"Read the novel; don’t see the film"Share
by Eric Hester
As well as being a Catholic headmaster for twenty-four years, Eric Hester was also a chief examiner in English Literature. This article is as lightly altered version of one published in a Catholic periodical a few years ago. Eric Hester writes that the new film version of Brideshead Revisited has not yet been released in England but he is disturbed by that he has read of it: “The film version seems to have abandoned the main theme of the book, “the operation of divine grace." At the end of the novel the central character has clearly become a Catholic and the novel ends optimistically. The film, apparently, has Ryder rejecting the Catholic faith. In the novel, the relationship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian is not a homosexual one but one of an intense friendship between two young men, not uncommon in those times in England and not unheard of even today; the film makes the relationship an explicitly homosexual one. I urge people not to see the new film but to read the book, which is arguably the greatest Catholic novel in English. The English television version of a few years ago is still obtainable on DVD; it is a faithful adaptation of the novel with some fine acting.
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is on anyone’s list of the great novels of the twentieth century. It has never been out-of-print since it appeared and it was made into a very successful television series with a most distinguished cast. Yet Catholicism is the main theme of the novel. As Waugh said of it: “Its theme – the operation of divine grace on a group of divers but closely connected characters – was perhaps presumptuously large, but I make no apology for it.” He considered it his greatest achievement.
The novel opens its narrative chronologically later than its main events with the hero and narrator, Charles Ryder, in the British army in the Second World War. This prologue is deliberately gloomy and satirical. Ryder says of the camp in Scotland, “Here love had died between me and the army.” With the hopeless junior officer Hooper, he moves the men on the train to a different camp and then Ryder becomes aware of the new camp to which they have moved at night. Hooper says: “I’ve just had a snoop round. Very ornate, I’d call it. And a queer thing, there’s a sort of R.C. Church attached…You never saw such a thing.” Ryder replies in those famous words that still cause me to tingle: “Yes, Hooper, I did. I’ve been here before.”
Only then do we have the first real chapter as the flashback begins. It is still not the beginning chronologically. Brilliantly, Waugh gives us first Ryder’s original visit to Brideshead and only later his meeting Sebastian and then details of the boyhood of Ryder. The first-person narrative is used, in a way that only a genius can, to reveal, through the consciousness of Ryder, the events of the novel. Constantly, we are learning things from the past, given to us at the right time not in any simple order. It is perhaps the best constructed novel in the English language and I do not exempt the novels of Dickens, Jane Austen or Henry James. Indeed, of novels in other languages that I know, or which I have read in English translations, I can think only of Proust’s great novel as superior to it in construction.
Gradually we are introduced to the Marchmain family, whose Catholicism is central to their life. Does this aristocratic background render the novel difficult or rarefied? Not a bit. I have always found that it appeals to Catholics of all backgrounds not least to American Catholics. The family background enables Waugh to concentrate on his theme of “the operation of divine grace” in a way that a family like that portrayed, say, in some of the gloomy novels of D.H. Lawrence would not. Charles Ryder says to the girl Cordelia, “Does your family always talk about religion all the time?” and is told, “Not all the time. It’s a subject that just comes up naturally, doesn’t it?” Ryder says elsewhere, “Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in his conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic but I took it as a foible, like his teddy-bear.”
The Oxford University chapters are still classics in their own right and the phrase “Brideshead set” is used for the group of people on whom Waugh is assumed to model some characters. The novel is, I believe, still read avidly by present-day undergraduates trying to glimpse what university life was once like. Of course, it is a fictitious portrayal of a jeunesse dorée. Waugh himself had had a good time at Oxford and we know from other writers such as John Betjeman, who like Waugh left without taking a degree, that the 1920s was a golden age of that carefree but energetic group. Waugh has Charles Ryder comment on education when he was swotting up for exams that he needed to pass to stay in his college: “I did (pass) after a week in which I forbade Sebastian my rooms and sat up to a late hour, with iced black coffee and charcoal biscuits, cramming myself with the neglected texts. I remember no syllable of them now, but the other more ancient lore which I acquired that term will be with me in one shape or another to my last hour.” Ryder (Waugh) says of Oxford and youth - “Oxford in those days was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s time; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days – such as that day – when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft air of centuries of youth.”
