The Cult of the Country House Reconsidered

A reference to the article of Matthew d’Ancona in the Evening Standard was inadvertently omitted from yesterday’s post on the critical reception of the BBC’s adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love. This is a pity because it is, in my opinion, the most thoughtful of the several articles that appeared in response to the series. The article is subtitled: “Are we still in the cult of the English country house?” Here is an excerpt:

I have a hunch that Nancy Mitford would have relished the furiously divided response to the BBC’s new adaptation of her great comic novel, The Pursuit of Love. Directed by Emily Mortimer, the three-part series […] has been hailed by some as a sublime reimagining of a literary classic and by others (especially on Twitter) as an intolerable provocation. […]

What scratches at the English conscience about the Mitfords is not so much their politics but precisely what makes them so compelling: the shamelessness of their class-consciousness. The companion piece to The Pursuit of Love is Nancy’s essay The English Aristocracy, originally published in Encounter in 1954: essentially a series of arbitrary assertions (“shame is a bourgeois notion”; “effort is unrelated to money”; the “lords never cared very much for London”), that became notorious for its division of language into “U” (upper class) and “non-U”. Hence: “cycle” is non-U, whereas “bike” is U; ‘“greens” is non-U, while “vegetables” is U; “home” is non-U, but “house” is U — and so on.

Nancy’s great correspondent, Evelyn Waugh, saw immediately that her essay was mischievous, the intervention of an “agitatrix… of genius”. To this day, the English are obsessed by social categorisation and classification. In the Mitfords’ era, this was snobbery. Today, it is called market research or lifestyle journalism. In his own masterpiece of mid-century social observation, Brideshead Revisited, Waugh foresaw the crumbling of the old order. In contrast, Nancy intuited that it could survive by hiding in plain sight, mocking itself, embracing irony.

What she demonstrated in The Pursuit of Love trilogy — completed by Love in a Cold Climate (1949) and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960) — was the immense potential to commodify the shabby glamour of the upper classes. Reflecting upon Brideshead in 1959, Waugh admitted that he had completely failed to foresee the “cult of the English country house” — a cult that remains fervent to this day.

As it happens, the aforesaid article coincides with another that appears on the website Frieze.com sponsored by the arts culture magazine of that name. This marks the 40th anniversary of the 1981 broadcast of Granada TV’s adaptation of Brideshead Revisted. It is written by Brian Dillon who was a 12 year old Dublin resident when the series first appeared. He missed the original broadcast (suspecting that his “pious” parents might have thought it inappropriate for some one of his age) but saw it two years later when it was rebroadcast by the new Channel 4 network. After discussing how the 1981 series and the novel, which he finally read, affected his university career, Dillon continues:

As I write, I’m halfway through what must be my seventh or eighth viewing of the series. When I first came back to it, about 15 years ago, I was dismayed by how little is really about the halcyon days of Charles and Sebastian at Oxford and how much is about the importunate demands of Catholicism: on Sebastian, on Julia, on Charles the atheist, and the apostate Marchmain. Then I recalled that this is what put me off the novel the first time round: its descent into scolding piety. So, I tried watching again a few years later, and started to notice both the comedy and the sadness. John Gielgud in a luscious comic turn as Charles’s delicately tormenting father, and Laurence Olivier as the Byronic runaway, Lord Marchmain. (Olivier, who spends much of his onscreen time dying, realized too late that Gielgud had the better role.) Endearing details drew me in – certain joyous bits of business by Gielgud, or just how bad Irons is sometimes at acting fey – but I also began to discern a long, slow disquisition on lost youth and lost time, on the heaviness and the lightness of middle age.

After considering the portrayals of other characters, in particular Anthony Blanche, Julia Flyte  and Lady Marchmain, he offers this observation about the production of the series:

As Clive James pointed out in the Observer on 1 November 1981, the texture of the show was also to do with language. Brideshead Revisited repurposed large tracts of Waugh’s dialogue and narration: the last added as a perfectly pitched voice-over by Irons, who, already in his early 30s, had the vocal nuance for the weariness and rue of Charles’s middle age. The screenplay was credited to the writer-lawyer John Mortimer – he even wrote a puff piece for The New York Times in 1982 about his approach to adapting Waugh – but, in fact, his script was never used by the directors, Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Instead, producer Derek Granger and associate producer Martin Thompson laboured nightly, during production, revising almost every scene in the novel. They toned down or excised a lot of snobbery, prejudice and outright racism. Charles’s wartime adjutant, Hooper, is no longer quite the portrait of grasping bourgeois vulgarity; Lady Marchmain no longer frets that Julia’s fiancé, Rex, may have ‘Black blood’. Most of the anti-Semitic aspersions are gone too, along with Charles’s horror of Americans.

The article concludes with a consideration of how the series is perceived today and closes with this:

I live in London now, have spent half my life in England, was long ago disabused of any lingering notions about an aristocracy of wealth, heritage or taste. You will sometimes hear the more outlandishly retro members of the current Conservative government described as plausible, or merely aspirant, figures from Brideshead Revisited. Two Prime Ministers of the last three have been former members of the Bullingdon Club, the boisterous and scornful Oxford dining society that is the scourge of Blanche, and to which (in the television series) Sebastian seems to belong. But, instead of sorrowed aesthetes, it’s the minor scolds and boors of Brideshead Revisited who seem reborn among contemporary Tories: the toady Samgrass, Charles’s stuffy cousin Jasper, the eager dimwit Mulcaster. Turn back to the 1981 series, or discover it for the first time, and you find instead a world of blazing innocence and exhausted experience, wracked with violent nostalgia, touched by kitsch. And populated by characters whose grace, or lack of it, is beside the point – but whose longing, for the future, for the past, for the present, is everything.

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