Sunday, 21 September 2008

Don't be so beastly! It's Brideshead time...

I am one of those weird people who has managed to live this far without ever seeing any of the 1981 TV series 'Brideshead Revisited'. Is that a record? How did it happen, you ask? Well, for a start I was at my weird Quaker boarding school in North Yorkshire when the series came out and we didn't get much TV access. All I watched in that period was 'Top of the Pops' and 'Fame' and I was really far more interested in Littlewoods own brand vodka and sexual experimentation than TV so I wasn't really bothered. Also I am not a fan of Jeremy 'stiff upper' Irons – men with those ridiculous plummy accents are just not my thing (I've tended to prefer the bit of rough...not nearly enough gamekeepers or...truck drivers in Brideshead) – and in general stories about toffs going to Oxford have always been low on my list of priorities, especially when I was younger. I have been a bit of an anti-snob snob in my time, I will admit it. These days I try to be more openminded and I am...most of the time. In the interests of fairness I will even try and incorporate as much Brideshead language as I can into this post. So, tally-ho, chaps, let's go hunting!

I did read some Evelyn Waugh years ago. I read 'Scoop' after uni mainly because I was very interested in journalism and journalists at the time (20 years ago now). I even fancied being a journalist but it wasn't for me – mainly because I am no good at recalling facts (which obviously means I would have made a great tabloid journalist but, you know, one has one's limits). I didn't even think of reading 'Brideshead Revisited' back was SO not the kind of book I was interested in then (I was political, right, it was obviously all about FASCISTS!). Also I had just spent three years in Cambridge surrounded by spoilt rich kids of pretty much every persuasion (I'm a spoilt, dysfunctional middle class kid myself...a world apart you know) and so I was hardly in the mood for more of the same in print. I had been very disappointed to find that Oxbridge institutions were still so full of what we used to call Brideshead types when I was there (1986-9) - I had shown up naively expecting to find intelligent students from all over the country, from all kinds of backgrounds, all there on merit (silly one!). There were some people like that...but there were also heaps and heaps of rich Sloanes too – all talking bollocks about skiing, getting their CVs together for city careers, drinking Pimms and talking in those annoying bloody voices! I lived in the north east of England till I was sixteen...I didn't believe there were really that many Sloanes in the world! So many stripey shirts! After 3 years of “What's wrong – family no money?” (a bloke really did say that to a friend of mine) I was desperate to get away from 'Brideshead' world so I got on a National Express coach out of there as soon as I could. Once free I just kept going... further and further north...until it was just all like a very well-enunciated bad dream.

Now I'm older and wiser I can recognise that maybe I overreacted... just a tad. I'm sure at least some of those annoying Sloanes were nice people. And I could have enjoyed the pretty buildings more. Plus I still hadn't read the book...what did I know about a 'Brideshead' world?

Well, finally, twenty years later..I've just read 'Brideshead Revisited' (partly because at least one of you talked about it back at the reading list post on prose fiction). Not having seen the TV series at all means that I came to the book with no real idea of the story or the individual characters. I was as unprejudiced as a person who's not keen on rich, Southern toffs can be. I mean I never joined the Socialist Workers Party or anything (but mainly because I was too lazy...I'm not sure they'd have had me).

But the did it go? How did I get on with Sebastian and Lady Julia and dear, dear Charles (Charles who is so plodding and ordinary and who only really comes alive when he meets the fabulous Flytes...when he's “discovered” by them)?

Well, let's see. I did really like some of the writing. Written in 1944-5 and first published in 1945, it is a marvellous period piece (with most of the action set in the 1920s and 30s...capturing, as Waugh saw it, the last era when beauty could flourish, the time before English society went to the dogs, got common and lost all its sheen). Of course English society only looked remotely sheeny back then if you were looking from the top end down – nothing particularly beautiful about the life of a 1920s parlourmaid, I don't imagine, and this is no 'Gosford Park' – anyone who isn't above stairs is of very little interest in this tale. Halt, I tell a lie – there is Nanny, darling Nanny...always knitting, very stupid. And there's Lunt, Charles' Oxford scout (or cleaner). Lunt spends a lot of time wiping up the sick of rich young men and that much has not changed...when I was at Cambridge we still had bedders (Oxford has scouts, Cambridge bedders...ra, ra bloody, ra) and they still spent most of their time wiping up sick...and urine. One morning I remember finding the bedder from our floor (a woman in her sixties) in tears because a group of rugger lads and got pissed and then pissed all over the carpet outside the door of a geeky guy they didn't like. The great and good? Sometimes I remember why I didn't like it there very much. Privilege does not always bring out the best in people.

