This is the opening day of Brideshead Revisited’s 75th anniversary week. The first book publication took place on 28 May 1945 in London. The Sunday Telegraph is first off the mark in its recognition of the event with an article by Hannah Betts. She opens with a mention of the book’s current reputation based on the opinion of Christopher Hitchens and events such as the BBC rebroadcast of a four-part radio adaptation and Castle Howard’s webinar later this week. See earlier posts. She then considers its critical reputation at the time of its publication, the evolution of that reception as well as Waugh’s own evolving assessment of the book and concludes with her own analysis. Here is an excerpt:
So what is the enduring appeal of this novel that has such a grip on the popular consciousness, even among those who — like Hitchens, radical and anti-theist — one might imagine would resist its heady allure?
It haunts us because it is about being haunted; a postlapsarian account of the prelapsarian, and an elegy for not one, but two lost worlds. […]
Brideshead, it must be said, is also bloody funny. One thinks of Cordelia’s sacred Vatican monkeys, or the wincingly awful Cynthia asking whether she should “put her face to bed”, lest her spouse require intercourse.
Personally, it is not Oxford, Venice or Brideshead itself that exerts its siren call, but the interlude on the boat; not “forerunner” Sebastian, but his sister whom I weep over. That nightmarish breakdown at the fountain — as coruscating a scene as ever appeared in Eng Lit. For all the book’s sepia-tintedness, the nostalgia it gives us is of the most lacerating sort, a blade never not among the plovers’ eggs.
Still, in the end, even this pain becomes a pleasure, and part of our reason for revisiting. A.N. Wilson again: “Waugh is one of the rare band — Lermontov, Jane Austen, Nabokov — who made of his novels perfectly crafted objects. Brideshead Revisited, of all his books, is the most beautifully made, the most richly enjoyable. Above all, enjoyable.”
Re-read it and weep – but happily.