Roundup: a Film, a Warrior and a Hoax

The Conversation has posted an article by literary scholar Christine Berberich, who teaches at the University of Portsmouth and is well known to members of the society through her writings and participation in its events. This latest essay explains the connection between the recent film Saltburn and Brideshead Revisited and provides a detailed review of the novel. Here’s the opening:

Ever since I first read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited as a master’s student many years ago, I have been smitten. Literary trends and fashions come and go, but I still return to Brideshead every couple of years for sheer reading pleasure.

Undoubtedly Waugh’s most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited was first published in 1945 after the second world war. Its narrative is deeply imbued with nostalgia for an unspoilt, quasi-mythical rural England of stately homes and bright young upper-class people that, it can be argued, never really existed in the first place.

Waugh’s protagonist is Charles Ryder, a young middle-class man with social aspirations, who meets and befriends the upper-class Sebastian Flyte while at Oxford. Ryder is seduced by the easy charm and carefree attitude of Sebastian, an infatuation that only increases once Ryder accompanies Sebastian to his ancestral home, Brideshead, and meets his family.

This storyline is emulated in English director Emerald Fennel’s new film, Saltburn. The film follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an awkward student who is trying to find his place at Oxford. Quick is taken under the wing of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who invites him to spend a memorable summer at his sprawling family estate Saltburn.

A riveting thriller, the film is also deeply nostalgic for an England of stately homes full of hedonistic, bright young things. It shows the timelessness of Waugh’s story and your appreciation for Saltburn will only be strengthened by getting to know the novel that inspired it…

The film is also discussed in previous posts. Here’s a link. In addition, the film is reviewed in several of the UK, US and Irish papers in connection with its theatrical release, and several of them prominently mention its connection to Waugh and Brideshead. Here’s the opening of the review from yesterday’s issue of The Times by Kevin Maher:

They say “write what you know” and, boy, does the film-maker Emerald Fennell know the upper-class milieu of this, her follow-up feature to Promising Young Woman. The 38-year-old Oscar-winner here takes judicious swipes at what she’s termed the “grotesque privilege” of her upbringing, and thus sets the film among wealthy university cliques and the buffoonish aristos of giant country manors in 2007.

One such pile is Saltburn, an estate that was, claims the screenplay, beloved of Evelyn Waugh but is now home to Sir James Catton (Richard E Grant), his ex-model wife, Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), his disaffected daughter, Venetia (Alison Oliver), and his sweet but dim son, Felix (Jacob Elordi).

These characters are immaculately drawn and reason alone to see the film. In their exchanges, often riotously funny, there’s a conspicuous strain of casual cruelty. Elsbeth wittily dismisses Venetia’s bulimia as “fingers for pudding”. Sir James boasts about the family’s alleged informality even as they dress, black tie, for dinner. The Catton riches facilitate an underlying ruthlessness in Felix’s relationships with university friends; he picks them and drops them at will. It’s the stuff of classic “country house” fiction, and the references here, as well as Brideshead Revisited, are The Go-Between, Atonement and Mansfield Park although there’s a final reel revelation, concerning a key character’s affections, that’s been brazenly lifted from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca…

–An interesting article appears in the website of the Texas National Security Review: War on the Rocks. This scholarly journal is sponsored and curated by the University of Texas. The article is by Zachary Griffiths, a West Point graduate and a veteran of the Afghanistan War. His article is entitled “Waugh we Fight”. After explaining how he became acquainted with Waugh’s war trilogy Sword of Honour, he describes why it is particularly interesting to him as a professional soldier. Among these are Waugh’s description of the importance of non-commissioned offers in Men at Arms that Griffiths found true to life based on his own experience as an officer. He also compares Waugh’s narrative of the retreat from Crete in Officers and Gentlemen to the US experience in Afghanistan. Here’s an excerpt:

One place I have said goodbye to is Afghanistan. Now that we are more than two years from the withdrawal, the retreat from Crete in Officers and Gentlemen helps me make sense of my feelings. In that scene, Guy and Hookforce huddle in caves overhanging the beaches of Sphakia on Crete as the Germans close in. It becomes clear that no more boats are coming to take troops off the island. Individuals, not armies, make decisions about the future.

