Brideshead 1

Almost five years ago now, I blogged my way through Brideshead Revisited starting in Advent and continuing on into the new year after Christmas. It was not meant to be, and is not, an academic exercise. I simply went through a book I had known and loved for a few decades and explained how I understood the text.

The response has been gratifying. At least one person has come here and read their way through these posts every single day since I first published these. 

A number of commenters have noted that the posts can be difficult to navigate and have suggested that I find someway to present them for easier reading. This is my first attempt. I have created this "page" within my blog and I'm going to repost the posts dealing with the prologue up to the end of book 1 of the novel. Here's hoping it works. If it does the next two sections will follow over the next week or so.


And so the Season of Brideshead begins




Recognize this guy? The Crucifix in his right hand, the lily in his left hand, black robe and white rochet plus his youth are your big hints. No? Well it isn't the greatest photograph.

This very young Jesuit, he died in his early twenties, is Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. He is the patron saint of youth and, as all Brideshead Revisted fans will appreciate, the reason why the teddy bear is named Aloysius.

I find it hard to figure out why Aloysius was held in such reverence by his contemporaries. He was of noble birth and there were tensions with his family. His letters are a disappointment and they must have been even to their first readers. He died early as a result of caring for people during a plague and while that is tragic it is hardly unique. He seems to have had tremendous charm or maybe even charisma and that more than anything he actually did seems to be the source of his cult.

And, oh yeah, one of his attributes is a skull to symbolize his early death. Waugh knew all these things.

For any and all who've already read Brideshead this will all be ringing bells. For any who have not, grab a copy and join in.

This Advent is going to be all Brideshead all the time. I will blog it every day. My normal theme days will hold as usual but any Mad Men (this afternoon), Catholic culture, moral virtue, manliness or womanliness posts will be tied to the book somehow, even if only tenuously.

I learned the hard way with Rob Roy that blogging a book only once or twice a week doesn't work. The pace isn't fast enough and I lose interest before I get to the end, so daily blogging it will be.

A couple of technical points. I'll be using the revised edition (I've just learned that most American readers have never seen the revised version so I'll explain this further in an upcoming post). It's much better than the first version. In any case, the first version is very hard to find (outside the USA, that is, inside the older version appears to the only one available). I may refer to the first version occasionally but I'll be using the Everyman edition of the revised version.

I'll start tomorrow with the Preface.

I have a few readers whom I know have read this book many times and know it very well. Do feel free to rebuke, chastise and correct as you will should you feel I've missed anything.


The preface

First a note about editions because many readers from the USA will not have a preface. Why not? I'm not sure. Perhaps it is a copyright issue but perhaps also because American publishers are lax about classic novels and perhaps a bit of both.

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.

The structure
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
The revised version has five parts
  • 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
Why is this so important? I don't want to give away too much for anyone reading for the first time but the the first version is much more romantic and the second is much more neoclassical. The new version is much more symmetrical and balanced. It divides into three sections with a crucial event in the centre of each.

Again, I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, but ...
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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."
Now if you understand the way Jane Austen structures her books, this will be familiar. The book is in three sections and each section has symmetrical story arc with the important turning point right in the centre. All three of these turning points in Brideshead turn, if you'll pardon the repetition, on Catholicism. You will also notice something that many readers miss: Julia's story is more important than Sebastian's. An awful lot of people get all wrapped up in the Oxford section and project a whole lot of romantic glamour onto it (it's actually a rather bleak story if you pay attention) and miss the much more important sections about Julia. By the way, and I'll get back to this, people also willingly close their eyes to something in that first section that they'd prefer not to see and that is the nature of the relationship between Charles and Sebastian.

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 Revisitedprobably 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 Prologue

I know what you are but what am I?
The prologue is only thirteen pages long in my edition. And yet there is an immense amount packed into it. Most of which I will not be able to touch on.

It is preceded by a table of contents and an author's note. Both are telling. A table of contents is an antiquated thing to have here; it's a deliberate throwback to the Victorian novel. The author's note seems to be the usual one to tell us that this story is fictional as are all the characters and any resemblance et cetera. But we don't get legal boiler plate here but rather this clever bit of wording:

I am not I: thou art not he or she:
they are not they
EW

And the bug I want to put into your ear is this: does he mean more by this than merely to deny any connection with real life? That is, does he perhaps mean that in some more general sense, "I am not I"?

In any case, there is trap here worth avoiding. Right from the beginning, most people have read this novel as disguised autobiography. And because Charles Ryder, like many fictional narrators but unlike most people who write non-fiction memoirs, does not exalt himself, readers have found the idea of the story very captivating.

And there is a problem with that because Charles Ryder is not necessarily a good guide to the events of his own life and their significance to himself. He isn't a liar the way we shall soon see that Sebastian and his mother are liars. But he is peculiarly blind to their lies and he is peculiarly blind to a lot of other stuff. Waugh has made him this way intentionally.

And it is so tempting to ignore that. Ryder, after all, is a snob and social climber and so is Waugh. Ryder has a keen appreciation for the absurd and so does Waugh. Why not read Ryder as a fictionalized Waugh?

That is certainly what many of the critics have done. They have then turned around and used Ryder as a stick to beat Waugh with. The carefully planted evidence to show Ryder's moral weakness and lack of awareness became the evidence to show Waugh had the same faults.

I suspect that didn't bother Waugh much. What bothered him was that people missed the art. They missed all the effort he went to create a fictional narrator to tell this story and thereby make a point about that fictional narrator. The only people who loved the book at first were like the sort of people who show up at Cavendish, Prince Edward Island every year and want to know: "Is this is where Anne really lived?" "Is this really the school she went to?" "Is this really the hotel where she recited?"

Life magazine, for example, wanted to do a piece wherein they would take pictures of all the real people the characters of Brideshead were based on and the real locations where the story took place. They sent Waugh a letter and asked him if he would kindly supply the relevant names so they could get to work.

I reckon that is Charles's job maybe
 So let's do Waugh a favour and let's read  the fictional story he took such trouble to craft for us. The first character to appear in that story is Charles Ryder and like any other character in a novel, there is something wrong with him. And we will learn what that is here in this prologue.

That may not seem significant but consider the expectations set up by reading this one way or another. Suppose I decide to tell you my life story from university days forward? I have a purpose in telling you that story. It could be positive: "I used to be a callow, beardless youth and I'm telling you this story to show how much I've matured." It could also be negative: "I had an openness, an innocence, in those days that I've lost and I wish I could regain." Either way, I am in control of the story and I'm telling you the story to serve some purpose of my own.

Charles Ryder is not in control of his story. Evelyn Waugh is in control and he has a different purpose. Charles Ryder is going to tell us what is wrong with his world and the answer to that question, for him, is going to be "Mr. Hooper is what is wrong with the world."

But he is wrong about that. Someone told me once that a British Newspaper asked leading British intellectuals to answer the question, "What is wrong with the world today?" As the story was told to me, I have no idea if it's true because I've always been too lazy to look it up, GK Chesterton answered the question as follows: "I am."

And that is what we should be looking for here. The thing that is wrong with Charles Ryder's world is Charles Ryder. We need to be on the look out for evidence of what is missing in him. Evidence that, at least as he starts to tell the story, may not be so obvious to him.

And let me bluntly state that the thing that is missing in Charles is not religion. He does not need to become a Christian because he already is one. We might miss that because part of the story ahead of us will be the efforts made by some to convert him but he is already converted and Mr. Hooper himself lets us know that in one telling line:
'... I've just had a snoop around. Very ornate, I'd call it. And a queer thing, there's a sort of R.C. Church attached. I looked in and a kind of service was going on—just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine.'
There is an intentional vagueness in that line. We don't know what kind of Christian Charles is. He might actually be a Catholic but he might also be an Anglican or a protestant. Hooper merely says that it is more in Charles' line, he doesn't say that it is exactly in Charles' line.

If we knew what sort of Christian Charles is, we might be able to figure out what sort of Christian he should be. That would be an answer to the question of what is wrong with Charles Ryder. And here, we get a bit of a hint from the text. In the middle of his description of everything wrong with his world, Charles tells us first that something (he doesn't specify what) is wrong with him and he also lets us in on something that is right, or at least potentially right about him.

Here is what is wrong. His men are disheartened and disenchanted with the army just like he is.
And I, who by every precept should have put heart into them—how could I help them who could so little help myself?
And that tantalizing hint is all we get.

What is right about him? Eliot Girl and I were recently talking about this book, it's a favourite for both of us, and we realized that we had independently realized the same thing. That is that, far from being a mere example of absurdity to laugh at, the relationship between Charles Ryder and Mr. Hooper is actually the second most important relationship in the story. Mr. Hooper is the second character to appear in the story and he is very important to it.

To get a notion why, consider this question from Luke:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said,
"what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is
written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your
neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the
right answer; do this, and you will live.
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my
neighbor?"
After this follows the parable of the Good Samaritan. Hooper is Charles' neighbour and it is Charles' job to love Hooper. And therein lies the challenge for Hooper is not very lovable. Hooper enters our story in a very unlikeable guy indeed. Ryder has just told us of the insane asylum near the camp and how the other troops have an affinity for the inmates thereof. And Hooper?
... but Hooper, my newest-joined platoon-commander, grudged them their life of privilege; 'Hitler would have put them in a gas chamber,' he said; 'I reckon we can learn a thing or two from him.'
Surely Ryder isn't supposed to love this man. He believes all the wrong things and represents, for Charles, everything that is wrong with the world. And yet Hooper is exactly the one whom Ryder has to love. He is his neighbour.

"Ryder" and "Charles"

Ryder
Many of the names in this book are not accidental. They all have special significance. Sometimes the significance is explained by looking up the relevant saint. Aloysius and Sebastian for example. Sometimes the significance is explained by looking up another fictional character, for example, perhaps obviously in "Cordelia" but also in "Charles' As I will argue further down. Sometimes the significance is explained by considering the meaning of the word that is the name; "Boy" Mulcaster, Sebastian "Flyte" or Charles "Ryder" for example. Boy is boyish, Sebastian is in flight and Charles is a rider.

A rider as opposed to a walker I mean. He is a guy on a horse, which is to say, a guy on a cheval which makes him a chevalier and that requires him to be chivalrous. All through Brideshead, Waugh plays with various romantic ideals and the one associated with Charles is knightly behaviour. This is a recurring theme in Waugh and some of the most surprising characters aspire to it. Basil Seal in Put Out More Flags for example.

The thing that really differentiates Charles from Hooper in the prologue, for example, is that "Hooper was no romantic."

And Charles is a romantic who aspires to be knightly. We can see this right through the story. He comes to like Hooper not because Hooper is likeable but because the new CO fails to treat Hooper according to the proper standards of knightly behaviour and, in this one thing, Hooper shows himself to be nobler than the CO.

