Fact or fiction: Famous literary homes in Britain

Highclere Castle in Berkshire, location for Downton Abbey. Credit: Shutterstock

75 years since the publication of Brideshead Revisited, we tour the ‘real’ Brideshead, and stop off at other locations thought to have inspired the most famous homes in literature

Words: Eleanor Doughty

The tale of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s iconic novel about the English aristocracy, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is one as old as time. Middle-class boy meets charming aristocrat, falls in love… to say any more would spoil it. But Brideshead is more than just a story about Charles Ryder. It is a story of a house, Brideshead Castle.

Today, Brideshead is best associated with one house: Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, home of the Howard family for over 300 years. Built by Sir John Vanbrugh, it took over a century to complete. In 1978 television production company Granada asked to film an adaptation of Waugh’s novel at the house, for Castle Howard was the closest house they could find to Brideshead.

Granada’s production of Brideshead Revisited aired in 1981. Credit: Granada/ITV/Rex Features

A Baroque house was needed, and few had the necessary dome, says Dr Christopher Ridgway, curator at Castle Howard. “That ruled Castle Howard in.” Waugh had visited the house in 1937, but it wasn’t until publication of his friend Christopher Sykes’ biography in 1976 that the connection was made. “I fancy that a strong contribution was made by Castle Howard,” wrote Sykes. And so Castle Howard became Brideshead for an 11-episode series in 1981. For so many of the 220,000 people that visit Castle Howard every year, Brideshead is real.

One might presume that if Brideshead was Castle Howard, then the Flyte family of the novel – the Marquess and Marchioness of Marchmain and their children – must be the Howards. But Waugh had in mind the Lygon family of Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, having known the two elder sons – William, Viscount Elmley, and the Hon. Hugh Lygon – from Oxford. They had four sisters – Ladies Lettice, Sibell, Mary and Dorothy – and a younger brother, the Hon. Richard, whose granddaughter lives at Madresfield today.

Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, location for the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. Credit: Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock

Waugh first visited Madresfield in 1931, shortly after William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, had been exiled to Europe, having been exposed as a homosexual by his brother-in-law the 2nd Duke of Westminster. Lord Beauchamp’s exile – and his wife’s departure to her brother’s estate – had left the children with the run of the medieval manor.

Life at Madresfield was grand. The front doors did not have locks on them, for the house had never been left unoccupied, and the family travelled from Madresfield to their house on Belgrave Square by private train. Lord Beauchamp addressed his children by their titles, but read kindly to them. Lady Beauchamp spent her time correcting “the titles by which she was addressed on the envelopes of that day’s post”, Jane Mulvagh explains in Madresfield: the Real Brideshead. She disliked guests, and only “liked babies until they are two”, according to Lady Sibell. She was, her granddaughter said, “one pheasant short of a brace”. And so the dysfunctional Flytes were born.

Similarities ran deep between the Flytes and the Lygons. The heirs Elmley and Bridey both married widows, while Lady Mary ‘Maimie’ Lygon, a potential wife of the future George VI, had, thanks to her father’s scandal, a “faint shadow on her that unfitted her for the highest honours”, as Waugh writes of Lady Julia Flyte.

Both Hugh Lygon and Sebastian Flyte carried a teddy bear around Oxford, while Lady Beauchamp found a twin in the “pious” Lady Marchmain. Waugh’s friends spotted the connections. Nancy Mitford put it simply: “It is the Lygon family.”

Read the full feature in the July/August 2020 issue of BRITAIN.