Still, back to the book! There are some lovely pictures of that (in some ways) innocent time and some lovely lines. “I happen to like this bad set,” says Charles when he has broken free from the “middle course of culture” and found a group of new outrageous, fairly gay, society friends (with Sebastian the jewel in its big camp crown). “I like getting drunk at luncheon...I usually have a glass of champagne about this time. Will you join me?” His conventional cousin Jasper is unimpressed. Jasper is not interested in “an enclosed and enchanted garden”, in art or in beauty, in falling in love with pretty golden boys (as Charles..and Evelyn Waugh both did as part of their university education).

There are some gorgeous words too...Charles' father “footles about collecting things”, “crapulous” makes more than one appearance, modern art is “bosh”, EVERYTHING is “beastly” at one point or another, the trains abroad are full of “peasants” (honestly, these days, you call someone a peasant and they just overreact, innit?). Charles undergoes a “conversion to the Baroque” at Brideshead (the big fancy country house) and, I suppose, we readers are meant to be seduced along with him. It is tempting...the servants, the richness of everything, the grounds, the fancy bathrooms, life being one big long cocktail party. Who wouldn't weaken..? What would you rather have - egalitarianism? Oh, that's beastly, darling. Let's not even think about it.

Overall the book is just so sad the ways it is meant to be and a few more besides. All that money, the beautiful house and...yet so miserable. Yes, I know that's kind of the point but still...whiney really-quite-vacuous Sebastian drinking himself even more stupid, silly really-quite-vacuous Julia making disastrous man choices, tiresome Lady Marchmain weighing everyone down with restrictive religious mumbo jumbo that only makes them miserable (oh for god's sake, if you're going to be rich, just enjoy the bloody money, why can't you!). Then there's zombie-like Charles following them all about like a lovesick schoolboy...and lovesick for what? That miserable annoying bunch of layabouts! Pot/kettle I know but still I really did struggle to give a flying fig about any of these characters. It was only some of the great lines and little details that kept me reading as Sebastian got drunk (yet again) and Julia pouted and tossed her hair (yet again) and Charles thought about how brilliant they all were (yet again).

The feature of the book that confused me most of all was Lady Marchmain. At the beginning you think she is going to be a significant character (“She sucks their blood” says the delightfully outrageous Anthony Blanche of Lady Marchmain's relationship with the rest of the family and you think...oh goody, here's the drama) but then she is hardly in the book at all. I saw a trailer for the new 'Brideshead' film (out this year, I presume) and again the trailer made the mother of Bridey*, Sebastian, Julia and Cordelia look like a central character but if she is they must have written her a few extra scenes. I know Waugh tells us she is formidable, a great force in the family but we don't really see or hear it in the book. I know there is the whole religious question but to me that all felt forced and laid on top of the other better writing –somehow getting in its way. It also felt so like the work of a new convert (as Waugh was to Catholicism) trying to persuade us all how clearly his was the true way. It was an odd way to do it though (aren't converts always a little overzealous?) as to me he just showed Catholicism as cruel, unfair, inconsiderate and a bit..well...fluffy and silly at times. Is that really the way to win round the infidels? I know... let's force an old man to convert on his deathbed. See, told you God was good. That's not going to do it for me, I have to say.

Likewise how are we supposed to believe for one second that daft old Charles does eventually see the good way to paradise? Just because he doesn't get his girl? Because the chapel is so pretty? Is this the same character who earlier on sees his best friend (and first love) broken by the pressures of the family and its church of choice? “ 'I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember,'” says Sebastian in the early, happier section of the book. He never does though. He just fact he rusts like a drunk...

