The wicked Oxford drinking club that inspired Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh - Bettmann
Evelyn Waugh - Bettmann

The Hypocrites Club was a drinking club of Oxford undergraduates that managed to survive for three or so years in the early 1920s. Its members met in a “ramshackle building” far enough down St Aldate’s to be, as one Hypocrite put it, “somewhat outside the accepted boundaries of Oxford social life”. The clubmen’s hypocrisy consisted in their flagrant violation of their ironic motto, a line from a Pindaric ode: “Water is best.”

Oxford has never been short of drinking clubs. Why does one so short-lived deserve as lengthy a biography as David Fleming has given them? There is, to start with, the fact that the club counted as members three novelists of great originality (Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Anthony Powell) and one man with a claim to the be the 20th century’s greatest travel writer, Robert Byron. There were others – Brian Howard and Harold Acton – who never quite delivered on their early literary promise but did their bit for modern literature by providing Waugh with the inspiration for Anthony Blanche, the memorably camp aesthete from Brideshead Revisited.

But is this enough to justify revisiting that much visited literary territory yet again? Fleming proposes that the Hypocrites were special. Although they ran the political gamut from “bone-dry Conservative” (Waugh) to “firmly on the left” (the journalist Claud Cockburn), they had in common a sensibility: independent-minded, rebellious, argumentative and intolerant of cant.

Fleming begins the story of the short-lived club with an account of the cross-dressing escapade that firmed the resolve of the Dean of Balliol College to shut it down. There is a good deal of public schoolboy odiousness to get through in these early chapters. Even readers au fait with the milieu will struggle a little to forgive the Hypocrites their preposterous adolescent self-assurance as they arrive at Oxford, convinced they have nothing to learn, least of all from their tutors. The Hypocrites were seldom nice. Even those, such as Waugh, who graduated from youthful hedonism to Catholic devoutness, took little interest in what Fleming calls “the mundane side of Christian life that recommended routinely being kind to the people one met.”

The Hypocrites enjoyed having opinions, the more outrageous the better. Robert Byron, the most flamboyantly opinionated of the lot, was a marvellous hater. His unaccountable dislikes (Hamlet, Keats, Mughal architecture, the Roman Catholic Church) only served to make his equally unaccountable likes (the Greek Orthodox Church, Edwin Lutyens’s architecture in New Delhi) more striking.

The Hypocrites’ fine aesthetic sensibility seems to have inured them to the vulgar attractions of fascism. Acton despaired of contemporaries who thought Hitler “a misunderstood idealist”, and Byron declared grandly, after an encounter with the Nazis, that “there is no room in the world for them and me, and one has to go.”

Fleming allows the Hypocrites to be their own worst critics, quoting the damning judgement of Father Rothschild (a character in Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies) on the “Bright Young Things” of the 1920s: “all they seem to do is to play the fool.” Fleming is, like most decent people, a little guilty about the pleasures of Waugh’s Black Mischief (“an uncomfortable book to read today”).

He also has the grace to be embarrassed by the arrogant indifference shown by many Hypocrites to the need of their less patrician friends, including Waugh, to make a living, and their staggering shamelessness about sponging off harder-working friends and relations. His honesty about the Hypocrites’ least appealing features makes it more credible when he argues they were, nevertheless, “not, fundamentally, frivolous or idle”.

For a book likely to be consulted largely by aficionados as a reference, the editorial apparatus is disappointingly sparse. The index has a long entry for “Eton”, but none for “Rugby” and “Winchester” despite their being the schools of the founding Hypocrites; “Communism” appears, but puzzlingly not “fascism”, and there is no mention there of that formative event, the Munich agreement.

Fleming’s prose is, at its best, workmanlike, unflashy and blandly informative. Nearly every quotation has the inevitable effect of making the lack of distinction in his own prose painfully apparent, but that is the occupational hazard of the literary historian.

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