Remember that book club thing I said I was doing? Well, I’m doing it! And I’m starting with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, originally published in 1945 and revised by a rather contrite Waugh in 1959. (More on that later.)
As I said, I chose this book primarily because my mom said I should. (She said it’s “smart.”) But when I looked it up, I realized that this book is right up my alley for several reasons. First of all, Downton Abbey, a show I love, has been compared favorably to it (though others dispute the comparison). Second, it is a not a novel primarily about romance between a man and a woman (although it can definitely be said to be about romance–again, more on that later). Third, it’s a novel that deals heavily with nostalgia, which regular readers of this blog will know is a bit of a struggle for me.
It doesn’t even matter that it’s about 1920s/-30s British aristocrats. After seeing the film (which he calls a “travesty”), the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about the almost-universal appeal of the book:
Why does this novel have such a tenacious hold on the imagination, even of people who have never been to England or never visited a country house?
Well, to answer that first and easiest question, it is entirely possible to feel nostalgia for homelands, and for periods, which one has never experienced oneself. This applies to imagined times and places as well as to real ones: Waugh uses the phrase “secret garden” and also – alluding to the Oxford of Lewis Carroll – to an “enclosed and enchanted garden” reachable by a “low door in the wall”. The yearning for a lost or different upbringing is fairly universal, and one of Brideshead’s keys is precisely the one that unlocks the gate to it.
When I talked to people I know who’ve read the book (including my mom), most of them were unable to recall many (or any) specific details of the plot or characters. They just said that it left them with some sort of good feeling. I find that response fascinating because it parallels how nostalgia often works–we don’t remember many details (though our brains will sometimes fill them in without us realizing it), but we remember the way it felt, and the way it felt can be very difficult to convey in words.
This brings me to Waugh’s fascinating preface to the novel, which he wrote in 1959 when he revised the book. In it, he explains that he wrote the book quickly while on leave from the military during World War II. He writes, “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster–the period of soya beans and Basic English–and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.” In other words, the novel reads like a restaurant review written by a starving critic, because war starves people of many things besides food.
But, Waugh says, he didn’t want to cut out all these passages entirely because that would completely change the book. Instead, he asks readers to try to understand the perspective he was writing from.
Now that the war is over, the nostalgia and romantization with which Waugh describes aristocratic life seems a little silly because the things he feared would be lost forever are back more so than ever:
It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house. It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century. So I piled it on rather, with passionate sincerity. Brideshead today would be open to trippers, its treasures rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain. And the English aristocracy has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible….Much of this book therefore is a panegyric preached over an empty coffin.
I love this, because I think it would be tempting for many writers to claim that their works present Real Timeless Truth rather than a version of the truth that is informed by that author’s position in society and in time. Waugh doesn’t succumb to that temptation; instead, he freely admits that the style of the novel feels “distasteful” now that the war is over and things have more or less gone back to the way they were. He concludes the preface by stating that the book “is offered to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.”
Of course, all literature–all art in general–is an artifact of its time, and should be read that way. If you had no idea that this novel was written by someone on medical leave from a war in which they’ve been seriously injured, it wouldn’t really make sense. The only way it makes sense is with that framing.
Speaking of framing, though, you don’t actually need to know that much of Waugh’s biography to understand the context of the novel because the prologue conveniently frames it for you.
In the prologue, we’re introduced to Charles Ryder, 39-year-old army officer and narrator, who is apparently in the process of realizing that being in the army kind of fucking sucks and there’s no point to any of it. Nothing much happens in the prologue other than that Ryder and the rest of his company are dismantling their camp because they’re being sent to another location, but they don’t know where or why. Once they get there, though, Ryder realizes that he’s been there before, and at that point he starts remembering stuff that happened over 20 years ago and that’s when the novel actually starts.
Honestly, the prologue was a slog and I barely got through it. I had a hard time understanding even the basics of what was going on because I don’t understand a lot of military lingo (especially not military lingo from decades ago and a different continent), and because the narration itself was sort of lackluster and unclear. Which, I think, is kind of the point. As boring and dreary as the prologue was to read, I later saw that it served to set up a really clear contrast between Ryder’s wartime experience and his memories of Sebastian and Brideshead. Also, I think it was an opportunity for Waugh to vent some of his own frustrations with army life.
There was one particular passage that really struck me, where Ryder describes his lost love for the army:
Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old. I felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp; I developed proprietary claims to certain chairs and newspapers; I regularly drank three glasses of gin before dinner, never more or less, and went to bed immediately after the nine o’clock news. I was always awake and fretful an hour before reveille.
