Byrne, the author of “Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson” and “Jane Austen and the Theatre,” embarked on “Mad World” determined to correct what she considered to be Waugh’s persistent misrepresentation “as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist.” She marshals friends’ testimonials and previously unpublished letters to resurrect both his literary and personal standing.
In the course of her research, Byrne realized that “his relationship with a single family: the Lygons of Madresfield ... provided a key that could unlock the door into Waugh’s inner world.”
Waugh, like the narrator pf “Brideshead,” Charles Ryder, was born into a middle-class family in 1903. His father worked in publishing. Both attended second-tier boarding schools, and then Oxford in the early 1920s on scholarship. Waugh was unhappy there until a friend introduced him to the Hypocrites, a drinking club whose elite members were high-spirited in every sense of the word.