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Sunday 24 February 2019

Review: Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

The English as a people must now be reckoned mentally incapacitated from a surfeit of royal babies and costume dramas. Brideshead Revisited is one of those books which like those of Jane Austen is now only read because it is the script for wide and small screen country house productions. By the end of reading it you will know a lot about what everyone wears and about interior furnishings; the script is very detailed and seeing it on screen requires less effort.  Over the years, since its publication in 1945, it's been a good money spinner.

Brideshead Revisited is also a book about a world where everyone thinks it possible to have their cake and eat it, and thus fits neatly with our contemporary English incapacitation. They may not always succeed, but much of the time they do not suffer (or suffer very much) for things which would be fatal to the little people on whose labour their lives depend. There will always be someone around to get you out of a scrape, and if money is needed to lubricate the extrication or soften the blow, well, there is an awful lot of it about. As for religion, it’s Roman Catholicism and that is particularly accommodating, providing both terrifying rhetoric and obliging side-deals. It is against divorce, but if you have the necessary, an annulment can be arranged. Adultery merely requires that appearances be kept up. As for homosexuality, well, you simply condemn and turn a blind eye, or condemn and join in.  When it comes to writing a fiction based on the fact, it’s very simple. You let the reader know what you are on about but you don’t do anything as tasteless as dwell on the fact. (I discover that this has provided scope for critical debates about whether the book is “about” a homosexual relationship between Sebastian and Charles, thus casting it into the dire category of books written in code. I found myself impatient with the book because it was so obviously coded, and not only because of the censorship priorities applied by London publishers back in 1945 but probably also because coyness may have been the only way the author could handle his material. The London censorship priorities are, of course, different now).

There is an extravagant death bed scene, which according to taste is either very well done or simply de trop. From a structural point of view, the interesting thing is that Waugh selects for the death bed not one of his major characters but the relatively minor pater familias. The mother of the family, who plays a much larger part in the narrative, is despatched with no mise en scène. The novel thus ends on a fittingly patriarchal note, the death of the father which re-arranges everyone’s future and re-establishes  the order of things. And the priest is very happy with his three pounds, the price of sending pater to heaven after a lifetime of having his cake and eating it (page 318).

There are some passages which I found funny, and some very well-written. The book was composed and published in England at a time (1944 - 1945) when the little people were preparing  to install, by a landslide of unprecedented scale, a socialist government. It was written, as they say, against the current and, of course, deliberately so. Nothing much has changed there when you think of the royal babies and the perennial costume dramas.

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