Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Brideshead Revisited, revisited

I was not greatly impressed by Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel, which is not surprising as it "deals with the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to himself", which only a Catholic convert would find a fruitful subject for a novel. When he re-read it five years later he was appalled, excusing it as the result of the difficult wartime days and subsequently finding its attitudes distasteful.

But the 1981 TV serial does stick in my memory, if only because of the beauty of Castle Howard, which stood in for Brideshead, and the mournful trumpet which sounded in each episode, giving a worthy air to this glamorous tosh. The series was re-broadcast recently at six in the morning over eleven days, a desperate piece of summer scheduling, but I did record it and watched the lot. It was no less repellent than the novel but a lot more entertaining; none of the characters is remotely likeable and only the fact that most the actors playing them had enormous charm made the thing watchable.

I don't remember how Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) came across in the book, but in watching the series I was struck by his silence throughout. The part cannot have taken long to learn because he has practically nothing to say, merely listening and somehow projecting sympathy and understanding, with a cigarette or a disgusting yellow pipe in his mouth, as the others go on about their problems; in real life people would get fed up with this and demand some sort of response from time to time, but almost everyone he meets falls about with admiration for him, especially the Marchmains who welcome him into the bosom of their awful family.

Typically, he and Julia sit by the fountain one night while she excitedly holds forth on her concerns about Sin, with interludes of sobbing. Throughout this long scene he says absolutely nothing and merely sits there looking glum. It seemed to me that each party had reason for giving the other a good clout, but at the end they inexplicably just walk away, without exchanging a word.

And another thing: Cordelia goes to Spain to tend the wounded in the civil war, but no details are given and which side she was supporting is not clear. By the time the novel was written Waugh wouldn't have wanted to show her as one of Franco's Fascists, but it is unlikely that Lady Cordelia would have been keen to change the dressings of a bunch of communist riff-raff.

Nowadays Waugh's snobbery and his veneration of the idle and pious rich no longer have the power to offend us; we can only marvel at his sincere and deeply felt regret that their days have passed.

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