Just after a full-on week of the Daunt Books Festival, came another full-on week of preparing to lecture at my old Oxford college about building communities around books, followed by a special Emily’s Walking Book Club discussing Brideshead Revisited in Christ Church Meadow. It turned out to be a fun, if exhausting day, and above all it provided an excuse to re-read Brideshead, which was much better than I remembered.
I first read Brideshead Revisited at school. We did it as AS Level coursework and I suspect studying a book for a whole term is almost enough to ruin it for anyone. Especially if your English teacher insists it’s all about Catholicism, and you’re a seventeen-year-old with no interest in religion at all.
It is terribly embarrassing re-reading a book from school, with so many bits underlined and one’s adolescent scrawl in the margins. On almost every page were penned dreadful words like ‘desensitised’, ‘ironic’, ‘self-loathing’, and, tellingly often, ‘relig.’ and ‘Cath.’. I cringed as I turned the pages, hoping that no-one was peering over my shoulder on the tube.
As well as being about Catholicism, Brideshead is very much about nostalgia, and re-reading it for this Oxford walk was a strange exercise in triple-nostalgia: its echo of my own halcyon Oxford days; the painful memories of reading it in our sixth-form English lessons, air stiff with newly awakened sexual tension; and, of course, all the nostalgia in the book itself.
Charles Ryder, our narrator who find himself stationed at Brideshead when he’s in the army during the Second World War, tells us ‘I had been there before; I knew all about it.’ So the rest of the novel unfolds as Charles tells of his time spent at Brideshead and with the Marchmains, its family. The first section of the novel is probably the one everyone – myself included – recalls when they think about Brideshead. Charles is new up at Oxford, where he meets eccentric, charming Sebastian Flyte, one of the Marchmains. Sebastian vomits in Charles’s rooms, then apologises by filling them with flowers the next day and inviting Charles to lunch. Charles tells us:
I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Collins told me it was seemly to hold back. But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.
It’s a wonderful passage, positively aching with nostalgia. That youthful curiosity, ‘in search of love’, and the inkling that grey old Oxford, up till then reasonably unexciting, had its secrets, would offer so much if only you could discover the low door to its enchanted garden … It captures so perfectly that feeling of excited anticipation, of knowing you’re on the verge of something wonderful, and venturing forth, curious, yet also somewhat timid.
Interesting that Waugh uses this metaphor of doors, wall and gardens. Interesting too that the novel is named after a great house, rather than being given one of his more abstract titles, like A Handful of Dust, or Vile Bodies. Evidently, Brideshead Revisited is a novel in which the presence of architecture is strongly felt. Charles even goes on to become an architectural painter, succeeding largely thanks to the aristos’ declining fortunes:
The financial slump of the period, which left many painters without employment, served to enhance my success, which was, indeed, itself a symptom of the decline. When the water-holes were dry people sought to drink at the mirage. After my first exhibition I was called to all parts of the country to make portraits of houses that were soon to be deserted or debased; indeed, my arrival seemed often to be only a few paces ahead of the auctioneer’s, a presage of doom.
Not unlike Charles’s paintings, Brideshead Revisited captures a great country seat just as it was on the verge of decline. A great many pages are spent describing its rooms and décor, ‘the high and insolent dome … coffered ceilings … arches and broken pediments’ and the fountain, where the young Charles discovered his own artistic sensibility, as he sat:
hour by hour … probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubble among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.
The fountain later becomes a scene of love between Charles and Julia:
There Julia sat, in a tight little gold tunic and a white gown, one hand in the water idly turning an emerald ring to catch the fire of the sunset; the carved animals mounted over her dark head in a cumulus of green moss and glowing stone and dense shadow, and the waters round them flashed and bubbled and broke into scattered flames.
When Charles returns with the army, however, an officer shows him around and stops at the fountain, now turned off and squalid, to say:
Looks a bit untidy now; all the drivers throw their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches there…
Here is a once-mighty house now ‘debased’; its beauty not appreciated by its new inhabitants. Yet Waugh has succeeded, as Charles does in his paintings, in preserving the house in all its glory. When we think of Brideshead Revisited, we scarcely remember the army prologue and epilogue; we don’t see the fountain dry, filled with cigarette ends and sandwich crusts, but we think of the house in all its splendour of before, when it was the scene of so much love.
So Brideshead Revisited is in part about the death of the great country house, and an attempt to preserve its life. It is about nostalgia for a lost youth, for opening that low door in the wall and discovering the enchanted garden within. Just as it succeeds in revisiting it, resurrecting it, letting us re-live those Arcadian days of strawberries and teddy bears and love, so it also points to all the youth that cannot be preserved.
The many lost youths of the soldiers of the First World War haunt the novel. References to the War, and to the lives lost, pepper the text. This time round, it struck me that Waugh gives us examples in which these lost lives are attempted to be preserved in literature: Lady Marchmain commissions the dreaded Samgrass to write a biography of her three brothers all killed in the War, and there is also the moment when Anthony Blanche recites ‘The Waste Land’ through a megaphone. In including these, Waugh invites comparison, holding up Brideshead Revisted as another testament to lost youth. Certainly Christopher Hitchens thought it was ‘all on account of the war’, in his brilliant essay on Brideshead Revisited in the Guardian. Hitchens was of course a renowned atheist, and I can’t help but feel that if he loved the novel even half so much as his article suggests, then it really must be about more than Catholicism.
So rats to you annoying English teacher who nearly ruined this beautiful novel for me … I’m so pleased to have re-read it, and I can only encourage others to do so too. I am also rather tempted to track down the BBC boxset for some rather indulgent viewing when in Italy.