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Why visit Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, not far from the border of England and Wales? Three reasons.

1) Because Evelyn Waugh wrote much of
Black Mischief there in 1932.

2) Because he turned Madresfield Court into Hetton Abbey in
A Handful of Dust in 1934, transforming the exile of Lord Beauchamp into that of Tony Last.

3) Because in 1944 he wrote
Brideshead Revisited, in many ways the story of the fatherless family that he'd got to know and love at Madresfield in 1931/32.

Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited. Three very good reasons for a Waugh aficionado to be here.

I get off the train at Malvern Link and begin the two-mile walk to the country pile. I realise a taxi would make this a lot easier, but it wouldn’t do to arrive for my tour of a country house an hour before it was scheduled to start. Besides, the Worcestershire countryside is lovely, with the striking profile of the Malvern Hills to the south and west assuring me I’m walking in the right direction. After 1931, Evelyn would refer with nostalgia in letters to the 'noble line' of these hills.

Waugh was here in order to be taught how to ride, so that he could take advantage of the hunting opportunities that were increasingly coming his way since
Vile Bodies had made him so eligible a house guest. In particular, Teresa 'Baby' Jungman had urged Evelyn to learn to ride and had recommended the Malvern Riding Academy near Madresfield. And Evelyn was in love with Baby.

He’d known Hugh Lygon and his older brother, known as Lord Elmley, at Oxford, the latter playing a part in the Waugh/Greenidge filmThe Scarlet Woman. But Evelyn's increasing lionisation as an author meant that he’d come to know three of the four Lygon sisters as well. Sibell, was the eldest (and tallest) of the three he knew. She had an on/off relationship with Lord Beaverbrook who was about the same height as Evelyn Waugh.

Reproduced from Evelyn Waugh and His World, Edited by David Pryce-Jones.

But Mary, known as Blondie or Maimie to Evelyn, who had been connected with Prince George before the scandal involving her father had put paid to that, and Dorothy, known as Poll, quickly became great chums of the visitor the girls had christened 'Boaz'. Paula Byrne in Mad World tells us that 'Boaz' was a secret handshake in freemasonry and that in the bible, Boaz was a man who befriended two women at a time of family trouble. I'd add that the Lygon sisters' father was called Boom and that Boaz (or Bo as it was often shortened to) may have been a conscious echo of that.

Reproduced from Evelyn Waugh and His World, Edited by David Pryce-Jones.

Just before I plough on, what of Evelyn's old friends? Well, Diana Guinness was never an old friend. The friendship between herself, her husband and Evelyn had flared up in the wake of she-Evelyn’s desertion and after less than a year had died down again. Olivia Plunket Greene and Alastair Graham were the real old friends. So what of them? After having helped him to be received into the Catholic Church, Olivia faded from Evelyn’s life. And Alastair, though it was he that put the idea of a trip to Africa into Waugh’s mind in 1930, also faded out of the picture. Friends come and go. Of course, they do. Even in the case of someone as loyal as Evelyn. Meanwhile, I see his happy face in between the bright smiling ones of his new best pals, Blondie and Poll.

It's Poll who tells us that she was keeping a diary back then, 'remarkable only for its dullness'. She found the entries enlivened by statements of incest and immorality. Poll was also responsible for an innocuous and amateurish watercolour of a carthorse which had a large penis added to it by another hand. Poll later said of Evelyn: 'It was like having Puck as a member of the household'. Boaz, Bo, Puck or Bottom. Evelyn didn't mind what he was called at Madders.

In the autumn of 1931, when the nick-name 'Boaz' first appeared at the end of a letter, Evelyn had been a Catholic for a year. Let's recap that year. He’d spent five months, from November 1930 to March 1931, on his African sojourn. Part of this time he was in Abyssinia, to witness the coronation of its emperor, Haile Selassie. And part of the time he was in Kenya as guest of ex-pats. He kept a diary while he was travelling, and from this he was able to put together a travel book. He wrote the first couple of chapters on board the ship that took him back to Southampton from the Cape. Progress on the book was slow thereafter, partly because he was so busy doing the social rounds. In June of 1931 he went to the south of France with his parents and brother for a month. There, with his pal Patrick Balfour, he got caught up on the fringes of Somerset Maugham’s coterie. Towards the end of the month, Waugh’s father, seeing how bored his son had become, paid for him to go to a monastery near Grasse in the mountain village of Cabris where Evelyn, by his own reckoning, worked quickly and without inspiration. After three weeks back in England, with the interminable travel book still not finished, he returned to the south of France, this time to spend time with the Yorkes (the novelist, Henry Yorke and his wife) at the Grand Hotel in the Var. Evelyn was with a woman on this occasion, a Pixi Marix, whose speciality was allowing men to take her to bed while stopping short of allowing sex to take place. However, Evelyn did persuade her to come round to his way of thinking on this delicate matter before the holiday was over. Back to England again, this time to the good old Abingdon Arms, Beckley, where he finally managed to get to the end of
Remote People. Of course, that pot-boiler is of some interest in itself. But of more interest to most readers is the novel that the whole African experience led to, Black Mischief, part of which was written at Madresfield Court. Or, more accurately, it was written in the year that Evelyn repeatedly visited Madresfield. Evelyn first vistied Madresfield in October 1931 and was there that Xmas. In 1932 (Paula Byrne tells us) he stayed at Madresfield in January, February, May, June, August, October and several times in November and December.

