‘Brideshead’ Revisited & Revised

The Mixed Reception of Waugh’s Most Famous Novel
Evelyn Waugh at his home in Combe Florey, Somerset, circa 1945 (Pictorial Press ltd. / Alamy stock photo)

Evelyn Waugh cultivated a reputation for being cantankerous—he once listed some provocations as “cooking and theology and clothes and grammar and dogs”—so it is surprising to discover that he kept his equanimity about responses to various stages of the composition and reception of Brideshead Revisited, his best-known and most profitable novel and the one in which he seems to have had the greatest emotional and artistic investment.

When he sat down to begin work on Brideshead Revisited in February, 1944, he was aware that this would be his most ambitious novel. The scope of more than a decade, the heightened style, and the complex structure would all stretch his powers and produce what early on he called his magnum opus. It was, he said later, “an attempt to trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world, in the lives of an English Catholic family, half-paganized themselves, in the world of 1923–1939.”

For the few Commonweal readers unfamiliar with the novel, a brief synopsis may be in order. Brideshead’s narrator and protagonist is Charles Ryder, a painter. Ryder’s involvement with the aristocratic Flyte family, English Catholics, unfolds from Ryder’s years at Oxford to the Second World War. At Oxford, he meets and befriends the charismatic but troubled Sebastian Flyte, and eventually falls in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia. Much of the novel’s action takes place at Brideshead Castle, the Flytes’ majestic estate, and a symbol of a once admirable, but now fading, religious and aristocratic order. Lord Marchmain, Sebastian and Julia’s father, is estranged from his fiercely Catholic wife, and lives abroad with his mistress. Despite a succession of setbacks, the formidable Lady Marchmain, who will not consent to a divorce, is determined to preserve the faith of her mostly wayward family.      

Waugh had quite definite ideas about the development of the complex plot. He also was aware of the audience he hoped to address, defining it in part by negation in saying that fewer than a half-dozen Americans would understand it and that, though the book was “steeped in theology,” even theologians might not recognize his intent. His ideal audience included the kind of people among whom were distributed fifty copies of a special edition—actually uncorrected and bound page proofs. Some members of that audience had been consulted while composition was in progress. More surprising was the fact that he took the advice: Monsignor Ronald Knox about what was involved in closing a chapel (keep it simple and undramatic—Waugh did); Martin Darcy, SJ, on various theological issues (no inaccuracies, but sex scenes bothered him—Waugh toned down one scene so thoroughly that the sex was almost impossible to perceive, though for the 1960 edition he restored the earlier version); A. D. Peters, his literary agent on whether to publish two-thirds of the novel and the rest the following year (Peters said no for very good reasons and Waugh abandoned the position).

By the time the special edition was distributed, while Waugh was serving with the British Army in Yugoslavia near the end of World War II, he said that he had not been this eager to hear responses to a book since his first novel, Decline and Fall, was published in 1928. Some of the earliest reactions came from members of his family. His wife Laura’s initial response was tepid; later, having been lectured on the art of letter writing and ordered to compare three versions of the novel, her comments were more satisfactory. His mother-in-law, Mary Herbert, thought the book a great success, though as a Catholic matriarch herself she found Lady Marchmain unconvincing. Her daughter Gabriel Dru thought that for the first time Waugh had drawn a convincing woman character.

The Herberts were, of course, Catholics. Waugh’s brother Alec was, to put it mildly, not, and though he praised the novel in a letter to his brother, to their mother he wrote that he missed the old humor and hoped that Evelyn would not write any more Catholic novels. He was moved by Lord Marchmain’s death and in the context shared “the curious Catholic point of view about living in sin—and appreciate and respect it (though I do find it hard to understand how anyone could believe it).”

Since Waugh was out of touch with most of his sources of gossip, he relied on Nancy Mitford, a fellow writer and close friend, to collect and transmit comments about what she termed a “Great English Classic,” or “MO GEC.” Mitford, centrally located in Heywood Hill’s bookshop in London, was eager to provide information and as a fellow writer ideally positioned to respond to the book. She had one correction—diamond clips weren’t invented until 1930, so Julia would have worn an arrow instead, an alteration which Waugh made in corrected proof. She wondered if Waugh were on Lady Marchmain’s side and if Ryder “might have a little more glamour” because “he seemed to me a tiny bit dim.” This was the sort of response Waugh wanted, and he explained that Ryder was dim because “it is not his story,” though he admitted that if he were too dim to justify Julia’s reaction to him the novel had failed. Then he added, for Mitford’s eyes only: “He was as bad at painting as Osbert [Sitwell] is at writing.” As for Lady Marchmain, “No I am not on her side, but God is, who suffers fools gladly; and the book is about God.”

