Brideshead is a Picnic, but not Always

The Field magazine has an article about the traditional British picnic and urges its revival. After describing literary picnics in The Wind and the Willows and Emma, the article decides there are two basic types:

… it would be appalling humbug not to recognise the indolent pleasures of the “opera”-level picnic (table, chairs, ice buckets for the wine) or the race meeting “tailgate buffet”, as the late AA Gill famously dubbed them. They are a great treat in themselves … [but] can demand a level of planning, purchasing and equipment more terrifying even than the humble dinner party now made daunting by the world of the trophy cookbook. It is time to recapture the joys of the “picnic proper” in the country – simple and fun, an alfresco meal that is more about the encounter with nature than anything else….Of course, the picnic proper doesn’t have to be that simple but it should not be too elaborate, either. It should be about being out in the open air, looking out on nature and enjoying freedom from the tyranny of the indoors – and technology. Evelyn Waugh caught the magic of the lightly planned picnic when Lord Sebastian Flyte calls on his Oxford friend, Charles Ryder, in Brideshead Revisited (1945): “I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Château Peyraguey – which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted, so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.” They seek some shade and find “a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms”, where they ate the strawberries, drank the wine and looked up at the trees.

A more sober and somber reading of the novel can be found in the article “Contra Mundum Comes Home: Brideshead Revisited, Your Gay Relative, and a Twitch Upon the Thread” posted on the website Joseph. This is by Joseph Sciambra who describes himself as a gay Roman Catholic who in his youth came out but then in later life has come back in. He tracks his own experience in leaving and then coming back to his faith in the stories of Sebastian and Julia in Waugh’s novel, the differing responses of Lady Marchmain, Cordelia, and Bridey to their loss of faith and the responses of Sebastian and Julia to those reactions. Here’s a sample of what is quite a long article:

In both cases, Sebastian and Julia have sought to escape the trauma of their father abandoning the family, through the mind-numbing diversions of debauchery and excess. The route taken by Sebastian was the more intoxicating and precipitous with the gay decadence of the 1920s eerily similar to the pre-AIDS era of the discotheque. Sebastian’s hardcore riotous living flames out rather quickly while Julia’s smoldering restlessness does a slow burn. The separate courses taken by either sibling, though differing in duration and intensity, both finished at the same dead-end of discontent and hopelessness. Yet, as was the case with Sebastian, because homosexuality was not widely accepted during his time, there is this anxious rush by the family to do something about his problem.

The article is well-researched and well-written (although a bit of proofing would be useful to avoid clangers like “Sebastian Flute” which I first thought must part of some elaborate joke). The reader should be forewarned that of the three family members who respond to what they view as the “problems” of their siblings’ apostasies, Bridey’s reaction is the one seen by the author of the article as being the most successful. But the case made for this point, as well as others, is well-reasoned and dispassionately presented. 

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