All through the book, Charles repeatedly shows himself to be the one (almost the only one) who can always be counted upon to do the chivalrous thing. He treats women in a chivalrous fashion, he remembers that the priest should receive a donation for his duties, he is the one who can be called upon by Julia and sent on a quest for Sebastian and, when called, he says yes.

But knightly behaviour is a tricky thing. It's tricky, first of all, because knights act. They don't introspect. In the Chanson de Roland, if Roland comes into a burning house where there is a damsel tied to a post and a dragon and three soldiers to prevent him from rescuing her, he doesn't think about the best way to proceed. He just cuts the dragons head off and stabs the three soldiers, grabs the girl and runs. He has an idea, bravery, and he acts according to it.

But Roland's life gets more complicated as time goes on. In the earliest telling of his story, he was probably just a killing machine. He fought for the king and proved his worth by slaughtering great masses of bad guys. But then he becomes a Christian knight. Now he has to slaughter great masses of bad guys only he has to do so as a Christian and you can see how that might make his life more complex what with "Thou shalt not kill" and all. But that isn't all. After being a Christian killing machine for a while, he then becomes a Christian killing machine who is a courtly lover. And now he has to love women in a  courtly but definitely erotic way and you can see how that might be complicated if to so much as look at a woman with lust is to have already committed adultery.

Charles Ryder is trying very hard to fulfill all these ideals in the modern world. (He's not the only knightly character, by the way. There is another who is even better than him at this even though Charles doesn't see it that way. I said in my last post that we cannot trust Charles' version enough to take it at face value. There is another character that he sneers at and he wants us to sneer at too who is actually also an exemplary knight.)

and "Charles"
Why Charles? I think it is because of Charles Swann from Proust. (There are a number of allusions to Proust in Brideshead and I'll get to at least two of them as I go through the book.)

Waugh had mixed feelings about the two men generally taken to be the greatest modern novelists—James Joyce and Marcel Proust. He thought that both started well but that they both ended up writing books that were insane (Waugh's word). We might think Waugh was just being provocative here but I think he really meant it. Waugh likes the modernist techniques of Proust but thinks that Proust uses them to reach an end that is crazy. Relevant disclosure, I think Waugh is right about this.

For the benefit of those who haven't bashed their way through the first volume of Proust, let me explain what the relevant technique is. Proust wrote his great novel in part as a response to a critic named Saint-Beuve. Saint-Beauve said that if you really want to understand an author, you needed to understand their biography. Proust shows us that the actual biographical details of a story are not important.

Here is how he does it. The first part of Swann's Way is the story of the narrator's youth and his obsessive pursuit of his mother's good night kiss. He wants this kiss so badly that he is willing to risk everything—the respect of his parents, the mockery of servants, what little standing he has with other adults in his life—in order to get it. By plotting and scheming he gets the kiss he desires but loses something else in the process. Then he switches gears for the second part and tells us that he is going to tell us a a story about Charles Swann that took place before the narrator was born. It is a very different story; it is the story about Swann's falling in love with a courtesan named Odette de Crecy and how jealousy makes him value and treasure this woman, a woman who can be had by anyone and has been had by practically everyone, above everything else he has in his life. He is willing to risk everything in order to get her.

I trust you see the point. We have two completely different biographies and yet the child Marcel is able to tell the story of the adult Charles Swann because the jealousy and insecurity that drives them both to love is the same. A good writer, Proust shows us, can take a character and put that character into completely different life stories. Therefore, knowing the events of the writer's life is pointless.

By the way, there is yet another twist. In part three of Swann's Way Charles is married and in love but our narrator is also, we realize with a jolt, now in love with Odette and, more surprising, so are we. For it is Odette, the woman anyone could have, who is the real hero of In Search of Lost Time. She, and she alone, lives up to the standards of art.

Anyway, back to Charles Ryder and the other characters in Brideshead. One trick Waugh uses several times over is to plant very similar characters into very different biographies. I've already hinted at one; there is another knightly character. But there are other pairs and we should keep an eye out for them.

To some extent, biography is just a screen in this novel. The natural events of the characters lives, the things we would normally take to be the things that define them, are often irrelevant because there are other characters living similar lives inside different biographies. Rather, as Waugh drops broad hints all over the place, the really important events in their lives are supernatural events, specifically the important events are God's acts of grace towards them.

(This telling the same story with different lives inside them is not new by the way. Tomorrow I will take a huge digression to give an example of the same from the greatest English novelist. I mean of course Charlotte Collins. That name may not mean anything to you but, trust, me, you've read at least one of her books or you've seen it acted on screen.)

Charlotte Collins, novelist

Here as promised is the story of Charlotte Collins the greatest English language novelist of all time. That name not ringing any bell? Perhaps you know her better under her maiden name of Charlotte Lucas? Well, you've heard of her most famous book. It's called Pride and Prejudice. No, the Pride and Prejudice. It's not like there is more than one of them.

You don't believe she wrote it? Well, try reading it again and compare Charlotte's insights into Elizabeth's character versus Elizabeth's insights into Charlotte. Again and again, Elizabeth underestimates Charlotte or just gets her wrong. Charlotte, however, is unfailingly penetrating in her assessments of Elizabeth.

I know, I know, "But Charlotte commits the greatest sin possible by marrying for pragmatic reasons rather than love." Well, maybe. But is Elizabeth any better? She is just as stuck with Lady Catherine now as Charlotte is. You don't think that Lady Catherine isn't going to get over her humiliation and be back in her usual form do you?

But but, Elizabeth really loves Darcy!

Does she? To really love someone you have to understand them and Elizabeth, by her own admission, doesn't even begin to grasp Darcy. Here is an example, in his second declaration of love, Darcy blames everything on his pride and claims his parents were not to blame. Do you believe that? You do? Then why does Darcy have two last names? Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Nobody who gave their child that name could be anything but a pretentious git of the very worst kind. (Lady Catherine isn't an exception, she is typical of her family.)

And what names they are. "Darcy", with its arrogant assertion of Norman blood—this from a family of great wealth but no distinction whatsoever beyond what they married into—is really something. My mother used to say, "Always wash your hands after handling money, the commonest people have money."

But as bad as "Darcy" may be, "Fitzwilliam" is worse. First of all it's a name that someone in the family married into and nothing they come by legitimately. Second it comes loaded with its own boatload of pretension: it is "Fitzwilliam" from "fils de William". Any time you see "Fitz" in a name like this it means that someone way back when was the bastard son of someone they thought it worth claiming descendance from even at the price of parading their illegitimacy. "Fitzroy" meant the king's bastard son, "fils du Roi". The pretension in "Fitzwilliam"is a million times worse because they aren't claiming descendance from any old king but from William the Conqueror.

And all they are is really rich. That they were so proud of having "Fitzwilliam" in the family by marriage that they were willing to saddle their son with it just to keep up what is most likely a bogus claim is very telling. At best, the William in question might have been the mayor of some little burg who knocked up some particularly trampy chambermaid whose descendants later got rich dishonestly. It almost certainly wasn't William the Conqueror.

I know, millions of women had very meaningful "experiences" while fantasizing about Colin Firth but the only difference between Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy is one of degree. The two marriages are more or less alike.

A mirror image
If you still don't believe me, consider how easily the story could be reversed. You could tell pretty much the same story only have the beautiful girl marry a rich man with a house for pragmatic reasons and have her more sensible best friend marry the poor clergymen dependent on the munificence of others for his living.

Here is the trajectory of Elizabeth's story.
Elizabeth meets a wealthy man named Darcy but finds his personality less than attractive, then she falls under the charm of a handsome rogue named Wickham in whom she puts her trust leading to almost disastrous consequences for her and her family until she is saved by the man she originally put off and now she suddenly "sees" his real virtue and marries for love.
Meanwhile, steady Charlotte waits until all other claims against Mr Collins are cleared up so that she can pursue the man she sees as a good solid bet.
It's not hard to imagine that the other way around, wherein it is Charlotte who really marries for love and Elizabeth is the purely pragmatic one marrying for protection and comfort.

Can't do it? Maybe the names are getting in your way. Let's change the names of our characters so we can see the thing afresh.
A young woman, let's call her Marianne, meets a wealthy man with a nice country seat, let's call him Colonel Brandon, but finds his personality less than attractive, then she falls under the charm of a handsome rogue, let's call him Willoughby just for variety's sake,  in whom she puts her trust leading to almost disastrous consequences for her and her family until she is saved by Brandon, who she originally put off, but now she suddenly "sees" his real virtue and marries for what are probably really pragmatic reasons of wanting someone to protect and keep her.

Meanwhile, another, more steady woman, let's make her a sister for a little more variety and call her Elinor, waits until all other claims against, oh it's so hard just making up names on the fly like this, I'll call him Edward Ferrars for lack of anything better, are cleared up so that she can pursue the man she really loves.
That's not so hard is it. And yes, it is pretty much the same story structure isn't it?

Charlotte Collins does this all the time. There is a character named Eliza in Sense and Sensibility who gets entangled with Willoughby before the action and ends up pregnant. It's not terribly hard to imagine that, but for the grace of God, her namesake in Pride and Prejudice could easily have met the same fate. I know we don't like to discuss this sort of possibility; I mean that Wickham might have nailed Elizabeth. Oh sorry, it sounds so crude when I put it that way. "Nailed" is such an ugly word to describe the act of ... whoops we wouldn't want to call it "'love" would we? . Would "seduced" be any better?

Actually, seduced is a little unfair to Wickham. Yes, he is a liar and cad but Elizabeth rather throws herself at him doesn't she? Seduction is really giving him too much credit. I know, only the horrible Lydia could do something quite that brazen. Well, Lydia is bad, true, but the difference between she and Elizabeth is one of degree not kind.

Okay, if that is too crude and dirty for you, consider instead Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park. She is likable and not a tramp but she doesn't work out so well and the similarities between Mary and Elizabeth are awfully compelling. Actually, that one even pains me. I read Mansfield Park and I can't help but wonder if maybe Charlotte has had second thoughts about Elizabeth.

Here is a hypothesis, what if, in writing Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte based Elizabeth on her best friend forever only to have that BFF disappoint her deeply between the time she finished Pride and Prejudice and before she started writing Mansfield Park?

Actually, it's a pseudonym
I haven't been completely honest here. "Charlotte Collins" was actually  a pseudonym that was assumed by a woman named Jane Austen to write the novel. Later she changed her mind and published under the simpler pseudonym of "a lady" but she kept Charlotte Collins as the name of the character she based on herself.

She did this because there were some touchy privacy issues involved. You see Charlotte/Jane never married. Mr. Collins is actually based on her father and the whole story is her brutally honest (complete with many warts) but loving way of presenting the portrait of a man she loved, he was her father after all, in print. She portrayed the man in several of her novels under different names, Mr Elton, for example. Sometimes, she idealized him a bit, as a loving daughter is wont to do, and so we get the more positive portraits we see in Henry Tilney, Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram but the relationships are always with fatherly types whom you can't imagine actually ... I'm sorry I can't bring myself to use the words.