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OK I’ve arrived. Perhaps I should mention in passing that it was July 2007 when I made my actual visit to Madresfield. But the resulting chapter was dropped from Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love because it didn't add significantly to the story of the Evelyns. Its now March 2019 as I make my virtual revisit to the place. And I have a feeling that this time everything is going to work out just fine.

Above is the line of hills that Evelyn loved the sight of, setting off the house itself. And I've still got some minutes to spare before my guided tour so let's get a bit closer and take a look around the moated pile. I want to work out where the following historic photo was taken:

Reproduced from Evelyn Waugh and His World, Edited by David Pryce-Jones.

An aerial view helps with this. (The first photo of Madresfield on this page was taken from the top right corner of this one, by the way, facing south-west.) You can see that there is a bridge over the moat, that is the main way in and out. You can also see that there is a single green space on the far side of the moat - on the 'island' - and this is where the four young people dressed in riding clothes were prancing together as one in 1932.

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In the photo below, I guess the four were taken against the window that appears to be directly below the tower. The photographer must have been fairly close to the edge of the moat. There could have been no practical purpose to the photo, which was just an ostentatious display of riding gear and high spirits.


After walking once around the moated pile, I’ve reported to an outhouse as instructed. Madresfield Court is still lived in by the Lygon family, but only thanks to one of the seven Lygon siblings from Waugh’s day - the youngest son, Richard, the one he didn’t know - coming up with a direct descendant. However, this enormous Victorian house (160 rooms) is now open to the public. That’s thanks to the Danish-born widow of the eighth and last Earl Beauchamp (pronounced, 'Beecham') setting up the Elmley Foundation. It's this foundation that ensures there is public access to the house and its contents. Well done that enlightened European widow!

There are occasional tours of a dozen of the largest rooms, on specified days from April to July. Each tour lasts 90 minutes, with no sitting down allowed in the house, no photographs to be taken during the tour itself, and no refreshments available. After the regular tour I’m being given a private one to the room in which Evelyn wrote much of
Black Mischief. So I’m not complaining about the lack of home comforts. I will murder a cup of tea later.

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As we (there are a dozen of us, plus our guide) amble towards the entrance I revel in the aesthetic. Red brick - millions of red bricks - edged and seamed with white stone, intricately carved in places.

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Gabled roofs aplenty, chimney stacks too. We’re told that when the house came to be expanded in the nineteenth century, it had to be built upwards and inwards (being ringed by the mighty moat), removing most of the formerly large courtyard. Evelyn didn’t admire it as a piece of architecture. In fact, he mocked its gothic ugliness in the fictional form of Hetton Abbey, the beloved home of Tony Last which looms large throughout the first two-thirds of A Handful of Dust. Hetton was rebuilt by the Victorians in 1864, Madresfield in 1865. The one year difference being a little joke of Evelyn’s, entirely separating fact from fiction. Not.

Was Hetton moated, then? And did it have a bell tower? Oh, yes.


We cross the Madresfield moat and enter the house. The entrance hall is dark and littered with historical curiosities that I don’t let distract me. Instead, I glance at the family tree I’ve been handed. When Evelyn was here in 1931 as a 28-year-old, Blondie was 21 and Coote was 19. What’s more, it was in the same year that the Lygons’ father had been hounded out of the country by his brother, the Duke of Westminster, for having sex with men. This father-in-exile theme fed into Brideshead Revisited in due course, with Lord Marchmain living in Venice, though his affair was with a woman. Anyway, with the mother of the Lygon children also living elsewhere, with her vindictive brother, Madresfield was effectively run by the next generation. The conspicuous luxury of ‘Madders’ combined with the absence of parental authority must have contributed to Evelyn’s feeling quite at home here.

The same nursery atmosphere he’d relished with Alastair Graham at Barford House, perhaps, and which fed into the Sebastian scenario in
Brideshead. According to most commentators, Sebastian, if primarily based on Alastair, was also partly based on Hugh Lygon. Below is Hugh Lygon. That's Hugh's five younger siblings smiling in the background, including Blondie and Poll (white hats) and Sibell (in the light-coloured jacket). The photo is from Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne, which is essential reading in this context.


We shuffle through into the library. This hardwood-lined room was purpose built as a library around 1900, but it was decorated by the 7th Earl (the aforementioned seducer of footmen). So this is the 8000-book space that Evelyn would have been confronted with when he was in residence.

