A pre-Christmas mooch around the charity shops of Fishguard unearthed a fine stash of DVDS perfect for viewing over that no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year. While I’ve never seen or read Cranford or either of the Trollopes, it was Granada’s unforgettable adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited that really caught my eye.
Who could forget the dreaming spires of Oxford, the tweed and shoulder-draped cable-knit sweaters as worn by the unlikely companions, Antony Andrews (Lord Sebastian Flyte) and Jeremy Irons (Charles Ryder)? I haven’t seen Brideshead since the 80s when it first aired, and I never got round to reading the book either. As I devoured Waugh’s deliciously biting The Loved One at the end of last year, I decided to read the novel first, and I’m so glad I did.
The novel begins during the war. An officer in the Army, Charles Ryder and his Company are stationed at a crumbling mansion which he immediately recognises from another life, two decades past. He recalls his days in Oxford, when, after an unfortunate introduction of Lord Sebastian Flyte vomiting through the ground floor window of his room in Hertford College, they became inseparable friends. While initially seduced by the effervescence and excess of Sebastian and his cronies, Charles begins to see that Sebastian’s drinking is fuelled less by fun, and more by his family’s dysfunction.
The novel is heavy on nostalgia for a time past, charting the decline of the aristocracy. An architectural artist by profession, Charles paints buildings for posterity before they are either transformed beyond recognition or demolished.
The financial slump of the period, which left many painters without employment, served to enhance my success, which was, indeed, itself a symptom of the decline. When the water-holes were dry people sought to drink at the mirage. After my first exhibition I was called to all parts of the country to make portraits of houses that were soon to be deserted or debased; indeed, my arrival seemed often to be only a few paces ahead of the auctioneer’s, a presage of doom.
In the same way, Charles’ observations of the Flyte family capture them before the privilege they were born to, falls into decay. Above all, what stood out in the novel for me was the strength and value of friendship freely given compared to the suffocation of love bestowed only with expectations. These conditions are in no small part influenced by Catholicism, its rituals and guilt hanging heavily in the air like incense.
I had forgotten the last third of the novel, when Charles, now married, has a chance encounter with Sebastian’s sister, Julia on their sea voyage back to England from the States, which ignites an affair. Charles’ coldness towards his family clashed with my memory of Jeremy Irons in Brideshead, who was all polite charm, tweed and bicycles.
I did enjoy reading Brideshead Revisited, especially Waugh’s barbed prose. However, I found the bad behaviour of the young wealthy Oxford students hard to stomach being all too reminiscent of Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and their Bullingdon club ‘antics’, which have come to light in recent years. Also, I found it hard to respect Charles after abandoning his former friends once the golden beam of Lord Sebastian Flyte’s gaze had deemed him worthy. Now I’ve read the novel, I look forward to returning to the TV adaptation – for the wonderful theme tune as much as anything else!