Brideshead @ 75: The Economist and The Tablet

–The current issue of The Economist includes in its Arts section an article entitled “The Flyte club.” This is the magazine’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Brideshead in 1945. After a brief survey of the somewhat surprising initial reception of the book in postwar Britain, given that that it relies heavily on religion and nostalgia to convey its story, the article comes to its core subject. This is the equally surprising and perhaps even more widespread reception of the book by a later generation as a result of the 1981 Granada TV serial. Here’s an excerpt from that portion of the article:

…Waugh, who died in 1966, might have been shocked by the next stage in this zombie afterlife. Directed by Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, with a star-strewn cast including Laurence Olivier, Anthony Andrews … and Jeremy Irons …, an 11-hour television adaptation of his novel began to air in Britain in October 1981. This lavish feast of nostalgia set off a national cult. Students and others mimicked the languid extravagance of doomed, drunken Sebastian, toting his teddy bear at Oxford, and his spoiled pals.

Smokestack industries were dying under Margaret Thatcher’s government; unemployment soared and inner cities rioted. But in many living rooms, the aristocracy was back in vogue. The fairy-tale nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer fed the mood. “We have really touched a nerve,” said Derek Granger, the producer of the series. […]

In Britain hardly any members of this new Flyte club actually belonged to the sparse upper classes. They came from the bourgeois middle and, after some play-acting at university, went back to it. For most, Brideshead mania left no lasting trace. For a fateful few, it did.

Here the article goes on to discuss the Brideshead impact on politicians such as Boris Johnson and David Cameron who came under the spell of the TV series while cavorting in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford, satirized in an earlier Waugh volume.

–Gerard Kilroy writing in The Tablet takes the opportunity presented by its 75th anniversary to survey the religious themes of the book. He provides an excellent and compact summary of the major religious features as well as some that have tended to be overlooked by other commentators. The article is recommended to those looking for an accurate, dispassionate and  coherent discussion of these religious matters. And even those who regard the religious portions of the novel as tedious and tendentious will find much to like in Gerard Kilroy’s concise coverage. Here’s an excerpt from the ending:

Despite all the criticism it has received for what Edmund Wilson called its “cult of the high nobility”, it grants the respectable Bridey, a leading Knight of Malta, only a refracted account of an audience with the Pope. Centre stage, Waugh invites the reader to a feast of admiration for the “grace of God” and its operation on Lord Marchmain, Sebastian, Julia, Cara and Charles. They, and Brideshead, are worth a fatted calf or two on the novel’s seventy-fifth birthday. (Perhaps now, more than ever, when hope is in short supply, may be the time to show again the television adaptation in 1981 by the Jesuit-educated Charles Sturridge, making “our inward vision clear”). […]

Brideshead Revisited is an assertion of hope in time of dreadful darkness, of the eschatological triumph of divine grace in a very human Church. The Preface he wrote in April 1946 for the US edition of Edmund Campion, reissued to surf on the success in America of Brideshead, makes clear Waugh’s horror at the “prison camps of Eastern and South Eastern Europe, of cruelty and degradation more frightful than anything in Tudor England”. It is a sense of the seriousness and scale of the evil which they faced that lies behind the image of “the same pure light shining in the darkness, uncomprehended”.

Gerard Kilroy is also, I believe, a co-editor of the Edmund Campion volume of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh.




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