Holy Week of 1937 found Evelyn Waugh—thirty-three years old, solidly established in his literary career, and on the verge of a second marriage—at a Benedictine monastery in Ampleforth, in Yorkshire, where, as he noted in his diary, he whiled away the time “entertaining dumb little boys and monks.” It was not his first sojourn with these particular monks. He had come to Ampleforth before, and would come again, with his old friend Alfred Duggan, a stepson of Lord Curzon whom Waugh had first befriended at Oxford, and whose alcoholism the novelist was, with a touching doggedness, trying to cure—not least in the hopes of returning Duggan to the Catholic faith he had abandoned. (Some of these retreats were more successful than others; on one of them, Duggan appeared to be behaving until he suddenly disappeared, only to be discovered later, in the midst of a major binge, in Scarborough.)
During his prenuptial visit of March 1937, however, Waugh was alone, apart from the dumb boys and monks, and his diary records nothing more dramatic than a visit to Castle Howard, the fabulous country seat that Vanbrugh had designed for the Earls of Carlisle, members of the recusant Howard family, who eventually left it to a cadet branch.
Great country houses forsaken by their loftily titled owners were likely to have been much on Waugh’s mind just then. The preceding summer had seen a wrenching drama played out following the premature death of another of Waugh’s Oxford friends, Hugh Lygon. Along with his older brother, Lord Elmley, “Hughie” had been a glamorous figure at the center of the Hypocrites, the outré “aesthetic” set with whom Waugh fell in not long after he went up at the beginning of 1922. Outrageousness ran in the family: Hughie’s father was the disgraced Earl Beauchamp, who several years before had been forced to resign most of his titles and leave the country when it was revealed—by his vindictive brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster—that he was homosexual. In August 1936 Hughie, whose life after Oxford had failed to gel, died while traveling in Germany, precipitating an anguishing crisis for his father, who was by now living in Venice.
Only months before, when the earl’s estranged wife had also died suddenly, he was intimidated into staying away from the funeral by the threat of arrest on morals charges, a warrant for which had been issued by the Home Office at Westminster’s insistence. Now, devastated by the death of his son, the earl insisted on returning to Madresfield, the great house in Worcestershire he had not seen in six years, in order to attend Hughie’s funeral, at whatever the cost. As it turned out, the Home Office was moved to suspend the warrant, and Beauchamp was allowed to return. He was left in peace during the few extended visits to his ancestral home that he made in the two remaining years of his life.
The better part of a decade would pass before the filaments of associations triggered by Waugh’s visit to Yorkshire in the spring of 1937—threads that connected Castle Howard, with its great lantern and magnificent fountain, to Madresfield, with its tragically abandoned chatelaine and its disgraced patriarch exiled to Venice; that linked Alfred Duggan and his desperate struggles with alcoholism, the retreats at Ampleforth followed by binges at country inns, to poor Hughie Lygon, whose enchantingly debauched undergraduate days gave no sign of the rather failed adulthood to come—would weave themselves into the fabric of a novel. At least in certain ways, it was a book unlike anything he had written before.
By this time England had been at war for five years, as had Waugh: he’d enlisted as a marine in 1939 and had seen service in various theaters in Europe and North Africa since then. When, in January 1944, the novelist asked for a leave to work on a new book, he and his country had entered a drab period that his friend Christopher Sykes, in his biography of the writer, recalled as one of “shortening rations, increasing discomfort and more and more an all-pervading shabbiness.” The description was meant, as a similar one by Waugh himself was, to account for the peculiar characteristics of the novel he began working on that winter, which, in its feeling depiction of spiritual anguish and erotic torment in a great aristocratic family between the wars, seemed to abandon the blithely acerbic social and political satire of the breezy novels of the Thirties that had made him famous—Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), Scoop (1938)—for something lushly nostalgic, even sentimental:
It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster—the period of soya beans and Basic English—and in consequence 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….
