Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: Brideshead Revisited

"But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea."
"But I do. That's how I believe."
Thus replies Lord Sebastian Flyte, half English Catholic lord and "half heathen," to mild-aesthete and agnostic Charles Ryder, the narrator and central figure of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. This novel, written by Waugh during his convalescence following an injury during the Second World War, is a lush aesthetic education, an impossibly nostalgic lament at the decline of a great English family, and a two-decade long memory of the narrator's slow cooperation with God's grace.

Brideshead follows the "sacred and profane" memories of Captain Charles Ryder, a former architectural painter who finds himself "homeless, childless, middle-aged, and love-less" during the Second World War. His company constantly changes locations in England, each move a supposed venture into action in African later exposed as a false alarm. Eventually Ryder and his company find themselves put up in a palatial house called Brideshead, the residence of the Flyte family. Ryder tells his assistance—the boring, modern, tasteless 20th century middleclass vulgarity incarnate, Mr. Hooper—that he has been to the house before. Thus begins a reminiscence twenty years back to Oxford in 1923, and some of the most beautiful post-Victorian prose to be found in English literature:
"Oxford—now submerged and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in—Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her gray springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days—such as that day—when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamor."
The narrator introduces the reader to his dear friend, the charming Sebastian Flyte, a handsome, somewhat dull, but charming young man raised in a strictly Catholic family. Sebastian, who meets Charles by eructating in his dormitory through his window in an inebriated stupor, brings the narrator and the reader into the flamboyant world of the Oxonian aesthetes. Here and at Sebastian's ancestral residence Charles learns to see the world through what is beautiful, although he is not entirely converted to the aesthetes' ways. Charles resolves to become an artist and quits Oxford while his dear friend develops a problem with alcoholism and disappears from the novel for several chapters.

Charles also becomes acquainted with the Flyte family, both in England and abroad. Ryder meets the pious, apparently pharisaical mother; the pious, but doltish brother, who looks like an Easter Island head; the two sisters, one a mildly arrogant and a beauty, the other quite devout and simple-minded; and the father, who, in his detestation of the mother, lives in Venice with his mistress. With this family Charles encounters the Catholic world view and receives it with tremendous difficulty. The mother, the most devout of the lot, is cold and unapproachable, while the warmest of them, the young sister Cordelia, has no imagination beyond the teachings of the penny catechism.

Charles meets the aesthetes

As Sebastian fades his sister, Julia, illuminates and take center stage for much of the rest of the story. Julia eventually falls away from her nominal faith and marries a dubious opportunist from Canada looking to use the Flyte fortune and prestige to launch a career in English politics. Amidst Julia's struggles, Charles has several fallings out with the Flyte family and goes for years at a time without seeing them, although they do give him a start as an artist by commissioning him to paint one of their soon-to-be-demolished houses. Years later, after a long, lucrative, and lifeless career as an artist he re-unites with Julia aboard an ocean liner and begins an affair with her which will run until the end of the novel, at which point Charles' life is finally shocked into sensation again.

Brideshead's structure is non-linear and is told in several gradations of flashbacks. Indeed a New York Times review from 1945 goes as far as to suppose memory is the central point of the novel. There are too many themes in this wonderful novel to enumerate, but memory is certainly one of them.

Another major point is the conflict between genuine beauty and "simple, creamy English charm," a polite imposter for beauty. Charles is sanguine within the walls of the baroque masterpiece of Brideshead, built from the stones of a medieval castle, and within the walls of Oxford. Even his early paintings had a semblance of genuine life and beauty. But eventually his life withers and he reduces his quality to that of crowd-pleasing, highly acceptance, charming work. Sebastian's personality is, if anything, charm through and through. Oppressed by his religious family Sebastian escapes by being charming and likable to others, but also indulges in drink and becomes a dipsomaniac. Both eventually free themselves of English charm and, finally, embrace real human emotion at great personal cost.

Catholicism is not so much preached as it is presented in Brideshead Revisited. The faith, to which Waugh was a mature convert by the time he penned his magnum opus, is the eyeglass through which Charles must see the world at Brideshead. The grace and providence of God is a given, and the reader is given subtle reminders such as an offhand description of a room that has a painting of the Sacred Heart or Seven Dolors hanging on the wall, or a passage of a Fr. Brown novel being read in the background. One passage from Fr. Brown is integral to the entire story: "I 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." God is a given, not an intellectual exercise, which agnostic Charles is wont to understand.