Okay, I'm making all this up but you don't really have any way of knowing that some of it may not be true. This is a continuation of my point from yesterday. A good novelist, and Austen is the best, can create an endless number of characters out of very limited biographical resources. And she can place these characters into a shockingly limited number of basic story structures and still come up with stories that are profoundly different from one another even though her various stories parallel one another to a degree that is really quite astounding.

A while ago, I read a journalist who mocked the Nancy Drew stories by saying they aren't stories about a girl having a bunch of different adventures so much as they are stories of the same girl having the same adventure over and over again. That sounds damning until you read Jane Austen. The difference between her stories and the Nancy Drew stories is not that Austen always tells fresh stories but that she is much better at telling what is more or less the same adventure over and over again.

Towards the end of In Search of Lost Time Proust has his narrator Marcel make the same point to Gilberte while they are having tea. Telling variations on the same simple stories over and over again is, says Proust, what great artists do. It's what Shakespeare did and it's what Sophocles did. (One of the big weaknesses in the Nancy Drew stories is that all the adventures are needlessly complex; a better writer would have written more simply.)

One of the marks of a truly great novelist is that they have a number of basic character types whom they can shuffle and move about in a variety of approaches. Austen did it, so did Henry James, Edith Wharton and Evelyn Waugh.

And the same is true of our lives. We don't judge a woman better than other women because she has new or different adventures from other women but because she plays the same music only more meaningfully. (Yes, I would say the same thing about men and I started to yesterday. Today I'm focusing on women though.)

Final thought, if you've ever sneered at Charlotte Collins you only succeeded in proving something about yourself by doing so. Have I ever sneered at her: yes, back when I was callow youth. I know better now.

Et in Arcadia ego, Chapter one
Hortus conclusus

[Update: After looking at the comment below, I reread this post and it seems to me that I am being far too glib here. The nature of the relationship to Charles and Sebastian and the eros to love of God connection is obvious to me now because I have read this book many times and on these repeated readings the picture has gotten clearer. When I first read it I suspected something was happening but the very clear image I am assuming here took years to come into its present focus.]


A garden locked is my sister, my bride, 
a spring locked, a fountain sealed.
That, obviously, is from the Song of Songs, which is Solomon's, Chapter 4, Verse 12. It's application to Brideshead is obvious. Waugh had it in mind when he created the place and the imaginary landscape that goes with it and the name for the house refers back to this verse. And this garden and fountain imagery carries right through to the ending with a fountain that has quite literally been sealed up.

Right in this first chapter Waugh uses the garden metaphor to describe the love Charles Ryder seeks at Oxford:
But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiousity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.
And he finds this garden ... well, where?

And here we have what I know is a touchy issue for some but let's come right out and say it: Charles and Sebastian have a sexual relationship. There is no room for dispute here although some try to keep it up.

Why would anyone resist this inescapable aspect of the story? Well, for starters, because a lot of this book's biggest fans are Catholic and some Catholics don't like the idea of a love that begins in a same sex relationship ending with a love for God. But that is exactly what Waugh does here. Others, I suspect, are put off by the images this conjures up; they don't want to think about the mechanics of it, what the Serpentine One calls the insert part A into slot B stuff.
I have good news for the second group, Waugh doesn't want to rub your face in any of that detail. He never once refers to any same sex act. As to my fellow Catholics who may be offended, well I have bad news for you. Brideshead is an unapologetic account of how eros, same sex eros, between two aesthetes ends up serving God's purposes. Waugh doesn't deny that it is a sin but this love, and it is real love, leads to God.

Pin cushions and misogyny
We get all sorts of hints in the first chapter. The first hint of which is the running misogyny in Charles and Sebastian's banter. When the women can be excluded there is calm and bliss. When they are present, they are a threat and are treated like a threat.

Note how exclusively male the world these two live in and how much both of them like it that way. Here is how Charles describes the arrival of women:
Echoes of intruders penetrated every corner, and in my own college was no echo, but an original fount of grossest disturbance. We were giving a ball. The front quad, where I lives, was floored and tented; palms and azaleas were banked around the porter's lodge and worst of all, the don who lived above me ... had lent his rooms for a Ladies Cloakroom, and a printed notice proclaiming this outrage hung not six inches from my oak.
Charles is not keen on women entering his world even for one week. That's an odd attitude for a young man to have. Sebastian's response is even more telling, with added notes of misogyny all his own:
I must say the whole of Oxford has become most peculiar suddenly. Last night it was pullulating with women. You're to come at once, out of danger.
To pullulate means to breed or spread so as to become extremely common and, in this case, become a danger like a disease. Later, after they have escaped, Sebastian will say,
The women are still doing whatever women do to themselves before coming downstairs. Sloth has undone them.
Sebastian talks about women's intimate secrets not with wonder but with disgust.

The second hint are the repeated links of Sebastian to the pin cushion meant to recall the image of Saint Sebastian (about which I will say more in a post later today.)

Not via media
Sebastian's introduction in the book highlights his beauty. His eccentric behaviour, "which seemed to know no bounds" is not described but we are told that Freud has terms for it. Right from the outset, we learn that they share one another's clothing with the revelation that Sebastian is wearing Charles' tie, and we might wonder how he managed to take it off and leave it in Sebastian's rooms for Sebastian to pick it up and put it on in the first pace. When Charles and Sebastian pull off the road and sit in the shade, Charles gazes at Sebastian's profile; if your a guy, try that on your best buddy when the two of you are lying side by side on the grass and see if he feels comfortable.

And throughout, there is this ongoing suggestion of not holding back but letting go, going all the way. Charles describes his first group of friends, before he met Sebastian, as intellectuals "who maintained a middle course of culture between the flamboyant ‘aesthetes’ and the proletarian scholars who scrambled fiercely for facts." (I believe that Waugh, by the way, intends us to read this as a mocking pastiche on Anglicanism's via media between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism and to draw the relevant parallel between being an aesthete and being Catholic.) When Charles goes to see Sebastian the first time, he hears Collins nagging voice urging caution but he ignores it.

And this is just the beginning, there are many, many more references to erotic love between men in the first portions of this book. So many I won't even bother to mention them all.

Okay, you may say, but why are you doing this to me Jules? If Waugh is content to not rub this in our faces, why are you insisting?

I'm doing it because you aren't really reading the book if you don't see this. Everything about the relationship between Charles and Sebastian has the characteristics of romance not friendship. Charles is driven by the jealousy and insecurity of a lover as he pursues Sebastian and it is only if we think of the relationship in those terms that we can make any sense of it.

If it's any relief, I won't be insisting that you imagine any part A into slot B stuff, but you do have to see the decadence and eros and how this adds up to love with a capital "L" to get this book.

Sex and sainthood, part 1

So who is this?


And would you care to guess their sex?

Here they are again in another representation where they comfort Mary.



A little context might help, here is a bit more detail.


So far, I've shown you art created in the mid 19th century. Here is 20th century representation of the same person.


Well, that makes it rather obvious doesn't it? Here is the first again at a wider angle.


Yes, it's Saint John the Evangelist whom some believe to also be Saint John the Apostle. As you can see, he is a bit of a girly boy.

All of these pictures are from my church but if you travel around you will see that he is often represented in this fashion. Why? Well, that is anybody's guess but here is an educated guess: early Christians believed that the fourth gospel was written by John and the fourth gospel was the last gospel to be written. Therefore, they concluded, John must have been a very young apostle. So he was typically represented as young.

But how did he get to be girly?

Okay, let's add another piece to the puzzle. In John's gospel, John is said to be the Apostle who reclined next to Jesus at the last supper. Now, if you know your cultural history, you will know that is because all the Apostles would have been reclining on couches around the table because that was the way they ate back then. But the middle ages and Renaissance didn't know that. They ate at tables with chairs and assumed that everyone had always done that. So how to explain this? Well, they started painting John leaning up against Jesus at the last supper.

Final piece of the puzzle, all you need is a few artists who are erotically attracted to young men and boys and pretty soon John is on his way to being a gay saint. (Or, if you are a complete idiot like Dan Brown, really Mary Magdalene in disguise.)

This sort of thing happened to other saints who were believed to be young. In the homosexual aesthete culture of the late 19th century and early 20th century, the very favourite was Saint Sebastian. Aesthetes looked back on paintings of Sebastian and they saw an icon. It's not hard to see how they came to that view.

Here is a famous Sebastian by Mategna:


Here is another by Carlo Saraceni (1579-1620) that is consderably more overt. Check the placement of his "arrow"and the expression on his face.




You don't have to be an overly prurient type to conclude that Saraceni might just have had a pretty boy who has just concluded an act of self love in mind when he painted this and that he substituted an arrow for that other shaft in order to pass muster with the clergy. You can even imagine Saraceni and his buddies sitting in the back at the unveiling chuckling to themselves at the clever one they put over on the church authorities.

Evelyn Waugh, who was unusually well-informed and sympathetic to homosexual subculture of his time, knew this. He picked Saint Sebastian advisedly. he didn't necessarily mean for everyone to get the reference but it's there and it is part of understanding Brideshead Revisited fully.

Nowadays, of course, everyone knows about Saint Sebastian the gay icon but fewer tend to remember the saint. And here we might want to consider a particular portrayal of Saint Sebastian as done by Giovanni Bellini.



The central image is Sebastian. Wikipedia says the image on left is Saint John the Evangelist but I think they have that wrong and it's Saint John the Baptist. The one on the right is Saint Anthony of the Desert. If you think about it, you can see all three in Sebastian in this novel. The image over the top is the Annunciation.

Sex and sainthood part 2

The  saint side of Sebastian may seem hard to grasp now, and I will only make it harder over the next while (Sebastian fans will hate me before long).

When John Bejteman wrote Waugh about his novel Helena and said that its lead character didn't seem much like a saint, here is how Waugh answered him:
Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the [liturgical] calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven....And each individual has his own peculiar form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good saying, "I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross." I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh - after God knows what experiences in purgatory. 
I liked Helena's sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn't thrown to the lions, she wasn't a contemplative, she wasn't poor and hungry, she didn't look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.
(That's from The Letters of Evelyn Waugh edited by Mark Amory pp 339-340.)

I think you can see from that how Sebastian Flyte's path to sainthood might work. That saints are "simply souls in heaven" is a good way of putting it. We might think of saints as impossibly good people but Catholic teaching is that we are all called to be saints.

The autobiography problem

As I've said earlier, one of the things that critics and ordinary readers have done with Brideshead is to use it as a stick to beat up Evelyn Waugh. They assume that Charles Ryder is Waugh's spokesperson in the book and then seize upon every flaw they find in Ryder as proof of Waugh's failings.

But Ryder is a creation of Waugh's. He is a fictional character and Waugh and Ryder's faults are only there because Waugh very consciously put them into his creation.