Here my last love died — There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before ‘this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day — had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading? — as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it together, the Army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. I had played every scene in the domestic tragedy, had found the early tiffs become more frequent, the tears less affecting, the reconciliations less sweet, till they engendered a mood of aloofness and cool criticism, and the growing conviction that it was not myself but the loved one who was at fault. I caught the false notes in her voice and learned to listen for them apprehensively; I recognized the blank, resentful stare of incomprehension in her eyes, and the selfish, hard set of the corners of her mouth. I learned her, as one must learn a woman one has kept house with, day in, day out, for three and a half years; I learned her slatternly ways, the routine and mechanism of her charm her jealousy and self-seeking and her nervous trick with the fingers when she was lying. She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.
Apparently this neatly parallels what Waugh himself went through in the army, but I think there’s more to this than just his military experiences. He had also divorced his first wife in 1929, so he presumably knew something about falling out of love. (Fun fact: his first wife was also named Evelyn. Just, you know, for maximum confusion.)
But I don’t think that the extended metaphor is overblown when it comes to Waugh’s/Ryder’s relationship with the army, either. I don’t have any military experience and I’ve always had a really difficult time understanding what drives people to war (both on the macro and the micro scale), which renders a lot of classic literature kind of incomprehensible to me. But when I look at the military as a particular type of group–a tribe–it makes sense. You can devote yourself entirely to your tribe, and you can become disillusioned with your tribe, trapped in it, desperate to leave it. The fighty-shooty parts don’t make any sense to me–like, why would you do that?–but the drive to belong, to be part of something greater than yourself, and to try to make that relationship work even as it’s obviously falling apart isn’t exactly unfamiliar.
(Not to put too fine a point on it, but that passage could well have been written by some of my friends currently/formerly in the secular movement.)
One more thing to note about the prologue is Ryder’s frequent mentions of young douchebag Hooper, a new addition to the company that everyone loves to hate. He really does seem pretty horrible–while passing by the local mental hospital (I’m not going to bother using the term Waugh uses), Hooper notes that Hitler would execute all of the patients and that “we can learn a thing or two from him.” Okay, yuck. Fuck you too then.
But I don’t think that’s why everyone else hates him; there’s something more to it that I’m not really understanding because I’m missing some cultural context. Ryder does some pretty epic burns on him, noting at one point, “Hooper had no illusions about the Army–or rather no special illusions distinguishable from the general, enveloping fog with which he observed the universe.” Based on what I know of Waugh, Ryder probably also hates Hooper because he tried to avoid military service, and I think that’s the sort of thing Waugh would find disgustingly cowardly (of course, who’s he to talk? He asked to be let out of the army to write this novel). He acknowledges that despite being ” a man to whom one could not confidently entrust the simplest duty,” he rarely complains and does his work very efficiently.
Shortly it becomes a little clearer what Ryder’s real issue is, and that’s all the meanings he’s attached to this one man:
In the weeks that we were together Hooper became a symbol me of Young England, so that whenever I read some public utterance proclaiming what Youth demanded in the Future and what the world owed to Youth, I would test these general statements by substituting ‘Hooper’ and seeing if they still seemed as plausible. Thus in the dark hour before reveille I sometimes pondered: ‘Hooper Rallies’, ‘Hooper Hostels’, ‘International Hooper Cooperation’, and ‘the Religion of Hooper’. He was the acid test of all these alloys.
Ryder’s preoccupation with Hooper and his youth is interesting in the context of the rest of the novel, in which he thoroughly explores exactly the types of things that old folks tend to ridicule and berate young people about. Somehow Ryder is symbolically connecting Hooper to the loss of his own youth. Maybe he sees him as cowardly, ignorant, and inept compared to himself and Sebastian at that age. I honestly have no idea, but given how much of this prologue Ryder spends observing and discussing Hooper, I’m willing to bet that he’ll somehow come up again in the novel. (How, given that it takes place decades before Ryder and Hooper meet? I have no idea.)
As I mentioned, the prologue ends when Ryder arrives at the company’s new camp. He asks what the place is called and he goes silent, “for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”
In the next chapter, a significantly younger Charles Ryder meets Sebastian Flyte in a rather explosive way, and they sort of fall in love. So, if you’re reading, I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am!
(Reminder: comments are open! Please feel free to comment if you’re reading the book or have read it previously.)
Up next: Chapter One.
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