15 August 2014
BRIDESHEAD REVISITED by Evelyn Waugh
Regular listeners to Book Talk and readers of this column will be only too aware of my recent review of Eimear McBride’s prize-winning novel, A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING. Without getting sucked back into that debate, you may remember that besides leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth, it also left me with a yearning for a book of well-written prose.
Not long after, I found myself at Castle Howard (it’s only a twenty minute drive from my house). We had guests for the weekend and thought to take them to one of our local (and national) treasures. This put me in mind of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED because as we all know, not only was the famous TV series set there but it was also alleged to be the inspiration for Brideshead itself. Only natural then, that I should wander into the bookshop there and buy myself a copy. I wasn’t disappointed with my choice and it filled the gap admirably.
I was surprised that we did not already possess a copy - it is, after all, a masterpiece of its time. I remembered the TV series vividly but had never read the book. I can now tell you that the screen version is a faithful adaptation and thoroughly does the book justice, both in the way that the richness of the setting reflects the richness of the prose and how it captures the scope of the author’s original intention. Sometimes these things do not translate well from page to screen but not in this case. So if you enjoyed watching it, I’m confident you’ll also enjoy reading it.
It’s probably best remembered for depicting the relationship between Charles Ryder, the narrator, and Sebastian Flyte, the disillusioned aristocrat. The book blurb would suggest that it should.
Charles Ryder, a lonely student at Oxford, is captivated by the outrageous and exquisitely beautiful Sebastian Flyte. Invited to Brideshead, Sebastian’s magnificent family home, Charles welcomes the attentions of its eccentric, aristocratic inhabitants.
But their friendship is only half the story. In Waugh’s own words, the book is actually about ‘the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters’ ie. the effects of religion, even on those who don’t practice it. The blurb continues.
But he (Ryder) also discovers a world where duty and desire, faith and earthly happiness are in conflict; a world which threatens to destroy his beloved Sebastian.
It actually does more than that. Ryder himself is agnostic and begins by observing the family’s ingrained Catholicism with a sense of mild amusement. Eventually, through his later affair with Julia, Sebastian’s sister, he is drawn in and to his great despair, his own future is fatally compromised.
As an author, I am continually told that I must ‘show’ things to my reader rather than ‘tell’ them. The (few) writing classes I have been to focus on the immediate ie. by describing someone smashing their fist down on the table we are ‘showing’ how angry they are instead of ‘telling’. Waugh practices this on a far larger scale. It is through his depiction of the Ryder/Flyte relationship and latterly the affair between Charles and Julia that he illuminates his grander theme. Never once does he ‘tell’ us that it’s the Flyte family’s inability to shake off the inheritance of the Catholic tradition that is actually destroying them, but we are left with that indelible impression. It’s masterfully done.
So much for the theme, but what about the prose? It’s wonderful, and like so many of the authors I admire, its beauty lies in its simplicity. And yet it’s probably richer in tone than that other masterpiece, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. Waugh himself thought of it as ‘rhetorical and ornamental’ although I sensed nothing of that and compared to the wildly experimental (and difficult) A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING, it’s an absolute joy to read. Who writes like that these days? Julian Barnes perhaps, but not McEwan who I find too long-winded. I begin to sound like Brian Sewell, the art critic who bemoans the fact that no-one can actually paint anymore. Have we forgotten how to write properly? Or is it simply no longer fashionable to do so?
And what about scope? BRIDESHEAD gives us a vivid picture of the how the old aristocracy lived between the wars and prior to their final extinction. Who deals with such subjects on the larger scale now? Most everything I read today seems so narrowly based. What happened to the Great English novel? Have I missed something?
In this context I’m reminded of THE GREAT GATSBY. I’m tempted to suggest that BRIDESHEAD is the English equivalent although a full comparison is beyond my remit here. It deals with much the same era and with much the same strata of society but in America rather than Great Britain and Fitzgerald’s prose is strikingly similar. There the themes are guns, gangsters and the rise of new money – in BRIDESHEAD it’s class and religion, but they both typify the country and the age.
And they’re both fabulously entertaining.