Much as a lot of my favourite lines were the throwaway ones, most of my favourite characters were the minor ones – gruff Lex, adventurous Anthony (“a byword of iniquity”), Lord Marchmain (who abandons the charade of society and hides out in Venice with a dancer) and most of all Charles's father, Ned Ryder. I almost wanted to read another book about all their stories and forget the silly Flytes. Ned Ryder, for example, is not a major character by any stretch but the way he treats his son (as a nuisance) really did make me laugh (a bitter kind of laugh but a laugh all the same). Charles comes home for Xmas and his father does everything he can to get him to jolly well bugger off again. There was a refreshing honesty in that – these days we're all supposed to like our families...well, really. Poppycock. Likewise Anthony, for me, has some of the best lines - “'English snobbery is more macabre to me even than English morals'”, he says towards the end of the book and whilst English snobbery is not what it was it's still something the English enjoy excelling in a little much for my liking. I'm with Anthony, all the way.

Overall this book was not a great reading event for me - I expected more somehow. In the end I felt it provided a few laughs, some clever commentary, more than its fair share of prettiness but plenty of stomach-turning too, plenty of sloppy thinking and propaganda. If you believe what you read on the holy pages of wikipedia Waugh wanted us to feel the “atmosphere of a better age” in 'Brideshead Revisited', to see what we were losing and feel its loss and I suppose it is the nostalgia factor that has ensured the story's continued success. Pretty buildings and cruise liners aside though I finished the book, put it down and thought 'do you know, maybe things aren't so bad these days after all...'

* This made me laugh every time I read it as a 'bridie' round here is a pasty filled with steak mince. Quite apt really.


hope said...

Thank you...I feel absolved of the guilt of never having seen the series or read the book. My excuse at the time was "I'm American and those British period pieces can be so sad". Maybe I wasn't as far off as I thought. :)

Colin Will said...

I'm with hope here. That's another unread 'classic' I can cross off my list without feeling guilty. Sounds awful.

Here's a song for you Rachel:

I'm going to Paris in the morning,
Dong Dong the bells are gonna chime...

Well, something like that.

Rachel Fox said...'s an entertaining read at times but I'm not sure it would go in my pile marked 'classic'. It's a great title - I'll give Waugh that...very memorable.

My Mum (who LOVES period dramas and is so NOT an anti-snob snob...) has the box set of the TV series. I imagine I may watch it if I'm ever confined to bed for a really long time.

Happy travels, Colin. In fact bon voyage, old chap, and watch out for peasants en route!


Colin Will said...

Merci madame. Look after Scotland while I'm away, won't you?

Sorlil said...

What can I say, I've never even heard of it! Comprehensive review and I won't be looking out for it anytime soon. I've never liked novels about upper-class life, most of Austen's work bores me to tears.

Rachel Fox said...

You're probably too young to remember the fuss about the TV series Sorlil! With the new film coming out this year you'll probably see it mentioned quite a lot in the coming months. I'll be hiding behind the sofa.

Jim Murdoch said...

I saw the first episode - hated it with a vengeance - and have never even attempted to watch it again. Needless to say there's nothing in your review that even tempts me slightly to watch the forthcoming film, although I have seen the trailer and everything I hated about the TV series was in it.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes. I read it to try something different in a way. I tried it. I didn't like it much. Off with their heads.

shug said...

You hard hearted cads! Bridesehead is an absolute classic, atmospheric and sensual to the extreme. Alright it's overtly nostalgic and has some dodgy socio-political overtones but god's sake folks, have you no romance in your souls? Maybe you need to be a lapsed catholic to appreciate it best but it is so BEAUTIFUL.
And the TV Series? My God, almost as good.

Rachel Fox said...

I was wondering when someone would turn up to defend the book's honour! I have to say I would not have guessed who it would be...still surprises are (nearly) always pleasant.

Are you a lapsed catholic then? I know a lot of those. Infinitely preferable to converts (like Waugh...).

I know it was about beauty and very keen to accentuate the beautiful but I have to say I found the book itself ugly - in its intentions, in its characters, pretty much through and through. I felt it started out as one thing (for that first year in Oxford) but then got very bitter and twisted for the rest of its pages. I really did try to like it...didn't happen.

When did you last read it?

Poetikat said...

As one of the original proponents of this book, let me just say in my defense that I was both a first-year university student AND a Catholic (I have not lapsed). I think more than anything, the book and the dramatic representation of it captivated me because I am not English. The elevated world of aesthetes and aristocrats seemed marvelous and magical to me. Admittedly, I have not read the book since the 1980s, but I did see the recent film and I have to say that I was once more swept up in that world, though perhaps I was merely drawing comparisons with the Irons/Andrews roles and my current personal situation makes me more sympathetic to sad lives.
I have been well persuaded by your arguments, Rachel, but I fear it would take much more to eradicate my deep affection for the book and the t.v. production ( I own the dvd box set as well).

