Evelyn Waugh and the Mid-Century Gothic

A book published earlier this year addresses what it sees as a postwar response in literature and other media of cultural expression to the modernism that prevailed in the interwar period. The book is entitled Mid-Century Gothic which is the name applied to the literary and cultural phenomena it describes. It is written by Lisa Mullen who is a research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. It would be reckless to attempt a summary of what is meant by the term Mid-Century Gothic, but one can read a full description in the book’s introduction which is available online at the above link.

One example of the concept is found in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. This is associated with the paintings of Charles Ryder as described in the novel. The first of these is the mural of a ruin he painted on the walls of Brideshead Castle before the war. This painting is ruined in reality by the carelessness of the military occupants during the war. According to the book (p. 30):

Charles is engaged in an anti-modern project to create a well-delineated but counter-factual reality, in which aristocratic privilege and taste will not be demolished by time […] As modern war creates new kinds of ruins and a new attitude to the past, the very idea of ruins–and their symbolic correlative–is threatened with superannuation.

There is also an interesting discussion of the contribution to the theory of the Mid-Century Gothic by the novel’s character Anthony Blanche, the only “modernist survivor” in the novel and the only critic of Charles’s paintings of ivy clad ruins of Latin American houses. He describes these as an inauthentic attempt at “exotic gothicism”. Finally, there is a concluding discussion of Charles’s conversion to Roman Catholicism which is seen as the rejection of his “one remaining modern attitude, the agnosticism that has defined him and which has set him apart from the family” (p. 32).

Other contemporary novels discussed in the same context as Brideshead (“Rubble, Walls, and Murals: The Threshold between Abstraction and Materiality”) include Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness. The author of the book, Lisa Mullen, also reviewed several volumes of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. See previous post. That review is now available without a subscription on Academia.edu.


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