… even though it has become very difficult to find copies without pictures of actors either from the 1981 TV series or the recent film on the cover. The film, “Brideshead Revisited”, has had more or less uniformly bad reviews on both sides of the Pond, comparison being made with the TV series that had started the careers of Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick and featured such luminaries as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Claire Bloom. It also featured another talented young actor, Nickolas Grace, but more of him anon.

The TV series is being touted as a gold standard against which the new film is being found wanted. No critic, so far as Tory Historian can make out, has made a reference to the book “Brideshead Revisited”, though Christopher Hitchins had a long article in the Guardian. In it he discussed, with great erudition, Waugh’s language, the Catholic aspects of the novel (Hitchens finds that a tad distasteful) and the significance of the Great War. He clearly finds the film very inferior and damns the TV series with faint praise:

The directors Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg achieved their 1981 success by gorgeous photography, of course, and also by generally inspired casting. The locations, plainly, required little or no embellishment. And the music was suitably ... well, evocative. But most of all, they were faithful to Evelyn Waugh's beautiful dialogue and cadence, both in set-piece scenes and in sequences of languorous voice-over in Oxford and Venice and - perhaps decisively - in the opening passage, where the melancholic Captain Charles Ryder hears the almost healing word "Brideshead" spoken again: "a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such magic power, that, at its ancient sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight".
In fact they were not as faithful to Evelyn Waugh’s undoubtedly beautiful dialogue as all that, allowing John Mortimer, the scriptwriter a good deal of freedom to write his own additions. Mortimer is a good writer but he is not in the Waugh class and has very different ways of using words and approaching themes. Quite often his additions were very clunky.

But there was gorgeous photography, evocative music, beautiful buidlings and scenery, wonderful clothes. In fact, the whole series concentrated on heritage nostalgia, making the plot and characterization too slow and too sentimental for the book.

The novel itself, underrated when it first appeared and dismissed as one of Waugh’s snobbish works, is now regarded as one of the great novels of the twentieth century, both as a description (not a very flattering one, which is another thing the dramatizers often miss) of a particular world and as a difficult moral fable. The dramatizations make it into a nostalgic romance in much the same way as recent dramatizations of Jane Austen’s novels turned those into Mills and Boon type romances.

Waugh, himself, would not have been surprised at this development. In a way, he predicted it through one of the characters in “Brideshead Revisited”. Anthony Blanche, played by the excellent Nickolas Grace in the TV dramatization but not emphasised nearly enough and, if the reviews are anything to judge by, downgraded quite severely in the film, is one of the most interesting personages in the book.

He does not appear much but he is the one who perceives matters more clearly than anyone else. Fittingly, the first time we see him, at Sebastian’s luncheon party, he declaims lines from the “Waste Land”:
And I, Tiresias, have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
In his notes to the poem Eliot says:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. … What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
Anthony Blanche, in some ways, is the Tiresias of the novel, knowing and observing, and this includes the sexual conundrum: is he male or female, or might he be said to be both? He is, however, clear-sighted in his own, deliberatly absurd fashion, about the Flyte family and about art. Waugh always denied that Blanche was based on the aesthete and art historian Harold Acton, preferring to point to Brian Howard, a less well known and considerably less interesting personality, as the original.

Whatever the truth of that is, it is clear that Anthony Blanche is a true aesthete in the sense of understanding and appreciating art and artistic endeavour. He appears about four times in the book. The first time at Sebastian’s luncheon, where he makes a strong impression on Charles Ryder and recites the Tiresias lines to undergraduates who are off to do a spot of rowing.
Subsequently, he takes Charles out to dinner during which he tells the story of him being debagged by some rowdy undergraduates in excruciating and, probably, inaccurate detail. But, above all, he warns Charles against Sebastian, the Flyte family and, more generally, against “creamy English charm” that suffocates and destroys everything it touches, particularly artistic talent.

Charles is a little afraid of Anthony and disturbed by the remarkably accurate prediction of his own and Sebastian’s behaviour. Sebastian, on the other hand, rather unwisely dismisses Anthony as being a silly show-off.

There is another brief appearance when Blanche tells Charles that he had seen Sebastian in his travels; the latter has become effectively an alcoholic and has acquired a disreputable German companion, whom Charles later meets and dislikes.

The fourth and final appearance of Anthony Blanche is at a crucial moment in Charles Ryder’s life. Having become successful as a painter of country mansions, Charles finds that his talent is stultifying so he goes off to Central America to paint in the jungle. On the way back he meets Julia Flyte, now Mottram, and they begin their affair.

In London Charles exhibits his pictures, which the visitors to the private view find “barbaric” and “unhealthy”. Anthony turns up and carefully examines the paintings then takes Charles off to a louche place we would now call a gay bar and delivers his verdict. Charles Ryder the artist has been destroyed. His new paintings are nothing but “charm again, my dear, simple creamy English charm, playing tigers”.


His final comment before he dismisses Charles is quite chilling but appropriate to the dramatizations:
I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. I warned you expressly and in great detail about the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love, it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.
The rest of the novel unfolds, mostly at Brideshead, around Charles’s affair with Julia and the rest of the surviving Flyte family to the dramatic high point of Lord Marchmain’s death and the consequent collapse of what was not perhaps the great love that Charles had imagined. There is no more mention of his work as an artist, though, presumably, he continues to paint.

The TV dramatization and, by all accounts, the film even more so prove Anthony Blanche’s point. That creamy charm has spotted and killed the great novel that Evelyn Waugh had written, at any rate for most people, and, it would seem, most critics. For many of us, though, the novel will remain and will overcome the blight. Well, one can hope.

3 comments

  1. Beautiful.

    This points to an angle of the novel I had not thought through before.

    Yes. Charles the artist is dead.

    Charles has lost everything, the girl, the house, the world he knew, even his identity as an artist.

    He turns to God at the end, having been stripped of all the world has to offer.

    I would also say that Charles turns to Catholicism in spite of, not because of, the Flyte family, each of whom (all six of them) is a caricature of a certain kind of Catholic from the non-Catholic perspective.

    I did not bother seeing the new movie, and I did not even see the TV show, but I have read the book twice and need to do so again.

     
  2. Waugh was by this time a Catholic so he may have disagree with your comment about the caricature but it is true that Charles's eventual Catholicism (slipped into the book rather quietly) denies everything he has to say about the Flyte family.

    I watched the TV series till about half-way, then gave up. Cannot understand what all the fuss is about. Unless, of course, the film is even worse, which is more than probable.

     
  3. K Says:
  4. I always found it contradictory that the narrator Charles seems quite anti the catholicism he sees in the Flytes when he has actually converted by the time he is writing this. I think Lexington Green's explanation makes sense; that Charles has become a Catholic despite the Flytes.

    Since reading this post I have been re-reading the book. In the edition I have Waugh wrote an interesting preface which is relevant to your subject. He said:
    "[When I wrote this in 1943] it was a bleak period ... 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 ... I find distasteful."
    He went on to explain that the English aristocracy had not decayed the way he had expected it to, and finished by saying:
    "[This 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."

    So no creamy English charm for Waugh.

     
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