/ 10 October 2008

Catholic tastes

Spoilers ahead! It’s impossible to discuss the import of Brideshead Revisited, novel or film, without a sense of its overall trajectory and the significance of its conclusions.

Evelyn Waugh’s most famous novel was written during World War II and he later admitted that a large part of its impetus for him was a nostalgia for the lush life of the pre-war era; lush, at least, for some members of the British aristocracy and the upper-middle classes. Waugh’s dwelling on food and the like in luxurious detail was a response to the privations of the war, and in a later revision he toned down some of that dribbling literary gluttony. (He also changed a key sex scene, in which the protagonist-narrator Charles Ryder takes ”possession” of his lover Julia, transforming it from a purple episode in which the earth moves to something more blunt and brief. But more on that area later.)

The story of Brideshead Revisited is framed by a prologue and epilogue in which, during the war, Ryder finds himself back at the stately home of Brideshead — hence the ”revisited”. (It’s a bit like Rebecca: ”Last night I dreamed I went to Manderlay again … ”) Ryder’s wartime return to Brideshead, a gorgeous palace now turned into a billet for troops, sparks memories of his pre-war life.

For Ryder, Brideshead is the central locus of his involvement with the aristocratic Flyte family — chiefly his romantic friendship at Oxford with Sebastian Flyte, the dissolute but charming younger son of the family, which leads to his later affair with Sebastian’s sister, Julia. More minor but very influential characters are the icy mother Lady Marchmain and runaway father Lord Marchmain. The family is an old recusant Catholic family, and Lady Marchmain is doctrinaire, while Lord Machmain undergoes a deathbed return to the church.

For Waugh, this is the key theme of the novel. He was open about the fact that ”the book is about God”. The narrative traces what he called ”the twitch on the thread” — how God lets people go off on their own, to err and sin and suffer, while all the time keeping His hands on ”the unseen hook and the invisible line”, to which He gives a last-minute twitch to bring the sinner back to sanctity. Apart from making God sound like some kind of master fly-fisherman, this meant that Brideshead Revisisted was dubbed a ”Roman tract” by Waugh’s contemporaries, many of whom could not take this element seriously.

Nor could they (or later readers) stomach his deep and snobbish devotion to the old aristocracy, Waugh’s touchstone of everything he thought great about England. He hated the ”common man” and all he stood for; he detested modernity in all its forms. He became an arch-conservative whose ideal, it appears, would have been to revert to the pre-Reformation era of 500 years earlier.

This is clearly absurd, and Waugh’s ”Roman tract” makes neither Catholicism nor his adored aristocrats very appealing. Sebastian is charming and fun, but also spoilt and childish — his surname tells us how flighty he is. As a character, Julia is, as Waugh’s close friend Christopher Sykes put it, ”dead as mutton”. Selina Hastings notes in her excellent biography of Waugh that he is able to create a devastatingly nasty portrait of Ryder’s unloved wife Celia, but Julia, Ryder’s supposed great passion, is lifeless.

Perhaps that is Waugh’s misogyny at work; he can denigrate a woman with forensic cruelty, but he can’t write a convincingly attractive one. Is this something to do with repressed homosexuality? Brideshead Revisited has been seen as a brave though shadowy account of gay love in a repressive era; director Julian Jarrold and writer Andrew Davies’s new film adaptation has been praised for being more upfront about this aspect of the story. Yet in fact it barely scratches the surface; one kiss and two bare bums aside, it’s as reticent as the novel. Waugh, as his later work The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold honestly shows, was terrified of being labelled homosexual and, if he had such tendencies, suppressed them.

Yet his Sebastian, in the novel, is a partial portrait of Alastair Graham, with whom Waugh had a ”love affair” (as Hastings puts it) at Oxford in the 1920s. The relationship was certainly romantic, infused by intellectual aestheticism and powered by alcohol, but whether it was fully physical or not is unclear — though the mischievous Graham did send Waugh a picture of himself naked.

The trajectory of Brideshead Revisited is to posit the earlier love for Sebastian as a precursor to Ryder’s later passion for Julia. That is to say that Ryder’s love for Sebastian is a ”phase”, and Waugh’s storyline is a way of acknowledging the gay content while also diminishing and displacing it.

Despite all these problems with the book, it is undoubtedly compelling. As Anthony Burgess put it in Ninety-Nine Novels, after enumerating its many failings: ”And yet — and yet …” Perhaps its inner tensions and contradictions, along with its obsessions, all caught in the webs of Waugh’s mandarin prose, produce that effect. You can dislike so much about the novel while still finding it impossible to put down.

The new film presumably intends to bring this story back to life for a new generation and/or for those with failing memories of the famous 1981 BBC series. It certainly gives us a Sebastian (in the form of a superb Ben Whishaw) way more convincing, interesting and sympathetic than the series was able to do with its rather irksomely coy Anthony Andrews, who was anyway too old for the role.

But it’s hard, in the movie, to believe Emma Thompson as a coldly pious Lady Marchmain; Thompson seems just too nice to do this gruesome matriarch justice. It’s almost as hard to see Michael Gambon as an aristocrat, however rebellious.

Which leaves us with a bland Matthew Goode as Ryder and Hayley Attwell as Julia, who is a pretty face but little more. The filmmakers have not been able to fill the gap Waugh left and give her greater depth (or a mind), which is a pity. It would have made the story more credible. They are also unable to make us care about Ryder’s passions in general, whether romantic or architectural, and his ultimate submission to faith (admittedly ambiguous in the novel) is simply avoided.

Apart from Whishaw, what spark there is in this Brideshead Revisited resides in the most minor characters — Ryder’s acerbic father and the queeny, Wildean Anthony Blanche. Perhaps this is just an echo of Waugh himself, always at his best when creating a character with something cutting to say. Above all, his talent was verbal; at this distance in time from the creation of his works, their moral and social content appears negligible.

And then there’s the house. Brideshead itself is or should be a character as much as any of the people who move through it, and it certainly looks wonderful in the film, but it is treated as no more than beautiful scenery. Its presence can’t compensate for the other lacks in the narrative, so this is in danger of becoming a film about a country house.

The only thing standing in the way of that is Whishaw’s performance, which alone makes the film worth seeing. His Sebastian is heartbreakingly good. Pity it’s happening in a vacuum. A lovely looking vacuum, but a vacuum nonetheless.