In today’s Property section of the Daily Telegraph, there is a discussion of a tour of stately homes that have a literary connection. This is by Eleanor Doughty, known to this parish as a Waugh fan. She starts with a discussion of the
45 houses to feature on the Historic Houses Association’s (HHA) literary trail, which launches next week. The collection – the theme of which was chosen to coincide with Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes, itself chosen because 2017 is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death – will guide visitors around the country to houses of bookish importance.
After describing some of the highlights of the HHA scheme Doughty ends up at Madresfield Court in Worcestershire where Evelyn Waugh was a frequent visitor in the 1930s:
His first impression of Madresfield would have been romantic as he came along the drive, with its neo-gothic gables, brick chimneys and gargoyles. But this might not be the Brideshead of his readers’ imaginations; the house used in the acclaimed 1981 television series … was filmed at the grand baroque palace Castle Howard in Yorkshire, which, as stately homes go, could not differ more from Madresfield.
After discussing the details of the chapel in Brideshead and the one at Madresfield as well as Waugh’s later recognition that he may have overdone his romantic descriptions in that novel, Doughty concludes with an interview of the present occupants of Madresfield:
Waugh’s chapel at Brideshead is “unmistakably the chapel in Madresfield”, says Lucy Chenevix-Trench, the house’s present owner. Rarely open to the public, it is “very much a home rather than a museum”, she says. The house, although large, “is not grand and imposing”, she adds. “It has no great ego, but is charismatic and intriguing.” Chenevix-Trench’s children are the 29th generation of the family to live at Madresfield, in a dynasty stretching back over 900 years. “Waugh used our family as a skeleton from which he created Brideshead. It is a pleasure for us that he has played a part in our history.”
In another separate but related article, the Telegraph online has a slide show of stately homes. This includes Lytham Hall said to be “the finest Georgian house in Lancashire.” But the description oddly seems to go a bit off the trail with this:
It is said that Evelyn Waugh based the character of Sebastian Flyte on Harry de Vere Clifton who was the last squire to own Lytham Hall…
Clifton was an erstwhile film producer in the 1930s who ran through his entire inheritance including Lytham Hall. He was four years younger than Waugh and, if they knew each other at Oxford, no one among their contemporaries or Waugh’s biographers seems to have noticed. The Wikipedia entry for Harry Clifton a/k/a Henry Talbot de Vere Clifton (1907-1979) mentions the connection with Waugh and Sebastian Flyte, citing only an internet site maintained by the Lytham Town Trust which promotes visits to Lytham Hall. That site offers no support for their statement. Waugh mentions having visited Lytham Hall once in 1935 and was hosted by Violet Clifton, who was Harry’s mother. There were several other of her children present, and Waugh’s letter to Katharine Asquith mentions them each specifically by name, but not Harry. Waugh was impressed by the house and notes: “Five hideous Catholic churches on estate.” A footnote by Mark Amory asserts: “An elder brother, Harry, knew Waugh at Oxford.” Again, no evidence is cited (Letters, p. 95). The family were apparently Roman Catholic, as witnessed by the numerous chapels and the fact that Harry’s parents were married in the Brompton Oratory, so that may lend some credibility to the Brideshead connection.
UPDATE (28 February 2017): The Malvern Gazette and other local papers in the Worcestershire area have also reported on the participation of Madresfield Court in the stately home visitation scheme and have added some Waugh-related information not covered in the Telegraph’s report:
Waugh also wrote Black Mischief, his third book, published in 1932, while staying at Madresfield as a guest. It is believed an old nursery was converted into a writing room for him…Peter Hughes of the Madresfield Estate said: “A lot of visitors come to Madresfield because of the Evelyn Waugh connection, more than for any other single reason. “Waugh never said Brideshead was based on Madresfield, but there are certainly a lot of similarities.”
Guided tours of Madresfield Court take place between March and September, but must be booked in advance.
UPDATE 2 (2 March 2017): The Blackpool Gazette has also reported on the impact of the literary trail in their area. They mention and quote from the letter Waugh wrote about his visit to Lytham Hall but don’t mention his lack of contact with Harry Clifton. They also include a discussion of literary associations with Stonyhurst but fail to mention Waugh’s connection with that estate, now a Roman Catholic public school. Waugh visited his Oxford friend Christopher Hollis several times in the early 1930s when Hollis was teaching there. Waugh spent much of his time there writing and lists Stonyhurst along with Chagford and Madresfield as the places where he wrote Black Mischief.