Scandal of the real Brideshead
'Brideshead Revisited' has been a great favourite since Jeremy Irons starred in the TV series but few knew the extraordinary story of the Lygon family that inspired novelist Evelyn Waugh. Jane Mulvagh, author of a new book on the Lygons, reveals all
ON A warm evening in June 1931, the 59- year-old William Lygon, the 7th Earl of Beauchamp, sat dozing in a chair in the Moat Garden at Madresfield Manor. The embroidery he was completing had dropped into his lap. He could hear, just behind him, the unripe grapes tapping against the mullioned windows in the breeze.
Suddenly, four car doors slammed shut. A black, chauffeur-driven saloon had entered the estate, driven down the Gloucester Drive, over the cattle grid and drawn up on the gravel beyond the moat. Three formally-dressed men crossed the bridge into the court. It was clear from their solemnity that they had come on business. The ultimatum they brought with them would shatter the Lygons.
Bradford, the butler, showed the three Knights of the Garter into the drawing-room to await Earl Beauchamp. William left the Moat Garden and joined the visitors, who were all known to him. Lord Stanmore explained that they had been sent at the request of "the highest authority in the land". His Majesty had been informed by Bend'or, the Duke of Westminster and William's brother-in-law, that he could provide evidence of criminal acts of indecency between William and a number of men.
When King George had heard the allegations, he had reputedly muttered, "I thought men like that shot themselves." He had been left in no doubt that Westminster would expose William, present the evidence to the press and have him arrested. According to the Constitution, a peer was entitled to be tried by fellow peers in the House of Lords. However, the thought of such a trial, in which male prostitutes would be subpoenaed, billets-doux read out and low-life exposed, had so horrified the King that he had decided to intervene. William was a friend of the King. He was too close to the Royal Family for comfort. To contain the crisis, the three knights were sent to persuade William to resign from all his official posts and to leave England by midnight.
Once the envoys had left Madresfield, William reviewed his options. He knew that Bend'or -- his wife, Lettice's brother -- would file a writ and he was not prepared to see his children used as witnesses in a homosexuality case. The only members of his family who were at home were his 23-year-old daughter, Sibell, and her younger sister, Dorothy, 18. Forewarned, the countess had already fled to her brother's Cheshire estate; their son, Dickie, was away at school; his recently married daughter, Lettice, was living in Herefordshire with her husband; Maimie was enjoying the London Season; Hugh was on his farm at Clevelode, near Malvern; and Viscount Elmley, the eldest son, was in his Norfolk constituency.
Over dinner in the great hall he presented the situation to his daughters and, to their horror, offered what he considered to be the only solution: suicide. His death, he assured them, would not take place in England and -- for the family's honour -- it would look like an accident. He intended to take the overnight boat to the Continent and travel on to the German spa town Wiesbaden, where he would overdose on a sleeping draught. Though Sibell and Dorothy tried to dissuade him, he drew a line in black ink across a page of the visitors' book, and departed from his devoted family and beloved Madresfield.
On his first night at Wiesbaden, William raised a glass of poisoned port to his lips, but the doctor on duty seized the glass from him. As the weeks passed in the spa, he began to put aside thoughts of suicide. Strengthened by rest and reflection, he decided to remain on the Continent until -- as he thought it would be -- the summons for his arrest was lifted and he could return home. Meanwhile, his children, fearing that he would take his life, decided that at all times one of them must watch over him. A dutiful rota began as the older children took their turn -- week in week out, in Europe and further afield -- by their father's side. In the end, it was Hugh's love of his father that persuaded him against taking his life.
William's unmasking had been a long time coming. Since the mid-Twenties, stories had circulated about homosexual parties at which local youths and fishermen serviced the earl and his guests. But his undoing began in Australia. In August 1930 William had embarked on a round-the-world trip. He received an "overwhelming" welcome in Sydney and stayed for two months, accompanied by a servant from Madresfield and a young Liberal MP, Robert Bernays, who acted as his speechwriter. There was much to draw William to Sydney, where he was reputed to enjoy a varied sex life during his many visits. The earl and his valet shared a flat not as master and servant but as lovers, a domestic arrangement that did not go unnoticed. His hosts asked Robert Bernays to inform William that on a forthcoming formal visit to Canberra, the servant would not be received. The incident was reported throughout London society and Bend'or hired detectives to gather further evidence. William had broken the Eleventh Commandment, one held dear by his class: "Thou Shalt Not Get Caught."
