Revisiting Brideshead

Alex Preston celebrates a work of genius that profoundly influenced his own life

Image: The bescarfed Alyosius at home in Witney, Oxfordshire

Seventy years ago, the first extracts of Evelyn Waugh's classic novel appeared in Town & Country. Alex Preston celebrates a work of genius that profoundly influenced his own life. 

 

In a 1944 letter to Lady Dorothy Lygon, the model for the impish Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh wrote that he was working on ‘a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high-born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves and those are mainly the demons sex and drink’. That book was Brideshead, which was first serialised in Town & Country 70 years ago. Waugh was a regular contributor to the magazine, alongside such luminaries as Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams and Djuna Barnes, and, despite Waugh writing to his literary agent that ‘I should think not six Americans will understand it’, this most English of novels first saw light and fame on the other side of the Atlantic.

Waugh thought carefully about the business of publishing his novels. Private editions of Brideshead were produced around the same time that three excerpts appeared in Town & Country – between November 1944 and February 1945 (the novel itself was published in the summer of 1945). These private editions – despite wartime paper shortages – were beautifully bound and distributed to his closest friends. To one of them, his schoolfriend Tom Driberg, he wrote that the private publication featured ‘an immodest scene between
C Ryder and Celia in New York; also more than 24 spelling mistakes in all languages’. These early, clandestine printings allowed Waugh to test his work on an audience that was bright and supportive, but intimate enough to let him know whether it was any good. He sent a copy to the novelist Nancy Mitford with a note saying ‘…50 copies of Brideshead Revisited went out, 40 of them to close friends of yours. Do please keep your ear to the ground & report what they say. For the first time since 1928, I am eager about a book’.

The three sections of Brideshead featured in Town & Country (the beginning of the novel, an Oxford section and then Lord Marchmain’s deathbed scene) served a similar function to his private printings. They were envoys sent out to pave the way for the novel’s later, sensational success. Not only could Waugh be sure that the magazine’s readership – urbane sophisticates – would welcome the book’s high-society subject matter, but publication in Town & Country also solidified his reputation as the leading British novelist of his time. A Book Society Choice selection swiftly followed, and Brideshead was a bestseller in the United States before (and to a greater degree than) in England. His novels had not been embraced by an American audience until this point; Brideshead – critically acclaimed and championed by Town & Country’s then editor Harry Bull – changed all of that. It was a phenomenal success in the US, and made Waugh’s name and fortune.

Waugh, through the voice of Charles Ryder, described the theme of Brideshead as ‘memory, that winged host’. It is a novel that weighs heavily on my own past. My tattered, orange Penguin copy, with its Sellotaped spine, turned-down corners, obscure pencil notes (‘Reminds me of [unreadable]’ and a hundred adolescent ‘True’s), is as much a historical artefact as a work of art. I have read it three times (four if you count last night, when I stayed up into the small hours revisit-ing its hallowed sites – Oxford, Brideshead, Venice, Morocco), and it has changed with each reading, or rather it has illuminated changes in me, the passing of time. It remains one of a handful of novels that can undo me, leaving me, when I put it down, as Charles was when he drove away from Brideshead, disgraced, feeling as if ‘I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world’.

 

Image: the first published extract of the novel in the November 1944 edition of Town & Country

 

This image of buried treasure reminds the reader of an earlier scene where Charles is picnicking with the tragic, glamorous Sebastian Flyte. The latter says that he’d like to bury a crock of gold to mark their happiness together. He continues: ‘I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy, and then, when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.’ Brideshead does this for me – reading it, I feel as if I’m revisiting scenes from my own past, viewing them through the novel’s lens, with the same sense of melancholy nostalgia.

I was at Lancing College, Waugh’s alma mater. I wasn’t really public-school material, but I won a scholarship, and it was near to my parents, who lived in a drab seaside town five miles along the coast. For three and a half years, I trudged with a heavy heart up the long drive, under high elms, past a chapel of monolithic, Gothic ugliness, and through the quadrangles to my boarding house. Waugh was also a reluctant Lancing boy. He’d been put down for the much grander Sherborne, following in the footsteps of his father and brother Alec. Alec was a model pupil – head of house, editor of the school magazine, star sportsman – but was caught in bed with another boy and asked to leave. He compounded his sins by then writing a scandalous roman à clef, The Loom of Youth, which extolled homosexual love. Waugh was packed off to the decidedly less glitzy Lancing, which he described as ‘a small public school of ecclesiastical temper on the South Downs’.

