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AN Wilson on Brideshead Revisited

Blog | By AN Wilson | Oct 14, 2021

40 years after the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's classic book, a new film is being made with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett as the Marchmains. AN Wilson returns to Brideshead...

Evelyn Waugh’s preface to Brideshead Revisited, written fifteen years after its original publication, speaks of it as a book concerned both with ephemeral and with eternal matters. Ephemeral, as “a souvenir of the Second War”. Written at a time when English country houses appeared to be in irreversible decline, the book was seen by Waugh, when he looked back, as an elegy for a lost aristocratic England whose stupendous seats and well-crafted estates would surely be made obsolete by the coming of the egalitarian postwar ethos.

The eternal theme of the novel, by contrast, was, Waugh believed, “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”. It is hard to imagine a more durable or unchanging theme. The whirligig of Time, however, brings in strange reverses. As Waugh wrote in his 1959 preface, such houses as the fictitious Brideshead today, if they had survived the mid-twentieth century demolitions – would have been restored by loving and expert hands and visited annually by tens of thousands of tourists. Nor is the aristocracy of Great Britain, however you define it, extinct, as might have been predicted in 1944. True, unelected peers no longer sit in the House of Lords, but the upper class has not gone away. Many of the landed families are richer in the early twenty-first century than ever before, and they continue, many of them, to occupy the “stately homes of England”.

The Roman Catholic Church, to which Waugh was so fervent a convert, has, by contrast, changed in ways which he would have found bewildering. Even before he died in 1966, having attended Easter Mass according to the old rite, Waugh was heartbroken and enraged by the liturgical changes of his adopted church. The remarriage of divorced Catholics, however, was at that date unthinkable. Today, the Pope himself has suggested that there are circumstances in which it might be permissible, and emphasised that there are many grounds for questioning the notion of the “validity” of a marriage.

Charles Ryder, the narrator of this story, makes an injudicious marriage while being a Protestant agnostic, and then falls in love with the Catholic Lady Julia Flyte, the sister of his best friend from Oxford days . The love of Julia and Charles, however, is doomed by the operation of divine grace. Julia has made a reckless marriage herself, to the financier, politician and wideboy, Rex Mottram. They married outside the church. In Waugh’s story, Charles and Julia could never make a licit Catholic marriage unless both their partners were dead.

“The worse I am”, Julia says, in one of the great set-piece speeches of this baroque novel, “the more I need God. I can’t shut myself off from his mercy. This is what it would mean, starting a life without him… I saw today there was one thing unforgiveable – the bad thing I was on the point of doing [ie marrying Charles in a registrar’s office] that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s”.

There are many Catholics in the world today who have divorced and remarried. Some of them have done so in defiance of the Church’s canon law. In the case of many others, the mercy of the church has enabled them both to practise their faith and to enjoy the love of their spouse. The situation of Charles and Julia in today’s church would surely enable them to live together and to receive the sacraments. Julia, after all, married a man – Rex Mottram – who already had a wife living, and so, by the strict tenets of canon law she was not in fact married at all. She was quite free to marry Charles in a Catholic ceremony, were his first marriage to be annulled – as was Evelyn Waugh’s. Since, like Waugh, Charles had married before becoming a Catholic, and in circumstances which made it clear he did not have a Catholic view of the sacrament of marriage, he would surely today have been granted an annulment.

So, Brideshead Revisited is a period piece. The aristocratic way of life which Waugh believed to be doomed, still continues, albeit in modified form. The seemingly immutable Holy Mother Church has shifted some of her sterner stances.

This in no way spoils our enjoyment of the novel , which many would consider Waugh’s masterpiece. Those of us who love his work, and reread it often, must often have felt torn between appreciation of the brittle comedies of his youth and young manhood, and the august achievement of the Sword of Honourtrilogy, one of the undoubted works of literary genius, in any language, to emerge from the Second World War. The early comedies, owing so much to Ronald Firbank, but so distinctively themselves, make us laugh aloud. The sports day at Llanabba Castle in Decline and Fall, the oafish customs inspectors in Vile Bodies, confiscating Dante’s Inferno because it sounds foreign and therefore pornographic, the hatefulness of the Connolly children in Put Out More Flags, these are crystalline comic vignettes which are cruelly and perfectly constructed. The Sword of Honour books retain the comedy (who can forget Apthorpe’s thunderbox?) but follow the themes of all great literature, love, war, death, with unmatched seriousness.

Brideshead Revisited, lush, colour-splashed, romantic, comes between these two bodies of work. It is Waugh’s Antony and Cleopatra. It is his richest, and most passionate book. : passionate about male love, about the love between men and women, about the centrality of beauty in human life. Charles Ryder, the only son of an eccentric widowed father (one of Waugh’s finest comic creations) goes up to Oxford in 1923. In many ways, as he says, it is an Oxford unchanged since the days of John Henry Newman in the 1840s. Ryder’s blameless, dull life resembles that of Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall . When a drunken revel in the quad outside his room culminates in Lord Sebastian Flyte vomiting through his open window, we might suppose we are in that first novel’s identical world of farce. The incident, however, is as imaginatively decisive as Robert de Saint Loup’s introduction of Proust’s narrator to personal knowledge of the Guermantes family. Falling in love with Sebastian, and adopting the louche ways of his decadent “set”, Charles was seen by the peevish first reviewers of the book, above all by Edmund Wilson in the United States and by J.B.Priestley in England, as a mere social climber. Charles, however, like Waugh himself, is not a common arriviste, like Proust’s Mme Verdurin. He was a romantic, and like Yeats, “chose for theme/Traditional sanctity and loveliness”. The characters in this novel, enchanted pierrots in an exquisite painted baroque theatre, move solely in scenes of beauty. In Oxford, “everywhere, on cobble and gravel and lawn, the leaves were falling, and in college gardens the smoke of the bonfires joined the river mist, drifting across the grey walls”. In Venice, where Charles and Sebastian visit the disgraced exile, Lord Marchmain, “I was drowning in honey”, and his sightseeing expeditions with Lord Marchmain’s mistress Carla allow him, “a night at the Corombona palace such as Byron might have known, and another Byronic night fishing for scampi in the shallows of Chioggia”.

