Revisiting Brideshead

On the flyleaf of my copy of Brideshead Revisited—a small blue Dell paperback, seventy-five cents—is written, in the flowery handwriting I thought elegant at age sixteen, “If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.” The same inscription appears in my Penguin Book of English Verse, in Jane Eyre, in the collected poems of Ernest Dowson and of Keats and of Tennyson. Presumably I wrote it in my copy of Pride and Prejudice, too, and Adam Bede, and the works of Matthew Arnold, though I cannot check, since they all vanished long ago.

But Brideshead Revisited, to quote one of its most objectionable characters, was England to me—which is to say, nothing so mundane as a rainy island, the center of a vanishing empire, but a condition of heightened romance, the ultimate state of grace. In England, I was sure, people were not only wittier and more charming—that went without saying, any moviegoer knew as much—but gentler, finer, more honorable. They would never speak in loud, shrill voices or force themselves on anyone’s attention or tell dirty jokes; their famous politeness was the expression of a genuine delicacy of feeling. They never bragged about their amazing heroism or their invincible decency during World War II. They believed in fair play rather than in competitiveness; they understood that honorable failure was nobler than vulgar success.

I think I seriously believed that nobody in England ever lied or cheated (the characters in Dickens weren’t real, anyway; they were just caricatures, like Popeye). Wickedness and cruelty did not exist among them; their very worst sin, like Mrs. Bennet’s in Pride and Prejudice, was silliness (which gave rise to English wit). And their moral greatness was conflated, in my mind, with their superior refinement: in all of Berkshire, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, there were no cheerleaders with pom-poms, as there were in my suburban high school; no split-level houses with orange wall-to-wall carpet. Loveliness—it was such an English word, conjuring up sheep grazing peacefully on verdant hillsides, blue-and-white Wedgwood, ancient rose covered cottages of honey-colored stone—was the order of the day.

At the time my fervor was reaching its peak—the mid-sixties—news of another, grittier England had long since arrived in America: the evils of the class system, that feudal leftover that kept a large segment of the population ruthlessly “in its place,” had been exposed and attacked by some gentlemen known as the Angry Young Men. They in turn had been superseded, in the public eye, by the working-class Beatles, themselves at least moderately angry (well, John Lennon was) about their country’s social hierarchies. London was in the midst of its swinging revolution; liberation was in the air. The rarefied England of my imagination was ceasing to exist even in English novels. It had become irrelevant, a matter for mockery, to the English themselves. Somehow, though, however much I read about the Youthquake and the Mods and the Rockers, my private vision remained intact. After all, John Lennon wasn’t only angry, he was witty, too, and charming: really quintessentially English in his way.

But Brideshead Revisited was on a higher plane altogether, the very highest of planes; it was the apotheosis of Englishness. Nothing could have been further from the crassness of suburban America than Waugh’s elegiac tale of an aristocratic Catholic family possessed of such spiritual grace that their titles and estates seem like only the outward symbols of their inner grandeur.

It was impossible to imagine an American Sebastian Flyte—the youngest son of the family, the central presence (one cannot call him the hero exactly) of the first half of Brideshead, whose absence haunts the remainder of the book. Sebastian—Lord Sebastian—is blessed with an extraordinary romantic innocence; he is also “magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.” At Oxford, he carries a teddy bear named Aloysius, whom he scolds and is scolded by in the most playful, charming, eccentric fashion. Sebastian is in flight (though it’s hard to believe that Waugh intended the pun) from, first, his family, and second—the two are inextricably linked in his mind—his religion, whose mysteries are always overwhelmingly present, though he tries to turn his back on them by losing himself in worldly pleasures. (One of his sisters believes that he has a religious vocation he is attempting to escape; certainly, despite his mischievous high spirits, the aura Waugh creates around him is that of a holy man.) As his pious mother increases her inexorable pressure on him—to take on adult responsibilities, to become an observant member of his faith—he retreats further and further into alcoholism. Finally, after many years of mournful exile abroad, he finds refuge as an underporter in a North African monastery, a gentle, melancholy figure with “little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own.

The idea of someone too pure to live in the world, too ethereal and delicate to cope with harsh reality, seemed to me like the most exalted poetry. If you had asked me at the time whether the prince of Denmark or Sebastian Flyte was the more tragic figure, I would unhesitatingly have chosen Sebastian.

