I love biographies. I especially love biographies about writers. Interestingly, the more biographies you read about writers the more you learn how the skeletons of their novels are drawn from real bits of their lives. Being something of a writer myself, I am fascinated by this since I also draw on my own past or observances of others as a starting point for characters or situations. (I stress starting point.)
Reading biographies of literary figures may intrigue me because rooting about in a writer’s personal history feels something like conducting an archeological dig. I love discovering the real history or inspiration behind some of my favorite novels. The Guardian has a review today of a new book by Paula Byrne, Mad World, about the real life family who influenced Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Apparently, Sebastian Flyte, Waugh’s teddy bear dependent friend who tragically descends into alcoholism was based on his real life friend Hugh Lygon. The beauty of fiction is exemplified in Waugh’s ability to transform the ‘dull dog’ Hughie into the heart achingly tragic Sebastian.
“Evelyn had been at Oxford with Hugh Lygon, the middle son, with whom, according to one not wholly reliable source, he had conducted an affair. Certainly, he had been bewitched by gentle, charming Hughie, many of whose characteristics – girlish beauty, floppy blond locks, the ubiquitous teddy bear – famously reappear in the portrayal of Sebastian, with whom Charles Ryder is so infatuated in the novel. Yet for all his charm, Hughie was rather a dull dog, and hopelessly alcoholic, and it was with Hugh’s sisters that Waugh formed a far more fruitful friendship, especially with Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy, or Maimie and Coote as they were more informally known. His letters to the girls – comic, tender, playfully obscene – are some of the most delightful he ever wrote.”
The English are the master of nicknames, aren’t the? This ability for nicknames is demonstrated by another family, the Mitfords,who translate poignantly from fact to fiction. I would highly recommend reading Nancy Mitford’s books The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate and then follow up by reading Nancy Lovell’s wonderfully moving biography The Mitford Sisters. The quote in the picture of the Lygon family inserted above may be my favorite quote in all of literature. If you do nothing else, read the first page of The Pursuit of Happiness. It is my favorite beginning of all time. These books are a wonderful glimpse into a vanished way of life.