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Susan’s Bookshelves: Brideshead Revisited

People often say “Oh, I love Brideshead” or “It was all a bit Brideshead”. I suspect most of them are referring to the hugely successful 1981 Granada Television adaptation rather than to Evelyn Waugh’s wistful 1945 novel.

I missed the TV version (although there was a 2008 film directed by Julian Jarrold which I did see) because it clashed with my weekly choir rehearsal. And convenient catch-up lay a long way into the future. Of course, I’ve seen bits of it since with glorious Castle Howard and Jeremy Irons looking very young. I read it for the first time then because everyone was talking about it and have come back to it now because they still are.

I think the first thing to remember is that this isn’t just a nostalgic look back to the heyday of the great country house. Almost no one in this novel is happy – or not for long. And of course the titular word “revisited” is crucial. The framing prologue and epilogue take Charles Ryder as narrator back to Brideshead as a serving officer during the second World War.. It is now a military training base and house and grounds are not being treated with respect, care or veneration. It’s a metaphor for the decline of aristocratic life.

In short – in case you’ve been on another planet for the last forty years  – Charles Ryder meets louche, lost, hedonistic, teddy bear-clutching Sebastian Flyte at Oxford in the 1920s and becomes involved with the rest of the Flyte family, who are Catholics, through visiting their ancestral home, Brideshead. “Dysfunctional” is putting it mildly. The head of the family, Lord Marchmain, is living in Venice with his mistress. Lady Marchmain is brittle and difficult. The heir, Brideshead, whom they call “Bridey” is reclusive while the daughters Julia (wildly attractive, married shallowly and adored by Charles) and Cordelia (at first a knowing child and later a stolid adult) are frothy and anxious – although they eventually find vocations of a sort. The most stable person at Brideshead is Nanny Hawkins who looked after them all and lives contentedly in the attic. Behind all this the house is the constant through the twenty years or so the book covers although country life as people like this knew it, is disappearing fast.

Rereading in 2021, I was surprised by the overt and obvious homosexuality given that this novel was written 22 years before the legalisation in 1967. There is clearly a sparky warmth between Sebastian and Charles which, whether it ever becomes physical or not, goes beyond ordinary friendship. And Anthony Blanche is a delicious character – camp, colourful and bitchy – who at one point spirits Charles off for a chat in what the latter later refers to as a “pansy bar”.

The tortured anguish of inherited Catholicism is fascinating too. If you are indoctrinated in childhood you are conditioned for life – as any Jesuit will tell you.  Waugh (Catholic himself) understands so well that common sense and science will never quite prevail. However much Julia wants and tries to lapse she is haunted by self-destructive guilt. Even Lord Marchmain, who has loudly rejected it all and, while he still can, refuses to see a priest, crosses himself on his deathbed. The structure of the novel gives us Charles, a non-Catholic rationalist, as the commentator on all the agony which residual faith –  however wavery – imposes on those who were born to it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say “I love Brideshead” although Castle Howard which stood for it in the TV series is pretty scenic. I do think, though that it’s a thoughtful novel. And, as Waugh wrote in a 1959 preface he assumed, back in 1945, that country houses were doomed to disappear as monasteries had in the sixteenth century. He failed to forsee what he calls “the present cult of the English country house” adding that “Brideshead today would be open to trippers, its treasures rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain”.

There are rumours of a new BBC dramatisation in the pipeline. A 21st century take on it could pose new questions and introduce a new generation to a good novel. But as nearly always, I’d rather read than watch.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Arthur Sullivan by Ian Bradley

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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