Now, one of the reasons people find it so easy to ignore this and read Ryder as Waugh's proxy is because there are undeniable similarities between Ryder's life and Waugh's life. Ryder goes to the college Waugh went to. Ryder has a love affair with a beautiful boy named Sebastian Flyte who comes from a family with a big ancestral pile with a Catholic Chapel done over in art nouveau and Sebastian later becomes an alcoholic. One of Waugh's own love affairs was with a beautiful boy named Hugh Lygon who came from a family with a big ancestral pile with a chapel done over in art nouveau and who later became an alcoholic and died in a car crash in 1936.

Keeping in mind that I have a huge BUT coming at the end of this, let me give you a couple more examples I saw while reading Waugh's letters last night. I'll quote a passage from Brideshead and then I'll quote the obvious parallel from the letters.

First example
Here is Charles Ryder describing a ball his college holds during eights week in 1923:
Echoes of intruders penetrated every corner, and in my own college was no echo, but an original fount of grossest disturbance. We were giving a ball. The front quad, where I lives, was floored and tented; palms and azaleas were banked around the porter's lodge and worst of all, the don who lived above me ... had lent his rooms for a Ladies Cloakroom.
And here is Waugh writing to his friend Dudley Carew describing eights week of 1922:
Eights week is just over. It was rather a bore. We had a College Ball which turned the whole place upside down for a weekend, exasperated the Scouts and ruined the cooking.
And we might think, well this is just thinly disguised autobiography.

Second example
If we read on, we might further convince ourselves that Waugh is just using his characters as proxy spokespersons for his snobbish world view. A little later, in Brideshead we find this passage wherein Lunt, Ryder's servant (Scout), explains what has gone wrong with Oxford:
"If you ask me sir, it's all on account of the war. It couldn't have happened but for that." For this was 1923 and for Lunt, as for thousands of others, things could never be the same as they had been in 1914. .... "It all came back with the men from the war. They were too old and they didn't know and they wouldn't learn. That's the truth."
And in the letters we find a similar viewpoint expressed  to Dudley Carew by Waugh:
Oxford is not yet quite itself but the aged war-hero type is beginning to go down. It ought to be right again by the time you come up.
And it all seems easy.

Except we should notice that Waugh gives what were his opinions to the Scout Lunt and Ryder comments on them saying "for Lunt, as for thousands of others, things could never be the same as they were in 1914." Yes, he using events from his own life but he is using them from a distance and we need to keep that same distance. Ryder says, "for Lunt" he does not say, "For me, Charles Ryder, the problem was the men who came back from the war." All of this stuff has been thought through from some distance and we can only see the story Waugh wrote of we also see it from that distance.

Let me give a final example to show just how much Waugh could transform his own experiences. In the book, Charles goes to Venice for the first time with Sebastian and he looks for Bellinis there. Also in the book there is an event coming where a character we have not yet met, a Don named Samgrass, makes a tour of the middle east with Sebastian. Sebastian misses a significant amount of the actual tour because of "illness". While in Constantinople, they meet Anthony Blanche.

In real life, Waugh himself made a tour of the Mediterranean and the middle east with his wife, also named Evelyn, in the spring of 1929. When preparing to visit Venice, he wrote to his friend Harold Acton for advice.
We leave hear on the 12th & go to Malta where I hear there are fine churches & then to Constantinople for alas only two days. Then via Ragusa to Venice for another two days. I wish it were for longer. Do please send advice as to what to see in Venice in so short a time. Remember I know nothing of Venetian painting except from what I have seen in London & the Louvre. Where are the best Mantegnas or are they in Florence? I scarcely saw anything of Naples as I was so worried about Evelyn and so pestered by pimps whenever I set foot on shore.
There is a lot here so let me fill in a bit of background. Waugh was worried about Evelyn because she had been "ill" for much of the trip. And maybe she really was but there is more to the story than this. She had also confessed to Waugh that she had fallen in love with another man and that she'd been having an affair with this other man. The Waughs had not had a honeymoon when first married and this trip was intended as chance to make up for that and to rekindle the romance between them. It did not go well and in August 1929, Waugh is writing to Acton to tell him that Evelyn has left him for this other man.

Now, as I say, maybe she really was ill but the main problem with that trip was that the marriage was breaking down. Waugh's wife was sexually pulled to another man the way alcoholics are to drink. They had a horrible time with her staying in the hotel saying she was sick and Waugh having to see most of the sights by himself exactly as Samgrass does on his tour with Sebastian.

Mantegna, mentioned above, was part of the Bellini school of painters. He was Jacopo Bellini's son in law. Again, this is still coming but notice how different Waugh is from Charles. He knows, what we will soon see Charles does not know, that the Bellini school is a family school and he knows enough to bow to the superior wisdom of Acton.

And then there is another element just two lines past the bit I have quoted:
Alastair visited us for two days at Port Said—a characteristic excursion.
Alastair Graham is another of Waughs lovers from Oxford and may have contributed some of his characteristics to the portrait of Sebastian. Then again, given this reference, he might have contributed some of his characteristics to the portrait of Anthony Blanche. But the point is, it's easy to see parallels between this trip and the one Waugh later describes where Samgrass and Sebastian make a tour and run into Anthony Blanche. Only in the real-life version, Waugh himself is in the role of Samgrass and his unfaithful wife is in the role of Sebastian and his ex-lover Alastair.

The point here being that of course Waugh uses elements of his own life in writing his novel. But the elements are all shifted around a re-purposed in order to tell a story. We learn nothing, make ourselves stupid in fact, if we read this book as if Waugh was simply poaching his own life as a way of expressing his cantankerous views about the modern world.

(We might wonder, by the way, exactly what Waugh meant to signal to Acton by the expression "a characteristic excursion".)

In parting, let me note a final similarity that also indicates a difference, if that makes any sense. In the prologue, Waugh takes Hooper as a representative of all youth.
In the weeks that we were together Hooper became a symbol to me of Young England, so that whenever I read some public utterance proclaiming what Youth demanded in the future and what the world owed to Youth, I would test these general statements by substituting 'Hooper' and seeing if they still seemed as plausible. Thus in the dark hour before reveille I sometimes pondered: 'Hooper Rallies', 'Hooper Hostels', 'International Hooper Cooperation', and 'the religion of Hooper'. He was teh acid test of all these alloys.'
The conventional reading of Hooper takes Waugh to be doing what Ryder does. It says, Waugh hates the new world and is merely using Hooper as an excuse to mock the century of the common man by mocking Hooper.

The problem with reading it that way is that it ignores Waugh's own history. In the 1920s people were also obsessed with youth and Waugh set out to market himself as the very sort of representative he here has Ryder take Hooper to be. Here he writes in early 1929 to a literary agent:
Could you get the Express to take an article on the Youngest Generation's view of Religion?—very serious & Churchy. I see where they are doing a series of the sort. It seems to me that it would be nice to persuade them that I personify the English youth movement.
Given that sort of history, we simply cannot glibly take what Ryder says above as being what Waugh thought. Yes, Waugh has a jaundiced view of the youth movement of the 1940s but it's a view with some depth based on his own experiences as one of the prominent voices of the youth movement of the 1920s.

A passing comment

In response to something from the comments this morning, I found myself looking again at this quote from Charles Ryder:
It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one's youth with a false precocity or a false innocence ...
That is a good thing to keep in mind when reconsidering our own youth. But here is what strikes me now: although he mentions both false precocity and false innocence, Ryder goes on to worry about only the precocity:
I should like to think—indeed I sometimes do think—that I decorated these rooms with Morris stuffs and Arundel prints and that my shelves were filled with seventeenth century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russian-leather and watered silk.
Yup, that's what false precocity might look like but what about false innocence? Does Charles endow his past with any false innocence?

Just off the top of my head, I'd be inclined to say yes. I must keep an eye out for this as a I read along.

Reading this again in September 2014, I see that I never did follow through on this.

Keeping Saint-Beuve alive

Someone named Paula Byrne has sprung up with a new biography of Waugh and she takes the full Saint-Beuve view that biography explains fiction.

Well, it might explain something but as near as I can tell she mostly ends up demonstrating that there are clear limitations to the biographical approach. Here is what she says of Waugh and Alastair Graham in a newspaper article about her new biography:
"He had what he called an 'acute homosexual phase' when he was at Oxford, like most Oxford men in the Twenties.

It was not particularly unusual, particularly because women were not permitted to go to Oxford.

"It was very much perceived as acceptable as long as it was a phase you grew out of when you left Oxford. He used to joke to friends who hadn't had a gay phase that they had missed out on something. He said it was like fermenting wine, in order to prepare you for later on - for being married."
"Used to joke" seems the key phrase here.  But this is a legitimate opinion no? I have gay friends and I look at them and think, "It's too bad your missing out on the really good part of sex." Sometimes I've even say it aloud to friends I know won't be offended*.  They also could, of course, make the same remark going the other way but they would be wrong ;-)

And "most Oxford men" ... but I'll get back to that.

Ms. Byrne shows the limitations of focusing on biographical details when she goes on to say,
Graham became a diplomat and adopted a gay life overseas. Waugh disapproved and turned his back on Graham, who he believed was following a "seedy, expatriate life".
The problem with saying that is that another one of Waugh's very best friends, Harold Acton, did exactly the same thing and Waugh remained close friends with him for the rest of his life. Waugh did indeed drift apart from Graham but he did not do so until years after Graham was firmly entrenched in his seedy expatriate life. There was something about Graham's life Waugh did not like but I don't know what it is and, whatever it was, it cannot be summed up that easily.

And Waugh destroyed the relevant sections of his diaries. But, if we read about Anthony Blanche and Sebastian carefully, we might see Waugh telling us not about the facts about Alastair Graham and Hugh Lygon or about of his relationships with them but something more profound about what he learned about human relationships from these experiences.

"Most Oxford men"
What Waugh did was not uncommon but I suspect it is a stretch to say most men did it.


The sort of relationship that Waugh had is not unheard of today. The most recent National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior about ten percent of men in their twenties and fourteen percent of women in their twenties have had sexual relations with a member of the same sex. Most will not repeat the experience but some will experiment on the other side now and then throughout their lives. Less than two percent will come to coinsider themselves gay or lesbian.

If you think about it, that's a lot of "experimentation". In fact, it sounds like falling in love with someone of your own sex while growing up is, while not universal, a fairly normal thing to do. You almost certainly know people whom you have never suspected or even thought to suspect such a thing who have fond memories of a year at summer camp or something where they tasted love. For ninety percent of men and eighty-five percent of women, Charles's experience is something very foreign but remember that even if you cannot imagine doing such a thing yourself someone you know and love probably has. And no they won't want to talk about it. They especially won't want to talk about it if the particular they is a she and you are a he for fear you'll enjoy it too much.

