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Evelyn Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited (1945) while on a six-month leave from the British Army during World War II. It proved a hit with the public, but the critics who had praised Waugh’s earlier satirical novels were less impressed, objecting both to its religious themes and its lush prose. Waugh never apologized for the former, but by 1959, when he wrote a preface to a new edition, he had come to agree with the critics about the latter, blaming the novel’s “glaring defects” on the grim reality of the wartime circumstances in which it was written. “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster—the period of soya beans and Basic English—and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful,” he wrote. Waugh needn’t have apologized. The public and the younger Waugh were right. In fact, the book is needed more now than when Waugh wrote it.

Today it is possible to graduate from college without ever encountering beautiful prose. The antidote is immersion in the type of “rhetorical and ornamental” language that helps make Brideshead such a memorable book. Today’s reader will likely have been taught that ugliness in art is a mark of profundity; he needs to hear that...

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