Anyway, here is the thing, in 1959 Waugh sat down and made some very serious revisions to Brideshead Revisited (which I may refer to simply as Brideshead hereafter, italicized to mean the book and not to mean the house). He made some cuts and changes to the text but, much more importantly, he changed the structure. For some reason, his American publishers never made the improved version available so you couldn't buy it in the USA and it may not be possible even yet.
I won't say anything about the cuts and additions here. They have been much commented on elsewhere.
Here's how to tell which edition you have. The revised edition will have a preface by Evelyn Waugh staring off with the sentence: "This novel, which is here re-issued with many small additions and some substantial cuts, lost me such esteem as I once enjoyed among my contemporaries and led me into an unfamiliar world of fan mail and press photographers." If it's not there you have the older edition.
The other difference is the new structure. The older version had four parts
- a prologue
- a longer first book called "Et In Arcadia Ego"
- a much shorter second book called "A Twitch Upon the Thread"
- an epilogue
- a prologue
- a first book called "Et In Arcadia Ego"
- a second book called "Brideshead Deserted"
- a third book called "A Twitch Upon the Thread"
- an epilogue
Again, I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, but ...
- The central turning point of book one is a discussion Charles and Sebastian have about Sebastian's Catholicism while the two of them are alone at Brideshead.
- Jumping ahead to book 3, the central turning point is Bridey coming home to announce his engagement and the effect that event has on Julia.
- Moving back to Book 2, is the section where Charles and Rex have dinner. The whole book revolves around this scene. Don't believe me? Well, when you get there, notice that the very next section after this dinner begins with "It is time to speak of Julia."
You'll also note that there is a book within a book. That is to say, the three central sections stand on their own. If you ripped the prologue and epilogue off the book, you'd be left with a coherent story that could stand on it's own. That's not an accident. There are two steps here. Waugh invents a character named Charles Ryder who then writes his memoirs. Nothing new here; this is an old trick in novel writing. But here is what is different: Waugh tacks a prologue to the front and then appends an epilogue that tell us the story of why the story is being written. We begin with a man whose soul is troubled and those troubles inspire him to tell us his story and, in telling that story (which is actually a very sad story) he rediscovers his purpose and direction in life.
It's a comedy
Here is another rather remarkable thing about the book: it's a comedy. It's an odd comedy in that it does not end, as Shakespeare and Austen's comedies do, with a marriage but it does end with a mystical union based on love and we'll get to that eventually. It's a love story of a sort leading to several people ending up in unions, they just aren't marriages.
But here is another funny thing, if you were, as I suggested above, to take a cheap edition of the book and tear the prologue off the front and the epilogue off the back, that modified book would be a sad story. It wouldn't be a tragedy but a very, very sad story much like Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier. In fact, I suspect that if the prologue and been lost and Waugh tragically killed so that no one ever knew there was supposed to be a prologue and an epilogue, it would still be remembered as a great novel. Some critics would probably like it better because it would be a very modernist novel in that it would have been a book that found no larger meaning in human life beyond what art can make of it.
The point, as I hope is becoming clear, is that the prologue and epilogue are incredibly important. It is only because the other three books are wrapped up in them that this book is a comedy. And I don't choose my words idly here: Waugh is very much writing against the modernist tradition that says that art has significant form of its own separate from the life it may or may not depict. Life itself has order if you live it fully and to live fully is to live religiously. Waugh is very much an anti-modernist in this sense. Art cannot replace religion here. Art cannot give life meaning and purpose.
Success or failure?
And if we keep this in mind—that Waugh is very much at odds with his era—we can better understand his own perspective on his novel. Let's read the first sentence of that preface again:
This novel, which is here re-issued with many small additions and some substantial cuts, lost me such esteem as I once enjoyed among my contemporaries and led me into an unfamiliar world of fan mail and press photographers.My edition (Everyman's Library) comes with an introduction by Frank Kermode and here is how that introduction begins:
The pre-publication history of Brideshead Revisited, probably Evelyn Waugh's most successful novel, is complicated and unusual.Notice the contradiction in the two bits I have emphasized?
So, who is right?
Well, there is less disagreement here than you might think. Waugh, like Austen, is a master of irony and you'll notice he doesn't say this is a bad book, he merely says that the critical response was not always good. But if you know your Waugh, you'll know that he didn't think much of critical opinion of his time.
The deeper problem for him is that he didn't think much of popular opinion either, especially of American popular opinion, and this book was a huge popular success, especially in America. It has sold more copies than all his other books put together. There are critics who make a case for other books, especially for A Handful of Dust but this is the book Waugh is remembered by and it is the one that his current reputation rests on. Even today it is vastly more popular than other books that critics would have us treat as superior.
I think Kermode and popular opinion are right about this. Why? Well let me digress about the history of the English novel a bit first.
I was recently listening to a whole bunch of lectures by professors from different universities and they all told a remarkably similar story about the English novel. As they told it, the English novel begins with Romantic comedy by Richardson and Fielding and that form reached its apogee with Austen. The rest of the story, as they told it, is a brave battle by various writers to try and break free of the strait jacket imposed by the romantic comedy form peculiar to the English tradition.
Now you can definitely tell the story that way but you can also turn that story on its head. That is, you can say the English novel came to a perfect marriage of form and content in the novels in Jane Austen and novelists have tried and failed to match that ever since. If you see the history that way, then I believe that Brideshead stands out because it comes closer to doing what Austen did than anyone else. And Waugh does this not by imitating Austen but by writing a novel that is clearly modern, although not modernist.
I'll do my best to back that rather extravagant claim over the next few weeks.
The first post in the Brideshead series is here.
The next post is here.