‘I am very glad you like B.R. I think it splendid. Daily Herald readers won’t, unless you say it is a classic. Which it is.’
So Evelyn Waugh wrote to his friend, the poet and critic John Betjeman, in May 1945. He had just published his seventh novel, Brideshead Revisited, and it was showing distinct signs of becoming a runaway success. While his previous books had all been critically acclaimed and commercial hits, Brideshead would be the novel of his that finally established him as a major writer in America, being a runaway bestseller that would make him an extremely wealthy man. All his life, he, the middle-class son of a publisher, had dreamt of being accepted on equal terms by an aristocracy that he equally venerated and despised. Now, at last, he had fulfilled his goal, even if it had been brought about by American dollars, rather than English guineas.
Seventy-five years after its publication, Brideshead Revisited remains Waugh’s most famous book, as well as his bestselling. Thanks in large part to its 1981 television adaptation with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, it has become iconic, even to those who have never read any of his other works or who have never heard of Waugh. It has ensured a steady flow of tourists to Christ Church in Oxford and Castle Howard in Yorkshire for decades – neither of which is shy about playing up the association – and a cursory search for the word ‘Brideshead’ on Instagram will immediately bring forward thousands, even tens of thousands, of pictures. Just like Nabokov’s Lolita, although less problematically, its name alone has become a brand. Is this why, then, it has become Waugh’s most misunderstood, even disliked, book?
Before it was published, Waugh was best known as a light comic novelist, something that he resented, both because it pigeonholed him and because he correctly believed that his semi-autobiographical masterpiece A Handful of Dust was considerably more accomplished than that implied. (He especially resented its commercial failure in America, later writing to Nancy Mitford that ‘they just printed a few copies, sent none out for review and let it flop.) He had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930, and had written a biography of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion in 1935, but could not achieve the standing that he longed for. Therefore, he decided to do two out-of-character things. The first would be to join the army and attempt to see active service, and the second was to write a novel that would deal explicitly with Catholicism and sin.
The first was disastrous. Waugh was nearly 40 by the time that he was promoted to captain, and hugely unpopular with his men, being perceived as arrogant and rude. He was also involved in one of the great military debacles of the war, the 1941 evacuation of Crete, which he later wrote about in his trilogy of books about his experiences, Sword of Honour. His earlier novel, however, was a happier experience. He wrote it quickly, doing thousands of words a day, and had a high belief of its quality. He referred to it only partially in jest as ‘my magnum opus’ and described it to his friend Lady Dorothy Lygon, the inspiration for the book’s Cordelia Flyte, as ‘a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high-born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves and those are mainly the demons sex and drink.’
The suspicion remained that Waugh had convinced the world to treat a frivolous book as if it was the definitive statement of a spiritual awakening
Although he wrote it in 1944, he summoned up memories of his sybaritic life as a student at Oxford, and beyond, to make its descriptions of ‘drowning in honey’ seem both authentic and compelling. Later, he would tone down some of these descriptions for a revised edition of the novel, writing in 1959 that ‘the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.’ He is not the only one who has felt similarly.
Despite its serious intentions, Brideshead Revisited begins as a comic saga. Its unworldly middle-class protagonist Charles Ryder, who owes something to both Waugh himself and the artist Felix Kelly, is seduced, metaphorically or literally depending on one’s reading of the text, by the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte, a fellow Oxford student, and then more unambiguously by his sister Julia. Ryder’s father is a bored widower who takes delight in winding his son up, and he flees to the embrace of the Flyte family and their family seat of Brideshead, a mansion based on Madresfield Court in Malvern. Yet when Sebastian succumbs to alcoholism and disappears from the narrative, Waugh shifts his attention from a study of the peccadilloes of the aristocracy into an examination of Catholic guilt, or, as the penultimate section of the book is entitled, ‘A Twitch Upon The Thread’. The narrative evolves in such a way that it seems as if Charles will marry Julia and, through her, become the owner of Brideshead itself, but fate, and God, have other ideas.