And if you look at your own past carefully you may well remember a friendship that, while it was not ever actually sexual, carried clear homoerotic overtones. Think about the person you had not so much a friendship with but a boy-crush or girl-crush with because you so wanted to be like them or they so wanted to be like you. One of you picked up the mannerisms and expressions of the other and you started dressing alike and you often wanted to be alone together because there was no one else you could talk to quite like you could talk to him or her. If you think about it honestly, you might be able to remember how that friendship could have with just the right amount of privacy and a little more risk taking on one or both your parts have become something that was openly erotic love.

Just maybe. I don't want to force anything on anyone here.

This aspect of human behaviour has never been very closely studied by the way.  The recent scientific bias seems to be to try and deny it exists all among men, despite ample evidence to the contrary in sources such as the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. This, I suspect, because it muddles up the current politically correct theories about genetic origins of same sex preference.

The above figures tell us something  very important about what it must be like to be young and gay. For the number of people who are primarily heterosexual but capable and willing of having same-sex love outnumber actual gays and lesbians by a ration of somewhere between 5 to 1 to 7 to 1. That means that most young gay men and young lesbians are far more likely to have sexual experiences with people who are not gay or lesbian like themselves.

If we relate this to Brideshead we should acknowledge that Waugh clearly knows of what he speaks here. For a young gay man like Sebastian, and he is, his early experiences of love are far more likely to be with someone like Charles than another young gay man. As we read along, we should think about how that experience shapes Sebastian's thoughts about Charles. For Sebastian has to be becoming increasingly aware that Charles is not really like him and he is not really like Charles and that has to have something to do with the growing distance between the two lovers.

A final thought that has nothing to do with Brideshead: given the ratios I discussed above, you would expect these "ambisextrous people" (as we used to say back in the 1980s) would figure in gay and lesbian literature. And they do. There is an interesting difference however between the two subcultures. In gay literature, sexually curious heterosexual men who have relationships with other men before going back to heterosexual life are treated in a positive way and they are often highly sought after partners in gay personals. In lesbian writings, women who do the same are sneered at and treated as traitors. You occasionally even see expressions such as "going back to the pricks"  or "LUG" (lesbian until graduation) to describe such women.


* By the way, that is all my gay friends. Not one of them has ever be offended by this sentiment. I have a heterosexual friend, however, who depsite being very uncomfortable around gay men himself once took great umbrage on behalf of gay men when I said something to this effect.

The bells of St Mary's were chiming nine

Charles loves Sebastian, and never stops loving him, and so we also, because we get to learn about Sebastian through Charles' account of him, come to love Sebastian. And perhaps we should love him in any case but let's love him with our eyes open.

The bells of St Mary's were indeed chiming nine and I wouldn't want to admit how many times I had to read this novel before the significance of that struck me. Nor would I want to admit how many times after I first figured it out that the full depth of it became obvious to me.

Other readers, sharper than me, no doubt immediately made the connection between that and the line just two paragraphs later when Charles asks who Hardcastle is, Hardcastle being the man who has kindly lent his car to Sebastian. Sebastian says,
He thought he was coming with us. Sloth undid him too. Well, I did tell him ten. He's a very gloomy man in my college.
But Sebastian is so charming and I did want to love him when I first read it so I just slipped by "I did tell him ten".

If we unravel this a bit, the first thing that will hit us is that Sebastian is a liar. The second thing that will hit us is the level of betrayal. Imagine that Mary has cheated on her boyfriend. Okay, now imagine that she has cheated on her boyfriend by bringing her lover to her boyfriend's apartment while he is at work. As we slide up the scale, we get an increasing level of callousness and Sebastian is quite a ways up the scale here.

And then there is the throwaway line at the end wherein Sebastian seems to justify what he has done to Hardcastle on the grounds that Hardcastle is "a very gloomy man".

Now here is a moral question, the answer to which you may want to keep to yourself. We'll start by taking it as a given that none of us would do what Sebastian does to Hardcastle. We might, in a moment of weakness, betray someone, but we wouldn't make the betrayal into an actual mockery of them as we did it would we?

Well, let's move along before we think about that too much.

Here is the real question. Suppose we were in love with an enchanting and beautiful person who was just brimming with charisma. And suppose that this person, someone we might normally expect not to want us, invites us into their life for a while and it is so wonderful we have to keep pinching ourselves to remind us that we are not dreaming. Now suppose that that person betrays someone the way Sebastian has betrayed Hardcastle here and then makes a joke of the person they have betrayed.

Would you:
  • Chastise this beautiful and charismatic person?
  • Let them get away with but shudder at the thought of how the other person might feel if they knew someone had not only betrayed them but was making a joke of them?
  • Gleefully say, "It's a pity neither of us can sing," and head down the road laughing and happy?
As I say, you might want to keep the answer to yourself.

Ralph Touchett and Sebastian Flyte
Ralph Touchett in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady is another rich aesthete whom you want to like when you first read the novel he is in. He seems a well-meaning man even though the end result of his attempt at benevolence is negative. If you read the James novel more than once, however, you begin to wonder about Ralph.

Here, from Alasdair MacIntyre, is what I think is a very perceptive analysis of Ralph Touchett that also applies to Sebastian.
James is concerned with rich aesthetes whose interest is to fend off the kind of boredom that is so characteristic of modern leisure by contriving behaviour in others that will be responsive to their wishes, that will feed their sated appetites.
MacIntyre goes on to say that it isn't that Ralph Touchett's wishes are malevolent. Indeed, as anyone who has read the novel will know, Touchett only wants to make it possible for Isabel to do what she wants. He wants to make it possible for her to marry whomever she wants, or even not marry at all, completely free of concerns about money and shelter. The problem is that he does this out of a  sense of voyeuristic curiousity, he wants to see what would happen if she were free to do what she wants.

 As James knew, of course, that is why we read novels. We read the story about Jane because we want to see what happens to shy and young Jane as she grows from adolescence into womanhood. She's just a character for our entertainment and not a real human being that it might really matter to us whether she is happy or not. We get as much pleasure from the tragic ending as we do from the happy marriage.

To live in a world where the distinction between real human beings and characters created to entertain us has disappeared is, as MacIntyre quotes critic William Gass,  to be a consumer of persons. And, let's be honest, that is the way we feel about Lindsay Lohan or River Phoenix. They are only there to divert us. We talk about Lohan in moral terms; we cheerfully condemn her excesses. No one who thought of her as a human being in her own right would do that. If you saw your ex-girlfriend, whom you had really loved once upon a time, doing what Lohan does it would tear you apart to watch.

By this standard both Sebastian and his mother and at least one more character I'll reveal the name of later are consumers of persons.They don't mean badly. Sebastian seeks distraction and fun. Lady Marchmain wants to have her children fulfill certain destinies she has for them; destinies she is firmly convinced would be good destinies for her children.

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to have a particular kind of person. I think it was Flaubert who said that a man hits his nadir when he pursues a woman because she is a particular type. But most men have done this. I wonder what it would be like to have sex with the slightly flakey young woman who works at the corner shop where I buy my pies? Or that oriental woman in the short skirt who was in front of me in the lineup for coffee. Not just to have her but something that would really benefit her too I assure myself. I want the sex to be really good for her too. I want her to have a positive experience. It's just that the positive experience I want her to have is my idea for her. I don't really care enough about her to really see her as an independent person with her own wishes and fears, her own pleasures and losses.

Let's go back to Hardcastle for a moment in conclusion. Part of Sebastian's excuse for consuming Hardcastle is that Hardcastle wants into Sebastian's world. He has told Sebastian a lie in claiming to know his father. He just wants in with me so exploiting him is okay.

For bonus points we could make our moral situation anodyne. I've always had a thing for level-headed women with strong characters and sharp minds but with what I call a soft, chewy hippy-chick centre under her business-like exterior. Now imagine I have the incredible good fortune to actually meet such a woman and that neither of us are married and she has always wanted to have a romantic affair and maybe more with a man just like me and likes the idea of sitting around in comfortable but elegant and sexy clothes having chai and oatmeal cookies or wine and cheese and discussing Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot and the Catholic Catechism in between incredible sex sessions.

Hey, we both want exactly the same thing and no one will be hurt. That makes it all okay right?

Or do I owe her more than that?


"... of course he is rather more modern."

If we take what Charles Ryder says at face value, and most critics seem to, we will assume that, for Waugh, Mr. Hooper represents the awful modern world of the "Age of the Common Man" and Sebastian Flyte represents the wonderful, waning aristocratic world that Charles and Waugh supposedly both long for.

Why then is it Sebastian who introduces the motorcar to Oxford thereby helping to render it "submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonesse." It's Sebastian who drives across Oxford's "spacious and quiet streets' nearly running down a  clergyman who was quietly pedaling down the wrong side of the street because that was the sort of thing you could do before young hot heads like Sebastian started showing up with cars.

One of the big differences between Brideshead and Waugh's other novels is that it is not satire. Satire pretty much has to traffic in exaggerated contrasts. Brideshead doesn't do that. Again and again, characters who appear to represent opposites turn out to be remarkably alike on closer inspection.

For example, one of the irritating things about Hooper is his generally helplessness when faced with difficult situations. Why are we so willing to not notice or, if we do notice, quickly forgive exactly the same trait in Sebastian?

Another quick hit

One of the things that baffles and angers many of Waugh's critics and even some Waugh admirers who wish more people would read A Handful of Dust instead is the incredible popularity of Brideshead Revisited.

And some people, as I say, get quite angry about this. They ask, how can this exercise in nostalgia for a "world that never existed" appeal to any rational or emotionally mature person. (By the way, did you ever notice the way people always say "a world that never existed", when they get heated up about nostalgic books and shows the public really likes or even the Latin Mass. What a lazy, unthinking thing to say.)

Anyway, the latest issue of Harper's has an excerpt from a longer article conservatism by Corey Robin published. It's a decidedly unfriendly history by a writer more determined to explain conservatism away than really wanting to understand it. And yet, Robin manages to put his finger on something important. Here it is:
People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism does indeed speak to and for people who have lost something. The loss may be as material as a portion of one's income or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be something that was never legitimately owned in the first place. Even so, nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess ....

The chief aim of the loser is not preservation or protection but recovery and restoration, and that is the secret of conservatism's success.
One thing Corey Robin doesn't say, and perhaps he might want to think about this a little, is that "people who have lost something" is pretty much everybody. We don't always feel the loss but everyone has a loss in their life. If a movement can, as he says, "indeed speak to and for people who have lost something," that movement will always be with us.

And thus the ongoing success of Brideshead Revisited with the public. It isn't some clever con job that fools people into believing in a world that never existed. It was a very real world for some, including Evelyn Waugh. He set a beautiful story about loss in that world. Anyone who knows the pain of loss can read and understand this book and the world it portrays even if they went to the state vocational college and never got any closer to Oxford than watching reruns of Inspector Morse.