You might find it interesting just to watch the bits where Sir John Gielgud captures Ned Ryder to a tee.
Also, Charles Keating, the actor who played "Rex" Mottram went to on to have a deliciously villainous role on an American soap opera for many years. Over here, we know him as "Carl Hutchins".

Incidentally, Emma Thompson is quite brilliant as Lady Marchmain and in fact may end up with an award for the role.

I shall reread the book and let you know if I feel any differently.


shug said...

Brideshead is one of the handful of books I take on holiday every year and, weans allowing, dip into. I know them all off by heart just about so it doesn't matter whether I start/finish or whatever. I try and read new fiction at other times but in the sun after all that sangria it's comforting to drift off into some familiar pages.
Similarly well thumbed and wine stained are Lucky Jim, On the Road, Darconville's Cat, Fear and Loathing..A Bucket of Tongues

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, Kat I'm sure living on the other side of the Atlantic can make some of the aspects of the English aristocracy seem charming (when up close they can be far from that!). Doesn't the Anthony character say "Charm is the great English blight"?

I'm not sorry I read it...I always think it's good to know what people are talking about. Plus, as I said there's something about that language...I can see me dropping in "bosh" and "beastly" for a good while yet.

And Emma Thompson is good in everything. So you see I am not prejudiced against all English accents of the RP persuasion!


Anonymous said...

I was an English undergraduate when this thing was on the telly and I utterly refused to watch it. All those repulsive snobs and their uninteresting lives. Who cares? Many of my fellow students really went for it, though. I found this very sad. Waugh and his ilk hold no interest for me whatsoever and I feel no loss by refusing to read his famous tome. That whole period of English writing spawned a few horrors.

Rachel Fox said...

You won't be off to the film then, Mr Bear?
I only knew there was a film because they showed a trailer when I took Small Girl to Mamma Mia in the summer (trying to keep her at least a bit up to date with class chat subjects)! She was very confused by both that trailer and Mamma Mia, I have to say and we had a lot of reproduction questions after MM (why doesn't she know who's the Dad etc...).

shug said...

Fierce stuff SB and very bold to condemn not just one book but apparently a tribe of others without reading a word of the text. Prefer to read a bit of the stuff myself before heartily despising it. Or is that old fashioned?

Rachel Fox said...

I think we ladies will retire to the drawing room and leave the chaps to argue it out over a brandy or five.

In fact I'm just back from Brechin festival thing (went great - thanks for asking) so I'm off to find a servant to undress me. If all else fails I may have to do the bloody job myself. Damn peasants.

Goodnight all. Cheerio.

Dave King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave King said...

Interesting comments on Brideshead, but the really interesting bits were those about yourself. A lot of it rang bells for me, though not the wiser now bit: I don't think I could clain that! In all seriousness, though, an excellent post, thoroughly enjoyed.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks, Dave. I'm glad the wanderings of my mind can be put to some use!

Ken Armstrong said...

It's so long since I read 'Brideshead..' that I can't really give useful input. I remember it being more readable than I had expected and I associate it with a feeling of well-off-pointlessness. A bit like 'Less Than Zero' without the drugs.

Where do we apply for that servant's job, is there a form to fill out or something?

Rachel Fox said...

Ken Armstrong you are rude! You might even be a cad. I am outraged!

Did make me laugh though.

Poetikat said...

Ken, it's Ladies' Maid, NOT Ladies' Man! Did you not see "Manor House"?
(Nice try though.)


Rachel Fox said...

What is 'Manor House'?


BarbaraS said...

A thorough review and well done to you for reading it, I've never got around to it, although I've read other Evelyn Waugh books, which of course I can't remember now... nice to see people posting for and against too.
Can't say that I'd be inspired to read it, thanks for saving me the bother ;)

Poetikat said...

Manor House was a reality program where a group of people lived in an Edwardian Home in a kind of upstairs/downstairs situation, replicating the times in their costumes, habits, work and eating. It was fascinating, funny and very entertaining. I have it taped, but have never managed to get it on dvd.