Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), regarded by many as the leading satirical novelist of his day, studied at Hertford. Among Waugh’s most popular works is Brideshead Revisited (1945) in which he depicted the Oxford world of the late 1920s. It was made into a highly successful television series in 1981 and a fab movie in 2008, much of which was filmed in Oxford.
Both Waugh’s own eroticism and that of Brideshead is complex, brilliantly reflecting the paradoxical Oxford dynamic which simultaneously encouraged and reviled eroticism between men. Waugh had at least three same-sex affairs at Oxford during the early 1920s and then married and fathered six children. The eroticised relationship between Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder in Brideshead is handled frankly and openly with several characters recognising homoerotic desire as an English habit, an unremarkable phase of erotic development in an all-male university world.
Did the homoeroticism of Brideshead reflect the reality of 1920s Oxford? No, it was too tame! The cultivated effeminacy, aestheticism, and open homoeroticism that had thrived at Oxford in the 1890s had been repressed following the arrest and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895. In the mid-1920s, the vogue returned with a hedonistic vengeance. Again, queer became chic, even for many who were not naturally so.
The focal point of the real ‘Brideshead’ Oxford was the Hypocrites Club, situated above a bicycle shop in a ramshackle house at 31 St Aldate’s (sadly, the building has long been demolished). Here, members danced with each other (despite an official notice that men could ‘prance but not dance’), drag parties became de rigueur, and, as Tom Driberg recalled years later, Waugh and a companion could roll on a sofa, ‘tongues licking each other’s tonsils’. Members, the crème de la crème of Bright Young Things including Waugh (who briefly served as secretary of the club), Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Alfred Duggan, Anthony Powell, and Robert Byron, fell in and out of bed with each other. Waugh described the atmosphere at the Hypocrites in its heyday as one of ‘uninhibited revelry’. Members became ‘notorious not only for drunkenness but for flamboyance of dress and manner which was in some cases patently homosexual’. The frolics and ‘effeminate’ fashions of the set hit the national papers. Too much for the University authorities, the Hypocrites was closed down by the proctors in May 1924. ‘What a blank Oxford will be’ lamented Robert Byron.
D. J. Taylor (2007) Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918-1940 (London: Chatto & Windus).
Humphrey Carpenter (1989) The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Photograph: Victorian party at the Hypocrites, 8th March 1924.