In the same text—a preface to a later edition of the book—Waugh went on to say that he had written it “with a zest that was quite strange to me and also with impatience to get back to the war,” which no doubt accounts for its remarkably speedy composition.
Yet despite the fervor of his inspiration and the smoothness of the writing—and his belief, expressed in a letter he sent to a friend soon after finishing, that the novel he had produced, his largest to date, was “a masterpiece”—he was pessimistic about the new book’s prospects. Its subject, after all, was the unpopular one of religion: the Roman Catholic Church generally and, more specifically, what he called “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” “The general criticism,” he wrote to his mother, Catherine,
is that it is religious propaganda. That shows how opinion has changed in 80 years. No one now thinks a book which totally excludes religion is atheist propaganda. 80 years ago every novel included religion as part of the normal life of the people.
“It would have a small public at any time,” he wrote to his agent and friend A.D. Peters. “I should not think six Americans will understand it.”
Waugh hated being wrong in general and, you suspect, particularly with regard to Americans, for whom he had the same reflexively snobbish disdain that he had for so many; yet he cannot fail to have been gratified by how mistaken he was in this case. For Brideshead Revisited ended up having a very big public indeed: since its publication, a few months before the war ended, it has been enthusiastically received by readers—American as well as British—and is now generally considered to be his most popular novel. And yet the book’s huge popularity tends to bemuse connoisseurs of Waugh’s writing, who, entirely apart from considerations of Brideshead ‘s internal flaws—not least, the fatal unpersuasiveness of a crucial female character—find distasteful the novel’s excesses of nostalgic sentimentality and its rather purple rhetoric, which seem to stray disastrously from the amusing tartness and impressive economy that characterize his earlier, satiric works. To them, it is an irritating irony that the most popular of Waugh’s novels is, in fact, the least Wauvian.
Brideshead Revisited may nonetheless be seen as a work that, rather than breaking with its predecessors, merely shifts emphasis, amplifying certain qualities that had always been present in the author’s work while eschewing others. After dabbling in art, carpentry, and illuminated manuscripts, and after a none too spectacular stint as a teacher at a boys’ school, Waugh made his name as a writer at the age of twenty-five, in 1928, with the publication of Decline and Fall, which traces the increasingly farcical adventures of a hapless Oxbridge undergraduate who becomes a teacher at a boys’ school after he’s unjustly sent down as a result of a run-in with an upper-class boor. Like much of Waugh’s fiction, this one borrowed heavily from his own life—which, however, did not include an unwitting participation in a prostitution ring run by an elegant socialite.
The figure of the well-intentioned, well-educated young man who becomes the perplexed victim of circumstances beyond his control, one whose haplessness and passivity deflects attention onto the sinister and manipulative world around him—a highly useful kind of character if you happen to be writing social satire—would recur fruitfully in Waugh’s work. He appears in Vile Bodies, a caustic satire of the vacuity of the lives led by the Bright Young Things in the 1920s (“when it comes to the point there doesn’t seem to be anything I much want to do”), as well as Scoop, Waugh’s satire of modern journalism, in which, as a result of a confusion about names, a young country squire who’s mistaken for a famous young writer gets sent to Africa to cover a civil war and ends up being hugely successful, mostly by dint of his utter cluelessness. The structure of these novels—the hero, after all, always manages to be saved and restored to the class to which he belongs—allowed Waugh to poke sometimes rather strained fun at the high and mighty (there are upper-class characters with names like Lady Circumference and Lord Zinc, and a prime minister called Mr. Outrage) while never quite rejecting that world entirely, either.
Indeed, while a good deal of Waugh’s impish satire is more or less what you’d expect of a clever and ambitious twenty-something with enough contact with the great world to know what its foibles were, what’s intriguing is that, from the start of his career, the deep and reflexive conservatism that would later inspire dismay in even his closest friends (“his political opinions were utterly ridiculous,” Sykes would write) was in fact always present. In a famous passage that gives Vile Bodies its title, the narrator provides a long list of the various kinds of parties at which the frivolous young of the age exhausted themselves:
Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…. Those vile bodies….
