Brideshead @ 75: Tablet, Quadrant, Penguin

More commemorations of the Brideshead anniversary have been posted:

–Eleanor Doughty writing in The Tablet confesses in her introduction that, despite being a dedicated Waugh fan, she has never liked this particular volume. She surveys other literary journalists and scholars, most of whom find reasons for liking the book or finding it of some literary interest. Included in her survey are interviews of Barbara Cooke and Martin Stannard, co-editors of the OUP Complete Works project. Doughty then looks more closely at Waugh’s attitude toward the upper classes and his alleged snobbery as reflected in the book. She concludes her article with this:

Brideshead needn’t be just a book about Catholicism, the country house, or the aristocracy. It can be all of these. It can be good, and it can be bad. It is now 75, and for me, it is still not as funny as Decline and Fall. But it is not boring. It is touching. Truly, it is Orwell’s “good bad book”. “People like Waugh to be one thing,” says Dr Cooke. “Brideshead really caught the spirit of the time.” Most importantly, says [Patrick] Kidd, “it teaches the lesson that every boy needs a bear – though A.A. Milne may do that better.”

I would have to agree with her that the book is overrated and currently being overhyped (largely due to the popularity engendered by the 1981 TV adaptation, which she also mentions). But one shouldn’t allow the bad bits to overshadow the good ones. And the comic characters in Brideshead stand out against the relgiosity and snobbery which in the final analysis take up a relatively small part of the book. Those religious and social themes were important to Waugh and are likely to be so to many readers but need not necessarily be to all. Comic characters such as Anthony Blanche, Ryder’s father, Bridey, Mr Samgrass, Rex, Cousin Jasper, and even Cordelia continue to evoke laughter (often out loud) every time I read it and the book can still be read for that even if the religious and social content do not resonate. And the comedy even has its religious and social dimension. Who can take Roman Catholicism entirely seriously after reading Bridey’s and Cordelia’s versions of it? And who can be concerned about social snobbery after a few minutes on a page with Mr Samgrass or Anthony Blanche? Maybe it’s not as consistently funny as Decline and Fall but it’s close enough to warrant multiple re-readings.

–The Australian literary journal Quadrant has posted an article by Mark McGinness in which he begins with a brief discussion of how the book came to be written and published during wartime conditions. He goes on with a more detailed survey of its critical reception both in the literary and popular press, as well as among Waugh’s friends, and concludes that discussion with the assessment of American critic Edmund Wilson who, like many (including Eleanor Doughty who also cited Wilson) were put off by the book’s religious themes and snobbery:

…the New Yorker’s Edmund Wilson, a warm admirer of Waugh’s (“the only first-rate comic genius who has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw”), drew a sharp line between the early novels and Brideshead. He called it “a bitter blow”. While he thought the early chapters “felicitous, unobtrusive, exact”, the last scenes were “extravagantly absurd”. Wilson, an atheist, was especially appalled by the conversions of both Lord Marchmain as he crosses himself, and Charles Ryder falling on his knees to pray at the bedside.

“What has caused Mr. Waugh’s hero to plump on his knees isn’t the cross but Lord Marchmain’s aristocratic prestige.” Waugh’s friend, fellow novelist Henry Green, agreed, “how shocked & hurt I was when the old man crossed himself on his deathbed” and thought that “you may have overdone the semicolons a bit yet even then the regret with which the whole book is saturated, is beautifully carried out in the long structure of your sentences. The whole thing seemed deeper & wider than any book you have written.”

Wilson missed the anarchy of the early Waugh “that raised its head — boldly, outrageously, hilariously, or horribly” while the religion that is “invoked to correct it seems more like an exorcistic rite than force of regeneration.” But as Ann Pasternak Slater has written more recently it is this revelation that is the point of the novel. Wilson sadly predicted that the novel will prove to be the most successful, the only extremely successful, book that Evelyn Waugh has written…” Of course, Waugh’s response to the review of his erstwhile admirer was “I am glad we have shaken off Edmund Wilson at last.” […]

McGinness then refers to Waugh’s decision in the late fifties to edit the book in an effort to remove some of the more dated and overwritten portions. Waugh wrote in his introduction to the 1960 edition, quoted my McGinness: “Much of this book … is a panegyric preached over an empty coffin.”

The Quadrant article then concludes: That coffin may well have been empty, but in 2020, a time of angst and uncertainty when one looks for permanency and perhaps something otherworldly, there is still much in this panegyric, even for those who have heard it before, to justify revisiting.

Penguin Books, Waugh’s UK reprint publisher since the 1930s, has posted its own anniversary notice about Brideshead. Included are several examples of the Penguin covers for the novel, illustrating how they have evolved over the years since it was first published in 1951 in the boilerplate orange “tri-band” cover. This is by no means a complete reproduction of Penguin covers for the book, however. For example, Chris Ridgway in yesterday’s Castle Howard webinar showed another orange Penguin cover with a drawing of Brideshead Castle in the center that predates the 1981 TV series and is based on Waugh’s own written description. The cover drawing looks remarkably like Castle Howard, even though Waugh himself never identified that as a model. There were also probably TV and movie tie-in editions and I can recall some recent post-2000 editions with particularly dreary and unimaginative covers which are, perhaps thankfully, excluded.

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