Paula Byrne

A house and its history

Paula Byrne on Jane Mulvagh's history of Madresfield Court

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.

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.

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