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Of course, Evelyn would have been allowed to take the books off the shelves and sit down on the comfortable seats to read them. We’re not. All we can do is stand and admire the gold-lettered leather spines en masse. Any photos of the interior at Madresfield have been gleaned from guidebooks or the internet. If any copyright holder wants them removed, I will certainly do that.

Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

The most we can do is fire the odd question. Accordingly, I ask the guide if Madresfield has a collection of Evelyn Waugh books. Silence. I don’t bother to ask if there are fine old copies of
Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies in the form that Waugh’s father’s firm originally published them. The photo that follows is of a bookshelf of my own. God, they would look great in this space!


Nor do I ask if there is a copy of the special limited edition of Black Mischief, one of the 250 copies Waugh had printed on large hand-made paper, bound in purple cloth, with a signed inscription to Blondie and Poll over and above the printed dedication.

My own copy of
Black Mischief is not signed. But then I've read that Waugh didn't sign any of the trade edition at the time, because he'd signed the special edition. And it wouldn't have been right for ordinary readers to have his signature in their books? Any implicit snobbery doesn't bother me. Why not? Due to the vitality of the writing, that is just as accessible in the cheapest paperback. As for my own 1932 hardback, it cost me £15. Money well spent.


I recall that a copy of
A Handful of Dust was given to Hugh Lygon, in which Paula Byrne tells us is the inscription: 'To Hughie, to whom it should have been dedicated.' Why so? Well, Black Mischief had been dedicated - as you can see from my own copy - 'with love to MARY AND DOROTHY LYGON', so perhaps the written words for Hugh were simply an acknowledgement that Waugh's love for members of the Lygon family didn't stop at those two girls.

Those Lygon books will exist, they might even be in this house, but I doubt if we’ll be seeing them today. Meanwhile, the guide has reverted to what she was saying about the carvings that decorate the ends of the book-cases. The Tree of Knowledge and The Tree of Life form the centre of a series of images – the scholar, the musician, the farmer, the doctor – which allude to the many differing paths to learning and wisdom. It was the 7th Earl who commissioned those carvings. So maybe this carving represents the gay father and his beloved daughter.

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Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

We are about to leave the library. Before we go I must register my interest in another book that was published in 1932, the same year as
Black Mischief. The book is School For Horse and Rider, and it was written by Captain J. E. Hance (G.B.H.). The initials are those that Evelyn used whenever he referred to the captain in one of his smutty letters to Maimie and/or Coote. It stands for 'God Bless Him'. There is bound to be a copy in this library, but below is a picture of my own copy. See how the Captain's book dwarfs that of his famous pupil's!


Readers who want to get an insight into the Captain's horse manual can do so by going to another page on this site. Yes, at this point you can take a break from the house tour and snuggle up in the library with
School For Horse and Rider, in an essay I've called 'Evelyn Waugh Goes To Riding School'. Alternatively, stick with the present essay for now. At the end, I'll give the link again and you can lie on a couch with Evelyn and the captain.

We pass through another door and are collectively amazed. It takes a minute before I realise where we are – in the most extravagantly decorated chapel I’ve ever seen. What is most surprising is that it’s an integrated part of the house, made from what were once a couple of bedrooms. But it’s a self-contained place of worship too. At the front of the room is a gold altar backed with a painted triptych behind which rises a fresco from floor to vaulted ceiling.

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Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

At the sides, stained glass windows and more frescoes of an art nouveau provenance, which includes Christian soldiers and portraits of all seven Lygon children of the 1920s. The aesthetic was the idea of Lord Beauchamp, the 7th Earl, he who in 1931 had to vacate the premises that he contributed massively towards. At the back of the room, coloured panels produce a mosaic effect that leads up to a balcony upon which the organ is sited. Of course, it’s all too much.

Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

As the guide tells us, this chapel was lifted wholesale from Madresfield and placed in the pages of
Brideshead. I recall that in the book, Sebastian’s elder brother, Bridey, asks Charles Ryder if he thinks the chapel is beautiful. Charles doesn’t. What’s more it’s aesthetic is out of fashion, he suggests. But, so as not to seem unduly negative to his host, Charles does reassure Bridey that it might come back into fashion at some point. Also, at the end of the book, when Charles enters the chapel to focus on the flame of faith that still burns, he describes it as flickering in a lamp made of beaten metal of 'deplorable' design.

Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Well, our guide is not using the word deplorable today. She is telling us that the three identical lamps in here were made by the husband and wife team of Arthur and Georgie Gaskin, commissioned by Lord Beauchamp. The Gaskins also made the candlesticks and the altar cross, which is decorated with a rare kind of enamel. It’s all too exquisite, but the item that really dismays me is the altar frontal, which the guide is presently describing. It was designed by someone whose name goes in one ear and out the other, and worked on by two daughters of the Rector of Madresfield. It’s an example of a form of embroidery known as nué where gold thread has been manually stitched to cover – yes, entirely cover – a navy blue linen background. Apparently, Lord Beauchamp himself was a master of the technique.