This is deliberately contrasted with a wholly different kind of party being given at the “last survivor of the noble town houses of London,” at which the guests are the parents of those other party-goers. These dignified older folk constitute, in the narrator’s eyes,
a great concourse of pious and honourable people…their women-folk well-gowned in rich and durable stuffs, their men-folk ablaze with orders…unaffected, unembarrassed, unassuming, unambitious people, of independent judgment and marked eccentricities, kind people who cared for animals and the deserving poor, brave and rather unreasonable people, that fine phalanx of the passing order….
The assumptions that underlay the blithe collocation of “animals and the deserving poor” are ones that Waugh himself wasn’t interested in investigating. At twenty-seven he was already mired in nostalgia for a more authentic British past and impatient disdain for the modern era. (The glamorous and vacuous socialite with whom the hero of Decline and Fall falls in love decides to raze her country house, a perfectly preserved masterpiece of Tudor architecture called King’s Thursday, in favor of an angular modernistic structure designed by an architect called Dr. Silenus.) Small wonder that Vile Bodies closes with an apocalyptic coda set in “the biggest battlefield in the history of the world”: like all great satirists, Waugh was a moralist (you can’t help wishing he’d taken on the biography of Swift that he once considered writing) and it’s clear that for him, the sinning world must be purged by blood.
What may well be his finest novel, A Handful of Dust, is, indeed, also the grimmest. The tale of a country aristocrat whose wife capriciously leaves him for another man (as Waugh’s first wife left him), whose enchanting young son and heir subsequently dies pointlessly, and who ends up lost and given up for dead in the Amazon jungle, forced by a wily but illiterate native to read Dickens aloud every day (while his beloved country seat is taken over by poor relatives), the book attains a forceful purity not shared by the breezy novels that came before. Waugh’s later description of A Handful of Dust as the tale of a “civilized man’s helpless plight” among “savages at home” could be said to summarize the plots of all the early work, but only this one achieves a dark economy that gives the satire of contemporary society and its morally vacant denizens emotional as well as comic impact.
A Handful of Dust was the last novel but one that Waugh completed before the war started, and it’s hard not to think that its classically tragic action—the progressive stripping away of worldly comforts that leaves the characters to contemplate some higher if cruel truths—worked on his mind in the terrible intervening years, as he cast about for a new subject. He would later describe Brideshead Revisited as the story of a family whose “physical dissolution…has in fact been a spiritual regeneration.”
The bare bones of Brideshead ‘s plot (known to many who viewed the hugely popular 1981 Granada TV miniseries adaptation) suggests the seriousness of Waugh’s intentions in creating his parable about sin, grace, and redemption. (Born into an upper-middle-class Anglican family, to a publisher father, Waugh was received into the Catholic Church in 1930, not long after his first wife, also called Evelyn, left him. Like the characters in Vile Bodies, he had lived fast, crashed hard, and seemed to be looking for meaning.) The family to be redeemed is, here, a vastly wealthy and highly aristocratic one, the Flytes, whose head bears the title Marquis of Marchmain. They are Catholic—not, in fact, one of the great recusant families like the Howards, but an old Anglican family whose head, Lord Marchmain, converted in order to win his Catholic bride, with whom he had four children and from whom he has, for reasons unspecified, since been estranged. He has long been living in Venice with his Italian mistress while his wife, Lady Marchmain, attempts to exert control over her four often wayward children. (Here you can see the way in which the Madresfield saga made itself felt in Waugh’s creative imagination.)
All these characters are seen through the eyes of an outsider, Charles Ryder: a Waugh-like figure, ogling the great world to which he cannot belong, a moneyed upper-middle-class youth with artistic interests who is drawn into the rarefied and troubled world of the charming but unhappy Flytes when he is befriended by, and soon becomes the lover of, the second son, Sebastian, at Oxford. More an observer than an actor, Charles is a subtler variation on the passive heroes of Waugh’s earlier, patently comic novels. Here, however, the inertia suggests a spiritual vacancy, an inchoate yearning to attach himself to something meaningful. It is no accident that when Charles becomes a successful painter, his subject is great houses about to be demolished—inert objects with a past but no future.
