The Catholic Herald has marked the 50th anniversary of Evelyn Waugh’s death with a feature article by journalist and author Harry Mount on Brideshead Revisited. Mount begins with an assessment of the novel:
Fifty years after his death on April 10, 1966, Evelyn Waugh’s life and work still captivate us. It’s not hard to understand why – he is one of the prose stylists of the age, and one of its funniest writers. His comic gift is all the greater for being shot through with pleasing melancholy and joyful malice.
The curious thing is that, of all his books, it’s Brideshead Revisited that enchants the public more than any other. Waugh obsessives, including me, prefer A Handful of Dust – for its macabre chill – or Scoop, for its mixture of comedy and eternal accuracy about the ridiculous side of journalism.
But it is Brideshead that dominates the popular vision of Waugh; Brideshead that was a huge hit in America after it came out in 1945; Brideshead that was made into the excellent Granada series in 1981, and the third-rate film in 2008.
Mount goes on the review the book’s themes and recounts the story of the making of the Granada TV film and its impact on Waugh’s popularity and reputation. In the course of the essay, Mount quotes a letter to Waugh from his great-aunt Pansy Lamb who was the recipient of one of the limited first editions of Brideshead Waugh sent out to 50 of his friends in 1944. She was one of those who thought Waugh may have gone a bit over the top in his book:
“All the richness of your invention, the magical embroideries you fling around your characters cannot make me nostalgic about the world I knew in the 1920s,” she wrote. “Nobody was brilliant, beautiful and rich and the owner of a wonderful house, though some were one or the other … Oxford, too – were Harold Acton and Co really as brilliant as that, or were there wonderful characters I never met? … You see English society of the 20s as something baroque and magnificent on its last legs … I fled from it because it seemed preposterous, bourgeois and practical and I believe it still is.” Waugh was shocked by this letter, but acknowledged in 1959 that he had gone over the top in his luscious, hedonistic descriptions…
Finally, Mount considers Waugh’s snobbery and the book’s treatment of the aristocracy and Catholicism and he concludes:
By celebrating a grand Catholic family, Evelyn Waugh hoped to kill two birds with one stone, slipping in the virtues of religion beneath the intoxication of sin. Brideshead Revisited repudiates the sins of the flesh but not snobbery, identified by Proust as a sin against the Holy Ghost. Still, without the snobbery, the book wouldn’t be nearly so irresistible.