Brideshead @ 75: A N Wilson, The Oldie and The Folio Society

The Oldie has posted A N Wilson’s introduction to the Folio Society’s 2018 reprint of Brideshead Revisited. While this may not be denominated by Wilson or The Oldie as a commemoration of the novel’s 75th anniversary, we should be entitled to regard it as such. Wilson begins by placing the book’s plot in historic context and explaining how the story would play out both the same and differently in today’s social and religious environments. His discussion of the religious context is of particular interest. He then provides his own assessment of the story itself:

…So, Brideshead Revisited is a period piece. The aristocratic way of life which Waugh believed to be doomed, still continues, albeit in modified form. The seemingly immutable Holy Mother Church has shifted some of her sterner stances.

This in no way spoils our enjoyment of the novel , which many would consider Waugh’s masterpiece. Those of us who love his work, and reread it often, must often have felt torn between appreciation of the brittle comedies of his youth and young manhood, and the august achievement of the Sword of Honour trilogy, one of the undoubted works of literary genius, in any language, to emerge from the Second World War. The early comedies, owing so much to Ronald Firbank, but so distinctively themselves, make us laugh aloud. The sports day at Llanabba Castle in Decline and Fall, the oafish customs inspectors in Vile Bodies, confiscating Dante’s Inferno because it sounds foreign and therefore pornographic, the hatefulness of the Connolly children in Put Out More Flags, these are crystalline comic vignettes which are cruelly and perfectly constructed. The Sword of Honour books retain the comedy (who can forget Apthorpe’s thunderbox?) but follow the themes of all great literature, love, war, death, with unmatched seriousness. Brideshead Revisited, lush, colour-splashed, romantic, comes between these two bodies of work. It is Waugh’s Antony and Cleopatra. It is his richest, and most passionate book…

Wilson’s introduction continues through other topics and ends up on the often overlooked success of the book’s comic characters:

Given the solemnity of the theme, “the operation of divine grace”, you might have expected Waugh’s humour to have failed him in this book, but even the hilarity of the early novels is outshone by the comic characters in this one. Charles’s father, Anthony Blanche, or the awful Samgrass take their place among the immortals with Dr Fagan and Captain Grimes. Even the figures whom Waugh and Ryder hate – Hooper and Mottram – are funny. And even non-Catholics have laughed at Cordelia’s hoodwinking Rex into believing that there are sacred monkeys in the Vatican.

To which might be added the character of Bridey who raises religious cluelessness to previously unattained heights of humour.

 

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