When Ryder grows up, if that phrase is entirely appropriate for this celebration of immature and raw emotional life, he makes his name as a painter of country houses. (In the great ITV adaptation of the novel, in 1981, directed by Charles Sturridge,they used the paintings of the sublime Felix Kelly; but one senses that Ryder also owes something to Rex Whistler) . Some of the book’s purplest passages are love songs to Brideshead simply as a work of architecture. Turning from the feminine clutter and piety of Lady Marchmain’s sitting room to his “discovery of the Baroque”, Ryder finds himself luxuriating in “the coved and coffered roof, the columns and entablature of the central hall, in the august masculine atmosphere of a better age”. The most beautiful of the “set piece” evocations of place, and its rooted history, is put into the mouth of the dying Lord Marchmain. The approach of the Second World War compels the old reprobate to return, with Carla, to England, and, his wife being dead, he can come back to his ancestral lands at Brideshead. “We were knights then, barons since Agincourt, the larger honours came with the Georges. They came the last and they’ll go the first, the barony goes on. When all of you are dead, Julia’s son will be called by the name his fathers bore before the fat days, the days of wool shearing and the wide corn lands, the days of growth and building, when the marshes were drained and the waste land brought under the plough, when one built the house, his son added the dome, his son spread the wings and dammed the river”…

The whole book aches with the sense of an aesthetically literate, militarily honourable past being encroached upon by a cruder, demotic age. Ryder’s junior officer, Hooper, in whose baffled company he “revisits” Brideshead during the war can not see the point of the great house at all. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense – one family in a place this size. What’s the use of it?”

As the soldiers bury their litter before breaking camp, Ryder imagines a future archaeologist finding “a people of advanced culture, capable of an elaborate draining system and the construction of permanent highways, overrun by a race of the lowest type”. Hooper, with his flat Midlands accent, became “a symbol of Young England”. Ryder finds him not merely personally irritating. He is possessed by rage at the thought of the First World War in which the flower of the aristocracy died in the battlefields of Flanders and northern France: “these men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesmen”. Worse even than Hooper, however, because so much more powerful, was Rex Mottram, Julia’s husband, the vulgar money man, with no sensitivity to things of the spirit, no taste, no notion that his thrusting embrace of the future with all its brashness will destroy something of ireeoverable value. Even the art of painting, which Ryder so patiently and passionately pursues, is overwhelmed by the cruel march of time. Cordelia Flyte, one of the most deftly-drawn figures in the book, (the convent girl not really at home in the cloister or in the world) asks the narrator, “Charles, Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?” “Great bosh”. “Oh! I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try and criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist and snubs to her”.

I single out Cordelia as a character deftly drawn, but the novel bursts with the life of so many unforgettable figures. They all ring true. Even the walk-on parts such as the Quartering Commandant, who regrets the vandalistic behaviour of the soldiers billeted at Brideshead, or the priest who administers the last rites to Lord Marchmain, Fr McKay, Glasgow Irish, are drawn with exquisite economy and are immediately recognizable, just as a great master of portraiture like John Singer Sargent, for example, was able to capture likenesses not only in his finished “swagger” portraits but also in sketches , using only a few perfectly sure pencil lines.

Waugh’s own swagger portraits in this book, his full-blown painted figures, are without parallel in his oeuvre : above all, the two siblings, Sebastian and Julia Flyte, Charles Ryder’s two loves. It was a highwire act of prodigious skill not to make Sebastian as cloying as his malicious friend Anthony Blanche (“Antoine”) wants Charles to find him. The young Sebastian with Aloysius the teddy bear is adored by everyone – barbers, Oxford scouts, the jeunesse d’ore. The ruined |Sebastian in Morocco, eeking out an existence loosely attached to Catholic religious houses, could be equally annoying, since he possesses only what “Antoine” calls “the fatal English gift of charm” and, an even riskier quality to convey in a novel, holiness. But it would be a harsh reader who did not see why Charles loved him, just as it would be strange not to fall in love with Julia.

The suddenness with which Charles and Julia come together during the Atlantic storm, and their two happy years together as lovers, make one wish they would simply settle for a life of “sin” such as Lord Marchmain has done with (my own personal favourite character in the novel) Carla. All Carla’s observations, about love, sex, and religious practice, deserve to be memorized. And she is that rarity in the Waugh oeuvre, a thoroughly decent sort.

Given the solemnity of the theme, “the operation of divine grace”, you might have expected Waugh’s humour to have failed him in this book, but even the hilarity of the early novels is outshone by the comic characters in this one. Charles’s father, Anthony Blanche, or the awful Samgrass take their place among the immortals with Dr Fagan and Captain Grimes. Even the figures whom Waugh and Ryder hate – Hooper and |Mottram – are funny. And even non-Catholics have laughed at Cordelia’s hoodwinking Rex into believing that there are sacred monkeys in the Vatican.