I wish Evelyn would write about characters whom one would like to meet in real life

Mitford also sent responses by some of their friends, most of whom found something to praise even when they had reservations. “General View: It is the Lygon family. Too much Catholic stuff,” Mitford wrote. There were more reactions to the private edition. Just over a month before the novel was officially published on May 28, Waugh visited Oxford and at a gathering hosted by Maurice Bowra, an Oxford don and partial model for the sly Mr. Samgrass in Brideshead, he writes that he “heard harsh reports on Brideshead, [photographer, often a Waugh target] Cecil Beaton’s favorite book. [Cyril] Connolly does a funny imitation of Marchmain’s death bed. I didn’t know you had been in love with Auberon [Herbert, his brother-in-law].’” After this inspired teasing, the moralistic response of a Catholic friend like Katherine Asquith—who could “hardly bear your writing about modern people” and asked Waugh to write “a book not a novel”—had not even the merit of wit. Monsignor Knox’s first response was similar—“I wish Evelyn would write about characters whom one would like to meet in real life”—but added, “once you reach the end…the whole cast—even Beryl—falls into place and the twitch of the thread happening in the very bowels of Metroland is inconceivably effective.” On the secular side of Waugh’s acquaintance, Lady Pansy Lamb rejected the idea that everyone and all their possessions were glamorous in the 1920s.

Waugh apparently took negative responses into account when he wrote the copy for the first edition’s dust-jacket flap: “The story will be uncongenial alike to those who look back on that pagan world with unalloyed affection, and to those who see it as transitory, insignificant and, already, hopefully passed.” Waugh did not try to refute these negative responses, presumably because they came from matters of taste.

Tastes varied more than he anticipated. Lady Daphne Acton and other Catholics thought the book a masterpiece. Christopher Sykes, later Waugh’s official biographer, praised the characterization of Sebastian and his Oxford friend Anthony Blanche but predicted, ironically, adverse reaction: “Feeling is running high about it. ‘Roman Tract’ is being hissed in intellectual circles.... Connolly is very upset.... The New Statesman will never forgive you for your crimes against taste: No miners, no mention of communism, no strictures on the house, and your obscure and constant references to the nobility.”

Non-Catholic writers like Henry Yorke and Raymond Mortimer resisted the direction of the plot. Yorke, who wrote as Henry Green, confessed “how shocked & hurt I was when the old man crossed himself on his deathbed” and thought that “you may have overdone the semicolons a bit yet even then the regret with which the whole book is saturated, is beautifully carried out in the long structure of your sentences. The whole thing seemed deeper & wider than any book you have written.” Later he wrote again to say that “the theme...was not easy for me” but praised the Oxford sequence and called the prologue and epilogue “perfectly placed.” The art critic Clive Bell wrote before reading the novel but reported that the critic Raymond Mortimer, ‘“while deprecating certain tendencies,’ agreed that I had a great treat in store.”

The writer Peter Quennell, an Oxford contemporary, deprecated some of the same tendencies, anticipating or reflecting the response of other liberal intellectuals to the novel. He wrote in the Daily Mail that Brideshead was a tract, but adding that it was “an extraordinarily readable tract. With what skill and fertility of imagination he hammers home his thesis.” He found Julia unconvincing and balked at “the major sin of romantic over-writing” before concluding that the novel was “a remarkably interesting and provocative achievement.”

Most of the reviews have been adulatory except where they were embittered by class resentment.

A month after publication, Waugh was wholly satisfied with sales and partially satisfied with response in the press: “Most of the reviews have been adulatory except where they were embittered by class resentment.” He seems not to have responded to any reviewers except Desmond MacCarthy, who reviewed it very favorably in the Sunday Times and later wrote to Waugh with further questions about his method.

Waugh thanked MacCarthy for the review but added, “I was pleased with the book when I finished it, but since then the rats and moths have been at me and I was despondent about it,” adding “I am eager to learn your criticisms of my method.”

MacCarthy’s criticisms in his letter of June 18 were of a kind familiar in the work of later critics and, by 1960, in Waugh’s own final view of the novel. Foremost were the soliloquies of Julia and her father, which, MacCarthy felt, overshadowed dramatic situations. He was also concerned about Charles’s indifference to his children; about whether or not Anthony Blanche’s criticisms of Ryder’s paintings were intended to be seen as accurate; and—more a concern to other readers than to him—about why Lady Marchmain was a bad mother.

Waugh admitted that Ryder’s relationship to his children (assuming that Caroline was his biological descendant) was in tone “the kind of thing I used to do ten years ago” and was “artistically indefensible.” Ryder’s painting was with one exception—the set done of Marchmain House—uninspired. The “obscene and sterile” Anthony Blanche served as “the voice of conscience to contrast it with the voice of God speaking to Julia at the fountain.”

As for the monologues of Julia at the fountain and Lord Marchmain on his deathbed, Waugh admitted that both were stunts but that he could not at the time have used any other method. Next time he might do better because “I feel sometimes I am getting the hang of writing.” And Waugh conceded that his characterization of Lady Marchmain was a failure because she was more type than person, although a recognizable type.

