Jane Mulvagh, “Madresfield: The Real Brideshead”

This one’s a little frustrating. Madresfield is a little-known English country house that served as the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited.  But part of what made it interesting to Mulvagh was its early history and the fact that the house has been lived in by the same family for hundreds of years. I suspect the book is actually a PhD. dissertation with pretty illustrations; there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the range of documents I could not quite share.

Lots of description of the countryside, lots of narrative about Elgar’s relationship with the family but the really juicy stuff doesn’t happen until page 277 when it transpires that the 7th Earl, father of seven, a devout churchman, was also bisexual and indiscreet.  Big scandal, exile to Europe, etc. Lots of collateral damage done to the children; Evelyn Waugh was a friend of one of the daughters. Hence the source of his inspiration.

Mulvagh clearly feels strongly about the house and grateful to the current chatelaine; one senses her discretion about the scandal and the emotional fallout.  She does make the point that the Lygon children, like Waught’s Flytes, were cast out of Eden as a result of their father’s misbehavior.  The girls couldn’t marry “well,” and the boys were troubled. Perhaps most interesting is the point made by David Cannadine in the Foreword, that the true inspiration for Brideshead was not “a Vanbrugh stage set, a palazzo fortissimo” but a moated manor house, hidden away in a foggy vale. I doubt, though, that this book is going to erase Castle Howard from my mind.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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