Apparently, Bend'or had never liked William. The womanising sportsman and the bisexual aesthete had little in common. Bend'or was an angry, unfulfilled man, "nothing but a fatuous, spoilt, ageing playboy". Despite three marriages -- and he would marry for a fourth time -- he had sired only one male heir to William's three. When Edward Grosvenor, Bend'or's son, was just five, his father had insisted he ride out with the hunt, despite the child's complaints of stomach pains. Edward died of peritonitis while in the field. Horrified by Bend'or's harsh treatment of their son, his wife left him. By 1931, Bend'or was unhappily married to his third wife, Loelia Ponsonby. She claimed he got drunk every night and was unfaithful: yet while he enjoyed sexual freedom, he expected the highest standards of propriety from those around him, especially his family. So far as women were concerned, he was a prude and he suffered from overwhelming fits of jealousy. He frowned upon "irregular" relationships and crude jokes, and any hint of homosexuality angered him beyond measure.
Bend'or's actions, far from shielding his sister and her children, put them in the spotlight. In the spring of 1931, three months before the three knights came to Madresfield, Bend'or had summoned the countess and, in the presence of three lawyers, had laid the evidence before her. He had recommended that she leave Madresfield immediately with her children, who ranged between the ages of 14 and nearly 28, and commence divorce proceedings. The countess, who had always been a somewhat obtuse and sheltered woman, was now in shock and was easily swayed by her brother. Ashamed and humiliated, she felt compelled to place a statement in personal columns acknowledging that she was well, but no longer lived with her husband.
Contrary to her newspaper notice, she suffered a nervous breakdown and took to her bed on her brother's Cheshire estate. Bend'or had also instructed the Lygon children to testify against their father. They refused. All William's children stood by him. Bend'or, now their greatest enemy, let it be known that anyone fraternising with the Lygons would be dropped by him. With a final flourish, he wrote William a curt letter: "Dear Bugger- in-Law, You got what you deserved. Yours, Westminster." The battleground was set.
Sibell, William's daughter, persuaded her lover, Lord Beaverbrook, to take action. The Canadian press baron controlled the Express newspaper group and had been Minister of Information. As a masterful manipulator, he suppressed the story that year in his own newspapers and ensured that it did not appear in rival ones. The children took a vow of silence regarding their father's affairs and, isolated from society, they closed ranks. In the summer of 1931, before the visit of the Garter Knights, clandestine negotiations had been taking place between the University of London, where William was chancellor, the Prime Minister's office and Buckingham Palace. William knew it was only a matter of time before his sexual antics were exposed.
Within days of his departure, contemporaries learnt that the "eccentric" Beauchamp had gone abroad "to have mud baths", a euphemism for a Wildean exile. Anecdotes were exchanged with glee in drawing rooms up and down the land. How they tittered when they heard that, on having homosexuality explained to her, Lady Beauchamp referred to her husband as a "bugler"!
Diana Mosley, who was close to the Beauchamps, observed the story unfolding and recalled a sharp contrast in attitudes between the generations. While William's homosexuality was known among many of her parents' generation, "Lady Beauchamp preferred not to notice" and Diana Mosley's father refused to discuss it. Nevertheless, "all our generation was on the side of Lord Beauchamp -- completely". What struck Diana Mosley most was how his children "supported him in every way. They loved him so much they were completely on his side -- never wavered".
William had recognised his true sexuality by the time he had started his university education at Oxford -- if not earlier -- and it sat uncomfortably with his strictly Christian upbringing. His accession to the title and its dynastic responsibilities were a burden to him; it is possible that his regular forays to the East End to work with the poor had served as a cover for his exploration of homosexual low-life in its "Molly houses".
Repeating the decision made nearly 300 years earlier by Richard Ligon [sic] when he found himself on the wrong side at the end of the Civil War, William chose exile and commenced the life of a fugitive from justice at the end of June 1931. Following his stay at Wiesbaden, he would be in Paris one week, the next in Venice, Rome or Sydney.
Anxious about his children, William established a schedule whereby he wrote to each one, in turn, every Sunday, beginning with his eldest daughter Lettice. He requested that they share his letters with one another.
Over the coming years, William would seek out the sweet rains of Paris, the clefts in the rocks of Sydney's Botany Bay, the valleys of San Francisco and the waters of Venice, in an almost ceaseless passage between the four cities of the world reputed to tolerate the homosexual community.