I raise my eyes from the religious scene portrayed on the front of the embroidered altar cloth… to the Christ-dominated oil-painted gold-framed triptych… to the angel-decorated frescoed walls… And again I can only say that it’s TOO MUCH.

What did Charles Ryder make of the chapel when he first came across it with Sebastian? I take out a recent Penguin copy of the book and check out the scene which comes towards the end of Charles’ initial visit to Brideshead:

The whole interior had been gutted, elaborately refurnished and redecorated in the arts-and-crafts style of the last decade of the nineteenth century. 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. There was a triptych of pale oak, carved so as to give it the peculiar property of seeming to have been moulded in Plasticine. The sanctuary lamp and all the metal furniture were of bronze, hand-beaten to the patina of pock-marked skin; the altar steps had a carpet of grass-green, strewn with white and gold daisies.’

Charles responds to the sight of all this with the single word: ‘Golly.’ I’m pretty sure one of our number said the same on entering the space. It would seem to be the right word.

A door at the side of the organ (visible in the photo two up) leads to a first floor room. It’s called the Long Gallery and is more like a corridor than a room. Here there are various display cabinets and odd pieces of furniture. If anyone in the Lygon family has a Jacobean desk or a Regency chest of drawers they don’t want, this is obviously where it ends up.

Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

The best thing about the Long Gallery is the view you get from the middle of it. Beyond the terrace, over the moat and across a farmed field, an avenue stretches for a mile to the east. More impressive from the window than it appears in this aerial shot, because of foreshortening.

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The guide tosses our way the fact that, during the Second World War, the Royal princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were due to be put up in this house if anything had happened to Buckingham Palace. Standing where I imagine Evelyn must have proudly stood, one can see what a long, long way it is to Underhill from this crown jewel.

I recall that by the time Evelyn was a guest of the Lygons, he had been to Africa to witness the coronation of an emperor. I think it’s important to realise he had that experience under his belt prior to coming here. He’d boarded a ship at Marseille in 1930, but instead of pottering about the Mediterranean, ending up at Port Said looking after a sick she-Evelyn as he had done in 1929, his ship had slipped through the Suez Canal. He’d sailed down through the Red Sea - Arabia to his left, north Africa to his right – and disembarked at the exotic port of Dijbouti. From there a train had taken him and other representatives of the world’s press through the desolation of French Somali to the heart of the Ethiopian Empire. Dressed in his best European clothes, Evelyn had sat through a six-hour coronation ceremony, which he’d reported on in his capacity as special correspondent for
The Times. And just a few months later here he was lording it up at Madresfield, entertaining the Lygons with his irreverent wit and his travel experiences, a new volume of which was shortly to be published under the title, Remote People. That book includes the rhetorical question: ‘How to recapture, how to retail, the crazy enchantment of those Ethiopian days?’ My answer would be: ‘Hold court at Madders, Boaz’.

What a long, long way Evelyn had come from his father’s house. What a long way he had even come in three years, from sitting in the Union Library in Oxford, copying bits out of other people’s books on Danté Gabriel Rossetti.

The Staircase Hall is next. We enter by way of the gallery that goes round three walls of the room. The balustrade is made of crystal. That is, there are hundreds of crystal poles holding up the bannister on which I am leaning. Down in the room itself there are comfortable seats and tables, a huge fireplace providing the focal point of the room. There are no windows in the Staircase Hall, which is right in the centre of the house. There is plenty natural light though, coming in through three, glass domes in the roof. At the juncture of walls and ceiling, words have been carved into the black cornice:


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Sorry that the quality of the photo does not do justice to what's in front of the camera. But maybe you get the gist. Moreover you've got this essay to bring things into focus.

Up here on the balcony are many paintings, two of which are especially noteworthy. First, Lord Beauchamp himself. The father-figure who, by leaving Madresfield in 1931, made way for a joker-figure - Evelyn Waugh. It was he who was responsible for the construction of this Staircase Hall and the decoration of the Chapel and the Library. A considerable patron of the Arts and Crafts movement, he was himself an artist and craftsman, his speciality being, as I said, a particular kind of flashy embroidery. Here he stands in all his official finery, bearer of impressive titles: Warden of the Cinque Ports, Knight of the Garter, Governor of New South Wales and Seducer of Footmen. Don't ask me which bits of finery stand for which specificl title. Work it out for yourself.

Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Evelyn Waugh would meet Lord Beauchamp in exile (in Rome) in the summer of 1932, and get on very well with him. Man of culture and style meets man of culture and style. Hence the positive portrayal of Lord Marchmain in
Brideshead. In the book, Charles Ryder and Sebastian meet Lord Marchmain in Venice, whereas Waugh and Maimie went on from her father's place in Rome to spend a fortnight there in 1932. Waugh conjoined the two Italian experiences into one.

Next the whole family, painted in 1924 when the family was intact.

