While generally I prefer, if I can, to demonstrate some faith in, and even some love for, works that many people hate, and carp away at works that many people like – which, by the way, is less for the purpose of being contrary than it is for, hopefully, endowing this ‘blog’ with even a tiny point – I am now going to turn this approach on its head, by writing of the plaudit-draped Brideshead Revisited. I am, needless to say, speaking of both the novel and the television series but, equally needless to say, am not speaking of the ludicrous 2008 film, which is to the novel and television series what Ballarat’s Kryal Castle is to Castle Howard, except that I like Kryal Castle.
However, rest assured that I am not going to waste anyone’s time going into exhaustive detail about why this novel and television series are so spectacular. No one needs me to tell them how great a novelist is Evelyn Waugh, and no one needs me to tell them that, anyway, Brideshead Revisited is an atypical example of the man’s work, given that it is full of lush, lyrical prose. I usually hate lush, lyrical prose and, yet, find Brideshead impossible to stop reading once I’ve started it; to do so would be like ceasing and desisting partway through the salty, creamy sweetness of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Incidentally, I am sure that, aside from the author’s abilities, what made the difference with Brideshead is that Waugh wrote the draft in four months, rather than having laboured over every word for years, as this kind of excessive exertion often results in prose that feels as gruesome and taxidermied as a stuffed kitten wearing a frilly little dress and pushing a pram containing a stuffed hamster.
So, rather than spouting details of the excellence of the book and television series of Brideshead Revisited, I would like to get off my chest exactly how stupid I find narrow ideas of ‘relevance’ and ‘relateability’ to be. This is something that is exemplified for me not only by Brideshead but by my exposure to another work about religious mania. Namely, when I was in Year Nine, an unfortunate lady visited us and performed a one-person show about a young girl who liked nothing better than ‘going to discos’, until she discovered Christianity, upon which she stopped going to discos. Of course, the fact is that in the unenlightened days of 1982, a photograph of someone wearing trousers with enormous flares was the only thing that raised more hilarity among the young than the concept of going to a disco and, consequently, we sat in unsympathetic silence. Now, this particular piece of theatre was a prize example of the foolhardiness of attempting to be relevant, and especially of trying to be relevant to the youth, and the way in which something that is a few degrees off in its relevance to them can be more alienating than something that is 180 degrees off. After all, except that I happen to be white and speak English, it would be difficult for Brideshead Revisited to be further from my own personal experience, and, in many ways, even my sympathies.
The story, of course, takes place from the early nineteen twenties to the mid nineteen forties, and is, of course, the tale – as recounted by family friend and lover Charles Ryder – of the Flytes, who are a load of English toffs of varying levels of attractiveness who have been raised as Catholics. Much of the action involves them wrestling with their religion, because, whether they are fervently embracing it or trying to run from it, it messes all of them up, at least to some degree; and affects even the atheist Charles, as he falls in love first with Sebastian and then with Julia Flyte (although which of them is really his true love can, and should, be debated to the end of time). In contrast, I am female (yes, I appreciate that Brideshead has fascinating female characters but it is Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte who are the real heart of the thing); I was born in 1968 (I must write an autobiography, if only so that I can introduce my birth with: ‘It was the era of Flower Power and, overseas, the Vietnam War raged and there were riots in the streets, while in the sleepy streets of suburban Sydney, Johnny Farnham’s ‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’ blared from people’s radios, as they continued to ponder the mysterious disappearance of Harold Holt’); I am the furthest thing from an English toff, being, rather, one of the colonials that Waugh clearly despised. Lastly, I am no kind of Catholic, even a lapsed one, so I feel no nostalgia at reading about nuns, or crossing oneself, or receiving the last rites, and I do not practise even my own faith, which is that most path-of-least-resistance of all religions, the Church of England.
And the appeal of Brideshead is not, of course, that it is a cosy ‘Those were the days’ Downton Abbey costume drama, with viewers vicariously enjoying a time when most people did not have to do their own housework, leaving them free to eat hot scones at four in the afternoon. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, given that one of the most striking things about Brideshead is that it is so goddamned depressing, making it appropriate that, when the series was first shown on television, in the era of the New Romantics, English youth would, apparently, dress up and have parties in its honour: after all, just consider what a perennial downer Visage’s ‘Fade to Grey’ is. Certainly, the Brideshead characters are having an excellently good time in the early part of proceedings, but it hangs over the head of anyone reading it or watching it that the good times are going to end after fewer than a hundred pages and one-and-a-half hours, respectively, and the television series has the addition of expressive music and Jeremy Irons’ sepulchral voiceover, just in case you weren’t completely ready to hang yourself. Brideshead is the only reading/viewing experience I have ever had that unfailingly puts me into a frame of mind approximating that of the last day of holidays: of feeling higher levels of enjoyment of life than I usually do, while also experiencing intense dread and being close to tears. I recall that when I first watched the television series, it filled me with painful longing for my youth, and I was thirteen years old at the time.
So, Brideshead exerts the spell it does not because of being escapist, due to pretty clothes and houses, and loyal retainers, and everyone’s nice manners, but because of how piercingly it depicts things that apply to most of us, and I don’t even mean the, more overtly dramatic, deaths and divorces that it includes. It is about what it’s like to let down good friends, and, whether because of this or not, have good friends turn into strangers, and especially those friends with whom you form an extremely close bond in teenage years, something that happens partly because when you are young, you have the kind of time available to talk on the telephone that you will never have again. It is about the way that, even putting religion aside, it’s very difficult to abandon tenets with which you’ve been raised. It is about people’s lives not turning out as they expected or as others might have predicted, like a version of the gloomy Seven Up films in which even the rich children come a cropper.
Brideshead is in love with youth, and the possibilities of youth, even though being young isn’t actually so great, not most of the time, given that you spend much of it having to cram yourself with knowledge of things in which you are not really interested, and being at the mercy of everyone’s opinion of you, whether parents, teachers or contemporaries. And it manages to convey this, even as it also shows youth as a kind of magic kingdom, at least in contrast with middle age, which is depicted as a time when there is likely to be too much recourse to the decanter because all hope is dead. Now, while most individuals don’t end up doing quite what they expected or hoped they would be doing with their lives, they don’t necessarily end up sad and thwarted, with this as their overriding motif, every day of the damn week, as it is with most of the characters in Brideshead. But while the gorgeous, independently wealthy and talented – whether, like Charles, at art; or like Sebastian and Julia, at personal popularity – characters in Brideshead are, arguably, unnecessarily glum, it is also true that it appears to be part of the human condition to spend too much time dying of nostalgia. For all of us, the clock starts ticking on feeling wistful about schools and universities as soon as we arrive at them, given that we know exactly when we will be leaving, and exactly when we will turn twenty.
This being the case, I could, in a way, feel Charles and Sebastian around me even while I was at the brutal concrete fortress of the University of Technology, Sydney, in the nineteen eighties, or the grim new-estate-like surroundings of the University of New South Wales in the early nineteen nineties. Yes, Evelyn Waugh himself would have been repulsed by these structures, by much of what they taught and, no doubt, by my teachers, by my fellow students and by me, but I’m sure that he would have felt at least some affection if he had ever been able to lie around on their lawns – such as they were – in the late summer.