Waugh’s time at Lancing, at least to begin with, was as unhappy as my own. He joined the school in the summer term and found it difficult to make friends. In an unfinished short story, Charles Ryder’s Schooldays, Waugh describes the life of Brideshead’s hero prior to the novel’s opening. A pupil in the upper fifth at a school identical in all but name to Lancing (it’s called Spierpoint College, a reference to Lancing’s sister school, Hurstpierpoint), Ryder is surrounded by vicious, mean-spirited boys living in conditions of World War I poverty and squalor. The story itself is a forgettable thing – it is no wonder Waugh left it unfinished – but it gives us a vivid glimpse of life at Lancing in the early years of the last century. It was here, among schoolfellows who were at once socially superior and lamentably boorish, that Waugh forged the tastes and hang-ups that would shape his writing life.

Waugh’s name, his novels, were a beacon for me at Lancing. I read Brideshead where I read so many great books – The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, To the Lighthouse – in the cavernous bathroom of my dormitory in Field’s House. My feet on the hot pipe that ran around the floor, my breath often misting in the air, I dreamed myself ahead to Oxford, to the heaven that would come after the purgatory of public school. Julia Flyte laments that she ‘feel[s] the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all’. For me, back then, there was nothing but the future; even the past was washed away in the great rush to Oxford and Life. I wanted to follow Waugh, follow Charles Ryder, live as recklessly and brilliantly as they did.

Like Alec, I was expelled from school and so I never attained the final years in which, finally, Waugh found some measure of happiness at Lancing. He was taken under the wing of the charismatic master JF Roxburgh and began to form a social world in debating societies and as sacristan in the gloomy chapel, to undertake his own tentative homosexual affairs and, above all, to write. After a year at a local school (and a gap year pretending I was Anthony Blanche in Paris), I followed Waugh to Hertford College, Oxford. On my first day, I found Waugh’s bedroom (now a library-cum-reception for staff) and stood in the flower bed, imagining myself sick through the window (Sebastian vomits into Charles’ room the first time they meet). In his memoirs, Waugh described his Oxford life – surrounded by the Hypocrites, a society of louche aesthetes – as a time when he was ‘reborn into full youth’. Similarly, Charles Ryder finds that he ‘grew younger daily with each adult habit that [he] acquired’. Those Oxford years seem preserved in aspic or amber, what EM Forster called ‘the undeveloped heart’ of English youth.

 

Image: Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte, Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, and Aloysius the teddy bear in the 1981 Granada TV adpatation of Brideshead Revisited

 

I reread Brideshead while at Hertford, and did my best to live in a Waugh-ian world of aristocratic bibulousness and scandal. I went to splendid parties in grand country houses and was scolded by a countess for passing out drunk on an 18th-century silk divan; I declaimed The Waste Land from my study window (although no one was listening); I punted at dawn trailing champagne bottles through trout-bubbled water. I built around me a group of friends as bright and astonishing as Waugh’s Hypocrites, although our greatest lights were female: instead of Harold Acton and Brian Howard, we had the novelist Hermione Eyre, the actress Rosamund Pike. I cultivated charm – ‘the great English blight’, as Anthony Blanche calls it – and ate plovers’ eggs; I walked up Holywell Street at dawn in evening dress, a glittering girl on each arm, my hair (now largely departed) flouncing in a foppish wave across my brow.

It’s astonishing to think that Waugh and Brideshead Revisited fell violently out of vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, that it took the splendid Granada TV adaptation to solidify the novel in the public’s consciousness. I said earlier that I could trace my own growth as a person in my responses to the book. A reading in my mid-twenties left me disappointed, finding too much religion, too much snobbery. My most recent, late-night reacquaintance with the novel has convinced me of its status as one of the few genuine masterpieces of the 20th century, and not only because it has allowed me to weave, nostalgia-soaked, back through my own history, whose weft is so deeply intertwined with that of Waugh. It is also that I’ve come to realise that the book is about so much more than mere class or Catholicism.

The novel achieves, more than any other I’ve read, the transcription of a mind, a single life with all its nooks and cubbyholes, its secrets and memories. Above all, its memories. As Charles Ryder says: ‘These memories, which are my life – for we possess nothing certainly except the past – were always with me. Like the pigeons of St Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl.’

I have before me now a copy of the November 1944 issue of Town & Country, in which the world first met Charles Ryder. The cover shows a New York street scene, a glitzy couple looking up at a sign announcing the city’s 47 electoral votes. The magazine was published on the eve of an election – Franklin D Roosevelt would go on to beat Thomas Dewey.

It feels fantastically historical (the woman wears a period cape). And this is Brideshead’s final great triumph – that still, now, 70 years after it was first read, the novel is extraordinarily modern; not, perhaps, in its settings, its concerns for class
and religion, but at a deeper, more fundamental level. Because despite the friable, time-yellowed pages of my Penguin copy, of the edition of Town & Country I’m looking at now, it is a novel whose voice rings out down the ages, a timeless lament for
the passing of golden youth. 

From the Winter 2014 edition of Town & Country, on sale 4 November

 

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