Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh)

Alec recently enjoyed Brideshead Revisited so I read it too in a fit of foppery. Waugh’s prose was masterful but I thought the book’s comic moments were far more successfully realized than its theme (described by Waugh in his foreword as “the operation of divine grace” on the book’s main characters).

The Catholics in this book struggle with the outward moral strictures of being Catholic but are indifferent to the internal. We aren’t privy to any thoughtful exploration of their faiths, just an inexplicable attachment to following some rules (eg. not divorcing your husband even though you have a loveless marriage and have fallen in love with someone else) but not others (eg. not cheating on your husband in the first place). I honestly don’t understand why they continue to feel any residual attachment to Catholicism when they have long ceased to practise it; it feels more like an explanation of the power of superstition rather than divine grace. I guess Graham Greene has just spoiled me in this regard, because I really think Waugh’s attempts here don’t hold a candle to anything Greene has accomplished in a similar vein.

But in case anyone reading the previous paragraph has immediately decided that Brideshead Revisited doesn’t sound like their kind of book, let me discourage you from that – it has many inimitably funny moments and it always feels wonderfully luxurious after I overdose on modern fiction to plunge into the vintage elan of a writer like Waugh. Here’s a passage I enjoyed – Anthony Blanche, my favourite character in the book because he’s just totally fabulous, describes the fumbling attempts of some fellow students at Oxford to dunk him in a fountain (due to his excessive fabulousness):

About six of them came into my room, the rest stood mouthing outside. My dear, they looked too extraordinary. They had been having one of their ridiculous club dinners, and they were all wearing coloured tail-coats – a sort of livery. “My dears,” I said to them, “you look like a lot of most disorderly footmen.” Then one of them, rather a juicy little piece, accused me of unnatural vices. “My dear,” I said, “I may be inverted but I am not insatiable. Come back when you are alone.” Then they began to blaspheme in a very shocking manner, and suddenly I, too, began to be annoyed. “Really,” I thought, “when I think of all the hullabaloo there was when I was seventeen, and the Duc de Vincennes (old Armand, of course, not Philippe) challenged me to a duel for an affair of the heart, and very much more than the heart, I assure you, with the duchess (Stefanie, of course, not old Poppy) – now, to submit to impertinence from these pimply, tipsy virgins…” Well, I gave up the light, bantering tone and let myself be just a little offensive.

Then they began saying, “Get hold of him. Put him in Mercury.” Now as you know I have two sculptures by Brancusi and several pretty things and I did not want them to start getting rough, so I said, pacifically, “Dear sweet clodhoppers, if you knew anything of sexual psychology you would know that nothing could give me keener pleasure than to be manhandled by you meaty boys. It would be an ecstacy of the very naughtiest kind. So if any of you wishes to be my partner in joy come and seize me. If, on the other hand, you simply wish to satisfy some obscure and less easily classified libido and see me bath, come with me quietly, dear louts, to the fountain.

Do you know, they all looked a little foolish at that? I walked down with them and no one came within a yard of me. Then I got into the fountain and, you know, it was really most refreshing, so I sported there a little and struck some attitudes, until they turned about and walked sulkily home, and I heard Boy Mulcaster saying, “Anyway, we did put him in Mercury.” You know, Charles, that is just what they’ll be saying in thirty years’ time. When they’re all married to scraggy little women like hens and have cretinous porcine sons like themselves getting drunk at the same club dinner in the same coloured coats, they’ll still say, when my name is mentioned, “We put him in Mercury one night,” and their barnyard daughters will snigger and think their father was quite a dog in his day, and what a pity he’s grown so dull. Oh, la fatigue du Nord!