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Although I read the novel in 1972, the critically acclaimed adaptation broadcast by ITV in 1981 somehow passed me by for reasons now wholly obscure. Indeed, the nearest I came to the mini-series was visiting Castle Howard in 1984 whilst on holiday with my wife in Ness, North Yorkshire. At the time the house featured a flower display honouring the series. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aloysius, the teddy bear, took pride of place in the arrangement!

The ITV adaptation was successful not only because of the quality of the acting and production values ahead of its time, but because the novel (full title:
Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder) is generally regarded as one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century, despite the author’s later misgivings.

According to Wikipedia the novel:

“follows, from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, most especially his friendship with the Flytes, a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. Ryder has relationships with two of the Flytes: Sebastian and Julia. The novel explores themes including nostalgia for the age of English aristocracy and Catholicism.”

Such a scant summary significantly fails to do justice to Waugh’s ambitions which transcend what at first sight may either seem narrow or well-trodden, given the success, for example, of
Gosford Park at the cinema or Downton Abbey on the smaller screen. Nor can the work be simply viewed as a ‘catholic novel’. Like Graham Greene, though differently, Waugh uses Catholicism as both a launch pad and mirror to explore the human condition in both its frailty and glory.

This passage, just one of many, indicates the scope of Waugh’s reflective view of the world:

“The human soul enjoys these rare, classical periods, but, apart from them, we are seldom single or unique; we keep company in this world with a hoard of abstractions and reflections and counterfeits of ourselves - the sensual man, the economic man, the man of reason, the beast, the machine and the sleepwalker, and heaven knows what besides, all in our own image, indistinguishable from ourselves to the outside eye. We get borne along, out of sight in the press, unresisting, till we get the chance to drop behind unnoticed, or to dodge down a side street, pause, breathe freely and take our bearings, or to push ahead, outdistance our shadows, lead them a dance, so that when at length they catch up with us, they look at one another askance, knowing we have a secret we shall never share.”

According to Madeleine Kearns:

“In [his] 2003 essay for
The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens agreed with [George] Orwell that there was something adolescent about Waugh’s world view...He’s right about that. Readers are free to reject Waugh’s religious interpretation, just as the novel’s characters are (though ultimately they don’t). The accusation of childishness is nevertheless correct. A child is simultaneously fully present in his time and yet capable of fully leaving it through imagination. Being truly present — free from regret, change, loss, and shame — are all things lost with experience and retrieved through grace.”


Book of the Month

Evelyn Waugh