A handful of houses revisited
Evelyn Waugh’s vivid, wistful portraits of country houses, often encapsulated in a few pithy words, foreshadowed the decline and fall—or change of use—of many of these houses in the mid 20th century, as Jeremy Musson explains and Matthew Rice imagines
riting home to his wife during wartime service in north Africa, in 1941, Evelyn Waugh mentioned he’d spent a day in the Union Club ‘looking at Country Life books of country houses in an orgy of homesickness’. He had a genuine interest in architecture and celebrated his writing success by investing in his own country house.
From 1937 to 1956, he lived at Piers Court in Stinchcombe, gloucestershire (Country Life, March 2, 2016), of which he remarked it was ‘the kind of house that takes a lot of living up to’. the last 10 years of his life were spent in west Somerset, in the early-georgian, red-sandstone Combe Florey, which remained in his family until 2008.
As a young man, Waugh was familiar with a number of country houses. He first visited Barford House, Warwickshire, in 1924, the home of his Oxford friend Alastair graham, who was generally considered to be a model for Sebastian Flyte. in the 1930s, he spent time at the moated Madresfield Court, Worcestershire, home of the Lygons, a family also seen as an inspiration for Brideshead Revisited.
He knew well Mells Manor in Somerset, renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, Pakenham Hall in Co Westmeath and Pixton on the edge of Exmoor in west Somerset, which was the family home of his second wife, Laura Herbert, and the source of the life described in the atmospheric Boot Magna Hall in Scoop.
Just as important was Waugh’s keen awareness of the shifting social
Wsands of wartime. in his preface to the 1959 edition of Brideshead, he wrote of working on the novel in 1943, which he recalled as a bleak period ‘and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past’.
‘As a young man, Waugh was familiar with a number of country houses
He created his seductive account of a great house in full rig because ‘it seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century’. to his surprise, by 1959, the aristocracy—in whose ranks he had found friends and two wives—had not evaporated.
in common with the great English novelists of the 19th century, Waugh could summon up his houses in a few brisk lines, a characteristic sharpened by the distinctive—and brilliant— austerity of his writing style.
First in rank are the castles: Brideshead, the elegant, shining seat of a marquess, where ‘grey and gold amid a screen of boskage, shone the dome and columns of an old house’ and its hall had a ‘coved ceiling frescoed with classical deities and heroes’.