Added, January 22, 2012: I think that Corey Robin is wrong about is his claim that the "chief aim of the loser is not preservation or protection but recovery and restoration". No, the chief aim of the loser is to get recognition of his or her loss. I'm sure many losers also seek restoration but in many, many cases restoration is plainly impossible.

Jasper's advice

I want to get on to the next chapter tomorrow so there is a lot I'll have to leave untouched in chapter one. Before moving on, however, I'd like to note how good the advice Charles' cousin Jasper gives him. This is true in the context of the book—we'll see that Charles eventually comes to see many things the same way as Jasper—but it is also just good advice period and university students today would do well to pay heed.

1. "You want either a first or a fourth. There is no value in anything in between. Time spent on a good second is time thrown away."

What he is talking about here is different grades of honours degrees and this is good advice. You either want first class marks or just enough to get your degree. First class marks will allow you to move on and there are certain bragging rights that come with high marks BUT the sad truth is that in the twenty five years since I graduated no one has ever asked me even once what marks I got. I've been asked several times to produce a diploma as proof that I actually had a degree but that degree would have been just as valid if I'd scraped by by the skin of my teeth instead of getting the rather good marks I did get.

2. "You're reading history? A perfectly respectable school."

Okay, English lit students will be a bit hurt at what Jasper says next but the important thing to remember is that English lit was still a newfangled degree at the time and newfangled degrees are a bad idea. Today the very worst are degrees in sociology, criminology, women's studies, pop culture and comparative literature. To study this trendy crap is to throw away your money.

3. "You should go to the best lectures ..."

Very good advice, no matter what your degree, figure out who the best people teaching at your university are and figure out a way to hear them speak. The stars almost always give a few general admission lectures or there will be some special symposium you can crash.


4. "If you want to run for the Union—and it's not a bad thing to do ..."

The point here is that your degree is only a small part of what a university offers you. In a sense, Charles sort of follows this advice by learning about love (note, he learns about love, not about casual sex). Two of the best things I did at university were joining the debating society and writing for the student paper.

The very best thing I ever did was becoming part of a notorious group of men and women loosely associated with the debating society who affected to be aristocratic snobs who cherished bamboo fly rods and hand-made English or Spanish side by side shotguns more than the plight of the poor. We'd argue, only half joking, that a return to good manners would do more to help women than feminism. We met at a house where a core of the group lives (I was one of them) decorated with various hunting and fishing trophies. We together and we met for various formal occasions with formal dress, speeches and debates and consumption of fine wines and real ale and the good things in life generally.

Pindar's Orphism and other pagan delights
Et in Arcadia Ego, Chapter 2


I was just free of the schools, having taken the last paper of History Previous on the afternoon before; Jasper’s subfusc suit and white tie proclaimed him still in the thick of it; he had, too, the exhausted but resentful air of one who fears he has failed to do himself full justice on the subject of Pindar’s Orphism.

I think this chapter is one of the greatest bits of writing Waugh ever did. Even if the rest of Brideshead had been lost somehow and this was all we had left, this chapter could stand on its own as an example of great writing.

Even if you just read the surface story, there is something very impressive about the way Waugh uses the two Remonstrances to tell the story. Without telling us the story in narrative, Waugh conveys an immense amount of information here. This is the sort of stuff you can read over and over again and keep finding something you missed before. But, before going into that, let me call your attention to something really neat that Waugh is doing underneath, there is whole underworld of characters and mythology playing around here. It all starts with Pindar’s Orphism.

Orphism comes from Orpheus who was believed to have founded the mystery cult. Now there are two things to know here.

  1. Orphism was different from most ancient religions but very like Christianity in that it emphasized individual guilt and taught that the bad would go to Hades as punishment and the good be granted a release to the blessed. Orphism, consequently, featured a lot of purification rituals.
  2. The second thing has nothing to do with Orphism per se but Orpheus was famous for making a trip to the underworld of Hades to try and retrieve his dead wife Eurydice. This descent to hell and return is important.

Okay, now on to Pindar. We only know sketchy details about Orphism because it was a mystery cult and was later mocked as a mere superstition. Pindar was a poet who wrote a series of odes where he took stories of great athletic achievements and wove the real life stories into great religious myths. He seems to have taken liberties with the myths and maybe even made up new mythology as he went along.

Pindar’s second Olympian Ode commemorates the victory in the Olympic chariot race of 476 BC by a guy named Theron. In the ode, Pindar weaves the Orphic mythology of life after death and retribution for an evil life into the story.

Note how closely this ties with the message that Jasper is offering Charles. He is saying, you have messed up but redemption is possible.

Okay, hold on to all that and let’s take journey with Anthony Blanche. He also offers Charles a chance at redemption that will spare him punishment; he also offers him new life, rebirth as an artist. Interwoven with this is this seemingly ludicrous story of Anthony being put in Mercury.

But let’s take a closer look at that story.

It begins on Thursday night. Anthony Blanche is alone and he has a meal of an omelet and a peach and a bottle of Vichy water. A mob appears and they chant, “We want Blanche, we want Blanche in a kind of litany. Such a public declaration.”

But they cannot do it and they ask Anthony’s friend Boy Mulcaster to play Judas. Next we see Anthony play a sort of mixed role. He sees that Mulcaster will betray him and yet he seems to help make it happen as if it were destiny or something.

Now Anthony is being held by the mob in his room and they begin to “blaspheme in a very shocking manner.” No one’s ear is cut off but, to avoid pointless violence and possible damage to some of his beautiful things, Anthony submits to arrest and marches down the stairs to get into Mercury.

Yes, the whole story here is a deliberate travesty on the passion of Christ. A carefully constructed travesty that gives whole different layer of meaning to the story of Charles’s bad life and his possible punishment.

And there is the final joke, very inside baseball this, the fountain was named for a statue of the god Mercury aka Hermes that had been in it. BUT, at the time there was no statue. The fountain was a place for a god but the god was absent. Anthony is a sort of substitute for the missing god or perhaps he is meant to be the son of the god.

Okay, final twist, Mercury/Hermes had a son by Aphrodite, the goddess of love, named Hemaphroditus. A nymph named Salmacis fell in love with Hermaphroditus but he rejected her. She grabbed him and held her body against his while praying the gods that they would entwine their two bodies into one another. And they did, and this is where our word Hermaphrodite to mean someone who has both male and female sex organs comes from.

Okay, let’s read on and consider this other seemingly pointless story about Anthony’s love with Stefanie Vincennes. Here is how he talks about how “close” they became.
My dear, I even used the same coloured varnish for my toenails. I used her words and lit my cigarette in the same way and spoke with her tone on the telephone so that the duke used to carry on long and intimate conversations with me, thinking that I was her.
Not such a random bit of detail after all was it? Anthony Blanche is being presented as a bisexual travesty of Christ. Not by Anthony but by Evelyn Waugh. And readers will no doubt remember that when Charles recalls the bit of The Waste Land that Anthony read out in Sebastian's rooms, it isn’t any old random bit that Anthony reads out but this:
And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.
Tiresias, of course, had lived as both man and woman. Anthony is offering Charles a redemption and resurrection and he is offering him the chance to come back as something different indeed.

Remonstrate means a forceful protest or condemnation but it also comes from the same root as "monstrance" meaning a way to show the thing. It comes from medical latin to mean to make something so plain that explanation isn't necessary. In this case a way to show the body of the man who is to be loved: Ecce Homo! (Keep that direct experience of something shown as opposed to merely explained because that will come back this afternoon when we talk about Sebastian and Charles' love for him.)

I’ll stop here. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to rob you of the pleasure of finding more of the hidden level Waugh has placed here for us. Next we'll move along to the aesthetes, of whom Anthony is a prime example, and the philosophy that went with them.

Mulcaster!

Many of us have seen the 1981 series and it has a strong influence on the way we imagine the people, events and places we find in Brideshead Revisisted. For the most part that is okay but there are two characters that I believe the series misleads us about. The second of these is Mr. Samgrass, whom we will meet shortly. The first is Boy Mulcaster.

The problem in both cases is that the series makes the two men rather too comic. And that is a problem because they both are slightly sinister forces that come up against Charles and Sebastian.

Of course the first we hear of Mulcaster is from the lips of Anthony and he mocks poor Boy mercilessly. But that tells us something for there are things we must grudgingly admit even of those we would mock. So when, in the midst of calling Mulcaster a cad and an oaf, Anthony lets slip that, "All the young ladies in London are after him," we should note this: Mulcaster is very attractive to women. He doesn't come across that way in the 1981 series.

Mulcaster is a guy with more status than Charles. He is an Etonian, he has a title and he is probably better looking in the eyes of women (later Charles will be remembered as having been a "pretty boy" at this point in his life). Yes, he has no experience with women and is a little afraid of them leading him bluster a bit and to go to prostitutes but that is not so unusual a thing.

We also live after the sexual revolution, which is to say in an era when casual sex is available to almost everyone if the really want it. It is also an era when nice young women can have sex without destroying their reputations. This was not quite true at the time this book was written.  We are, therefore, more censorious of Boy going to prostitutes than any of his contemporaries would have been.

Don't read him as an example of a particularly laughable or inept young man. Many of Boy's weaknesses and failings are also those of Charles and Sebastian. When Charles says that "at times most of us seemed like children beside [Anthony]" we should take that as an opportunity to group Boy together with Charles and not see him as a laughable failure as compared to him. Boy is a sexual blunderer to be sure but we all are at that age and, slow as he may be, he is ahead of Charles at this point.

"And then it was night."

I want to come back to the aesthetes and give a little background about them because I think that understanding who and what the aesthetes were adds a lot to our understanding of this chapter and this novel. But for now I want to leap ahead to the very last line of this chapter:
And then Boy Mulcaster came into the room.
I think that is meant to echo a line from the account of the Last Supper in the Gospel according to John.

I'll set it up. You know the story. Jesus says someone who is dipping bread with me (picture a bunch of guys eating bread they are dipping in the same bowl of olive oil) will betray me. And in this Gospel that specifically means Judas for Jesus dips a piece himself and hands it to Judas. (In the earlier gospels it is not clear that Jesus means a specific Apostle who is dipping at this moment or anyone at the table might be.)

Anyway, Judas then leaves the room and the last line is "And then it was night."

You could write your entire life, and most writers do, without ever writing a line that powerful.

Why is it so powerful? Partly, as I once heard an Anglican Priest preach, because there is this sense that the last moment when someone could have stopped this horrible thing from happening has passed.

The line is so powerful that it has influenced western culture profoundly and is the basis of a fairly common literary device.  In Shakespeare there is often a moment when, for example, Macbeth will be thinking about the evil events he has put in place and we can see him struggling with the notion that "I could stop this and we could just go back to normal." But he doesn't and there is a moment when it is too late. The technique can even be used to comic effect. PG Wodehouse does it over and over again. There is almost always a moment in his stories when the whole mess that follows could be avoided if someone had just spoken up and made something clear.