And indeed, Charles’s infatuation with the Flytes—after Sebastian lapses increasingly into one alcoholic crisis after another (an element of the text inspired, clearly, by Waugh’s experience with Alfred Duggan), he switches his affections to the capricious sister, Julia, who by now is mired in an unhappy, childless marriage—inevitably brings him into contact, and conflict, with the strong Catholic faith from which even the most wayward of them cannot ultimately extricate themselves. By the end of the novel, not only does the lapsed Lord Marchmain return home to England and, after much agonizing on the part of his family, consent to take Extreme Unction (a scene closely modeled on the death of Waugh’s friend Hubert Duggan, Alfred’s brother), but Charles himself has a conversion experience.
Waugh himself wrote that the novel was about “the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.” The undeserving souls in question are, for the most part, masterfully etched in all their rather pointed unworthiness: Bridey, the older brother, who has a deep but wholly unexamined piety, his intellectual and spiritual conventionality pointedly reflected (with an implicit snobbishness typical of Waugh) in his choice of a middle-class widow—her name is Beryl—as his wife; Julia, who is punished for her youthful frivolousness and barren adulteries with childlessness; the enchanting Cordelia, the youngest daughter, deeply religious (but not to the point of having a “calling”) and the happiest of all the children, who turns out “plain.”
None, however, is as affecting as the “magically beautiful” Sebastian (“with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind”), whose tragic inability to make a meaningful life for himself, tormented as he is by the conflict between his desire and his faith—represented by the person of his mother, the quietly imperious Lady Marchmain, a woman who cannot see that her desire to control her family’s happiness competes with God’s own plan for them—is the heart of the book. He is its most persuasive and touching character, at once all too recognizably human and yet a successful symbol in the parabolic narrative. (Sebastian, who pace Matthew Arnold thinks a butterfly as beautiful as a cathedral, has a pure if childish appreciation for the beauty of Creation; a kind of holy fool, he ends up a wrecked drunk who works as a porter in a monastery in Morocco—a desert saint.)
By the end of the story, the family is dispersed. The parents are dead, the great palace of Brideshead (modeled, as we know, on Castle Howard) willed away from the childless Bridey, the chapel closed, the children absent. But this dissolution has led to spiritual regeneration: Julia and Cordelia off in the Middle East performing good works during the war, Lord Marchmain shriven, and Charles converted. There’s a crucial scene about halfway through Brideshead Revisited that finds Lady Marchmain reading to her children during a particularly difficult night for the family (Sebastian has been bingeing in secret); what she reads is one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, a passage in which (as Cordelia later reminds Charles) God’s mysterious way of calling souls to himself is suggested by means of a homely metaphor:
I’ve caught him with an unseen hook and an invisible line, which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.
Brideshead, whose second half is called “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” is meant to illustrate that process.
At the time this surprisingly earnest book was published, not everyone was convinced, despite its huge critical and commercial success. Edmund Wilson, among others, lambasted the awkward juxtaposition of the moral parable and a patent classism; the rank sentimentality; and—more shocking in a writer known for the high, lapidary polish of his tart wit—the self-indulgent excesses of a rather overcooked style. (“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time.”) Waugh himself came to see the latter as a bit much, referring to it as “rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.”
Pretty much everyone, too, agreed that the character of Julia was particularly thin and unconvincing—a serious flaw in a narrative intended to build up to the emotionally fulfilling but spiritually fruitless affair between her and Charles, the failure of which ultimately sets him in the direction of God. Julia is all too clearly there to represent the next rung on the erotic and spiritual ladder that Charles must ascend as he progresses to heterosexual maturity from the homosexual phase of his youth. (One that Waugh himself had passed through, with considerable relish, at Oxford: his friend Harold Acton—one model for the novel’s flamboyantly homosexual Anthony Blanche—later, and with what you can’t help thinking was a wink, described him in those days as “a prancing faun.”) Waugh himself seems to have suspected that this was a flaw. To his friend Nancy Mitford he wrote that if the love affair “falls flat…the book fails plainly.”