It is Waugh’s presentation of the divine, specifically in the form of a (self) righteous deity who wishes to frustrate rather than unite lovers, that has proved problematic for readers who do not share his worldview. Waugh’s friend Henry Yorke wrote of the pivotal deathbed scene, in which Sebastian and Julia’s father Lord Marchmain returns to his Catholic faith, convincing Julia to abandon Charles, that ‘I was hoping against hope that the old man wouldn’t give way’, and the New Yorker’s literary critic Edmund Wilson, hitherto an admirer of Waugh, was appalled. He described the book as a failure on every level, with Waugh’s obvious snobbery emerging ‘shameless and rampant’, and even as he mournfully and accurately prophesised that it would be a commercial success, doubted that the book’s much-vaunted Catholicism really ‘conveyed any genuine religious experience.’ Even as Catholic critics fell over themselves to praise the book, the suspicion remained that Waugh, a man who had always delighted in practical jokes and subterfuge, had pulled the greatest joke of them all: he had convinced the world to treat a frivolous book as if it was the definitive statement of a spiritual awakening.
I read Brideshead Revisited for the first time when I was about 11, a decade or so after the TV series had appeared. I still remember the circumstances in which I encountered it, lying on my bed one summer afternoon. I didn’t understand everything in it, either the language or the situations described, but it made me feel transported, as if I had travelled to a new world that I had previously only dimly perceived the existence of. Like Charles, I thrilled to the description of prelapsarian Oxford; delighted in the straight-faced tomfoolery of Mr Ryder; enjoyed the farce of the worst tutor in literature, Mr Samgrass; and, above all, revelled in the vividly evoked sense of another, richer world. While my peers lost themselves in science fiction and fantasy novels, I, precocious little prig that I was, took my escapism from Evelyn Waugh.
In this, I was only following in the tradition of the millions who had watched the 1981 television series. It had had a famously troubled production, with a script commissioned by John Mortimer that was then deemed to be unuseable and a four-month TV union’s strike necessitating a change in director. Its star Jeremy Irons took a lengthy break during filming to appear in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which, as his character appears in virtually every scene, delayed it yet further. It had a colossal budget, and was widely viewed as a risky gamble. Thankfully, it paid off spectacularly, and none other than the Guardian ranked it as the second greatest TV drama of all time in 2010, writing ‘For better or worse, we’ll never see its like again.’
Pretenders have followed – most notably Downton Abbey, a kind of defanged and sentimentalised pastiche of the genre – but Brideshead, both book and adaptation, remains the lodestar of a certain type of very English tale. The failure of a 2008 film adaptation with Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw (horribly miscast as Sebastian) and Emma Thompson reminded aficionados that the narrative itself is not tamper-proof, perhaps because of its innate flaws. Leaving the Catholicism aside, both book and series undeniably taper off around two-thirds of the way through. The relationship between Charles and Julia never feels as organic and convincing as that between Charles and Sebastian, perhaps because she represents little more than the heterosexual fulfilment of the longing between the two men. And if there is a worse and queasier piece of writing in all of Waugh’s canon than the description of how ‘it was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure’ – to depict the first time that they have sex – it is hard to recall it.
Brideshead Revisited encapsulates not just aristocratic privilege, but our communal yearning for something glorious yet unattainable
Yet three-quarters of a century on, and nearly four decades after Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons made standing around in central Oxford looking wistful with a teddy bear the height of chic, Brideshead Revisited remains one of those quintessentially iconic stories that encapsulates not just aristocratic privilege, but our communal yearning for something glorious yet unattainable. Not for nothing is one of the sections of the book called ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, nor is there much more Proustian in English literature than Charles’s comment, revisiting Brideshead during WWII, that ‘I had been there before; I knew all about it’. As tourists flock to Christ Church to take photos of the fountain of Mercury in which Anthony Blanche was dunked, and the book continues to sell in its thousands every year, it remains the classic that Waugh hoped it would be, and, in its combination of glacial beauty and lovelorn desperation, speaks to all readers, be they precocious 11-year olds or their older and hopefully wiser selves.
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