Among the old stones

August 1, 2007

Brideshead Revisited (1945)
Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics, 1962)
331 p. Third reading.

My tour through the novels of Evelyn Waugh brings me at last to an old favourite. Encountering the book again having now read his earlier novels allows me to better appreciate the risks he took with this story, and the triumph he achieved.

It is a novel about memory. Writing in the thick of the darkest days of World War II, Waugh was writing a love story to a world he saw passing away, and in his hands Charles Ryder’s reminiscences of Oxford, and of Brideshead and the Flyte family, are sepia-toned and burnished with tenderness for days gone by. This stylistic tone, which speaks in a quiet, honeyed voice from every page, is for me one of the central pleasures of the book. It’s luxurious. Not that the memories themselves are happy ones — for though Charles has few virtues, he is at least honest — but from his point of view, in the thick of the war and finding himself “homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless”, Charles can nevertheless look back on those happy, heart-breaking years with fondness. And gratitude too, I think, for he also knows that those years gave him more than just memories.

On this reading the subtleties of the relationship of Charles and Julia captured my special admiration. She plays a peripheral role in the first half of the book, of course, but when she does move to center stage the relationship is charged with unspoken, subterranean intensity. How Waugh manages to do this is beyond me, for there’s nothing overtly spectacular about the writing; it is simply very sure. Consider, for example, the section beginning “It is time to speak of Julia”; the following four or five pages are as good an example I know of truly masterful writing. Or consider those stormy few days at sea when Charles and Julia find themselves alone in one another’s company: the quality of suspended time, the mutual understanding, the intimacy that seems to come so naturally to them — it is all superbly done.

The inner dynamic of the story is admittedly strange. Charles first loves Sebastian, then has, I think, a certain admiration for Lady Marchmain, then loves Julia, and finally is left without any of them, and as each fresh love arises the former fades as sure as the seasons. It’s almost as though the story is about his love affair with the family tout ensemble, and with the very stones of Brideshead castle. Then again, even this love seems in the end to have been only a catalyst for the one love that survives the wreckage of all that human drama, the love symbolized by “a small red flame” burning in “a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design”.

On that note, it seems to me that there is a stern secret at the heart of the book: the jealousy of God’s love. All those hopes for finding simple human happiness in one another come to nothing in this story, and at the close nearly all of the central characters are alone — alone with God, that is. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, Waugh seems to be saying, though of course those hands are also there to rescue each of them. Their quarantine is a convalescence.

Brideshead Revisited seems to occupy a different world from the farces and black comedies that preceded it. Yet, sitting back a little, the book is not without humour. Bridey is, in his way, a very carefully rendered comic character, though not one that can be laughed at with complete confidence. And there is that hilarious sequence in which Rex Mottram takes religious instruction from the priest (and from Cordelia). The charmer, however, which delighted me when I saw it, for against all the odds it means that after all Waugh did intend this story to occupy the same world as his other books, is when Charles’ wife Celia makes an off-hand remark about Lord Copper at the Daily Beast! Lord Copper and the Beast are lifted from Scoop. It’s a nice touch.

5 Responses to “Among the old stones”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    How Waugh manages to do this is beyond me, for there’s nothing overtly spectacular about the writing; it is simply very sure.

    Well put. It is a deceptive book — seemingly straight forward at first, but on further reading, full of layers and depth: richly rewarding to re-read.

  2. Amber Says:

    Great review. I said much the same thing in my review of it here – but you said what I couldn’t. “the jealousy of God’s love”.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, both of you, for your kind comments. Amber, I enjoyed reading your thoughts as well. It’s good to hear from someone else who appreciates this wonderful book. (I’d have left you a comment on your page, but I haven’t got the right credentials.)

  4. […] a half-dozen of Evelyn Waugh’s novels over the course of the year, including another look at Brideshead Revisited, and it stands out, again, as a favourite. I would also name Kenneth Grahame’s […]

  5. […] Craig Burrell has also written a marvellous review of it here. […]

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