Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
by Paul Mathers
Again, I am faced with the happy and unhappy task of attempting to write about one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. In days long past I had a rather peevish attitude about identifying too closely with characters of fiction as it gives one an illusory excuse to fancy one’s self heroic. As is so often the case, age has softened me. The book struck razor-close to my own experiences. I know that to many in my youth I was (and fate-wise to some extent remain, although I like to think that I have the dipsomania under control. To a lot of my former peers I’m sure they see a lively and promising young man resting sadly in middle-age upon the crutch of religion.) I would be remembered as a bit of a Sebastian character. To many others, most I would say, I think I am more likely remembered as more of an Anthony Blanche (complete with the real-life inspiration’s failed poetry career). I could certainly imagine some of my old friends’ stodgy family members advising them, “Now that Paul Mathers – now there’s a man there’s absolutely no excuse for.” And I can also imagine some of the walking thumbs I was subjected to associate with in school later claiming to have put me “in Mercury one night.”
I went through a brief Waugh phase in junior high. (“Of course you did, Paul.”) Alexander Woollcott touted A Handful of Dust as a masterpiece, and I’m pretty sure I read Vile Bodies immediately after. I think I then moved on to either the autobiography or The Letters of before moving to some other wild anachronism like Somerset Maugham or something like that. A strange habit of mine, I avoided the most obvious piece completely, but in this case there is a way in which I’m glad I did. At that young of an age, scarcely the age of Sebastian and Charles at the beginning of the story, I doubt I would have understood the emotional weight. I would have understood Ryder’s nostalgia upon returning to Brideshead. I doubt I would have caught the subtlety of the book being a highly religious one told through the eyes of an agnostic. At this point in my life, I have a folder of photographs on my Desktop of architectural detail shots I took of the house where I grew up. The Folder is titled “Home.” So, yes, I think I get that element of the book on a highly visceral level.
There are a few elephants in the room. One is the seemingly pro-aristocratic view of the book. I am tempted to make a snide comment about how we Americans pretend we have no such thing in our country, but I think I’ll only do that by pretending I’m not going to do that. Of course, I am not an aristocrat, nay, I am not even, by any stretch of the imagination, anything higher than lower middle-class. I am, however, a traditionalist. In times of social upheaval and discord, it is a recurring historical theme for the intelligentsia to beat the drum of lessons from the past which would serve well the present. They hearken back to source texts and seek to reinstate wisdom, order, and beauty. The Renaissance and Erasmian Humanism spring to mind, as does Wagner. And the Old Testament is sort of the cyclical story of a people falling away from the Law, rediscovering it, returning to it, prospering for a time, then forgetting it again. I feel we are living in a time of severe discord and that is part of why I am a Classicist. Not so much of a Classist, I hope, but in this specific instance there are parallels of lamenting a lost order in a time of present anarchy. I also like to think that the real argument is not so much The Divine Right of Kings (or, rather, the ruling class), but a pro-civilization view which has my full sympathies. But maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’m reading into it what I want to read into it. So be it.
One of the critiques I keep finding in the cursory glance I’ve taken at what others have written about the book is the morality of the book. This surprises me, but I suppose it shouldn’t. I expect to have similar problems with my own novel which decidedly takes place in Christian reality, but of necessity portrays decidedly unchristian events. (I guess I wanted to make sure it would be as difficult to find a publisher as possible.) The morality of Waugh’s book is decidedly Catholic. Just because a character like Anthony Blanche exists, even if he is occasionally charming, does not constitute condoning on Waugh’s part. Also, it surprises me that anyone would miss that Ryder’s objections to religion, even though they are told in the First Person, are emphatically wrong in the eyes of the book. Sebastian’s fate is called, by Cordelia (who may well be the closest thing to a heroine in the story), not a bad one as far as fates go. Ryder is wrong about Lord Marchmain’s deathbed experience and the priest is a sympathetic character. Nanny Hawkins gets the last (well, penultimate I suppose) word in the book. Even Brideshead and Beryl’s “offensive” remarks about Julia and Charles… kind of turn out to be right. As if morality is not a movable feast. Albeit it is a story in which just about every character attempts to move it to some extent and a story about the consequences. As humans, as sinners, it is what we all do. There is a great truth to this story.
It is a book that contains that famous line, “Oh God, make me good, but not yet.”
Of course, although almost entirely in the periphery, it is also a war book, isn’t it? And to many of us in this time of war without end, the war is both horrifying and peripheral in our quotidian little lives, isn’t it? Later in life, Waugh lamented the florid prose and over-indulgences of the book. He said, and I am am highly paraphrasing here, that it was written in the lean times of war and now (in the time in which he was speaking), in a time of full stomachs, he found the flavor unpalatable. Two comments on that:
1) Waugh had this sort of consummate curmudgeon persona which makes me take all such statements by him with a grain of salt large enough to choke a horse and
2) We don’t live in a time of full stomachs anymore. We live in lean times of constant war in which “I must have champagne” is the sort of thing you can go around saying charmingly.
It is one of those books that I would like to buy a case of and give to everyone I know. More to the point, I would like to give it to people when they first meet me. It is a book that I would demand all of you to read if you could, for your own good, if for no other reason than my desire to share with you one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.