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.”