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William Ranken, The family of the seventh Earl on the occasion of the 21-st birthday of his eldest son, Viscount Elmley, 1924

That picture shows the space I'm about to descend into. Presently, I'm standing in the top right corner of it, on the balcony. That's Hugh in the white suit, beside his father and his brother, Lord Beauchamp and Lord Elmley. On the seat are Hugh's mother and his siblings, including Maimie, Sibell and Coote. As well as anything else, the figures give the scale of this massive room. Clock the size of the fireplace!

Standing on the balcony prior to his pre-dinner champagne, I can imagine Evelyn musing on the words that encircle the room like a halo. So let's have those again:


Those words zoom Evelyn all the way to the English Club on the island of Zanzibar. Oh, God, yes, Zan-zee-bah in December of 1930…

Every day, soon after dawn, he’d be woken up by the heat. He would lie there under his mosquito net streaming with sweat, utterly exhausted. It would take him time to summon the resolution to turn the pillow dry side up. At some stage a boy would come in with tea and a mango. Evelyn would lie there on top of the covers for a while, absolutely dreading the day ahead. Everything had to be done very slowly. Presently he would sit in a hip-bath of cold water, knowing that before he would be dry of the water he would again be damp with sweat. He would dress gradually, putting on the long trousers, shirt, socks, suspenders, buckskin shoes that for some reason were worn in this African hell-hole. Halfway through dressing he would cover his head with eau-de-quinine and sit under the electric fan. He would do this several times during the day. They would constitute its only tolerable moments…

“What are you thinking about Boaz?” shouts Blondie from the sofa below.

“I’m thinking about the impossibility of maintaining an erection in the tropics,’ replies Evelyn, who realises with pleasure that it’s time for his champagne cocktail. And as Evelyn descends the stairs, the austere words carved into the cornice turn his pleasure at being in residence at Madders into a fulsome thing.

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The words at the top of the room have been painted over in the past, as you can see in the next photo. They were evident in the 1930s and were on view again for my afternoon visit in 2007. My attention (in 2019) is also drawn by the large landscape opposite the marble fireplace. It is by Edward Lear, who Waugh recorded his admiration for when reviewing a biography of Lear in 1937.

Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

This painting was bought by the 4th Earl from the Royal Academy in 1853. Waugh admired Lear's drawings and water colours as they were full of life, but didn't think so much his large oil paintings. But he might have liked this more than most, because it was painted under the influence of William Holman Hunt, a distant relation of Waugh's, one of the Pre-Raphaelites Evelyn wrote admiringly about in
PRB. Holman Hunt took Lear to a place in Britain which exhibited similar geology to Syracuse, so that Lear did not have to rely entirely on sketches and his memory when painting The Quarries of Syracuse.

Edward Lear, The Quarries of Syracuse, 1853

Evelyn Waugh and Edward Lear had a lot in common. Exemplary artists both, they kept diaries when they travelled, turned those diaries into finished work when they got back to Britain (a travel book and landscape paintings, respectively) then created something more imaginative (a novel and nonsense poetry) to the world's long-term delight.

This constitutes another opportunity to take a break from this tour. By taking advantage of
this link you will be moving to another dimension. Go on, dear reader, you only live once, so you must take advantage of such opportunities. Just make sure you come back to this point and resume your tour. Because this text is going places too.

So after Waugh's African trip of 1930, he had already written the resulting travel book,
Remote People. By the time he ended up at Madresfield, he was primed to write Black Mischief. But looking around the Staircase Hall what comes to mind is Brideshead.

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Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

In particular, I am reminded of that scene where Sebastian has been drinking in his bedroom and has had an argument with Charles. Charles is in the equivalent of this enchanting room, prior to dinner (or is it after dinner?), with the rest of the family. Everyone is sitting down, knitting or reading or whatever. Bridey (Elmley) is there, as are Julia (Maimie), Poll (Cordelia) and Lady Marchmain. Sebastian appears and, red-faced and with his tie askance, makes an apology. Everyone looks up at the black sheep of the family...

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Lady Marchmain says something to Sebastian, but Sebastian is not apologising to her, he's apologising to Charles. "He's my only friend and I was bloody to him."

All are embarrassed. Poor Sebastian. Surrounded by privilege but so very unhappy in himself.

We move through to the Dining Hall. Some of our party are wilting, but I’m not. Another wonderful space for our delectation.

Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Paula Byrne says in
Mad World that the Dining Hall contains a hammer-beam roof and a minstrels' gallery, which is how the dining hall of Hetton Abbey is described in A Handful of Dust. I see the beamed roof but not the minstrels gallery. However, when one steps outside the dining room one sees that there is a balconied space flanking the inner courtyard, on the outside of the dining room. I expect this has been designed so that if a choir stands here singing, the lovely sounds can be heard either in the courtyard or in the dining room. Does that make sense?

Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

The polished dark wood of the Dining Hall table has 12 seats around it. We’re told that the table can sit sixty when narrower seats are in place and the table is fully extended. Apparently there were 60 people at a dinner here in 2003, the 100-year anniversary of Waugh’s birth, on which occasion each guest was given a copy of
Black Mischief.

I wonder of what edition. Surely not the first Penguin, which was issued with a dust-jacket to keep the orange of the cover pristine. So that, in 2019, my 1938 copy still looks like this:

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One highlight of the book is the feast that Emperor Seth hosts for some English visitors. Basil Seal (Seth's Minister for Modernisation) is asked to approve of the menu, which he only does because he's so tired trying to keep up with Seth's ever-changing enthusiasms and schemes for the so-called modernisation and Westernisation of his African kingdom. The menu begins...

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I've blacked out the preceding text so as not to take too big a liberty with copyright. The menu continues on the facing page:

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Waugh must have been pleased with his menu. (I only have one cavil: Vitamin H might have been 'Choice Cut of Horsemeat'.) Paula Byrne tells us that Evelyn included a copy of it in a letter to Lady Dorothy/Coote/Poll.

When Waugh came to Madresfield in December, 1931, it was to enjoy Christmas and, just possibly, to carry on with the writing of the book which he’d begun at the start of November in the seclusion offered by the Easton Court Hotel, near Chagford in Devon. But
Remote People had just been published and surely that would have been the perfect excuse for a dinner party with Evelyn as guest of honour and head of the table. Let me try and imagine that...

Boaz at one end of the table flanked by Blondie and Poll. Hamish Erskine and Hubert Duggan (remember them from the prancing photo?), in places 4 and 5.

Baby and Sibell, in places 6 and 7. (Baby was in residence, though she didn't arrive until after Christmas.)


That's Lady Sibell on Baby's right. She who had a relationship with Lord Beaverbrook, off and on. The tall sister who posed at Madresfield for Evelyn when he was producing drawings for
Black Mischief after he'd finished the writing of it. I feel you can recognise her features in this one:

Copyright Estate of Evelyn Waugh.

The clincher is that in
Mad World, Paula Byrne quotes Lady Sibell as saying, ''he drew me sitting on the edge of the bath with a bathrobe on, getting cramp."

The nine illustrations were only included in the limited special edition of 250 copies, not the trade edition of 1932. General readers had to wait until a post-War edition to enjoy this extra layer of content.

But back to the dining table post-Christmas 1931, making our way towards the far end of the table.

Photograph by Arthur Pickett. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

In places 8 and 9, Arthur Baldwin (Frisky) and Lord Berners. Frisky fancies Baby just as much as Boaz does. In the summer of 1932, Boaz teased Frisky about their mutual infatuation, in letters that mention man-to-man confessionals over the Madresfield crème de menthe. Oh, to have been a fly on the sticky green neck of the liqueur bottle at Christmas.

As for Lord Berners, I feel I must contrast his tactical approach to being a rich gay man with Lord Beauchamp's. That text can be
read here. So if you've been opting out of this particular essay when given the opportunity, here is another chance. But please come back!

To complete the party of 12, let’s have Patrick Balfour, who was a great mate of Evelyn's, and two more Lygons – Hugh and Lord Elmley - at the far end of the table. But never mind that far end! What’s Evelyn talking about at this end, over the Burgundy? Why, the nightmare of his African experience, of course. As transformed (fitfully) into art in the pages of
Remote People. Both Poll and Blondie are listening intently as Boaz goes on about the boredom of life in the tropics. Let me see if I can overhear this conversation:

"No-one can have any conception of what boredom really means until he or she has been to the tropics."

"Tell us, Boaz. We’re only slips of girls who have never been out of a corridor that stretches between Madresfield and Mayfair."

"The boredom of civilised life is a puny thing to be dispersed by a sip if claret. The blackest things in European social life, poor women like Olivia talking about their wealth, rich women like Baby talking about their poverty, psychologists explaining one’s book to one, your brother Hugh going on how much he has drunk recently, amateur novelists talking about royalties and reviews. The very terrors, indeed, which drive one to refuge in the still-remote regions of the earth, are mere pansies to the rank flowers which flame grossly in those dark and steaming places."

“Are you saying you were bored in Africa, darling?”

“I am constitutionally a martyr to boredom, but never in Europe have I been so desperately and degradingly bored as I was during the four days I spent travelling between Harar and Aden. For instance, at Mr Bollolakos’s Hotel…"

Blondie: "
Mr. Bollocks’s hotel?’"

“As you say, at the disgusting hotel in Harar while waiting for the train that would – pray God - remove me to Dijbouti there was NOTHING TO DO. I was reduced to reading a French dictionary for hours on end. I wrote Christmas cards to everyone in England whose address I could remember. A fellow guest leant me four copies of John o’ London’s Weekly. That night under my mosquito curtain I read three issues straight through, word for word, from cover to cover. Next morning after breakfast I read the fourth. Then I went to the bank and dragged out the cashing of a small cheque to the limits of politeness. It was still early in the day. I took a dose of sleeping draught and went to bed again."

Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy’s mirth attracts the attention of those at the other end of the table. "What are you talking about, Boaz?’" asks Hugh. "Not about horses' buttocks, anyway," roars Boaz, lord of all he surveys.

Here is how Evelyn portrays Boaz in one of his drawings. A self-confident pose, I would say. Treating those twin impostors - wine and piss - just the same. Reminds me a bit of the full-length portrait of Boom. Boaz - a new Boom for Madresfield?

Copyright Estate of Evelyn Waugh.

The official tour is over. When the others hear that I’m to be taken on to somewhere else, they wonder who I am. The tour guide tells them that I have a book coming out about Enid Blyton. I start to talk about Enid and Evelyn, what different kinds of writers they were, what different impacts they had on my development. But then I recall how exhausted we all are, so I stop. Besides, the butler has turned up and it’s him the guide and I must follow.

Up a staircase, along a corridor and there we have it. An ordinary room, not like the special rooms we’ve been in on the official tour. It was used as a day nursery when Blondie and Poll were growing up. Then it became a spare room, when Evelyn made use of it as his writing room. Recently it has been used as a night nursery. At least there is a bed and the butler does not contradict my hypothesis. Directly underneath the west wall's two windows (with wooden railing to prevent falls) is water, because at this side of the house the moat is hard against the house. Perhaps Evelyn’s writing table would have fitted between the two windows, catching the light.

I can't take a photo of the room. Have I got time to nip out and take a photo from outside? Of course not, but I make a mental note to do so in a few minutes. Here is the result:


What varied brick and stone work. What delicate rippling of water. And from another angle:

Screen shot 2019-02-27 at 20.38.49

Quick, back over the moat and into the house before the quacking of ducks tempts me into joining them at swim.

Unsurprisingly, the butler doesn’t know how the room was set up seventy-five years ago. However, he can show me the desk that Waugh worked on if I’m interested. We set off along a corridor before emerging into the Long Gallery again. It’s one of those desks where the lid has to be folded down before there is any table function. There is only enough depth for a book to lie flat upon, but as that’s what Evelyn wrote in, that would have been enough space for him. The butler points out that the desk is stained with ink and worn in places. It appears to have been well-used, in contrast to other similar bureaux that can be found around the house.

At my request, we return to Evelyn’s writing room. I’ve read a memoir written by Lady Dorothy Lygon – Poll or Coote - whereby she claims that Evelyn would retreat to this room groaning at the prospect of work, and that it wasn’t hard for the Lady Lygons to pull him away from the place to take part in some frolic or other. But be that as it may, Evelyn made progress on his book here. The colophon on the last page of
Black Mischief states that the book was written between September1931 and May 1932, at Stonyhurst (he may only have been at the religious college a week or two over Easter), Chagford (the hotel in Devon) and Madresfield. Anyway, the last scene of the book has at least three coded Madresfield references, one of which I’ve just discovered today.

Have we got time for me to go into this here and now? The guide is interested in picking up a few tit-bits of interpretation; the butler is used to waiting patiently on people. So with a Penguin copy of the book open in my hands, I let them have it…

“It’s night over Matodi. A map that Waugh has included in Black Mischief shows a railway running between Matodi and Debra Dowa on the island of Azania, a set-up which is a mirror image of the actual railway line that runs between Dijbouti and Addis Ababa in Abyssinia. Interesting to realise that Waugh placed his fictional equivalents on an island off the east coast of Africa, given that he did the drawings for his book here at Madresfield, on what is effectively an island."

Blast, I didn’t mean to get bogged down in that geography. It’s too obscure for my present audience. Both the guide and the butler appear to be listening, but I must try harder to keep their attention.

"Anyway, so it’s night over Matodi. Emperor Seth, and his attempts to introduce western ways into the Azanian Empire, have come and gone. The administration is now back in the hands of Europeans and it is English and French police who patrol the waterfront. A Gilbert and Sullivan record is heard from the old Portuguese fort. In fact, on the penultimate page of
Black Mischief, Waugh prints three verses from The Mikado, the first of which could be interpreted as a reference to Mary, Dorothy and Sibell Lygon. Let me read it aloud in this very room:

“Three little maids from school are we,
Pert as a schoolgirl well can be,
Filled to the brim with girlish glee –
Three little maids from school.”’

The tour guide pipes up: "Isn’t the introduction of the Gilbert and Sullivan to let the reader know that a veneer of European civilisation is again being laid on top of barbarism?"

Oh, so she has read the book. I wasn’t sure.

She continues: “All that tom-tomming at Seth’s funeral feast in the climactic scene. Isn’t the frothy opera song at the end an allusion to the probability that the drums will be back again sooner or later to wipe away the facade of western sophistication?"

She really does know her stuff. "Yes, that’s true enough, but the precise choice of passage quoted is surely a clear nod to Madresfield."