Your sense that Julia is simply a mechanism to chart the main character’s progress en route to a foreordained destination brings you to the heart of the problem with Brideshead Revisited. All of the criticisms made at the time the novel was published are valid but not necessarily fatal: you suspect that a large part of what gives the book its perennial allure is, if anything, the opportunity it affords to glimpse the lushly evoked high lifestyle of the very rich and—even harder to glimpse—of the bona fide upper class. (Charles himself is merely well-to-do: the dinner-table conversational sparring matches between him and his eccentric father, brilliantly enacted by the young Jeremy Irons and the late John Gielgud in the miniseries, provide some welcome comic relief to the humorless Flytes.) The sentimentality—particularly the honeyed evocations of undergraduate romance, of Oxford and its “soft air of a thousand years of learning”—has exerted an equally powerful spell, however artistically questionable it, too, may be.
The real problem with this religious book is, to some extent, the problem with so many religious texts, which is one of question-begging: they don’t add up in the end unless you already believe in the operating premise. There’s nothing in the novel itself that persuades you that the sudden deathbed act of faith made by Lord Marchmain, to say nothing of Charles’s subsequent conversion, was the result of coherent psychological processes; you just have to take it on faith. The family’s dissolution is beautifully evoked, but the spiritual regeneration remains a bit of a mystery.
Lady Marchmain’s reading from Father Brown reminds you, indeed, that there is another way to read the famous metaphor of the fish on the line, one that helps you to understand just why it is that Brideshead is preaching to the converted. (Christopher Sykes, himself a Catholic, complained of this when the book came out, remarking that it was “solely addressed to believing Catholics and admirers of the Catholic Church. The general reader is rather left in the cold.”) For the image of an invisible figure whose creations have the appearance of free will, and yet who are always controlled by an unseen master, brings to mind a figure less celestial than God the Father, but just as powerful in his or her way: the novelist. In religion, of course, you want the invisible lines; in the traditional novel, by contrast, you’re not supposed to notice them. In Brideshead, when all is said and done, you do.
I suspect that some people will, like me, be inspired by the recent British film adaptation of Brideshead to revisit the novel and, perhaps, to struggle to make sense of this grand and often grandiose, affecting yet somehow unpersuasive work, whose failures more than its successes tell us a good deal about Waugh. If so, the inspiration to return to the original text may be counted among the very few merits that the movie possesses. Undoubtedly anticipating resistance to their film by the millions who embraced the meticulously written and acted miniseries, the British makers of the new film have asserted that theirs is a bold “new interpretation” that will simultaneously “engage with” and “remake” Waugh’s novel. But the remaking involved in this adaptation—which may well be, as they put it, “for our own time”—amounts to a rewriting, one that grossly distorts not just the lineaments of Waugh’s novel but the deep moral meaning it sought (however unsuccessfully, in the event) to achieve.
Now as when Waugh first complained about the phenomenon, serious considerations of religion and religious belief make for uncomfortable subjects in mass entertainment; in consequence, those responsible for the new version clearly decided to frame Charles’s fascination with the Flytes as one based almost exclusively on money and position. Gone are the novel’s thoughtful disquisitions about grace and redemption (which the miniseries scrupulously reproduced, and which in fact save it from accusations of what Tom Wolfe has called “plutography”); in this Brideshead, Charles is just another middle-class wannabe ogling his rich friends’ nice houses and clothes, like someone leafing through the latest issue of Town and Country in a dentist’s office.