The device is most powerful, however, when used to introduce a coming evil because it acknowledges something very painful about evil and that is that evil will always come and there will always be a moment when we will realize the only moment we might have stopped it has passed.

Funnily enough, at the very time I heard that sermon preached there was a crucial UN debate to try and stop the slaughter of thousands of Christians in Sudan. In order for the UN to act, one of the major players to utter a single word. The word was "genocide" and nothing could happen until it was on the table. The word was never said.

And that is the more profound sense of the line. And here I have to pause a second to enlist a sympathetic reading from my non-Christian readers. I really believe this Jesus stuff and that effects how I read the Bible and how I read Brideshead and you may not. I'm not going to pressure you to believe it but try and put yourself in the shoes of someone who does believe for just a few moments.

Here is the thing, this is the way Waugh saw things too. For a Christian, and particularly for a Catholic Christian, the crucial thing about the Crucifixion is that it has to happen. Evil and suffering is not something that needs to be excused, it's just the way the world is and it takes the suffering of Christ to redeem this evil world.

So, for someone like Waugh or me, the question is not, Why is there still evil even though there is God and God's religion? Rather the point is, because we and our world are necessarily evil, we must have God and his religion to redeem us.

Anyway, at the end of this chapter, Charles and Sebastian are discussing what Anthony said about Sebastian. Sebastian, exactly as Anthony predicted, tries to dispel the bad spell this has left in the room with a silly remark about his teddy bear. The big question remains, however: How much of what Anthony said is true? It's a question that will trouble us for the rest of the book.  Because, as much as we want to love Sebastian, as even Anthony claims to do, it will be very troubling if much of it is true.

If it is true, we might say, if this stuff gets aired out, Sebastian can reform and then his relationship with Charles and his family can be set on a more promising foundation. Perhaps some horrible event could be stopped from happening.

And then Boy Mulcaster came into the room.

And the opportunity to discuss these things never came up again.

Of cabbages and kings, of the Cotswolds and Aesthetes

Let’s start with something really basic.

When we are children we are taught all sorts of deferred gratification. We want to do things right now and our mother tells us we have to wait. A big portion of our moral life seems to be about putting things off until later or, quite possibly, forever. Morality seems to mean a bunch of authorities and rules telling us not to do certain things.

Someday, we imagine, we will be adults and we’ll be able to do pretty much what we want. However, as we get close to adulthood, we find that it doesn’t turn out that way.

Even when we become adults, life's pleasures seem to have nothing to do with living morally. When we do treat ourselves to a pleasant meal, to sleeping in on Saturday morning, to sweets or to sex we do so with the feeling that this is a departure from real moral life. It’s okay to enjoy this but don’t enjoy it too much because real moral life is about denial.

For the Christian this is especially contradictory because we believe that a loving God created us. So why, the obvious question arises, would a loving God create us so that the some of life’s best pleasures are only momentary indulgences that risk distracting us from life’s real purpose which is denial? As Jesse Winchester once put it, "If he didn't want me watching women, he'd a left my eyeballs dead." The answer to that seems to go back to Augustine who said that the answer is because real pleasure, the only pleasure that is morally justifiable because it is the only pleasure good enough for a creature of God, will be in heaven.

Augustine allowed that we might occasionally indulge in momentary pleasures now and then as these offered us a foretaste of what was to come. Everything good comes from God said Augustine; why even sexual pleasure, because it is so good, must come from God. But the danger of being misled by the very intensity of the pleasure into mistaking it for our goal when our real goal is union with God is so great that we have to constantly suppress this desire. And sex, precisely because it is so good and clearly one of God's greatest gifts must be carefully controlled or suppressed altogether if we find it stands between us and God.

There is another alternative and that is the idea of virtue. That is the Greek idea that we are to develop our character so that we can become fully formed human beings. And part of this cultivation will be a cultivation of the pleasures. Not just any pleasures—stuffing our faces with Doritos, for example, wouldn't count. A whole human being would be as accomplished at taking pleasure as in making sacrifices.

Or even, in a Christian variation, that we develop as far down this line as we can realizing that we can only do this because God is with us and that he has promised to do even more than we can ask or imagine in the next life. That, with some complications, is the view that the scholastics pushed.

However, the Augustinian view—that everything in this life was ultimately meaningless and that morality consisted in denying ourselves in preparation for the day we can be elevated into that next life—always persisted to some degree or another.

And it was into this world that a very shy, reclusive little Oxford don named Walter Pater came. He quietly met with other people at Oxford who thought there was something wrong with all this denial. He was a very private man so no one knows what he really thought or did. He hung around with agnostics but we don’t know if he was agnostic. He hung around with homosexuals but we don’t know if he himself was a homosexual. We do know that he admired ancient lore about beauty and love. It was not terribly surprising then that he wrote a book about the Renaissance.

Much to everyone’s surprise, especially poor Walter Horatio Pater himself, all hell broke loose when the book appeared in 1873. He didn’t say anything in the book that he hadn’t been quietly saying in his lectures and conversations at Oxford but when it appeared in print the reaction was instantaneous, strong and polarized. Some people idolized him and established a new movement based on how they understood his thought in general. Others condemned him as if he were the whore of Babylon come to destroy the flower of British youth.

So, you really want to know what he said don’t you? Okay, here are three excerpts, the second of which is a really famous sentence.
  1. What is important then, is not that the critic should possess a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects.
  2. To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.
  3. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which naturally come to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.
The second sentence is sort of the E=MC2 of Pater; people who know nothing else about him know this sentence.

The crucial thing, however, is that Pater here suggests that to live passionately right now is the key to being a whole person.

Reading it now, you might be underwhelmed, most people are. Not everyone though. I remember reading this stuff in the reading room at my college and feeling like electric current was running through me it felt so right. Later I got a little embarrassed because, logically speaking, it isn’t compelling. I realized I believed it because I wanted to believe it.

Believed what exactly? Meaning, what exactly does all this mean? Well, it almost doesn’t matter for our purposes because the ideas here don’t seem to have ever been precisely defined. But a whole movement of young people who called themselves aesthetes in Britain based itself on these inspiring paragraphs.

Actually, two whole movements did. The first ran from the publication of Pater’s book on the Renaissance until about 1895, when his most famous disciple Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour for engaging "gross indecency, read "homosexual acts". The second sprung up in the late 1910s and early 1920s in a number of places but, most famously, at Eton where two precocious young men named Brian Howard and Harold Acton inspired their friends to become aesthetes. This group of Etonians went on to Oxford where Evelyn Waugh fell under their spell.

Brian Howard in particular was a huge influence on the little group at Oxford. And here is a little tidbit to finish up on. When Brian Howard found young Miss Nancy Mitford and introduced her to the group, he wrote a letter in which he bragged of having discovered her, “Among the Cabbages of the Cotswolds.” Sound like anyone you've been reading about?

Aesthetes continued

How does all this connect with Brideshead?

Experiencing beauty
This part is pretty straightforward. Let's look at the first of those Pater quotes again:
What is important then, is not that the critic should possess a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects.
And compare it to the moment when Sebastian picks up Clive Bell's academic writing about art, a piece that spends a lot of time defining what significant form, the key element that makes something beautiful, is:
Collins had exposed the fallacy of modern aesthetics to me, '… the whole argument from significant form stands or falls by volume.   If you allow Cézanne to represent a third dimension on his two-dimensional canvas, then you must allow Landseer his gleam of loyalty in the spaniel's eye' ... but it was not until Sebastian, idly turning the pages of Clive Bell’s Art, read ‘"Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture?" Yes, I do,’ that my eyes were opened.
Note how Collins, striving for the middle way, really only questions the validity of Bell's definition. Sebastian opens Charles' eyes to the idea of learning how to experience beauty.

And if we look at a bit of the third quote:
Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which naturally come to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.
We can see where Charles'  answer to Jasper comes from:
I could tell him that all the wickedness of that time was like the spirit they mix with the pure grape of Douro, heady stuff full of dark ingredients, it at once enriched and retarded the whole process of adolescence as the spirit checks the fermentation of the wine, renders it undrinkable so that it must lie in the dark, year in, year out, until it is brought up at last fit for the table.

I could tell him, too, that to know and love one another human being is the root of all wisdom.
 Charles is more excited by love than art ultimately, but the love he has for Sebastian is surprisingly like what Pater says of art, Sebastian comes to Charles promising him nothing but the highest quality to his moments with him as they pass and simply for those moments' sake.

Experiencing beauty through same sex love
Okay, you may say, but what is all this consigning this wisdom gained to the cellar so it can be brought out later for consumption?

Well, that's about homosexuality. As Waugh saw it, these same sex love affairs of adolescence were a phase one passed through but we are supposed to later transfer the lessons and experience of this to heterosexual relations. Now, before you condemn all this as either justifying perversity or, at the other end of the scale, rank homophobia consider this: a significant minority of young men and women do have same-sex experiences in their youth and then go on through life as heterosexuals perhaps cherishing memories of a secret past that only they, God and one or two other people know.

In other words, it may not be normative for you but it was formative for a lot of people and Waugh was one of them. He is writing about this kind of love in Brideshead.

And that kind of love had a lot to do with the Aesthetes. No one knows if Pater had same sex experiences but we sure know that Oscar Wilde did. We also know that Waugh did, that Brian Howard did, that Alastair Graham did, that Hugh Lygon did and quite a list of others. As Waugh said, some of these people remained homosexual and others did not. He took the did not to be normal and normative. Waugh writes as lovingly and admiringly of gay men as he does of anyone else. he and Nancy Mitford wrote letters to one another wondering why American critics insisted on seeing homosexual men as sad and depressed when all the gay men they knew where cheerful and pleasant to be with. I know it's a cliché but some of his best friends were. Waugh thought that they had not developed the way one ought but he still loved them deeply.

Experiencing beauty through irrationality and immorality
In chapter three, Sebastian will wistfully say of Catholicism that "happiness doesn't seem to have much to do with it." One of the really shocking things for many Christians reading Waugh talk about conversion in Brideshead is that morality doesn't seem to have much to do with his understanding of Catholicism.

Charles never repents nor does he even think about repenting for what he does with Sebastian. Later, Julia will say that she knows she will fail morally again but that is okay so long as she doesn't permanently cut herself off from God by setting up a greater good than his. There is a notion of living correctly here but there is very little sense of penance. All lives will be sinful, the choice for Waugh is between a life of sin in which there is a relationship with God because we have been careful not to close he door to him and a life full of sin in which we have closed the door on that relationship.

Waugh's own life was like this by the way. His friends regularly expressed scandal that a man who made so much of being Catholic should sin as much as he did. Waugh's answer was to say they had no idea how much worse he'd be were he not a Catholic.

The thing is that this is not immorality. It is one of the great and common misconceptions about the aesthetes is that they thought art had nothing to do with morality. But sit down and read Oscar Wilde's plays or his Picture of Dorian Gray and you will see moral concerns on every page.