If William settled anywhere, it was in Sydney, where, he wrote, his "friends remain constant which makes it very tempting to me to buy a house and live there with visits from you and others". His second son, Hugh, whose bankruptcy had recently been redeemed with a payment from his father, came out to Sydney to lick his wounds. Hugh was his favourite: according to Rosalind Morrison, Hugh's niece, William intended to leave Madresfield to him and not to his first-born, Elmley.
Father and son passed cheerful days at Darling Point, Sydney, as recounted in a letter from William to Sibell in July 1933. They fell into a routine. William rose at 6.30am and swam in the pool. He then took the newspapers and then, having dressed and breakfasted, he would go into Sydney for a massage and a drink with friends before returning for "luncheon (never alone) at 1pm". In the afternoon, they surfed on Bondi Beach, played tennis or boxed before a 6.45pm dinner "if there is anything on in Sydney and if not at 7.45pm" and bed by 11pm.
According to Sibell, "He never complained, never mentioned Bend'or again. He just bore it." While William maintained relations with his children by post and anticipated their next visit, back in England Lady Beauchamp was even more isolated. Estranged from all her children, save for Dickie, she led a pitiful existence: alone, confused, ill and in thrall to her bullying brother. Lady Beauchamp's children never made peace with her. She died in 1936 at 59.
By the time of his mother's death, the 31-year-old Hugh was an alcoholic wrestling with his own homosexuality. While Dorothy and Sibell always denied his sexual leanings -- perhaps it was more than they could bear as they watched their father suffer -- friends knew otherwise. Since graduating from Oxford, he had struggled to find a role for himself and had sunk into melancholia.
Distraught after his mother's funeral, he took a motoring holiday in Germany with his friend, the artist, Henry Wynn. On August 19, 1936, having driven through the countryside in an open-topped car, they arrived at dusk in Rothenburg, Bavaria. As Hugh stepped from the car he fell, overcome by heatstroke or drink. He fractured his skull on the kerbstone.
Desperate to reach his ailing son, William chartered a plane and travelled with Dorothy and Sibell to his bedside. It was too late. Hugh never regained consciousness and within three days he was dead. William was beside himself with grief. Despite the risk of imprisonment, he determined to return to Madresfield for the funeral. As a precaution, it was said that a Tiger Moth lay in wait for the earl's escape, but such measures proved unnecessary. William was unaware that, once again, Sibell had intervened and, through Beaverbrook, she had prevailed upon Lord Simon to lift the arrest warrant, which was suspended and later annulled.
While the legal situation was still uncertain, after the funeral, William remained at Madresfield for just six days. The following spring, shortly after George VI's coronation, William's counsel, Sir Norman Birkett, wrote to the authorities. Since George V was now dead, perhaps his client could now officially return to England. If William were arrested, Birkett said he would defend his client against all charges and he was confident that he would win. The charges were dropped. William's official return was recorded in the visitors' book under a black-inked line by his signature and the date: "Beauchamp 19.vii.37". Within days of his return, still full of fury at his wife who had colluded with her brother and wrecked the family, he had her image painted out with whitewash from the chapel fresco which had been conceived as a celebration of their family life. Her marble bust was thrown into the moat. There is a cinefilm of William taking tea with his children. Though surrounded by five liveried footmen, it is he who "plays mother": pouring the tea and passing the cake plate. He steps to one side to watch his brood with tenderness and pride. What he had not confided in them was that they would have little time -- he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
In the autumn of 1938 William was in New York attending a reunion of the Ligon family (as the American branch is named). While there, he fell gravely ill. Elmley just managed to get to New York in time and on November 15, 1938, in the Waldorf Astoria hotel, with Dorothy at his bedside, William died. His last words were: "Must we dine with the Elmleys tonight?"
Sibell, of all the Lygons the least squeamish about her father's homosexuality, outlived her six siblings. Not long before her death, on being asked what she hoped for from a book about her family and her father she replied: "Just the truth. He was a very nice man and he did care so very much about his children. Mother was his greatest mistake and maybe because he was homosexual he made the wrong choice in marriage." And what was her abiding memory of her father and what he had taught his children? "Tolerance. Always tolerance."
Extracted from 'Madresfield: The Real Brideshead' by Jane Mulvagh (Doubleday, Stg£20), Available at special price of £18. To order call Bookpost PLC on 0044-1624 677237. Please add £1 for postage and packing. Code IND
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