Waugh Cited in Book on Alcohol in Literature

The Guardian has published an essay which appears to be based on a book about the role played by alcohol in 20th Century history. This is by Henry Jeffreys and is entitled Empire of Booze: British History Through the Bottom of a Glass.” See earlier post. The essay focuses on how writers have used alcohol in their works:

So closely are some of the giants of 20th-century literature associated with alcohol that modern readers might be forgiven for thinking a serious booze habit was once the equivalent of a degree in creative writing from the University of East Anglia.

It comes as no surprise that Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is among the works considered:

In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the constant listing of drinks such as marsala, cinzano, asti spumante and martini, serves as a reminder that there was a normal life before the war and will be afterwards. For Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, “this Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place …” In the same novel, alcohol plays a less benevolent role, as a weapon in the snob’s arsenal during a scene in which Ryder has dinner in Paris with Rex Mottram, an arriviste Canadian businessman and his love rival. Ryder orders a cognac that is dismissed by Mottram as “the sort of stuff he puts soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort. ‘That’s the stuff,’ he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass.” Waugh wants us to see Mottram as a vulgarian and Ryder as a man of taste, but also reveals his own prejudices.

Jeffreys moves on to wine connoisseurship as a theme in literature and, after citing Edgar Allan Poe and Roald Dahl, returns to Brideshead:

… the real amusement comes from the pretensions of the wine taster: “a prudent wine … rather diffident and evasive but quite prudent”, he says. In a famous scene in Brideshead Revisited, Ryder and Sebastian Flyte try to outdo each other with their descriptions of a wine:

“It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.”
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”
“Like a flute by still water.”
“… And this is a wise old wine.”
“A prophet in a cave.”
“… And this is a necklace of pearls
on a white neck.”
“Like a swan.”
“Like the last unicorn.”

Oddly, he doesn’t mention how alcohol contributed to the Sebastian’s downfall.


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