But while the makers of this film profess an interest in “caste” (a “very contemporary and fresh” subject, one of the screenwriters has said), they don’t seem to have spent much time studying the one they’re representing—a particularly damaging lapse, you could argue, given the crucial importance for Waugh’s theological theme of the disparity between the Flytes’ material wealth and their spiritual poverty. (Sebastian’s upper-class Oxford friends, who in the novel are represented as displaying to their friend’s new love a “polite lack of curiosity which seemed to say: ‘We should not dream of being so offensive as to suggest that you never met us before'”—a significant representation of a noblesse oblige so inbred that it makes itself felt as politeness—are transformed here into guffawing hooligans who grill poor, drab Charles about his social credentials. “I don’t remember you at Eton,” one of them sneers.)
Another way in which the movie compensates for its lack of serious interest in matters religious is to ratchet up the romance: this Brideshead is less a dramatization than what you might call a melodramatization. In Waugh’s novel, Sebastian takes Charles to Venice during the summer after their first meeting, an episode that symbolizes a last fleeting moment of happiness for Sebastian before his disintegration—which poor Charles, shut out from Sebastian’s spiritual anguish, cannot yet comprehend—accelerates. Since the movie gives spiritual anguish no serious consideration (apart from some glib lip service: “one emotion remains my own,” goes the lugubrious voiceover with which this Brideshead begins, “as pure as that faith from which I am still in flight: guilt”), it must produce another, more obvious motivation for Sebastian’s decline: in this case, a seething love triangle between Charles, Sebastian, and Julia.
The screenwriters have thus retooled Waugh’s carefully built plot (in which Charles pointedly refers to Sebastian as “the forerunner” of Julia), schlepping poor Julia along to Venice, where an overwrought—and, it must be said, very swishy—Sebastian catches sight of her and Charles kissing during carnival. This and other drastic reconfigurations of the action gives the film a jumbled, incoherent feel; the miniseries, by contrast—stretching Waugh’s tale over eleven episodes—made Brideshead Revisited seem tauter than it actually is.
The excision, to all intents and purposes, of the religious preoccupation of the novel wreaks particular havoc with a crucial, subtle character: Lady Marchmain. If you don’t take her faith seriously, she becomes a predictable type: the castrating Catholic matriarch whose steely, unlovable nature is visually reflected in the rigid curls of her armor-stiff coif—a recusant Margaret Thatcher, a Phyllis Schlafly avant la lettre. One of the achievements of Claire Bloom’s masterful portrayal of this strange figure in the miniseries was that it evoked the delicate complexities of a character whose only sin—a great one, to be sure—was to compete with God.
Every nuance of Bloom’s performance—the arresting quiet of her speech, with its assumption of inevitable obedience; the neurotic, almost controlling crispness in the way she articulated the often unvoiced ti in “Sebastian,” or her fussily perfect pronunciation of “Zurich”—suggested the desperate desire to control in a figure whom Waugh, for one, saw not as cruel but as “tragic” (a description taken from a document available to anyone with a Web browser: the remarkable set of notes that Waugh composed for the benefit of a Hollywood producer who in 1947 was contemplating a film version). Emma Thompson’s Lady Marchmain, in the new film, is, by contrast, a cliché—a tight-lipped harridan who drives her children to drink. There is no sign here of the fatal “charm” about which Charles, at Oxford, is warned by one of Sebastian’s friends—and which is the thing about the Flytes that lures Charles to Brideshead in the first place, the honey in which he gets fatefully stuck.
These are but a few of what could be a very long list of the failures of this dreary new Brideshead to make sense of the material on which it is based. The most serious, of course, is that the shift in emphasis from God to Mammon makes utter nonsense of the end, the twin climaxes, of the story: if Waugh’s novel, with its serious intentions and anguished spiritual questioning, couldn’t bring off a convincing ending (“extravagantly absurd,” Edmund Wilson concluded), then how could this film, with its soap opera antics and coarse clichés, possibly lead anyone to believe in the culminating repentance, the triumphant conversion? The makers of this movie clearly neither know nor care. All of them, by the way, are British. You have to wonder what Evelyn Waugh would make of a world so topsy-turvy that it’s not the savage Americans but the civilized English who, faced with his vexed but still impressive work, “do not understand.”
October 9, 2008