Monday, April 29, 2013

Brideshead Revisited

by Evelyn Waugh. Who everyone thinks was a woman...

Brideshead Revisited has been heralded as one of the great 20th century novels, and has been made into both a miniseries and a movie. Which is why I ripped off the cover, preferring to see a plain title than Emma Thomson's face staring at me. Brideshead captures the end of the British golden age of privilege; the last gasp of aristocracy, whose passing I imagine only the aristocratic lament.

Captain Charles Ryder, during WW2, happens upon the castle come mansion Brideshead. And he has a little moment. In his youth, Captain Ryder was well acquainted with the Flytes of Brideshead, and thus begins the flashback.

Here is where I falter: The family are known as the Flytes, but also referred to as the Marchmains; Brideshead is not just the name of their property, but also the name of their eldest son. It was never explained, so if this is some kind of inheritance custom like the Latinos implying royalty with sixteen last names I don't know and couldn't care. What's important is that the younger son, Sebastian, was Charles Ryder's best friend at college where they were several times described as being "in love" (without any reproach from the novelist). Whilst at school, we meet the wittiest, campest, most unabashedly gay character seen in popular literature of that time (as far as I can tell from 1944), Anthony Blanche. He is hilarious and the other students are less horrified, and more awed by this larger than life personality.

When Sebastian first brings Charles back to his home, Brideshead, it saddens the former remarkably. On beholding the grandeur of the glorious estate he declares, "This is where my family live." (Not, "This is where I live"). We soon meet his family: charming but manipulative Lady Marchmain (Flyte?), who is still bereft after her husband ran off with a mistress, Sebastian's dull older brother Brideshead (you'd be dull if you were named after a building), sister Julia, and baby sister Cordelia.

With each succeeding visit to Brideshead, Sebastian, tortured by the burden of his family and their expectations, descends further and further into a raging alcoholism. Charles watches this with an air of detachment; not knowing how to help, not knowing how to stop it. Soon, Sebastian scampers off to Morocco with a bonkers German companion - a man he can finally take care of, instead of always being taken care of in the lap of luxury. This has no effect on his drinking.

Charles, meanwhile, becomes renowned for painting the fading mansions, before they are torn down to make way for new housing developments. He travels around the world, but hasn't forgotten Brideshead, and then one day he stumbles across the camp Anthony Blanche, and is reminded:

"I warned you expressly and in great details of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, Charles, it has killed you."

The novel begins so intricately and interestingly but - then comes the second half. An entirely different story. It's years later, and save the odd mention, Sebastian is completely out of the picture. Charles is now painting elegant plantations in Central America that are about to be overtaken by the actual jungle, not the urban one. On a return ship from New York, we are introduced to his wife Celia who is just rejoining him after his years' long journey. She is portrayed as obsessed with appearances and decorum, but she dotes on Charles. He doesn't have any reason to dislike her except they don't share the same interests, but this gives him motivation to fall madly in love with Julia, Sebastian's sister, who is also (what a coincidence) on the boat! 

Now if Julia had played any kind of important role earlier, if there were even a hint of foreshadowing in the beginning, that might make sense. But she was such a minor character as to be forgotten, having married off to a man who, as she described, "wasn't a complete human being at all. Unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory." Suffice it to say, this transatlantic cruise becomes the steamship of passion and once in London - the affair continues.
Charles makes excuses to not return home with his wife - not even to see the daughter he's never met. At this point he is as poncy and stuck-up as the wife whose manner he detests. But to excuse this (which I'm not buying), Celia had cheated on Charles at one point so it's all fair and square, really.

Alas, the last of the doomed family, Lord Marchmain (Flyte?) returns to Brideshead to die. The final chapters are a protracted production about whether to let the priest give last sacraments. Marchmain is an atheist, so Charles is firmly against allowing it, but Julia protests and protests and so does that pesky priest until they storm on into the deathbed and do their thing. Just before dying - it's a miracle - the lifelong atheist makes the sign of the cross, converting his soul into everlasting tripe, er, light.

What happens next? At that very moment, Julia and Charles realize they cannot be together, because she believes in God. Ba-da-bing. That is how one of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century limps along to its facile conclusion.

Evelyn Waugh was homosexual and he was also a converted Catholic. That appears to be the way he broke his book in two halves that don't congeal, which don't even feel part of the same narrative. What does feel the same is the unlikeable characters throughout and the vague impression the reader is meant to feel some sense of nostalgia or loss, but is not sure why or what for.

Often unnecessarily intricate and convoluted, Waugh's language often soars. The ultimate tedium of this novel is uplifted with beautiful passages, like this one detailing Sebastian's descent into drink: 

"I had no mind for anything except Sebastian, and I saw him already as being threatened, though I did not yet know how black was the threat. His constant, despairing prayer was to be let alone. By the blue waters and rustling palm of his own mind he was happy and harmless as a Polynesian; only when the big ship dropped anchor beyond the coral reef, and the cutter beached in the lagoon, and, up the golden slope that had never known the print of a boot there trod the grim invasion of trader, administrator, missionary and tourist - only then was it time to disinter the archaic weapons of the tribe and sound the drums in the hills; or, more easily, to turn from the sunlit door and lie alone in the darkeness, where the impotent, painted deities paraded the walls in vain, and cough his heart out among the rum bottles." 


