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A Companion to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

 

Preface

 

There are three points in EW’s Preface to the 1960 edition to which I should like to draw your attention.


1. Changes and cuts

EW mentions many small additions and some substantial cuts. It would take some effort and much time to give details of all EW’s changes, but I should like here to point out one change I find notable. (Others are signalled in the Companion itself.) It concerns the account of Charles Ryder’s attitude to religion which EW places at Brideshead at the time Charles becomes aware of the way in which religion colours Sebastian’s whole life. The original version reads as follows :

I had no religion. I was taken to church weekly as a child, and at school attended chapel daily, but, as though in compensation, from the time I went to my public school I was excused church in the holidays. The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teaching was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it: religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the providence of ‘complexes’ and ‘inhibitions’ - catch words of the decade - and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophic system and intransigent historical claims; nor, had they done so, would I have been much interested.

The replacement passage (on page 83 of the latest Penguin edition) emphasises indifference and mild scepticism towards Christianity rather than outright hostility. It contains two sentences that accurately describe EW’s own experience at Lancing College. Many might consider the new passage more suitable for fleshing out the agnostic that Charles maintains he is during his first summer at Brideshead :

I had no religion. I was taken to church weekly as a child, and at school attended chapel daily, but, as though in compensation, from the time I went to my public school I was excused church in the holidays. The masters who taught me Divinity told me that biblical texts were highly untrustworthy. They never suggested I should try to pray. My father did not go to church except on family occasions and then with derision. My mother, I think, was devout. It once seemed odd to me that she should have thought it her duty to leave my father and me and go off with an ambulance, to Serbia, to die of exhaustion in the snow in Bosnia. But later I recognised some such spirit in myself. Later, too, I have come to accept claims which then, in 1923, I never troubled to examine, and to accept the supernatural as the real. I was aware of no such needs that summer at Brideshead.

I can see why EW thought the second version more suitable – it gives a background of home and school of greater naturalness, it tells us more about that intriguing but unknown character Mrs Ryder, it reveals a self-sacrificial nature in Charles - but I regret the loss of the splendid obloquy of the first. One of the decisions of the Granada Television production that pleased me at least was to reinstate these first thoughts, along with parts of the second version.


2. Critical Reaction

When BR was first published in 1945 it dismayed some critics and readers. They perceived the novel to be a lush, sentimental, complacent tale of beautiful people. It jarred after the witty, satirical novels which preceded it. Indeed it is wonderful how little they realised what the novel is really about. They thought it an excuse for aristocratic snobbery, suspected it to be sycophantic praise of a small Catholic clique, and condemned it for pandering to an unhealthy taste for miracles.

Fifteen years after writing BR, EW too notes many faults in the book. He thinks it necessary to proffer the excuse that he wrote it in the deprived conditions of wartime and that he was seduced by a consequent nostalgia for a settled age of civilisation and culture which had passed.

At the time he wrote the novel, however, he had no doubt he was writing his magnum opus, a phrase he used several times in his letters without apparent irony. When in this Preface EW calls the novel ‘a souvenir of the Second War’ he sells his novel very short indeed. He must certainly have his tongue in his cheek. He better than anyone knew that it deals with far more than an age which witnessed a regrettable decline in splendid living, a reduction in aristocratic influence, and a decay in the enjoyment of large-scale domestic architecture. Its major theme – the need to place one’s relationship with God at the very centre of one’s life – is something very different. In fact EW states the theme of the novel in the Preface as baldly and as clearly as possible : it is ‘the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters’.

Even those readers who dimly realised the real theme in 1945 sometimes found themselves horrified by the denouement : Marchmain’s deathbed repentance and Julia’s rejection of a life with Charles seemed not only unlikely but perverse. Religion had its place perhaps, they thought, but surely not in affecting lives like this. At the end of the novel they expected Catholicism to make Charles and Julia happy and somehow to help them to be together. You will find even stronger expression of this view today, and not only among non-Catholics.

This criticism indicates a lack of understanding of Waugh’s clear but perhaps austere view of the place of religion in life : expressed briefly and coarsely, it is that, in the end, God is more important than any human being. This view is of course even more unpopular today than it was in Waugh’s lifetime.

It seems to me that, unfortunately, misunderstanding of the novel has been increased rather than diminished by the television series of the early 1980’s. Too many people now see it as a story of beautiful young men at Oxford which has been spoiled by an overlong conclusion so mismanaged that one of the two major characters is almost entirely eliminated. For a few of these people, the book has become a homosexual classic.


3. Purple Passages

EW says specifically that he was in two minds about ‘the treatment of Julia’s outburst about mortal sin and Lord Marchmain’s dying soliloquy’. As his words imply, EW was criticised for putting such unrealistic passages into a novel otherwise presented in a realistic manner. He says in this Preface that they were in the ‘mood of writing’. He did adjust these passages for the 1960 edition. But they have important structural functions too : we become aware of Julia’s deeply hidden distress and its springs; and we begin to understand that Lord Marchmain needs to settle his disturbed spirit in its truest home, which is not so much the Brideshead estate he eulogises (though he does not leave the house to go and see it after 25 years’ absence) as the Church he has rejected.

EW certainly felt a little ashamed of the richness of the writing : he told Graham Greene that on re-reading the book he was appalled. One of the great losses to the literary cinema – there were a few in EW’s lifetime - was the proposal that Greene should write the film script of BR, a prospect that delighted EW but which came to nothing. The tone and style would certainly have been more austere and probably more in keeping with EW’s later mood, not to mention his prevailing style. The contrast between novel and script would have been fascinating to study.

From 1950 EW intended to re-write the novel. He never got round to such a massive task; there are a lot of small changes in the revised edition of 1960 but it is not a re-writing. He realised that the novel was its own justification, that changing the style would change the book. BR certainly remained very different from all his other novels : they will better maintain his reputation as the greatest writer of English prose in the twentieth century. In the Preface he mentions, no doubt with some ironical pleasure, that many readers liked his purple passages anyway. What cannot be gainsaid is that the novel has gained a place in its readers’ hearts few other books of its century have achieved.

 

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