Another Look at Brideshead

Literary critic Eleanor Doughty has taken another look at Brideshead Revisited on the occasion of the book’s 75th anniversary and doesn’t particularly like what she finds. This essay is published in The Critic and is entitled: “A little too mature: In Brideshead, the overriding feeling is that surely the punchline is to come. It never does.” Although she is a keen fan of Waugh’s work, she didn’t much like this novel the first time she read it and likes it even less now. She thinks this may be due to the fact that Brideshead lacks the humor of his earlier novels. After explaining why she likes his early books such as Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, she describes why she does not feel the same about Brideshead:

After six cracking novels in a row, a dedicated reader might imagine that this would be just as funny. Alas, it is tortured, too serious. Dare I say, it is dry — not the writing, though this is sometimes overbearing and schmaltzy, but the content. […]

In the 1959 preface to a new edition of the book, Waugh wrote: “It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house. It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay like the monasteries in the sixteenth century.” I think of this often, but it is not becoming of a novel that a preface to a revision is what is most memorable.

Brideshead isn’t a book for a Sunday afternoon in the sun, or for a medium-length train journey. It is overly preoccupied with Catholicism. Even Waugh’s friend, the late Christopher Sykes, a cradle Catholic, worried about this. “I have often wondered what I would make of it if I was not a Catholic,” he wrote in his 1975 biography of Waugh. “The book [is] … deficient because solely addressed to believing Catholics and admirers of the Catholic Church. The general reader is left in the cold.”

Kingsley Amis, interviewed as part of the BBC’s Arena programme about Waugh in 1987, identifies one of the novel’s troubles — that “the nobs are seen uncritically, not so much that they get away with behaving badly, as they get away with behaving very boringly. Every time I read it, I say surely there must be more to Sebastian Flyte than that he is rich, aristocratic and Roman Catholic, but there isn’t.” In Brideshead, the overriding feeling is that surely the punchline is to come. It never does.

Doughty is not the first Waugh admirer to find Brideshead’s religious passages a barrier to appreciation of the book. But the good news is that, once you have read the book, with a little effort, you can leave out the more overwrought passages from future readings. This means pencilling through some paragraphs but you really lose only a few pages and none of the story, and what you have left is a very funny book. You don’t need to cut out the religious theme entirely, just where it goes over the top, such as Julia’s meltdown at the fountain and Lord Marchmain’s death. Some of Charles Ryder’s anti-catholic hectoring can be dispensed with as well.

Doughty ends her article on another downer:

Had I begun with Brideshead, I don’t know whether my love affair with Waugh would have ever started. I’m not sure I’d have jokingly described myself as the “Waugh correspondent” for the newspaper I worked for, or tortured my undergraduate tutor through a dissertation on his work. What a disappointment it would have been — not at all the thing for a teenager, or anyone seeking solace in literature.

I wrote on its seventieth anniversary that Brideshead was a bit of a bore. If anything, it has matured a little too much with age.

If an edited Brideshead doesn’t work, then perhaps one just shouldn’t re-read it.  But then, you will miss what is some very fine comic and descriptive writing and a story which is well told even if it ends unhappily. And, to be fair, Charles Ryder didn’t really deserve a happy ending.

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