Three other reviews in 1946 brought Waugh unwelcome attention. Edmund Wilson, who in 1944 had called Waugh possibly “the only first-rate comic genius who has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw,” gave high praise to the first half of Brideshead but condemned the rest, and the design of the whole, as a “Catholic tract” and snobbish at that. This review, published in the New Yorker, contained nothing new in the judgments of Waugh’s snobbery and Catholicism, but it articulated the charges more sharply and in a larger forum. Although Waugh wrote to Peters, “I am glad we have shaken off Edmund Wilson at last,” he conceded that, by Wilson’s lights, he was rightly outraged at Waugh’s bringing God into Brideshead and twice more referred to him as having views similar to George Orwell’s—a kind of praise, though qualified.

Like Wilson, but at greater length in a survey of Waugh’s career to date for Horizon, the novelist Rose Macaulay regretted Waugh’s turn away from the style of his early novels towards a lusher and often sentimental style and a partisan acceptance of a Roman Catholic view of Elizabethan history. Surprisingly, Waugh’s only surviving comment on the article was her “advising me to return to my kennel and not venture into the world of living human beings.”

A year later Waugh traveled to Hollywood to discuss with MGM the possibility of a film of Brideshead. Discovering that everyone at the studio regarded the book as a love story and nothing more, Waugh produced a long memo laying out the themes and the role of the characters. At times he sounded a bit sharp, but since he didn’t really expect anything else from the studio, he saved his rancor until he wrote the essay “Why Hollywood is a Term of Disparagement” and the satirical novel The Loved One.

While in Hollywood, Waugh apparently was shown an article, “The Pieties of Evelyn Waugh,” by Conor Cruise O’Brien, writing as Donat O’Donnell. Waugh did not respond to this attack on the style and theme of Brideshead until six months after its original publication, perhaps because he did not see it until his trip to Hollywood. O’Donnell’s article was one of several cited by MGM as reasons to be wary of trying to go ahead with the project, ultimately shelved.

Waugh’s response to the article was by his standards temperate, concentrating on the charges of snobbery, justified if defined by a preference for “the company of the European upper-classes.” The church he joined had none of the glamour imputed to it by O’Donnell. Furthermore, he points out, two of the three worldly characters (meaning unsympathetic) in the novel are rich or high-born.

None of these criticisms seemed to affect the popularity or sales of Brideshead, which became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1946. But the more popular his novel became, the more serious were Waugh’s reservations. Early that year he wrote his old friend Lady Mary Lygon that “my book has been a great success in the United States which is upsetting because I thought it in good taste before and now I know it can’t be.”

By 1950, despite minor revisions introduced into successive English editions, he had become still more dissatisfied with the novel, admitting to Nancy Mitford that “all that those nasty critics said was bang right.” A week later he wrote to Graham Greene that on rereading the novel he was “appalled” by excesses in the language, though he continued to think the plot “excellent. I plan to spend the summer rewriting it.”

 

In fact, he did not revise the novel until late 1959 for publication the following year. He changed the structure from two books to three and restored the original language of Charles’s sex with his wife. He also revised the history of Charles’s religious views in an attempt to make it impossible for all but the most intransigent Anglicans to deny that Charles has been received into the Roman Catholic Church. There were significant cuts to some of the lusher passages because, Waugh said, “the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a fuller stomach I find distasteful.” Some but by no means all of the lush places include the bridge to the novel’s final book and the soliloquies of Julia and her father. In Waugh’s Preface he said that he kept some of each passage because “they were essentially of the mood of writing; also because many readers liked them, though that is not a consideration of first importance.”

Waugh, always conscious of historical context, offered this new edition “as a souvenir of the Second War rather than that of the ’twenties or of the ’thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.” Then, turning the joke on himself, Waugh produced a travesty of Brideshead in the description of Major Ludovic’s novel The Death Wish in Unconditional Surrender (published in the United States as The End of the Battle), which Waugh had begun to plan in detail some months after he had revised Brideshead. In the novel, Ludovic achieves some reputation as the author of avant-garde pensées, along the lines of Cyril Connolly’s Palinurus, excoriated by Waugh in his diaries and later in print. Ludovic’s new book, written almost automatically, progresses inexorably and unconsciously. It was the reverse of avant-garde: “It was a very gorgeous, almost gaudy tale of romance and high drama set…in the diplomatic society of the previous decade. The plot was Shakespearean in its elaborate improbability. The dialogue could never have issued from human lips, the scenes of passion were capable of bringing a blush to readers of either sex and every age.”

But in a way it is part of a movement: “half a dozen other English writers, averting themselves sickly from privations of war and apprehensions of the social consequences of the peace, were even then, severally and secretly…composing or preparing to compose books which would turn from the drab alleys of the thirties into the odorous gardens of a recent past transformed and illuminated by disordered memory and imagination.”

This is Waugh’s mea culpa for the excesses of his most popular and most profitable work. To paraphrase the remark made about Hemingway’s hero in To Have and Have Not, if he had no pity on anyone else, he had no pity on himself either—nor resentment toward those who led him to change his mind about what once he hoped was his magnum opus.

Published in the January 26, 2018 issue: 

Robert Murray Davis is co-editor of Brideshead Revisited for The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh (Oxford University Press). This essay is adapted from the introduction to that volume. Among Davis’s other works are Evelyn Waugh, Writer and Brideshead Revisited: The Past Redeemed.

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