I can’t tell you why Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 classic novel–and the subject of a recent spate of articles in entertainment magazines–is such a favorite of mine (perhaps it is even the favorite). I first read Brideshead Revisited as a high school student looking for a different state of mind: I was tired of Orwellian politics, Salinger-esque angst, Shakespearean epics. I was even tired of the dreamy, druggy worlds conjured up by obscure beat poet and, no doubt, regular acid-dropper Richard Brautigan (which was certainly different, though not much else can be said in its favor), and the heavy, racy words of Rushdie, who I did not quite understand (I still may not quite understand).
So I picked up Waugh, who was like nothing I had ever read before. At the time, I thought he must have been writing just for me: the gentle, lolling tone, the exaggerated tenderness, the polite reproaches (narrator Charles Ryder gets a “grand remonstrance” from his cousin Jasper, but it is neither hot nor heavy, just a careful, English avoiding of the subject at hand), all bound together by a profound and often undeserved nostalgia. It was quintessentially English; the words were beautiful (I once read that Waugh had later disparaged the novel for being too sappy, too verbose, and was saddened to know it), the characters drawn, in their flapper dresses, their fedoras and flannel suits, to an ideal I knew and loved above all other literary things.
So at first, I don’t think my adoration of the novel–an unusual choice anyhow for a 15-year-old American girl–had anything to do with its specific themes or nuances. It was an escape; and though the characters be tortured, I found it a respite from other things. It was easy on the mind, so to speak. You know from the beginning that Charles Ryder is a tragic character, and you can see from the start that his embroilment in the Marchmain family’s sordid affairs will be his ultimate undoing, but because this is all set out for you, you also know that you can then enjoy the lavish surroundings without disappointment or surprise.
I’ve since re-read the novel enough times to be able to quote it, often at alarming length. I find myself sometimes saying slightly odious things to people: “Oh! It’s like when Julia Flyte tells Charles Ryder that she can’t marry him because it would be like ‘setting up a rival good to God’!” and then when they nod blithely, probably frightened by my sudden intensity, I realize I’m being unnecessarily pretentious without even meaning to.
But the words have seeped in, by now. When I first came to Oxford–which was something I’d dreamed, in one form or another, of doing for years–they (some production company or Hollywood crew) happened to be filming a feature-length version of the story, which I found slightly sacrilegious (“how can they fit all of that into two hours?” I cried desperately to my poor boy, with the tone of someone who doesn’t believe in editing) but also deeply appropriate. My first summer in England–in Oxford, no less, the sight of so much of Ryder’s sweet remembrance, and of course the novel was being adapted to film. Some of our friends got jobs as extras and wore jaunty boaters and elegant suits. The city itself didn’t need much alteration for us to believe that it was the 1920s again.
After one particularly boozy evening at the Turf Tavern, we staggered out onto New College Lane and whirled around under the Bridge of Sighs with a friend of ours, a student at Hertford College (where Waugh attended) working towards a doctorate in archeology. I suppose, in my cider-soaked friendliness, I had let slip some wisp of admiration for Waugh, because our friend suddenly offered to take us into the college, to see the “Waugh Room”.
“The what?” we said, as we came into the main Hertford quad. We followed our friend into a room with lots of books on low bookshelves: the room where Waugh had apparently spent a lot of time as a student, now nicknamed after him. I tried to take a picture of us in the room but missed; now the memory is only marked by a photograph of a poster on the wall, featuring the black-and-white face of a 1920s era girl with a smashing hat.
So today, in California, I sit down to read a back issue of Vanity Fair (I say “read”, but what I mean is gape at the photographs of half-naked celebrities), and what do I find but a feature on the new Brideshead Revisited, replete with photographs of the actors lounging around, in costume, at Magdalen College (which I pass by every day on my way from our Cowley road house to town). “The new production of Brideshead Revisited,” writes James Wolcott, “will strike some as a sacrilege to the memory of the TV landmark [uh, what about the novel??], but it too has a dream cast and luxury settings–why spurn another opportunity for lavishment?”
And I find, in fact, that I agree with the magazine, in principle.