Mary Lygon Profiled

An article was recently posted on the website RoyalFoibles,com devoted to the life and, more particularly, the unhappy marriage of Waugh’s friend Mary Lygon. This is entitled “F****d Up Royal, or in this case Imperial, Marriages #49”. But don’t be put off by the title. It seems to be a serious research piece that is well written and organized. The anonymous WordPress weblog is self-described as:

An anecdotal look at ruling class misdeeds throughout history…It was born out of my life long obsession with the royal families of the world, particularly Europe. I’m a very shy man, so that’s as much as I’ll write about myself right now. I’m sure I’ll open up more as time goes on. In the meantime, please enjoy my blog.

The Mary Lygon article begins with this summary:

The romantic travails of Lady Mary Lygon not only wouldn’t have been out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel, but it’s generally agreed he modeled the character of Lady Julia Flyte from his novel, Brideshead Revisited, after Mary, whom he befriended in the early ’30s, around the time she was being courted by Prince George, youngest surviving son of George V. This courtship likely would’ve turned into a marriage had Mary’s vindictive uncle, the Duke of Westminster, who harbored a long simmering personal hatred for, and political rivalry with, Mary’s father, the 7th Earl of Beauchamp, not exposed his heretofore secret homosexuality to the powers that be, including his prospective in-law, the King, prompting the good Earl to end his political career, flee the country, and prompting his wife to permanently separate from, though never divorce, him.

By the late ’30s Lady Mary settled for a morganatic marriage to a penniless Romanov prince, Vsesvolod Ivanovich, which granted her the title of Princess Romanovsky-Pavlovsky, with the style of Serene Highness. They made a glamorous couple in London during the Second World War, both volunteering to help the war effort, the Princess even running her own Red Cross unit complete with its own ambulance. Once the war ended, so apparently did their marriage. By the early ’50s both had become violent alcoholics, with Mary’s friends accusing her Prince of having pissed away her inheritance and openly cheating on her. He left her for his mistress shortly after Christmas of 1953, the both of them finally divorcing, on the grounds of Vsevolod’s adultery, in 1956. He would go on to marry twice more, dying of cancer in 1973. Mary would pass away nine years later, a broke, embittered alcoholic with only her dogs for company, having never remarried after her divorce. Her life proves the old maxim that truth sometimes really is stranger than fiction.

Waugh’s friendship with Mary Lygon, as well as his enmity towards her husband, are mentioned throughout the article. This theme is introduced in the article’s opening paragraph:

Our story begins in the early ’30s when Mary and her equally glamorous debutante sisters, Lettice, Sibell, and Dorothy, were hailed as The Beauchamp Belles, owing to their father being the Earl of Beauchamp, and were among London’s Bright Young Things immortalized in such novels by Evelyn Waugh as Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. In fact, Waugh wasn’t only a friend of the Lygon sisters, especially Mary, but his long stays at her family estate, Madresfield Court, according to Coryne Hall in her 2009 article, Lady Mary and The Pauper Prince, served as the inspiration for the titular estate of his most famous novel, Brideshead Revisted, with Mary serving as the basis for the romantically star crossed character, Lady Julia Flyte, and Mary’s father generally supposed to serve as the murky inspiration for the Flytes‘ exiled father, Lord Marchmain.

Following Mary’s relationship with Prince George (a son of George V) that was ended after her father’s scandalous exile, she returned to live at Madresfield. According to the article:

Despite her personal upheavals, however, Lady Mary partied on throughout the [1930s], continuing to be among the darlings of London society, and hosting lavish weekend parties, for her friend Evelyn Waugh among others, at Madresfield Court, which, thanks to her parents’ absence, her mother having chosen to leave the family seat after separating from their father, she had complete control over along with her siblings. [Emphasis supplied]

There seems little support for this assertion of lavish parties. The two recent accounts of Waugh’s frequent and often extended visits to Madresfield starting in January 1932 suggest that social life there was rather subdued because of financial restraints imposed on the living expenses of by the then effectively orphaned Lygon daughters Lettice, Sibell, Mary and Dorothy. These accounts appear in Jane Mulvagh’s Madresfield (2008) and Paula Byrne’s Mad World (2009).

Waugh certainly continued his friendship with Mary after her marriage (although their is no mention that Waugh attended her wedding ceremony in April 1939; he wasn’t keeping a diary at the time). He sometimes visited and stayed with the couple when in London during the war, and after the war he seems to have cooperated (at least to some extent) with Vsevolod on a book he wrote which was sponsored by Vsevolod’s employers, the wine merchants Saccone & Speed. In fact, Waugh dedicated his 1947 book Wine in Peace and War “To H. H. Prince Vsevolode [sic] of Russia”. So, they must have still been on speaking terms by then. The article seems to get this about right:

…Mary’s friends, particularly Evelyn Waugh, also stayed occasionally, and many began to see evidence that the Prince’s reasons for marrying his bride were more mercenary than romantic. Waugh certainly suspected as much, and wrote in his diary that, if Vsesvolod didn’t have any wine to sell, he’d be otherwise useless. Soon Waugh couldn’t even stand to be in the same room with him.

After their marriage broke up in the 1950s (they separated in 1953 and divorced in 1956), Mary fell on hard times (her inheritance having been squandered by Vsevolod), and Waugh provided her with financial support from time to time. The article ends with this:

She withdrew from the world after [the divorce], eventually moving to a small market town. She never remarried, and kept only her beloved Pekingese dogs for company. She died in 1982. Her ex husband would marry twice more, finding happiness with his much younger third wife, and finding financial security in a job as assistant to the CEO of an insurance company, before dying an excruciating death from cancer in 1973.

All in all, Lady Mary Lygon’s life stands out not for its glamour, but for its tragic romantic losses. Still, there was at least one man in her life who didn’t let her down. Her friend, Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, may not necessarily be considered a great work of literature by all, but it’s undoubtedly among the most famous English novels written in the last century, and most scholars agree he not only modeled the novel’s titular estate after the ancestral seat of Lady Mary Lygon’s family, but he based the character of the glamorous, romantically doomed Lady Julia Flyte, who’s arguably the novel’s heroine, after his friend, Mary. Her life may not have amounted to much, but in the world of literature, she’ll always be immortal.

The extent to which Mary may have contributed to the character of Julia Flyte is somewhat circumstantial and seems a bit overstated in the article. This conclusion relies heavily on the cited article by Coryne Hall (“Lady Mary and the Pauper Prince,” Royalty Digest Quarterly, 4/2009) which is not available online. Waugh never suggested a connection, so far as I am aware. Indeed, he was hoping to avoid connections with individual members of the Lygon family because the setting was to a large extent based on their residence at Madresfield House. There were thoughts of a Royal marriage for Julia (as was also the case for Mary), but there was never any courtship due to religious issues. Julia’s marriage was unhappy, but this was not because she and Rex were serious alcoholics, as was the case of Mary and Vsevolod, nor did Rex take advantage of Julia’s inheritance, so far as Waugh’s narrative goes. Mary did share with Julia a successful wartime career in charity work. But aside from these few connections, it would be inaccurate to assume that she contributed to Julia to the extent that Alastair Graham contributed to Sebastian. Perhaps her contribution was more on the scale of that of her brother Hugh’s somewhat circumstantial contribution to Sebastian.




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