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What is one to suppose about a novel that even its author decided was too much? “This novel … lost me such esteem as I once enjoyed among my contemporaries,” Evelyn Waugh wrote about the book he once called his magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited, which was first published 75 years ago. “Its theme,” he continued, “was perhaps presumptuously large.”
Evelyn Waugh is my favourite writer. I was given a copy of his first novel, Decline & Fall, published in 1928, when I was 13. I thought it then a masterpiece, and I still think that today. Yet by comparison to Brideshead, it is virtually forgotten. Few celebrated 90 years of Decline & Fall in 2018, though it is witty, charming and absurd. (By comparison, before coronavirus struck, a Brideshead Festival was planned for June at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, where the 1980s television adaptation of the novel was filmed.)
Daily, I am reminded of scenes from Decline & Fall, particularly the sports day, at which a pupil, Lord Tangent (son of Lady Circumference) is shot by one of his teachers and eventually dies — though the narrator never tells us this. Llanabba Castle, the school at which Waugh’s protagonist Paul Pennyfeather goes to teach, is not far from my mind as an occasional writer on educational matters: “Llanabba hasn’t a good name in the profession. We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly … School is pretty bad.”
Alas, it is tortured, too serious. Dare I say, it is dry
Lovers of this kind of writing will enjoy Waugh’s friend Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love, in which the heroine Linda Radlett dies without any fuss at all: “The doctors who said that Linda ought never to have another child were not such idiots after all. It killed her.” These writers wrote sparingly, viciously, hilariously.
Waugh’s second novel, Vile Bodies, was published in 1930, and written during a period of particular turmoil in the author’s life. It too is unfairly eclipsed by Brideshead. In September 1929, Waugh filed for divorce from his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, “She-Evelyn”, as she was sometimes known, and at about the midpoint of the novel, the tone changes, from one of whimsy to a deeper fear about the world.
The socialite Agatha Runcible finds herself locked out of her family home, so a hanger-on, Miss Brown, takes the group to her home, which turns out to be 10 Downing Street. Miss Brown’s father, the prime minister, is perturbed to find Miss Runcible — this “sort of dancing Hottentot woman half-naked” — in her Hawaiian costume at breakfast. “How shy-making!” exclaims Agatha to the mystified premier. Then came Waugh’s Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust, Scoop in 1938, and Put Out More Flags in 1942.
And in 1945, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. After six cracking novels in a row, a dedicated reader might imagine that this would be just as funny. Alas, it is tortured, too serious. Dare I say, it is dry — not the writing, though this is sometimes overbearing and schmaltzy, but the content.
Many will recognise aspects of the aesthete Anthony Blanche — thought to be modelled on Waugh’s friends Brian Howard and Harold Acton — who, in the second chapter bores Charles Ryder to sleep, going on about Sebastian Flyte in a manner of a pseudo-well-informed but social-climbing man at a book party after a glass of white wine might, desperately clinging to his one-time acquaintance of the host.
Brideshead isn’t a book for a Sunday afternoon in the sun, or for a medium-length train journey
“It’s when one gets to the parents that a bottomless pit opens,” he goes on. “My dear, such a pair.” His soliloquy rather sets the tone. Rereading Brideshead recently, I couldn’t help but feel I had met many Blanches over the years.
I am not sure that a novel described by its author as a “magnum opus” is ever that. In parts, Brideshead is beautifully written. It tells a story that, as an interviewer of the aristocracy, I am naturally drawn to. I love the descriptions of Brideshead Castle, and how Sebastian talks about his house: “It’s where my family live.”
As Charles notes a line later, “I felt, momentarily, an ominous dull at the words he used — not, ‘that is my house’, but ‘it’s where my family live’.” It is just the sort of material I would love to record. The scholarly discussion one can have about which house Brideshead Castle is meant to be is rewarding too.
In the 1959 preface to a new edition of the book, Waugh wrote: “It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house. It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay like the monasteries in the sixteenth century.” I think of this often, but it is not becoming of a novel that a preface to a revision is what is most memorable.
Brideshead isn’t a book for a Sunday afternoon in the sun, or for a medium-length train journey. It is overly preoccupied with Catholicism. Even Waugh’s friend, the late Christopher Sykes, a cradle Catholic, worried about this. “I have often wondered what I would make of it if I was not a Catholic,” he wrote in his 1975 biography of Waugh. “The book [is] … deficient because solely addressed to believing Catholics and admirers of the Catholic Church. The general reader is left in the cold.”
Had I begun with Brideshead, I don’t know whether my love affair with Waugh would have ever started
Kingsley Amis, interviewed as part of the BBC’s Arena programme about Waugh in 1987, identifies one of the novel’s troubles — that “the nobs are seen uncritically, not so much that they get away with behaving badly, as they get away with behaving very boringly. Every time I read it, I say surely there must be more to Sebastian Flyte than that he is rich, aristocratic and Roman Catholic, but there isn’t.” In Brideshead, the overriding feeling is that surely the punchline is to come. It never does.
Perhaps Brideshead cannot be judged against the author’s earlier work. That Vile Bodies changes tack midway through suggests that the author did so, too. At its end, Agatha Runcible is sent to a nursing home in Wimpole Street, where in time she dies after driving out of control at a motor race. In 1930, Waugh converted to Catholicism, and in 1936 married Laura Herbert, a half-cousin of his first wife. He told people he had about six children, after one of his seven died in infancy. He died on Easter Day 1966, after Mass, from a heart attack.
Had I begun with Brideshead, I don’t know whether my love affair with Waugh would have ever started. I’m not sure I’d have jokingly described myself as the “Waugh correspondent” for the newspaper I worked for, or tortured my undergraduate tutor through a dissertation on his work. What a disappointment it would have been — not at all the thing for a teenager, or anyone seeking solace in literature.
I wrote on its seventieth anniversary that Brideshead was a bit of a bore. If anything, it has matured a little too much with age.
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