And one reason for the book’s remarkable success is surely its portrayal of youth. Waugh has Ryder exclaim: “The languor of Youth – how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections of Youth – all save this – come and go with us through life. Those things are part of life itself; but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding – that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.” Yet the novel itself is not particularly a young person’s book. Like the good wine that Waugh liked to imbibe, it becomes better with age, that is the age of the reader.
As with all Waugh’s novels, there is some glorious humour. My own favourite part is where Charles Ryder, then an impoverished art student in Paris, is being entertained by the materialistic Canadian member of the nouveaux riche, Rex Mottram. It is simply a meal described with the accompanying conversation but the ironic humour makes it memorable.
More famously, Brideshead has two great Catholic emotional scenes for which Waugh felt he should almost apologise in his 1959 Preface. “I have been in two minds as to the treatment of Julia’s outburst about mortal sin and Lord Marchmain’s dying soliloquy. These passages were never, of course, intended to report words actually spoken.” Well, I think they are both brilliant. The death of Lord Marchmain, I used to read as a young teacher in senior school assemblies and it always went down very well producing that absorbed air of total concentration which is, alas! rare at school assemblies. As I became an old head master I had to stop reading it because it made me embarrassingly lachrymose. Lord Marchmain, the sinner and very lapsed Catholic convert is dying. He refuses to see a priest but when he is literally on his death-bed his daughter brings the priest who anoints him and gives him conditional absolution, unconscious as the old man is. Waugh, in one of the great scenes of literature, describes what happens though the eyes of the sceptical Charles Ryder who is nevertheless moved to pray: “I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved who knelt in front of me praying, I knew for a sign…I prayed more simply; ‘God forgive him his sins’ and ‘Please God, make him accept your forgiveness.’ ” We the readers wait, too, for Lord Marchmain to make a sign of repentance and then Waugh, through Ryder carries on: “Suddenly Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead; I though he had felt the touch of the chrism and was wiping it away. ‘O God,’ I prayed, ‘don’t let him do that.’ But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.”
After that, Waugh with more genius, switches the final pages of the book back to the Second World War. We are never told directly that Charles Ryder has become a Catholic but we are left in no doubt that he has from such phrases as “I said a prayer, an ancient, newly-learned form of words.” The novel finishes with a junior officer saying to Ryder, “You’re looking unusually cheerful today.”
Apart from all its other virtues, Brideshead would be a classic just for its style. If it as if Waugh were incapable of writing a cliché, or any kind of syntactical or grammatical infelicity. But that is only to express his negative qualities. Positively, he writes English that is a model for any prose writer: clear, precise, varied, appropriate and with every word used seeming at the same time to be both surprising and inevitable. Yet there is never any showing off of language, no virtuoso effects. All is beautifully ordered and controlled.
The television version can still be obtained on DVD. It is remarkably faithful and has impressing casting, with the two great actor knights of the Twentieth Century – Sir Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain and Sir John Gielgud as Charles Ryder’s father. Yet I beg people, as always, not to see the DVD until the novel has been read at least once. For you will want to read it again and again and have it around for dipping into. Those who like it can freely go on to all the other novels. The Sword of Honour trilogy is also set in the Second World War and there are those who regard it as even greater than Brideshead. It has been adapted for television twice, and for radio as well. A Handful of Dust is grimmer and has some similarity of theme, the unfaithful wife, for example. There are good lives of Waugh and his letters are published. The best introduction to the man, though, is his autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.
Waugh was a celebrated and great convert. However, he became very upset by the changes brought about following, but not ordered by, the Second Vatican Council. Those who want to know about his sad last years can read about it in the book A Bitter Trial edited by Scott Reid and published by the St Austin Press. He died on Easter Sunday. One never knows what will happen on the day of judgment but let us hope that it carried some weight for him to be able to say that he had written the greatest English Catholic novel.