But there is another kind of romance, too, in Brideshead, almost though never quite as poignant. The narrator of the novel, Charles Ryder, whose (asexual) love for Sebastian at Oxford has provided all the major revelations of his youth—”to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom”—falls deeply in love, years later, with Sebastian’s sister Julia. By this time, Charles, a painter of stately homes, is married to the obnoxious, worldly character who says that he is England to her; Julia, whose “Florentine Quattrocento” beauty is uncannily like Sebastian’s, is also unhappily married, to a boorish former colonial. The lovers take up residence together at Brideshead, the Flytes’ country seat, which, like the family itself, is magically beautiful: “Here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain … I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.”

Ultimately, however, Charles and Julia, like Charles and Sebastian, are separated by the mystery his “pagan” nature fails to comprehend: the pull of her religion, which years of willful apotasy cannot diminish. Her renunciation of mortal love for the love of God seemed to me the novel’s crowning beauty; her impassioned monologue about the wrong she is doing by living with Charles without the Church’s benediction was the rapturous high point of its eloquence:

Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out … Mummy carrying my sin with her to church, bowed under it and the black lace veil, in the chapel; slipping out with it in London before the fires were lit; taking it with her through the empty streets … Mummy dying with it, Christ dying with it, nailed hand and foot, hanging over the bed in the night-nursery … hanging year after year … hanging in the dark church where only the old charwoman raises the dust and one candle burns; hanging at noon, high among the crowds and the soldiers … hanging for ever; never the cool sepulchre and the grave clothes spread on the stone slab, never the oil and spices in the dark cave; always the midday sun and the dice clicking for the seamless coat.

If Brideshead confirmed and heightened my reverence for all things English, it also made Catholicism itself seem so romantic that during the two years I was under its spell, I constantly fantasized about converting, or even becoming a nun. I did not, however, ask myself whether I believed in the doctrines of the Church; that seemed irrelevant.

For years, the book glowed in my mind, but some instinct warned me against trying to read it again; it was part of the great romance of my youth. In my twenties, I lived in England for long stretches and discovered—partly through the exasperated intercession of my English friends, who felt hono(u)r-bound to point it out to me-that, for all its glories, it was as flawed as any other place. It seemed unnecessary to forfeit any more illusions.

Then, in 1982, Granada produced its ten-hour version of Brideshead, which was promptly transferred to American television, and suddenly it became everybody’s romance. It was painful to see those characters translated into mere flesh-and-blood people on the television screen. It was an even worse affront that the actor playing Sebastian was athletically stocky, with a pug nose, a blond thatch, and an impish grin. Didn’t the people responsible for the production understand anything? Didn’t they know that Sebastian, he of the magical, epicene beauty, must be slender and pale, with exquisitely fine features and dark flowing hair?

More disturbing still, somehow, was the way the words that were about to be spoken kept flooding into my head. Most of the dialogue had been faithfully lifted from the book, and line after line came back to me a split second before it was uttered, a form of recovered memory I found so agitating I had to turn off the set. Perhaps it was because the words no longer had the same power over me. It was like meeting someone I’d been in love with years before and finding that all his little mannerisms, the traits that had once seemed so thrilling and precious, now left me unmoved.

Finally, more than a decade later—it had now been thirty years since I first read the book—I was browsing through my bookshelves one evening, looking for something to take on an airplane the next day. I opened it and started reading.

Even the sternest critics of Brideshead, such as Edmund Wilson, have acknowledged that the first half, comic and elegiac by turns, is “quite brilliant.” (The lament for lost innocence is one of the things the English have always done better than anyone else; from Paradise Lost to the “Immortality Ode” to Peter Pan, they have given voice to a great national yearning.) The portrait of Sebastian as a God-haunted dreamer is genuinely affecting; the humorous bits, like the war of wits between Charles and his sly, half-batty father, are some of the most brilliant things Waugh ever did, which, since he was a comic genius, is saying a lot. As I read on, I had a huge sense of relief. Though I could not, of course, feel the same intense rapture this time around—that was part of my youthful experience of novels, it would be ridiculous to expect it in my forties—at least I had not been mistaken. It was a wonderful book after all.

