AN Wilson Returns to Brideshead

The Oldie joins the Spectator in commemorating this week’s 40th anniversary of the 1981 Granada TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. They send critic and novelist AN Wilson back to have another look. He begins by noting Waugh’s main themes: the decline of the upper classes with their stately homes and their salvation by the Roman Catholic Church. Wilson thinks Waugh got both these wrong. The upper classes continue to thrive and their stately homes with them, and Wilson notes Waugh’s recognition of that in his 1960 revised edition. The church has evolved in another  direction, however, unanticipated by Waugh. Wilson, thus, sees a different outcome for Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte under today’s Catholicsm:

The situation of Charles and Julia in today’s church would surely enable them to live together and to receive the sacraments. Julia, after all, married a man – Rex Mottram – who already had a wife living, and so, by the strict tenets of canon law she was not in fact married at all. She was quite free to marry Charles in a Catholic ceremony, were his first marriage to be annulled – as was Evelyn Waugh’s. Since, like Waugh, Charles had married before becoming a Catholic, and in circumstances which made it clear he did not have a Catholic view of the sacrament of marriage, he would surely today have been granted an annulment.

Wilson then considers Brideshead’s position in Waugh’s oeuvre, between: “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.” Wilson concludes that “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: passionate about male love, about the love between men and women, about the centrality of beauty in human life.”

Wilson then considers the book’s plot and characters, offering several interesting and innovative insights on both. For example, in considering Charles’ career as a painter, Wilson inserts this factoid: “In the great ITV adaptation of the novel, in 1981, directed by Charles Sturridge, they used the paintings of the sublime Felix Kelly; but one senses that Ryder also owes something to Rex Whistler.” And here’s his take on the character of Sebastian:

It was a highwire act of prodigious skill not to make Sebastian as cloying as his malicious friend Anthony Blanche (“Antoine”) wants Charles to find him. The young Sebastian with Aloysius the teddy bear is adored by everyone – barbers, Oxford scouts, the jeunesse dorée. The ruined Sebastian in Morocco, seeking out an existence loosely attached to Catholic religious houses, could be equally annoying, since he possesses only what “Antoine” calls “the fatal English gift of charm” and, an even riskier quality to convey in a novel, holiness. But it would be a harsh reader who did not see why Charles loved him, just as it would be strange not to fall in love with Julia.

At the end of this discussion, Wilson reveals his own favorite among the characters, a somewhat surprising choice, as it turns out–Cara: “All Cara’s observations, about love, sex, and religious practice, deserve to be memorized. And she is that rarity in the Waugh oeuvre, a thoroughly decent sort.”

The article concludes with this:

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.

I couldn’t agree more and have made that same point several times in the past since it is easy to overlook the book’s comedy. To be fair, I would have to add Cousin Jasper and Bridey to the list of memorable comic characters, perhaps because of their brilliant and memorable portrayals in the Granada adaptation.

Wilson doesn’t say much about the greatly anticipated BBC/HBO adaptation now in production. He does mention, however, that Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette will be playing the Marchmains. The new producers will be hard put, however, to find the equals of the 1981 production for characters such as Anthony Blanche and Charles Ryder’s father.

UPDATE 18 October 2021: Reader Ryan Koopman noticed a typo in The Oldie’s AN Wilson article about Brideshead. The name of Lord Marchmain’s mistress is Cara, not Carla as was printed in The Oldie. The above post has been corrected accordingly.

UPDATE 27 October 2021: Thanks to anonymous reader for another correction to The Oldie’s text: jeunesse dorée.


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