Brideshead Revisited in Foreign Media

Articles featuring Brideshead Revisited have appeared recently in Italian and Spanish news media. In the Italian-language Roman Catholic internet news site Radio Spada, Luca Fumagalli reviews the 1981 TV adaptation of the novel (although he notes that no Italian language version is available). He previously published articles on the same site relating to the 2008 film adaptation and to the novel itself. These are both linked in this latest article. He makes the case in this article that the 1981 TV film does a better job of conveying the religious themes of the story than either the 2008 film (no surprise there) or the novel itself and also makes a comparison to a novel by Maurice Baring:

Brideshead is a Catholic home, featuring a beautifully decorated chapel that, like in Daphne Adeane by Maurice Baring, was built by her husband for his wife. It is a place of consolation but also of nostalgia, and the light of the Most Blessed is a visible sign of that providential wind that pervades everything….

In Brideshead Revisited, the traditional aspects of the Catholic Novel are, however, subordinate to the sanctifying power of divine grace. The TV series, having a longer time than the novel – quite compact – almost manages to get back to the spectator the conflicts that cross the heart of the protagonists, victims of the drama of life, torn by doubts and contradictions. If young and beautiful Julia Flyte (played by Diana Quick) only realizes that the way for happiness goes through self-renunciation, Sebastian falls into the hell of alcoholism and despair before being accepted…at a monastery. Even Lord Marchmain, separated from his wife, returns to Brideshead to die, and Charles himself, an agnostic rhetoric, gives a long cascade to the charm of Catholicism.

Maurice Baring was also a convert to Catholicism and a prolific, though now largely forgotten novelist. His friend Hilaire Belloc immortalized him in this verse, quoted in Baring’s Wikipedia entry:

Like many of the upper class
He liked the sound of broken glass*
* A line I stole with subtle daring
From Wing-Commander Maurice Baring.

Waugh made use of that same image in describing gatherings of the Bollinger Club at the beginning of Decline and Fall.

In the Spanish language newspaper El Pais an article by Jacinto Anton about artist Rex Whistler (apparently little known in Spain) also alludes to Brideshead Revisited:

At age 16 Whistler entered the Slade School of Art in London, where his teacher Henry Tonks, who championed the tradition of the mural, channeled him towards that art, and where he became friends with Stephen Tennant, the offspring of a rich and cultivated family (and Siegfried Sassoon’s lover). The relationship, certainly very similar to that of Charles Ryder (it has frequently been said that Waugh was inspired by him) with Sebastian Flyte in  Brideshead Revisited, allowed Whistler to travel (significantly, to Italy) and opened the door to the world of high society, where he would find clients for his artistic work. In fact, one of the things that has made Rex Whistler an artist (if not exactly secret, then at least relatively little known) is that many of his large-scale decorative works are found in private mansions and many of his portraits, in private collections of wealthy people. This is not the case of the famous mural he painted, at the age of 22, for the London Tate Gallery café (now the Rex Whistler restaurant).

The Tennant/Whistler relationship may well have contributed to Waugh’s description of Charles Ryder’s career as an artist, but there are certainly other contributors to the characters of Charles and Sebastian. The translations are by Google with a few edits. Any corrections or suggestions may be made by commenting below.

The BBC has reposted Mark Kermode’s Radio 5 review of the 2008 film adaptation of Brideshead. This is now on BBC iPlayer. Kermode had not seen the 1981 TV series during his youth when he thought of it as “a bunch of toffs having a bad time” and was dismissive of anything by Waugh. But he found some good things about the 2008 film–especially whenever Emma Thompson (who played Lady Marchmain) was on the screen. The rest of the film, however, is rather flat whenever it lacks the “wattage of her presence.” Kermode simply can’t like “these people” in the way his counterparts in the Thatcher years hankered after the country house past.

UPDATE (20 December 2017): Final paragraph re BBC Radio 5 review was added.

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