A final theme of the book—there are too many to enumerate in detail, like the decline of the aristocracy and rise of the "middle class"—is renewal. The house itself is built of stones from an old castle and is slowly augmented by succeeding generations. During the War Brideshead is conscripted into service by the military and left "desolate" and "brought to nothing." Yet, even Charles finds some genuine renewal at the very end of the novel. Some have suggested this house, which died and was rebuilt and is the place of so much of Charles' slow acceptance of God's grace, is an icon or a type of Christ Himself or of the Church. The house's name entertains such a thesis.

Charles Ryder dines with Anthony Blanche (BBC adaptation)

One real treasure of Brideshead is the cast of secondary characters. Charles is actually a very boring, dim, and unemotional person until the end of the story. He is more a witness to what happens around him. The characters around him, particularly the non-primary characters, add oceanic depth to Waugh's novel. The father's mistress, Carla, coldly analyzes the nature of Sebastian and Charles' relationship from a distance and the disposition of Lord Marchmain, who is hiding in Venetian charm and avoiding the human reality of his failed marriage. Lady Marchmain, initially cold and calculating, eventually becomes a sympathetic character, perhaps a good soul made protective and bitter by the disappointments of her life; she is saintly, but not a saint. And a personal favorite is Anthony B-b-blanche, the eccentric ringleader of the aesthetes who, in the end, is the actual voice of wisdom and reason amidst Charles' descent into a loveless life from which he eventually arises.

The last endearment of this novel is the prose and words and descriptions contained within its very pages. Many of the descriptions are reminiscent of those of James Fenimore Cooper and Walter Scott, although considerably shorter and evoking more specific thoughts rather than merely painting a mental image of a great landscape. Waugh's writing engages the imagination and all the senses through nothing but simple paper. He describes enough to enthrall the reader and gives ample enough dialogue for readers to construe the moods and actions of the characters without narrating every move as many modern works do, no doubt in imitation of modern film. Waugh's sense of humor provides subtle opportunities for laughter in certain moments of the book, often at the expense of Mr. Hooper and the lower classes. Waugh did not confine his humor to class though. At one point, when Charles and Julia begin their affair, Waugh refers to their first sexual encounter in risibly stark words: "Now on the rough waters there was a formality to be observed, no more. It was as though a deed on conveyance of her narrows 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."

Brideshead Revisited is a wonderful story of a man who remembers finding the grace of God, a house in which he is welcomed, and he came there through the efforts and trials and tears of the house's builders. The novel is both romantic and realistic, lush and lugubrious, nostalgic and pressing onward. Buy a copy!

As a post script I would like to note that the clips in this review are taken from the BBC miniseries Brideshead Revisited, possibly the best television program ever made. The miniseries takes no liberties other than compressing some dialogue and is, in effect, a serialization of Waugh's novel. The acting is spectacular and the visuals faithful to the book. Read the novel and then watch the series. All the episodes are available on YouTube.

1 comment:

  1. "possibly the best television program ever made." Yes. I am so grateful it was made. I hadn’t read the book before seeing it.

    "BBC miniseries Brideshead Revisited," No! Alas, His Traddiness is mistaken.
    The BBC did not make this show. It was made by the independent, commercial tv company Granada and shown on ITV. The BBC was not involved, unless it has somehow bought the rights since. Stranger things have happened.

    But it is the book that is important, not who adapted it. Waugh rather bared his soul in this book, writing about what was important (to himself and generally), where others he wrote were less revealing of himself, rather dry social comedies and commentaries; apart from the Sword of Honour books which have a lot of thinly disguised autobiography about his part in the war which goes into plenty of detail. Brideshead uses that too, but uses less to greater effect. Some may enjoy the Christian themes of the other trilogy too; in some ways, even more challenging. But Brideshead probably is his masterpiece.

    As you say, "The miniseries takes no liberties". The company played it absolutely straight, realising the book should be allowed to speak for itself. This was before the era of the Andrew Davies versions of historical novels.

    One assumes it would not have got through 'the corporation's' internal commissioning process unscathed.

    As it was, no one there tried. It has been said before and it bears repetition, the BBC - an organization that has the right to levy its own poll tax on anyone who owns a television receiver - has not willingly presented the Christian religion in a good light for many years. That might explain the high count of Anglican services still broadcast, including weekly evensong from anglican cathedrals. Was ever anything more pointless? … But you do have to keep an eye on the slot as without any warning it can be vespers and Benediction from the London Oratory. (Audio not tv, sadly).