Faced with defeat, Guy and his colleague Ivor debate the honorable choice. Is it to stay, fight, and surrender, or to leave their men behind so that they may train the next crop of conscripts? His colleague sees that “the path of honor lies up the hill,” facing, then surrendering to, the Germans. Guy, though, falls asleep, bathes in the sea, and escapes with some sappers on a jerry-rigged boat. Ivor ultimately chose the least honorable path — desertion — while Guy battled post-traumatic stress and returned to the war. To this reader, none of these paths clearly offer honor, just like the options of staying or going in Afghanistan. These vignettes merely scratch the surface of how Waugh helps me think about war.

He has issues with Waugh’s conclusion of the trilogy:

Despite the incredible strength of Sword of Honour, I struggle with the happy ending: Guy’s redemption. The final chapter ties up all the challenges facing Guy at the beginning. He sought redemption from his failed marriage, his wasting of an inheritance as a failed Kenyan farmer, and his failure to restore his family estate so ancient it was nearly unique in “having been held in uninterrupted male succession since Henry I.” Men at Arms starts with Guy’s rejoicing that the new war might rescue him from “eight years of shame and loneliness [as] … the enemy at last was plain in view … [and] there was a place for him in that battle.” Then, over 27 lines in the book’s last two pages, Waugh grants Guy redemption. He cashes in his Italian estate, acquires an heir and wife, turns a profit on his farm, and obtains an inheritance. Given Guy’s string of failures, his desire for redemption is understandable, but no writing on the truth of war should end on such a note…

Griffiths may not be aware of Waugh’s struggle with his ending. He did not mean to suggest that Guy Crouchback would live happily ever after. While Guy did remarry, he was saddled with Trimmer’s illegitimate son born to his first wife Virginia, whom Guy had remarried during her pregnancy with the knowledge of the child’s paternity. When Virginia died in an air raid near the end of the war, the child survived and was deemed Guy’s legitimate child with full inheritance rights. Waugh’s original ending of Unconditional Surrender also blessed Guy with two children of his own with his new postwar wife. He hoped that the irony of the inheritance of Guy’s estate by Trimmer’s bastard and not his own sons would cloud his future. When several readers missed this point, Waugh changed the ending as it appeared in Sword of Honour to eliminate the two children with his new wife. This probably would not change Griffiths’ reservations about the ending but is worth a mention. Here’s a link to the article.  Thanks to Dave Lull for sending a copy.

–The Irish Times has posted an article on the 1929 Bruno Hat hoax and Waugh’s participation therein. This is by Alison Healy and opens with this:

The life of Bruno Hat is the stuff of fantasy. The reclusive German artist was reportedly discovered by Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing dynasty, in 1929. The story goes that he pushed open the wrong door in a shop in a Sussex village and found the artist’s avant-garde paintings. He was blown away by the originality and learned that they were painted by the shop-owner’s stepson. Guinness brought the wunderkind to his home in Westminster where he held an exhibition of 20 paintings for the art critics and glitterati. Bruno Hat quickly became the talk of London.

It was indeed the stuff of fantasy, for Bruno Hat never existed. He was a dream conjured up by Bryan Guinness and his friends, a group of socialites, dilettantes and creative types dubbed the Bright Young People. And only for historian and broadcaster Myles Dungan’s website, I would never have heard of Herr Hat’s exploits.

The idea to create the fictional artist seemed to have come from the poet Brian Howard, and the paintings were a collaboration between him and the artist John Banting. Variously described as quasi-cubist and surrealist, the artworks on display at the Guinness mansion were painted on bathmats and framed with rope.

The writer Evelyn Waugh pulled out all the stops when he penned the catalogue notes with the earnest and scholarly title: Approach to Hat. Fond of a pun, his pseudonym was A.R. de T. He likened Bruno Hat to Picasso and said he “may lead the way in this century’s European painting from discovery to tradition . . . Uninfluenced, virtually untaught, he is the first natural, lonely, spontaneous flower of the one considerable movement in painting to-day”…

A complete copy of Waugh’s “Introduction” is included in CWEW of Evelyn Waugh, v. 26, pp. 186ff.

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