Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited

My reading Brideshead Revisited (1945) was not inspired by any viewing of the 2008 film adaptation. Let’s just make that clear. And now that I’ve read the book and watched the trailer to the 2008 film adaptation, I’m certain I’ll never watch it. It looks atrocious and like the makers took some characters and made their own story about them. I’m really not a fan of most film adaptations (there are, of course, many exceptions), especially these days when producers and directors seem to be grasping at — here it is again — a beautiful, showy style rather than a nice meeting of form and substance. I bought this book because I liked the cover. I read it in preparation for a nice long viewing (11 hours) of the apparently superb ITV adaptation of 1981. I have it already, so it’s just a matter of finding that time.

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At the beginning of the book, Charles Ryder is a disillusioned, apathetic soldier in World War II. I was quickly drawn into the story and into the writing during at this very early point in the novel. Waugh’s writing, I found, was superb — complex without being burdensome, beautiful without being pretentious. And I could just imagine Jeremy Irons reading this sentence:

Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day — had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading? — as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster.

The company of soldiers Captain Ryder is traveling with ends up at Brideshead, a place, we are to find out, where Ryder’s conflicted and complex past most played out. At any rate, it represents a great deal, and Ryder lapses into the book-length reminiscence.

Brideshead is divided into two books. The first one, for the most part, introduces Ryder’s complex and touching relationship with Sebastian Flyte, a fellow Oxford student. Sebastian is an incredibly wealthy young man who still carries around a teddy bear and adores his nanny. Ryder finds Sebastian and his lifestyle incredibly attractive, and like a lover he despairs when they are apart and finds himself jealous when Sebastian travels without inviting him to come along.

Waugh does a great job developing their relationship. Though I didn’t feel it was ambiguous, there are grounds to believe that their relationship was deeply platonic but not sexual. In not getting explicit, Waugh makes their relationship all the more realistic, somehow. By not going into detail, Ryder’s narration tells a lot about his relationship with Sebastian. To me it didn’t feel like Ryder’s restraint meant he was ashamed — he doesn’t hide the fact that he deeply loved Sebastian, and this love probably was sexual:

Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never know, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.

Rather, his restraint seemed to suggest that he didn’t want to confine his love in language, that he doesn’t want to explain his love to others, that to do so would taint his love. The subtitle of the book is, after all, “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.”

This relationship, though seminal and perhaps the beating heart of the story, is not the whole story or even the focus. First, they begin to grow up. The languor of youth passes on, and the novelty and freshness wears off. Through the years, Sebastian drifts away. His religion and his family create such a conflict within him that alcohol and prodigality seem to be the only real escape.

The book moves into a discussion on religion, particularly Catholicism, which Ryder thinks has Sebastian and his family stifled. Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, is deeply religious.

Religion predominated in the house; not only in its practices — the daily mass and rosary, morning and evening in the chapel — but in all its intercourse. “We must make a Catholic of Charles,” Lady Marchmain said, and we had many little talks together during my visits when she delicately steered the subject into a holy quarter.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Ryder’s main antagonist is Catholicism. We get a sense that though Sebastian has the pretense of being irreligious, he believes enough of what he’s been taught to be stifled with guilt. That is the case with the whole family. And the last half of the book develops Ryder’s relationships with those other members, particularly Sebastian’s sister Julia.

One thing that really strengthens this book, besides the subtle writing, is Waugh’s ability to draw and maintain strong motifs: painting and building being one of my favorites. Ryder is an architectural painter, but Waugh manages to use this to achieve a great effect when he pronounces some of the book’s largest themes and conclusions.

Now, for me, it’s on to the 1981 adaptation. And here’s one observation after watching the first hour and a half, which comprises of the first 100 pages of this 350-page book. How did they turn the last 250 pages into ten hours of film? I’m anxious to find out!

16 thoughts on “Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited

  1. John Self says:

    I’m an admirer of Waugh but I really don’t like Brideshead. I tend to agree with Waugh in his introduction when he says (something like) it was written during wartime and as a result is stuffed full, overwritten, in a way that on a full stomach seems distasteful. I much prefer the leaner game of his earlier novels, particularly A Handful of Dust, which for me is his best book.

    But of course Brideshead remains his best known book and posterity will have its way. I think I read it a second time – still many years ago – just to see if I’d change my view. I didn’t.

  2. KevinfromCanada says:

    Finally, I get to disagree with John Self — I am sure it will be months before it happens again. While I like and respect all of Waugh’s work, I think Brideshead is a wonderful novel. Trevor’s review identifies many of its strengths but there are others:
    1. An exploration of class and its effect in the pre and post WWII world — the amazing scenes with Ryder and his father once Charles has stumbled into that world.
    2. The contrast between the UK and the USA, explored in the latter part of the book.
    3. The struggle of the aristocracy to find its new role — or to abandon all that it was.
    4. And, as Trevor identifies but I would like to repeat, an introduction to the “is God dead” or “is it just the church” or “maybe it is just me” debate that continues to this day. Waugh does not answer it, but he certainly frames it.

    It is true that none of these themes are necessarily good writing, and Brideshead can be criticized on that front — although I think it is very well written. But as an example of a work that captured its time, I can think of few better.

    I will forgive John Self for his failings on this one. Perhaps it is because he is Irish.