The guide nods, though only tentatively. She can think it over later. Right now I need to carry on with my analysis of the book’s last page: "Waugh goes on to say that wild dogs have been rounded up and put down, and that the streets of Matodi are empty but for an occasional muffled figure.
The Mikado plays on. The next verse to be quoted is about a tom tit. Tom Tit happens to be the name of a horse that threw Evelyn when he was at Captain Hance’s Riding school at Malvern."

I recite for us (in this very house, in this very room):

"On a tree by a river a little tom tit
Sang willow, tit-willow, tit-willow.
And I said to him 'Dicky bird, why do you sit
Singing Willow, tit-willow, tit-willow?"

"He mentions Tom Tit in a letter to Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy," says the guide.

I wasn’t sure about this woman earlier in the day. Now I feel distinctly warm towards my colleague. Let me tell her more: "In the teasing and complex last page or so of
Black Mischief, Waugh goes on to describe how a bar owner in Matodi tactfully ejects his last customer and fastens down the shutters of the café. “New regulation,” he explains. “No drinking after ten-thirty.” Perhaps that’s an allusion to the Madresfield butler of Evelyn Waugh’s day trying to impose some limit on the time of night when he could be expected to serve drinks to the young Lygons and their boozy guests, of whom Boaz would have been one of the booziest.’

"Why not!" says the guide, smiling widely.

The present day butler at Madresfield is not so easily won over, remaining stony-faced.

Back to the book. Another tom-tit verse is quoted, alluding to the fact that in the previous chapter - in the climax scene of
Black Mischief that the guide mentioned in passing - the character Prudence has been eaten by the book’s protagonist, Basil Seal, and by other distinguished guests at the funeral feast of Seth. Of course, I must read it aloud in situ:

‘“Is it weakness of intellect, birdie?” I cried,
“Or a rather tough worm in your little inside?”
With a shake of his poor little head, he replied,
“Oh willow, tit-willow, tit-willow.”’

"It’s now my privilege to read (in this room, in this house) the last sentence of Waugh’s novel." I look from one listener to the other. "Do you know how it goes?"

The tour guide shakes her head. The butler, who looks as if he shaved his head within the last hour, so smooth and hairless is the skin, shakes his head also.

I remind the guide that the first thing she told us today was that the Madresfield moat is fed by a spring and so the water continually circulates round the house in a clockwise direction. "It’s just so great that the last sentence in the book reads:
‘The song rang clear over the dark city and the soft, barely perceptible lapping of the water along the sea-wall’."


Time to go. I can see the scene so clearly though, I hope we all can: Evelyn sitting at his desk high above the moat, listening to the barely perceptible lapping of the water along the house wall, knowing that he has just finished a meticulously crafted, multi-layered novel. After the struggle just to get to the end of
Vile Bodies, after the sustained boredom of the writing of Labels and Remote People, Mister Toad was back on top form.

Outside, enjoying the novelty of being on my own, I go around Madresfield in a clockwise direction, enjoying the view, both outside and inside my skull:


I have time to make a single circuit of the house before coming across the hedge with the Roman emperors in it. That's the lawn top right of the aerial view.

Screen shot 2019-02-27 at 20.38.42

Here is the view that you get at ground level. That's looking towards top centre of the aerial view.

Screen shot 2019-02-27 at 21.22.39

Waugh was photographed here standing next to one Roman emperor's bust by a photographer for the
Tatler in late spring or early summer of 1932.

Reproduced from Evelyn Waugh and His World, Edited by David Pryce-Jones.

The Tatler caption reads: 'Mr Evelyn Waugh, the young novelist whose book, Vile Bodies, has been transformed into a successful play, was snapshotted recently as above when staying at Madresfield Court, the seat of Lord Beauchamp. He is posed beside a bust of the gluttonous Roman Emperor Vitellius - certainly a classical 'vile body'! Mr Waugh's new novel, which contains a cannibalistic banquet, will soon be published.'

In the summer of 2007 I thought this a good opportunity for a selfie, referencing 1932. I thought so then and I think so twelve years later.

madresfieldseth - Untitled Page

Pity I couldn't persuade the Madresfield guide to take a photo of me sitting on the edge of a bath with a bathrobe on, getting cramp. But you can't have everything. Not from a single afternoon's visit.

The Beeches - Madresfield - Fordyce
July 2007 - March 2019

There are four nested Madresfield essays that I've posted towards the end of March, 2019. The others, referenced above but now repeated for your convenience, are:

Evelyn Goes to Riding School
Mad Owl and Pussycat
Lord Beauchamp and Lord Berners

Thanks to the tour guide who showed us around Madresfield in summer 2007. The guidebook I bought that day contains photographs by Arthur Pickett and a text by John de la Cour, director of the Elmley Foundation, both of which have been more than useful in the preparation of this essay.

Thanks to Lucy Chenevix-Trench, owner of the Madresfield Estate, for permission to use images from the current guidebook.