Aristocrats, footmen, frightened king and curious writer. A new book uncovers the sex scandal behind Evelyn Waugh novel
The summer of 1929 was the greatest London season since the first world war.
There was a new Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald promising that the
rule of the rich was over. Women under the age of 30 had the vote for the
first time (the so-called flapper vote). But it was the antics of the
aristocrats that filled the gossip columns, particularly their parties.
Fast cars, faster women and sexual experimentation: the parties got wilder.
Drug abuse — particularly cocaine and hashish — was rife. Evelyn Waugh,
embarking on his career as one of Britain’s finest writers, chronicled every
excessive detail. He went to a lesbian party where a baronet “dressed first
as a girl and then stark naked” danced the charleston while a Russian played
a saw like a violin.
One account of the antics of the aristocracy provided a great comic set piece
for Vile Bodies, his new novel. Lady Sibell and Lady Mary Lygon, sisters of
Waugh’s friend Hugh Lygon, had been to a party in their white Norman
Hartnell dresses and enjoyed a night’s dancing and drinking. When they
returned to their London home off Belgrave Square, they found the door
locked and the night footman fast asleep. But there was another family they
knew well who had a night porter: the Baldwins.
At 10 Downing Street, the night porter woke the prime minister, Stanley
Baldwin, and his wife. They came downstairs in their nightclothes, the PM in
striped pyjamas, to be greeted by the Lygon girls seeking beds for the
night. In the morning Baldwin rang Lord Beauchamp, their father, to ask if
he would send a maid round with day clothes for the girls. “Balderdash and
poppycock!” Beauchamp retorted and made them walk home in broad daylight in
full evening dress.
In Waugh’s hands, their adventure was transmuted into a sublime comic episode
where a wild flapper girl gatecrashes 10 Downing Street and appears for
breakfast in her party clothes, to the incredulity of the prime minister and
Waugh’s relationship with the Lygons of Madresfield, the family’s ancestral
home beneath the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, provides a key to his
inner world. Their house, which they and he affectionately called “Mad”, has
often been described as “the real Brideshead”, an allusion to his most
famous book. In many ways it was, provided we always retain defensive
quotation marks around “real”.
After the summer of parties in 1929, the Lygons were overtaken by a scandal
that reverberates through Brideshead Revisited. But this was not fiction;
and it involved the King, a prince, a duke and a knight of the garter.
The Lygon girls’ father, the 7th Earl Beauchamp, was the perfect aristocrat,
not only tall and handsome but also intelligent, cultured and highly
artistic, an energetic and successful public figure and an exceptionally
devoted father to his seven children. His family and their immediate
entourage moved by private train between Madresfield, their Belgrave Square
house and Walmer Castle in Kent, the earl’s official residence as warden of
the Cinque Ports.
An ardent Anglo-Catholic, Beauchamp had shown a strong evangelistic streak at
Oxford and had started to have the appearance of being a dangerously
progressive radical. Later, however, he bore the sword of state at the
coronation of George V, became lord lieutenant of Gloucestershire and served
as lord steward of the royal household. By the time Waugh and other friends
of Beauchamp’s children came under his spell in the late 1920s, he was the
Liberal party’s leader in the House of Lords.
Did I hear him whisper to the butler ‘Je t’adore’?
Hugh Lygon, Beauchamp’s second son, met Waugh at Oxford where they were
members of the Hypocrites’ Club, the centre of what would now be called the
university’s gay scene. Although homosexuality was illegal, many senior
members of the university actively encouraged it. According to A L Rowse,
the don, Hugh Lygon and Waugh were lovers.
Hugh was admired for his floppy blond hair, his handsome face and his charming
demeanour rather than his intellectual capacities. He was dashing but prone
to melancholy and self-destructive drunkenness, which Waugh admired.