“Et in Arcadia Ego”: Brideshead Revisited and Oxford’s 1920s Gay Scene

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1946) is the British gay novel, along with E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1971). But as Maurice is set in The Other Place rather than between our own Dreaming Spires, I am naturally inclined to prefer Brideshead. Set in Oxford during the 1920s, it is Waugh’s personal reflection on the aristocratic gay scene of the era. But how accurate is it? Well, whilst some elements are accurate, Waugh published this novel in 1946, over 20 years before homosexuality was legalised in the UK. As such, the gay scene was more alluded to rather than explicitly described.

Image of an aesthete from The Isis, November 1923.
Image by an aesthete (The Isis, 28th November 1923)

When using Brideshead as an exploration of Oxford’s gay subculture, the main focus is on characters like Sebastian Flyte or Anthony Blanche, the “‘aesthete’ par excellence” who “in languishing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng” of people in Christ Church Meadows,[1] a scene inspired by Oxford’s most well-known aesthete of the time, Harold Acton. This idea of an “aesthete” is key for understanding the gay identity in Oxford between the wars; the “aesthete”, as the word suggests, was concerned with the arts, fashion, and generally having a good time. Sebastian, for example, was enamoured by the Botanic Gardens and their aesthetic brilliance, saying: “There’s a beautiful arch there and more different kinds of ivy than I knew existed. I don’t know where I should be without the Botanic Gardens”.[2]

The “hearties”, contrastingly, were focused on sports and girls. While it was admitted that there were homosexual elements to the “hearties”, they were too masculine for it to be an issue and the likes of Sebastian Flyte with his “epicene beauty” could never have fitted in.[3] The “keen individualism” of the aesthetes meant that, whilst not all aesthetes were gay, it was rather more acceptable than amongst the “hearties”.[4] This individualism is part of what makes Brideshead so memorable; Sebastian’s teddy-bear, Anthony Blanche’s caricatured speech, Charles’s room decorations, and the universal alcoholism of their group.

Illustrating Brideshead Revisited, the Hypocrites' Club fancy dress parties.
One of the Hypocrites’ Club fancy dress parties (Unknown Author, Public Domain).

What these aesthetes got up to went far beyond what is mentioned in Brideshead, although by all accounts the description of Blanche as wearing “a smooth chocolate-brown suit with loud white stripes, suède shoes, a large bow-tie [and] yellow, wash-leather gloves” seems entirely apt.[5] What fails to get a mention in Brideshead is the Hypocrites’ Club, “the premises of which were secured in a slummy part of town and where artistic undergraduates were able to gather, drink nothing more expensive than beer, and discuss their pet subjects most informally”.[6] This hedonistic dream of a club, whose St Aldates venue has sadly since been torn down, was extremely homoerotic in nature, with members like Harold Acton, Alaistair Hugh Graham, and Evelyn Waugh himself being open about their sexuality. See, for example, the photo that Graham sent to Waugh, with the caption “come and drink with me somewhere”. In most respects, this Club put our beloved Plush to shame. Beyond drinking and putting on gender-defying fancy dress, as the group photo above demonstrates, the group also produced a film. The Scarlet Woman (1924) was, as with Brideshead, mostly concerned with the connection between homosexuality and Catholicism, and demonstrates the group’s lighthearted attitude to the arts at this time. The film was not released publicly, unsurprising given the implication that the Dean of Balliol was trying to convert the then Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) both to Catholicism and homosexuality.[7] The Hypocrites also had a wider, more public presence, with the publication of The Oxford Broom magazine, as well as Harold Acton’s 1923 poetry collection, Aquarium.[8]

Brideshead Revisited's author, Evelyn Waugh, received this photograph from Graham.
“Come and drink with me somewhere”: photograph sent by Graham to Evelyn Waugh (Evelyn Waugh Papers, Public Domain)

As we discover in Brideshead, however, Oxford was not completely the “Arcadia” that Charles and Sebastian talk of, especially not for those like Blanche who fell more into what would now be described as “camp”. At one point in the novel, Anthony and Charles go to dinner alone together “to Thame…there is a delightful hotel there, which luckily doesn’t appeal to the Bullingdon”.[9] This is more than likely a reference to “the lavish Spread Eagle Hotel in Thame, an upmarket town about thirteen miles from Oxford and a favorite hangout of Oxford aesthetes”.[10] Waugh was personally familiar with this hotel, as he often rented rooms there with his partners, Richard Pares and Alaistair Graham. This seems to have been a result of a hostile environment both from other students and College authorities. As it says in Brideshead, Blanche in an Oxford bar “drew every eye, outraged, upon him” to which he responded “How the students stare!”. In terms of College authorities, it was Balliol’s Dean, Francis “Sligger” Urquhart, who ended up shutting down the Hypocrites’ Club in 1925 after witnessing several of his students dressing up as women and nuns wearing vermilion lipstick.[11]

There is one particular story from Anthony Blanche which demonstrates the conflict between the aesthetes and the hearties, specifically members of the infamous Bullingdon Club. Blanche says:

I saw a mob of about twenty terrible young men, and do you know what they were chanting? “We want Blanche. We want Blanche,” in a king of litany…About six of them came into my room, the rest stood mouthing outside. My dear, they looked too extraordinary. They had been at one of their ridiculous club dinners…Then one of them, rather a juicy little piece, accused me of unnatural vices. “My dear,” I said, “I may be inverted but I am not insatiable. Come back when you are alone”.[12]

Inverting a common practice called “ducking”, rather than letting the Bullingdon members throw him in the Mercury fountain in Christ Church’s Tom Quad, he reminds them that “if you knew anything about sexual psychology you would know that nothing could give me keener pleasure than to be manhandled by you meaty boys”.[13] Instead Blanche walks into the fountain and invites them in. This then makes the hunters feel hunted, and the hearties leave him alone, mumbling to themselves about how they essentially won. It is true that Blanche’s story here is intentionally comical and is an example of Waugh ridiculing the heteronormative homophobes which populated the likes of the Bullingdon Club. But, Blanche seems genuinely shaken by the event rather than triumphant, and this anxiety likely stems from Waugh’s own memories, whether they be of his own experiences or his friends’. While it remains an entertaining anecdote, and one which is important for Blanche’s character development, it also demonstrates the ritualistic homophobic abuse that the aesthetes of the Hypocrites’ Club faced.

The relationship between Blanche and the Bullingdons also reveals the interesting dynamic between the Bullingdon, and other such “hearties”, and the Hypocrites’. As we learn in Brideshead, Sebastian and Anthony both went to Eton and their friends are described as “Etonian freshmen, mild, elegant, detached young men who…noticed Sebastian and then myself with a lack of curiosity which seemed to say: ‘We should not dream of being so offensive as to suggest that you never met us before’”.[14] This is a reflection of how much of the Hypocrites’ Club was made up of aristocratic figures who already knew each other from school. While it is true that this was the Avant-Garde, they were far from being completely progressive. As Brooks puts it:

“Still largely playgrounds for affluent and otherwise advantaged young people to occupy themselves as they pleased, both [Oxford and Cambridge] existed as collections of cloistered communities that revered intimate same-sex (overwhelmingly male) bonding as a superior means of elite social organization and mode of nurturing a lifelong tribal identity.”[15]

While I’m sure that you’re all surprised to find out that Oxford is and has been the home of the establishment for centuries, this does make an interesting point about the group that, in the novel, Ryder was a part of and, in real life, the comparatively poor Waugh joined. Both in Brideshead and in real life, many of the Oxford associates become tabloid stars, called the “Bright Young Things” in real life and the basis of Waugh’s earlier novel, Vile Bodies (1930), and they took an active stance against the workers during the 1926 General Strike. It is important to realise that, while it is true that these figures were sexually liberated for their time, they remained a part of the political and social establishment.

Overall, while Brideshead Revisited touches upon many of Waugh’s own experiences within Oxford’s gay subculture, it also misses the vast majority of it out. Rather than the romanticised vision of eating strawberries and drinking champagne under a tree, the members of Oxford’s Hypocrites’ Club spent their time partying, defying gender norms, and drinking far too much. This caused both local and national scandal, often making the Club’s members targets of ridicule and bullying, both by other students and Colleges. But it is a shame. While the antics of Oscar Wilde are relatively well known, the Hypocrites have gone from notoriety to obscurity. To learn more about Oxford’s queer history, I can’t recommend Ross Brook’s website Queer Oxford enough, where you can find a number of walking tours; but, the next time you’re walking through Christ Church Meadows and look up at the Meadows Building, just remember that a century ago you could have been greeted by a man in a strange suit shouting:

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all

Enacted on this same divan or bed;

I who have sat by Thebes below the wall

And walked among the lowest of the dead.[16]

[1] Waugh, E. Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, (London: Penguin, 2011) pp.39-40

[2] Brideshead, p.41

[3] Brideshead, p.39

[4] Greenidge, T. Degenerate Oxford? A Critical Study of Modern University Life (London: Chapman & Hall,, 1930) p.72. This is a contemporary analysis of different social groups in Oxford in the 1920s.

[5] Brideshead, p.39

[6] Degenerate Oxford, p.75

[7] The film is available to watch at: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-scarlet-woman-1924-online

[8] Unfortounately, The Oxford Broom is only available in the Weston Library reading room, but Aquarium (London: Duckworth, 1923) is available via Project Gutenburg.

[9] Brideshead, p.58

[10] Brooks, R. ‘Beyond Brideshead: The Male Homoerotics of 1930s Oxford’. Journal of British Studies (2020:59) pp.821–56.

[11] Lebedoff, D. The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War. (London: Penguin, 2008). p.30

[12] Brideshead, p.60

[13] Brideshead, p.63

[14] Brideshead, p.39

[15] ‘Beyond Brideshead’

[16] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land

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