Madresfield Court in Worcestershire must be one of the most romantic houses in England. Enclosed by a moat, defended from the world by massive, twelfth century oak doors, it has a mediaeval heart which has sprouted a gothic tower and turrets. Most remarkably, it has been in the same family for a thousand years. From being opportunistic country squires the Lygons progressed, through the inheritance of fabulous wealth, to become Earls of Beauchamp and friends of royalty. What a blessing the National Trust has not got its paws on the house and the detritus of generations survives alongside treasures of historic importance. This book, though, is not so much a history of the house as of the family who lived in it.
Jane Mulvagh takes some feature of the house for each of her chapter headings and then uses it as a peg to discuss an aspect of family history. For example The Breviary heads a chapter about family religion, The Illumination is about bibliomania and The Tuning Fork explores Elgar’s relationship with the house and with Lady Mary Lygon (the thirteenth ‘Enigma’). Inevitably, the early years are described with a great many ‘woulds’, ‘might haves’ and ‘possiblys’ and it’s only in the nineteenth century that we start to get a real feel for the characters. The sixth earl, learned, upright, deeply religious, was a cabinet minister and one of the founders of Keble College. He also brought into the house part of its wonderful collection of religious books and manuscripts, including the sumptuous ‘Madresfield Hours’ which was later sold to John Paul Getty.
William, the seventh earl, was even more eminent than his father. He was made Governor of New South Wales at the age of twenty six and in 1914 became Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and a Knight of the Garter. He was a radical politician, a pacifist and supporter of the underdog but at the same time a stickler for protocol. You get an idea of his grandeur from the fact that he always carried one hundred pounds in cash ‘in case I have to hire a train’. Madresfield was served by its own railway station. The earl was devoted to his seven children and I find this very touching: a list of the books he read to his daughters during the Great War.
His fastidiousness in dress and love of dressing up in extravagant uniforms, the youthfulness and beauty of his footmen, his love of art and needlework were hints of his bisexuality. It was pretty much an open secret in upper class circles but he might have got away with it without the ruthless hounding of his own brother-in-law, the unpleasant Duke of Westminster. In 1931 he was given the choice of slipping quietly abroad or facing criminal charges. Not wanting his children to be forced to testify, he chose exile and lived abroad for the remaining seven years of his life, apart from a couple of visits home. The children all took his side, wrote to him and visited him abroad. It ruined their social life and marriage prospects. From seven children, there were only two grandchildren, the daughters of Dicky, the family baby.
It was this parentless household (the Countess went to live with her brother) which Evelyn Waugh visited and was captivated by. His particular friends were ‘Maimie’ and ‘Coote’ and he was very kind to them for the rest of his life. It’s easy to see how the house appealed to the romantic in Waugh and why the author and publishers use Waugh’s appropriation of the house as ‘Brideshead’ as a way into its history. He found it a refuge from the world, a place to write in peace and an inspiration. The chapel which the seventh earl had decorated in arts and crafts style was exactly described in Brideshead and was of course nothing like the baroque affair at Castle Howard.
I wonder if this book would have been published without the Waugh connection? I would have liked more detail about the house and less padding with historical background. It’s an interesting read but for me, something of a wasted opportunity.