But when I arrived at the tale of Charles as an adult, things started to go badly wrong. There is, for example, the problem of the love between Charles and Julia, which is constantly described as perfect. They have never quarreled for a moment; there has never been “a day’s coldness or distrust or disappointment.” If that weren’t enough to make one slightly skeptical, there is Waugh’s unfortunate way of dealing with Charles’s children, whom his discarded wife—annoyingly enough—feels he ought to see occasionally. Clearly, we are meant to regard this request as another example of the noxious world intruding on the lovers’ idyll. Perhaps, too, Charles’s fine disdain for his children’s feelings is intended as a sign of his innately aristocratic nature, despite his middle-class origins. At times like this, Waugh seems to have a tin ear for ordinary human decency; he is so concerned with ecstatic modes of feeling and high religious obligations that he fails to realize it is in downright bad taste (vulgar in the ultimate sense of the word) to make Charles’s indifference to his children a point of pride.

Then there is the increasingly purple prose—Julia’s long soliloquy by the fountain, which it is impossible to imagine any human being ever delivering, and the even longer soliloquy by her Byronic father, who has returned to England, after twenty years, to die in his ancestral home: “Those were our roots in the waste hollows of Castle Hill, in the brier and nettle; among the tombs in the old church and the chantrey where no clerk sings … We were knights then, barons since Agincourt, the larger honours came with the Georges … Julia’s son will be called by the name his fathers bore before the fat days; the days of wool shearing and wide corn lands,” etc., etc. Waugh wrote the book in wartime, in 1944. The upper-class England that, as a passionate middle-class snob, he had revered and cherished, was finished. Brideshead is his elegy for a vanished world. But I don’t think that entirely accounts for the book’s sheer unreality, its feverish melodrama.

Nor does it account for its failure as a serious portrayal of religious experience, or—as Waugh himself called it—”an attempt to trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world.” Waugh, who had converted to Catholicism fourteen years earlier, presents his religion as wholly a matter of gorgeous rite and mystery. Nowhere is there any real suggestion that it has moral content, that it might have any relationship to human feeling or human conduct. Catholicism, in this view, is simply the Higher Romance, complete with solemn renunciations (“Here in the shadow, in the corner of the stair—a minute to say good-bye”) and dramatic deathbed reconciliations.

There is something inherently adolescent—Wilson called it “extravagantly absurd”—about the breed of romanticism found here. The worship of aristocratic glamour, the inability to conceive of a love in which there is any disagreement or strain, even the notion that Sebastian’s incapacity to deal with the world is a mark of his spiritual purity: all these are adolescent constructs, which is perhaps why I loved the book so much when I was sixteen. It was an adolescent’s vision of love and innocence, even of suffering and redemption. It was uniformly beautiful without being in any sense true.

There is a great scene in Brideshead—perhaps the most successful in its second half—in which Anthony Blanche, a decadent aesthete whom Charles knew at Oxford but has not seen for many years, harangues him about his most recent exhibition. Charles has been to Central America to paint ruins in the jungle (it is on the return voyage that he meets Julia again and falls in love with her). Anthony has heard at a society luncheon that his old friend

had broken away, my dear, gone to the tropics, become a Gauguin, a Rimbaud. You can imagine how my old heart leaped … I wanted to dash out of the house and leap in a taxi and say, “Take me to Charles’s unhealthy pictures” … and what did I find? I found, my dear, a very naughty and very successful practical joke. It reminded me of dear Sebastian when he liked so much to dress up in false whiskers. It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers … 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 very much fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.

Whether or not that is true of England, I think it is true of Brideshead. If, on the one hand, Waugh has managed to make alcoholism and snobbery and adultery seem ever so charming, he has also made God seem charming, and love, and art. Though the whole book is a defense of a hierarchical society, he has somehow failed to create a hierarchy within it: all its elements are equally lovely, and therefore equally inconsequential.

Strangely, in his more satirical novels, like A Handful of Dust, Waugh’s moral vision is much sharper. In Brideshead, he seems to have fallen under the spell of his own shimmering, gorgeous creation in much the way I did when, at age sixteen, I made the book my escape from distasteful reality. If, as I. A. Richards said, some people are “swoon readers,” then perhaps some books are equally “swoon books,” and Brideshead is one of them. It’s no wonder that one adolescent at least wanted to swoon right into it and never, ever wake up.

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Evelyn Toynton has written for Harper’s, The Atlantic, and other publications. She is the author of Modern Art: A Novel, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.


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