Genius Loci: Madresfield, the real Brideshead

For many, the word "Brideshead" conjures up a deeply held nostalgia for the English arcadia. Written during a time when the English Country House faced extinction due in part to calamitous death taxes and the irrelevance of the aristocracy in a new modern age, Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited was a swan song to the glory days of the country's great landowning families and their private princely palaces that were built and furnished when Britain ruled the world.

The Staircase Hall at Madresfield

Even though Castle Howard has become so identified with Brideshead, it was the mock-Elizabethan stately home of Madresfield and its owners, the Lygons, who provided the inspiration for Waugh's tale (and where he even wrote long stretches of it). The story of the house and the family from Tudor times onwards is enchantingly told by Jane Mulvaugh in Madresfield.

The nursery at Madresfield where Waugh spent time writing BR

Mulvaugh ingeniously weaves each chapter around an object or feature of the house, such as "The Embroidery" or "The Red Heels" and wends it with the different generations of Lygons so seamlessly that it is hard to say where the house leaves off and the family begins. An excellent point made by Mulvaugh is that Madresfield was built over generations and became a rambling pile the better to retreat to - MUCH the opposite of Castle Howard, a Whig monument to power and pageanty, where life was lived on display.

So what was the scandalous reason that the Flytes'/Lygons' father lived in exile? What did the family make of the book that put them on a salver? You'll just have to read- and savor - to find out.