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Seventy years ago today, Chapman & Hall published Brideshead Revisited, written by Evelyn Waugh while he was on leave from the British Army during World War II. The book became Waugh’s most popular, and the 1981 British television adaptation remains perhaps the finest film adaptation of any book.
One of the reasons for the novel’s enduring popularity is its beautiful prose, of which Waugh later became somewhat embarrassed. But the novel also offers an acute diagnosis of the ills of the modern age and suggests a cure for those ills. The sickness Waugh described has only worsened since 1945, and nowadays even some high-ranking members of the Church Waugh joined disagree with his cure. Still, people continue to read, and to love, Brideshead.
If you’ve never read Brideshead, read it. If you’ve never seen the TV series, watch it. And if you’ve done both, pick up a copy of the best book on Waugh I know, Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition, by Chronicles’ own George McCartney.
Thanks for commemorating this important work! It would be interesting to get Waugh's views of today's society.
It is also timely, given that my June issue of Chronicles has just arrived with Joseph Pearce's wonderful piece on Brideshead inside! I also look forward to picking up a copy of Mr. McCartney's book.
As a literary work, Brideshead Revisited is not without its flaws, namely the didactic orations of Julia on "living in sin" and "a rival good to God's" which, whatever their theological merits, are an odd fit to a novel which, as Waugh himself acknowledged, "otherwise aims at verisimilitude."
As an apologetic, it is also not totally convincing. Those who place high value on the atrophying social tissue represented by the Marchmains are entranced at once, but otherwise relatively few apart from the romantic and vaguely effeminate Charles (who as has widely been remarked upon is little more than a stand-in for Waugh himself) would take the time to drink in the inspirational aspects of what, behaviorally, are for the most part manifestly uninspiring characters. Only Cordelia behaves truly heroically in confronting her formidable father with what he has done to the family, and her stand is cast aside in favor of the "sexier" sacrifice of the much less relatable Julia and of Charles, whose "sacrifice," once it becomes clear that for reasons external to himself he cannot have what he wants [Julia] anyway, can hardly be called a sacrifice.
"Brideshead" is certainly an entertaining, guiltless and cleverly multilayered pleasure for those who relate to it on one or more level (aristocratic ascendancy or frequencies, traditionalist Catholicism, Oxford alma mater). But a great work? Hardly.
I hate literary reviews as we know them so will spare the reader. But as Belloc noticed about Waugh, "He had a devil." and this work is about sanctifying grace. I seriously doubt there is much of an audience for such subjects today at any level.
We used to attend the Latin Mass at the beautiful old German church in Northwest DC, St. Mary, Mother of God (aka Old St. Mary's). It has a wonderful old organ up in the choir loft, and one day, after Mass and the "exit" hymn were finished, the organist played the theme from the Brideshead mini series as the parishioners walked out. I recognized it immediately and sat for the whole song. I honestly don't know the liturgical norms governing "secular" themes being played at Mass, but I confess it was a captivating moment that I remember clearly to this day. There was something that felt entirely appropriate in hearing that noble and haunting theme as I left the sacred and returned to this world of woe modern man has made for himself.
Agreed, BRIDESHEAD is a beautiful novel, a true classic (didn't know Waugh was later embarrassed by it; can't imagine why). Of course, Waugh was wonderfully witty and anti-liberal (and by today's standards, very racist). Indeed, his anti-liberalism is, I think, a considerable part of his wit for a conservative reader today. Why were Christians of yesteryear unafraid of open expressions of white superiority? And were they morally lesser than we are - or better?
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