Auntie M said...

Thank you. It's so hard to be in a minority opinion about great literature.


samael7 said...

Brideshead is actually one of my favorite novels. I'm not quite sure why that is, since I don't disagree with some of your observations, but nonetheless, I've always been fascinated and drawn to the story, probably because of the way he captured those years at school with Sebastian -- I first read the book my sophomore year of University.

To the book's seeming confusion between Marchmain and Flyte, the former is part of his aristocratic title and the second is the actual family name. If you've ever read or seen any of Shakespeare's historical plays, you've seen him do the same thing, such as calling Richard Plantaganet (i.e. Richard III) "Gloucester."

I totally agree that the book feels like two separate halves -- and certainly the bits with Sebastian are a LOT more fun before Charles gets all respectable (and Sebastian gets kinda pathetic). And, yes, it really does mirror Waugh's own maturation.

Although, not entirely. In some ways, Julia is also kind of a backslide for Charles, since she represented the idylls of his past, rather than a future. He's trying to use that past as a way forward in his life in which he feels bunched up and stuck in. And despite his stated beliefs, that Catholicism attracts him in a similar way that he had been attracted to Sebastian.

But yeah: both kinda doomed. Everything seemed pretty doomed back then, though, with another war after the one that was supposed to end all others. Waugh/Ryder can be forgiven a little for their etheric maudlin 'tude.

For my money, though I do like the novel, I find Forster's Maurice pretty damn awesome and prefer it to Brideshead. But they're worth reading together. In some ways, I feel that Maurice is giving us the whole story. Clive is what Charles Ryder basically became, but the essential man, innocent and conflicted Maurice, kept true to that part of himself that neither Sebastian nor Charles could face -- the former drinking himself to death and the latter becoming that stunted man nostalgic for someone else's past.

It also helps that we get an unexpectedly happy ending with Maurice. It's not the ending Forster had for himself, but the one he wanted, that he knew could be possible someday. The sudden materialization of Scudder is nearly as jolting as the second half of Brideshead, but it comes more from our surprise -- and Maurice's -- that being able to be who and what you are authentically is possible, even in that world. And that even love is possible.

Oh, and if you've never seen the 70s miniseries of Brideshead with Jeremy Irons, it's pretty fantastic. (It's a younger, pre-dumb-ass-comments Irons too, so he's pretty likeable.)

Jesse Archer said...

Thanks, guys. And Samael - I wanted to like Brideshead, like you say the beginning really drew you in. But he seemed to dump Sebastian so unceremoniously. Almost as if he outgrew the magnetic attraction, but what you say - that he possibly transferred this feeling of intense nostalgia to Julia - makes more sense. Much less intriguing sense, in my opinion, and if only he could have used this as a thematic tying together rather than resorting to the Catholic nonsense, I think it would have been a much more complex read - because do you honestly ever give a fig for Julia? Or them together?
I was so excited to see Anthony Blanche keep popping back up - brazenly taking him to a "pansy" bar, even. More of that please, less of the deathbed conversions.
Excellent suggestion of Maurice. Thank you, I'll get onto it.

Jesse Archer said...

PS LOL about the pre-dumb-ass Irons!

Tony said...

Hey Jesse -

Perhaps there’s a clue to the unevenness and ambiguities of “Brideshead” in Waugh’s earlier (1934) novel “A Handful of Dust.” That’s an unsparing, biting satire of the mores of the the early 20th century English landed gentry.
It’s protagonist, Tony Last, is the heir to a huge estate and a totally clueless fool, just like Sebastian’s older brother “Bridey.” Waugh shows his contempt for that class by the fate he devises for Tony Last. He becomes lost in the Brazilian jungle and ends up the captive of a mad English recluse from whom he cannot escape and who forces him to read aloud the complete works of Dickens over and over. Last’s family declares him dead, and his “widow” marries Last’s former romantic rival, a middle class social climber who thus becomes the owner of Last’s estate.
In “Brideshead,” Charles Ryder, who may be a stand-in for Waugh, is awed and seduced by the charm and supposed glamour of the aristocrats until the very end when he comes to his senses and breaks it off with Julia (and symbolically with her class).
But maybe Waugh, who had earlier viciously satirized the hierarchical landed gentry allowed himself to be co-opted, as he himself became artistically and financially successful (like Ryder), even converting to Catholicism, the quintessential hierarchical religion.
So I think the ambiguities of “Brideshead” that you pointed out reflect Waugh’s own conflicting attitudes about the aristocracy. Hence the air of nostalgia for the faded glory of a way of life consumed by the fires of WWII.
The very strong homoerotic subtext of the novel also expresses a bittersweet, conflicted nostalgia for the intense same-sex romance between Ryder and Sebastian. The 2008 Miramax movie version brings this out much more effectively than the old BBC mini-series. Just watch the almost unbearably poignant final parting of Ryder and the doomed Sebastian, brilliantly played by the oddly beautiful Ben Whishaw.

Jesse Archer said...

Thanks Tony. From what you say it does appear Waugh made an about-face. His earlier novel sounds gripping - and alluring. I want someone to read me the complete works of Dickens.

Anonymous said...


I remember when "Brideshead Revisited" was first broadcast on PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" in the 1980s. William F. Buckley, Jr. introduced each episode.

-Jimmy Balletto