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  3. I have to agree with Kevin here. I really enjoyed the book. A commentary I read said that Waugh at first considered it his best book, but later in retrospect her was somewhat less enchanted and perhaps put off by his writing. I didn’t really have a problem with the writing because I could very easily imagine Ryder speaking that way. I usually do appreciate a leaner style, but here it seemed to fit. (Perhaps that’s partially because, as I alluded to in the post, I was imagining Jeremy Irons reading to me the whole time.) Maybe in time it will lose its flavor.

    That said, I don’t have any way to compare it to other works by Waugh. I’m barely a novitiate (would Waugh approve of that word?) but I’m anxious to read more.

  4. KevinfromCanada says:

    Trevor: For a quick and fun Waugh break, check out The Loved One (sub-titled an Anglo-American Tragedy). It only makes sense to those of us who actually live in North America, but it does that ever so well. It is definitely not his best book — it is also a most amazing portrait of America, well California at least. Very tightly written, it won’t take you an evening to read. Then you can move on to more substantial stuff.

  5. Thanks Kevin. I’m definitely interested in reading more Waugh, and after looking at his books many sound excellent. I think a shorter one sounds like just the right next step!

  6. Rob says:

    I’m in the Brideshead camp too, although I watched the TV series before reading it for the first time, and I’ll never quite now how much of my experience of the book is coloured by Jeremy Irons’ voice.

    That said, A Handful of Dust is terrific too. I didn’t like Vile Bodies much, but can’t remember it well enough to back that up with anything concrete. I’ve got two copies of The Loved One, and I’ve not read either of them, but I know I’ll enjoy it when I do…

    I read The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold a few years back as well. Interesting.

  7. KevinfromCanada says:

    Rob: And then of course there is Scoop. Always topical.

  8. Rob says:

    Scoop! I haven’t read that for years. I think my old copy was a wartime Penguin, with adverts in the back, including one for Mars bars that apologised for wartime shortages of their product, and finished: “So here’s to a quick victory… and plenty of Mars for everybody!”

  9. KevinfromCanada says:

    It is worth reading again. And I suspect you can find a Mars bar to chomp away on while you read it.

  10. That’s good news for me. I just bought the Everyman’s Library edition that includes Black Mischief, Scoop, The Loved One, and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. I also have A Handful of Dust on the way, John, so I’ll see if I side with you or Kevin and Rob.

    Looks like I’ve got some pleasant time in front of me!

  11. I tend to see Brideshead as a eulogy for the English aristocracy, who Waugh saw as essentially doomed.

    Of course, it turned out they weren’t, so it’s a eulogy for a group that are still with us much as they were when he wrote it.

    I enjoyed it, but not as much as Sword of Honour or A Handful of Dust (though I vastly prefer the generally little liked alternate ending to Handful, I thought the original ending trite more than anything else). I wouldn’t go as far as John does, but it definitely wasn’t my favourite Waugh.

    Doesn’t Brideshead have a wonderful line about drowning in honey? I seem to recall it is tremendous at capturing a certain sort of Summer, a little like the Whit Stillman movie Metropolitan.

  12. I haven’t got A Handful of Dust yet, but I’m anxious to see how it plays with me. I think your comment might help me go into it with some healthy lower expectations.

    About drowning in honey – I didn’t remember it off the top of my head, but it sure is there:

    The fortnight in Venice passed quickly and sweetly; I was drowning in honey, stingless.

    Waugh then had Ryder describe some of their activities, making ties to Byron. I definitely think that the way Waugh describes this lethargic summer, the type of summer that is really only available in youth.

  13. KevinfromCanada says:

    Like Max, I prefer the alternate ending to A Handful of Dust — and we will never know if Waugh meant that to be the real ending. I do think his strength as a writer is reflected in the different selection of favorites in these comments — he had a very perceptive eye (any writer who comments both on the English aristocracy and Hollywood development is setting a high bar) and, for the most part, he delivered well.

  14. Rob says:

    I’d forgotted that there are two endings to A Handful of Dust. The ‘Dickens’ ending is the original, although it was apparently a short story that he grafted into place. He then had to write a new ending for the American market, either to make it more upbeat, or because the short story he used had already been published there. I don’t think I’ve read the US ending, so I always think of Handful of Dust ending with the Dickens story.

    (Above information courtesy of a quick Google search, so by all means correct it…)

  15. KevinfromCanada says:

    Rob: According to William Best’s introduction in my Everyman’s Library edition, the book was serialized in a magazine (not named) in the U.S. and Waugh could not use the Dickens ending because the short story had been published in another magazine. This ending is quite short (seven pages) — Tony’s gone on a tourist trip to South America after agreeing to the divorce, returns to find Brenda (and her trunks) at the dock in Southhampton. They return to Hatton. A few months later, Brenda, saying she no longer uses the flat, sends him up to London to sublet it. He doesn’t — and there is an implication he will now be using it for affairs of his own (as Best points out, thus making him as responsible for his miserable fate — as opposed to being a victim — as she is). Like Max and I, Best prefers this ending — and Waugh did include it as an appendix in his 1963 edition. If you can find the Everyman’s Library edition, it has the alternate ending in it — and it can be read quickly enough in the bookshop that you don’t have to buy the whole book again.

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