-spangled meadows, frisking lambs, texts in Celtic script, saints in armour, covered the walls in an intricate pattern of clear, bright colours.’ In other respects, Madresfield Court was more of a model for Hetton Abbey, the house in A Handful of Dust. ‘The real Hetton’ would have been a more accurate, but less eye-catching subtitle for Mulvagh’s book.

We must never forget to retain those inverted commas around the word ‘real’. One of the keys to Waugh’s art was his way of combining pairs of real-life models into glorious fictional creatures: Brideshead is both Madresfield and Castle Howard, just as Sebastian Flyte is both Hugh Lygon and Alastair Graham, Anthony Blanche both Harold Acton and Brian Howard.

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Jane Mulvagh begins and ends her story with Waugh, but her real interest is the history of the house itself. Her original and engaging structural device is to take a painting, an artefact, a treasure and let it reveal the story of the family and their connections. Thus ‘The Tuning Fork’ is about Elgar, who allegedly portrayed Mary Lygon in the 13th of his Enigma Variations, and ‘The Portrait’ recounts the attempted plot to overthrow Queen Mary in favour of Elizabeth. The life of Renaissance man Richard Lygon is vividly explored in a chapter entitled ‘The Herbs’. Paradoxically, Mulvagh is often at her best when away from Madresfield, writing of Richard on his sugar plantation in Barbados and a successor in the bustling commercial world of late 17th-century London.

Another chapter reiterates the common view that the long-standing Jennens court case, which touched the Lygon family, was fictionalised by Charles Dickens as ‘Jarndyce v. Jarndyce’ in Bleak House. This is a claim vigorously challenged by recent scholarship, not least because Dickens began the novel in 1851, when the Jennens litigation had lain dormant for many years.

Mulvagh’s style is that of the breathless schoolgirl. She writes sensationally of the scandal that beset the family in the 1930s and how a house fire revealed hidden documents: ‘Out of the charred remains the firemen pulled some diaries. The complete story could now be told.’ And what do the recovered journals tell? That Lady Sibell Lygon had been on the black velvets and was shouted at by her uncle, the Duke of Westminster, the man responsible for her father’s undoing.

Similarly, Mulvagh makes a song and dance of a letter of Lady Beauchamp’s regarding her knowledge of her husband’s homosexual proclivities, discovered in ‘a locked black box’ in the Madresfield muniment room. She seems blissfully unaware that this frank and moving testimony exists in multiple copies (one for each of the children) and has been cited in more than one previous study.

The downfall of Earl Beauchamp, a champion of the Liberal cause, a family man hounded from office because of his bisexuality, is an extraordinary story. It deserves to be told accurately, so it is disappointing that Mulvagh seems more concerned to dish the news on a scandal than to get her facts straight. So, for example, she confuses Evelyn Waugh with his friend and love-rival ‘Frisky’ Baldwin and the travel writer Robert Byron with Robert Harcourt Byron, the tall, blue-eyed Australian valet who travelled with the Earl during his exile. Her most egregious mistake is the statement that Waugh did not meet Lord Beauchamp: they did, in circumstances crucial to the genesis of Brideshead.

In Great Malvern library, down the road from Madresfield, there is a book of fascinating testimonies from servants and local people about the great house. A rudimentary (and back-breaking) contraption known as the Donkey was used to clean and polish the staircases. The perspective of below-stairs life, in the style of Gosford Park, would have added another dimension that is sadly missing from this lively but flawed book.

Paula Byrne is writing a life of Lady Dorothy Lygon.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated