Oxford: ... Her Secret None Can Utter
Though Alastair (Graham) frequently visited Evelyn in Oxford, he was resident in London. So did Evelyn have another undergraduate lover? Most biographers follow Hollis in identifying only Pares and Graham, but according to the Oxford don A. L. Rowse, Evelyn had three lovers at Oxford. The third man was Hugh Lygon. Rowse was convinced that Evelyn was bisexual and that as a novelist he ‘made use of every little scrap of his experience — he wasted nothing.’ He remembered a conversation with Lady Sibell, eldest of the three Lygon sisters, who knew Evelyn well. ‘He was in love with my brother,’ she recalled.
Evelyn’s three lovers were of a very similar type: pale and beautiful, with the aura of Rupert Brooke. Richard and Hugh were both blond. After Oxford he fell in love with women of the same ethereal beauty: Diana Mitford, Teresa Jungman, Diana Cooper, Laura Herbert. Evelyn was drawn to Alastair and Hugh not only because of their delicate beauty and gentility, but also because they were hard-drinking and self-destructive. He liked their child-like qualities and their lack of intellectual fervour (he never fell in love with Harold Acton or Brian Howard, much as he admired their abilities). He definitely had a type: the objects of his desire were invariably richer and better-looking, though never funnier, than he was. They had a dreaminess about them and a fragility that he found irresistible. They brought out his protective instincts. Waugh was speaking equally of himself when he wrote in his biography of the theologian Ronald Knox that he was susceptible to good looks and drawn to those with an air of sadness, of ‘tristesse’. Hugh Lygon had exactly this quality. He drifted round Oxford like a lost boy, a Peter Pan who refused to grow up. Terence Greenidge remembered him carrying a teddy bear.
Greenidge, a fervent socialist, admired Hugh’s classical good looks and thought he had ‘charm and elegance’, but said that he was ‘rather empty.’ But Evelyn found him full of humour. The same things made them laugh. He loved Hugh’s eccentricities and was impressed by his lack of snobbery. Hugh, along with Robert Byron, Patrick Balfour and Brian Howard, was regarded as one of the most sexually active of the Hypocrites. Harold Acton wrote to Evelyn after the publication of A Little Learning to reprove him for singling out his homosexuality, whilst failing to mention ‘Robert’s, Patrick’s, Brian’s and Hugh’s promiscuities’. Evelyn himself called Hugh the ‘lascivious Mr Lygon.’
Tamara Abelson (later Talbot Rice) was an exotic White Russian exile, who knew Evelyn at Oxford where she was one of the rare undergraduettes. As far as she was concerned, ‘everyone knew that Evelyn and Hugh Lygon had an affair’. She reported that John Fothergill let Evelyn have rooms in the Spreadeagle at Thame at a special midweek rate so that he and Hugh could meet in private.
Not everyone approved of Evelyn’s translation to a new set. His brother Alec came to remonstrate about his dissipated lifestyle. But Evelyn was not going to give it up and go back to the loneliness that he had felt as a child. He had found a surrogate family and he had found glamour, wit and intelligence: the ‘congenial people’ for whom he had longed. No amount of lecturing from an older brother to whom he had never been particularly close was going to change anything. Among the Hypocrites he had found the love that he had been longing for all his life. He was happy.
But there was an element of bravado about his entry into the world of cigars, champagne and Charvet silk ties. In his heart he knew that he did not really belong there. Rather like one of his heroes, Toad of Toad Hall, he had a child-like quality that manifested itself in acute mood swings between hilarious gaiety and sullen gloom. He often felt that he was being treated as a specimen, even a freak. His friendships flared brightly and intensely, but sometimes burned themselves out. He was still the outsider looking in, glimpsing rather than actually passing through the low door in the wall that opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden.
Intimate as they were at Oxford, Hugh did not invite Evelyn to visit his ancestral home while they were still undergraduates. Nor was he invited to Lord Elmley’s lavish twenty-first birthday celebrations at Madresfield in August 1924.That was a high-society occasion, very different from the celebration of the same event at the Spreadeagle. Evelyn was never very close to Elmley, who had a more pronounced sense of his status than Hugh.
Evelyn took his final examinations in the summer of 1924, but since he had come up a term late, he was supposed to return to Oxford for a further term in the autumn, so as to fulfil the residence requirement necessary for him to receive his degree. He planned to share lodgings with Hugh Lygon in Merton Street. They were going to take an expensive little house next to the tennis courts. With no exams to worry about, it would be a term of ‘pure pleasure’ and ‘comparative seclusion.’
The plan was aborted with the news that Evelyn had obtained a third class result. His scholarship was not renewed for the further term and his father did not think that a third was worth the cost of the extra term. Evelyn therefore left Oxford without completing his degree.
Of Evelyn’s three Oxford lovers, Hugh Lygon is the one about whom he was most reticent in A Little Learning. The name Lygon only appears fleetingly in the book. An aura of concealment hangs over that first naming of Hugh in the passage where Quiller-Couch’s line ‘Know you her secret none can utter?’ is quoted, together with the mysterious remark that it is not given to all Oxford’s sons ‘either to seek or find this secret, but it was very near the surface in 1922’. What was the secret none could utter? In the context of an aspiring writer and a beautiful young aristocrat, could it have been something reminiscent of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas? ‘I am the Love that dare not speak its name.’
Hugh Lygon’s name appears last in Evelyn’s list of his fellow Hypocrites: ‘Hugh Lygon, Elmley’s younger brother, always just missing the happiness he sought, without ambition, unhappy in love, a man of the greatest sweetness; and many others ... ’ The wistfulness and the drift into ellipses suggest that something is being left unsaid. Why was it, when Evelyn could be comparatively open about Richard Pares and Alastair Graham, that his love for Hugh dared not speak its name? We may find an answer when Hugh’s family story is known.
From the book Mad World by Paula Byrne. Copyright © 2010 by Paula Byrne. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.