What the aesthetes were skeptical about was not morality but moral progress and especially a common moral progress. They believed, and believed profoundly, in sin and in original sin. One of the big influences on the English Aesthetes was Baudelaire who said that the devil's greatest trick was convincing people that he didn't exist.

Waugh deplores this awful age we live in but the thing to grasp is he would have done that no matter what era he had lived in.

Experiencing beauty through Catholicism
A surprising number of Aesthetes, certainly a greater proportion than in the general population, were gay. It was also the case that a surprising number of Aesthetes, certainly a greater proportion than in the general population, converted to Catholicism. Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Gerard Manley Hopkins and, of course, Waugh himself along with others converted. Others didn't swim the Tiber but they did the next best thing by embracing Anglo-Catholicism or high Anglicanism.

In Brideshead, the basis of this conversion is wholeness. It's a notion that Pater gets from Epicurus. You can see it when he tells us to make sure our passion really is passion. Masturbating to a picture of Megan Fox in her underwear might be an intense experience but it is not a great passion. From Pater and Waugh's perspective, someone who lives only in the natural world, being rational and sensible all the time, and never experiencing the supernatural, is just as incomplete as a guy whose entire experience of erotic love is two or three hours a day on line with Internet porn.

NB: This next one is for hard core Pre-Raphaelite  nerds only. Unless you are the sort of person who collects data about these guys the way baseball fans cherish earned-run averages, it won't make any sense.

Experiencing beauty through Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Pater's thought was developed entirely in resistance to people like Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin and one of the important figures in this opposition was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Waugh was heavily influenced by this and his first book was about Rossetti. he was deeply ashamed by this early work in his later days and he never let it be published again. I've never seen a copy although I would love to.

One of the big moves that the Victorian critics like Matthew Arnold made was to divide life and faith into matters of the head and the heart. Arnold, very influentially, concluded: head good, heart bad. He believed that good faith was  rational thing that inspired people to be orderly and productive Victorians. When Charles Ryder talks about people who want to eliminate the supernatural from religion so as to leave a series of moral teachings he means Arnold.

A nice, shorthand way of thinking about Pater is that he accepted all the vocabulary and concepts that the English liked to use to back up their slightly puritanical moral views but used this vocabulary and these concepts to reach opposite conclusions about morality.

And one of the figures he used to make this distinction was Rossetti. When reading Charles Ryder keeping Rossetti in the back of our head adds a little depth to what we see.

Waugh's understanding of sin

Yesterday, I wrote,
All lives will be sinful, the choice for Waugh is between a life of sin in which there is a relationship with God because we have been careful not to close he door to him and a life full of sin in which we have closed the door on that relationship.
This view is actually in line with Catholic Church teaching although it may not sound so at first. In a must-read post, Mark Shea provides a nice explanation of the key issues.

In which some of Jasper's advice is vindicated

As we begin a new chapter, we see some of Jasper's advice come back to haunt Charles a bit. Charles learns the lesson but he does not here acknowledge the source.

Here is what Jasper advised back in chapter one:
And go to a London tailor; you get better cut and longer credit.
And here is the lesson learned in chapter three:
I had started the term with my battels paid and over a hundred pounds in hand. All that had gone, and not a penny paid out where I could get credit.
This may take some explaining for anyone under 40. With Visa and Mastercard, your ability to buy on credit is dependent on the reputation you have with one of those two firms. Pay your credit card bills regularly and you have credit anywhere those cards are honoured. That is a relatively new thing in finance. Before credit cards became universal (this happened over the 1970s), you had to build up a reputation for reliability with different merchants. Every single business you dealt with was a relationship to establish and cultivate. The better a customer you were, the better the terms you got. (A lot of business-to-business finance is still carried on this way.)

Charles has failed to build any relationships. If he had, he would have less of a problem than he does here. He could simply go to people whom he had proven that he was a reliable customer to and say, "My allowance gets paid to me in two months, may I buy on credit now?" And he'd probably have been told that he could because the Ryders, while not as rich as the Flytes, are wealthy.

Now, Jasper's advice was about more than just money. It was about living well so as to get something that would serve you the rest of your life out of your time at university. Credit with debtors is a metaphor for much, much more.

With that in mind, we can read on:
There had been no reason for it, no great pleasure unattainable else; it had all gone on ducks and drakes. Sebastian used to tease me—'You spend money like a bookie'—but it all went on and with him.
Now there are a couple of things we might note here. The most obvious is that Sebastian is sponging off of Charles even though Charles is the less wealthy of the two. This is the first of many indications we will get in this chapter that one of the two lovers is giving a whole lot more than the the other, and I'm not talking about just money here.

The other thing, however, is the gambling metaphor. Remember that part of Charles' answer to Jasper was, "... that to love one other human being is the root of all wisdom". [Emphasis added by me] University is an opportunity to learn. Jasper is actually quite liberal (and truthful) in his saying that that learning need not necessarily be the stuff they teach you in the lecture hall. But Charles has bet everything on Sebastian.

The expression used to describe the situation where a gambler  has everything riding on one game is to say, "He has a big bank running." Charles has a big bank running on Sebastian.

Oh yeah, discussion questions:
  1. Is loving one other human being the root of all wisdom?
  2. Does the language that Charles uses here ring any bells? I mean the phrase it "all went on and with him"? Does it maybe call to mind this phrasing: "Per ip sum, et cum ip so, et in ip so."*


* Trans: "Through him, and with him, and in him." For non-Catholics, this is the way the doxology begins that forms the dramatic high point at the end of the rite of consecration in the Canon of the Mass, leading up to what is called the great Amen. It is second to only  the consecration, which immediately precedes it, in importance. Only God's priest may say these words during the mass.

An allowance?

A conversation between Sebastian and Charles. Sebastian speaks first:
' .... Of course, mummy would give me anything I asked for.'

'Then why don't you ask her for a proper allowance?'
'Oh mummy likes everything to be a present. She's so sweet.'
This is not the last we will hear about an allowance for Sebastian.

Such a lot of nonsense: the pleasures and evils of absurdity

Following along with the travesty on the idea of visits to the underworld and the passions of martyrs, Charles Ryder now spends a stretch in purgatory in the form of a long stay with his father.  The first part of this chapter is a rich and hilariously absurd bit of writing. It is, unlike the rest of the novel, the style that Waugh was famous for before Brideshead Revisited. With a telling difference. If we compare this section with, for example, Tony Last's imprisonment by a madman in the jungle who makes him read him Dickens for what will presumably be the rest of his life, we see that Charles is treated much more sympathetically than Last. Even though Last's plight is immeasurably worse, we care much less about him as a human being than we do about Charles' much lighter, and entirely deserved, plight.

Or is that because Last's plight is immeasurably worse. In other novels, Waugh exaggerates and glories in absurdity. Here the absurdity is less inflated and because it is, we are more aware of its maliciousness. Because it is not blown up to the point that it seems irredeemably fictional, we can see Charles' sympathetically.

Absurdity and black humour are a regular feature of Waugh's novels. I've never been able to make it through Helena so I don't know about it but we get a healthy dose in every one of Waugh's other novels. In Brideshead a pleasure in absurdity is a particularly noticeable feature of Edward Ryder's outlook on life and we see it in full force through the first part of this chapter.

Before I tell you what I think is happening here, let me take you back to a fragment that Waugh published under the title "Work Suspended" a few years before Brideshead Revisited. This was Waugh's previous attempt to write a magnum opus; by that, I mean it was a previous attempt to write a novel that would allow Waugh to write about what he believed in instead of just being a satirist sniping from the sidelines. He abandoned it but published a fragment.

There are a whole lot of interesting things to note about it. One is that Waugh discovered that he could take a story and change its whole meaning by adding an epilogue. Stuck with this fragment he added an epilogue that tied his work suspended to the larger notion of everything being suspended because of the war that had just broken out. This framing with an epilogue or prologue is an idea whose application to Brideshead is pretty clear.

In "Work Suspended" we also have a father-son relationship that in some respects mirrors the relationship between Charles and Edward Ryder in Brideshead. In the earlier work, the painter who rejects modern art is the father. The son and first person narrator, a man named John Plant, is a mystery fiction writer who copes with life's problems by cultivating an appreciation of the absurd. Rather than suffer at the slings and arrows of the unfairness and absurdity of life, he learns to enjoy it.

This is a character trait with a long and distinguished lineage in the English Novel. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice begins that novel dealing with life that way and we see it, most notably, in the way she makes a joke of the way Darcy insults her. We see it also in her father, from whom she has obviously learned this coping mechanism, in the way he is thrilled to invite Mr. Collins to his home precisely because he hopes to get amusement from seeing the pompous twit in action.

By making John Plant a writer of non-serious books, Waugh was exploring the place of his own fiction, he was, as it were, struggling with his place in history.

At the beginning of the fragment, John Plant is in Morocco (hmmm?) where he learns that his father has died after being hit by a truck on the street in London. He is unable to get to London in time for the funeral but soon after must leave Morocco for other reasons I won't go into here.

When he gets to London, he gets hit with a bit of absurdity. A man approaches him and asks to borrow money based on some relationship between them that John cannot grasp at first and that the other man is being vague about. It turns out that the man seeking to borrow money is Atwater, the man who drove the truck that killed John's father and who now seems to think that this connection will make John sympathetic to his plight.

Later in the story, a pregnant woman whom John Plant cares about deeply goes into a difficult labour (it lasts 48 hours). Plant is worried about his friend and he wanders around London looking for something, anything, that will distract him from worrying about Lucy. And he runs into Atwater again. He starts going around town with the man buying him drinks and settling Atwater's tab at his club for him. At one point they have this conversation (Atwater speaks first):
'Feeding animals while men and women starve,' he said bitterly.

...

'The animals are paid for their entertainment value,' I said. 'We don't send out hampers to monkeys in their own forests'—or did we? There was no telling what humane ladies in England would not do—'We bring the monkeys here to amuse us.'

'What's amusing about that black creature there?'

'Well, he's very beautiful.'

"Beautiful?' Atwater stared into the hostile face beyond the bars. 'Can't see it myself.' Then rather truculently, 'I suppose you'd say he was more beautiful than me?'

'Well, as a matter of fact, since you raise the point ...'

'You think think that thing beautiful and feed it and shelter it, while you leave me to starve.'

This seemed unfair. I had just given Atwater a pound; moreover it was not I who had fed the ape. I pointed this out.

'I see,' said Atwater. 'You're paying me for my entertainment value. You think I'm a kind of monkey.'

This was uncomfortably near the truth. 'You misunderstand me,' I said.
And it goes on. I think this is a key turning point for Waugh. Waugh's earlier fiction does with the whole world what Plant is doing with Atwater here. And what that fiction did is exactly what MacIntyre says Henry James meant to highlight in his novels:
James is concerned with rich aesthetes whose interest is to fend off the kind of boredom that is so characteristic of modern leisure by contriving behaviour in others that will be responsive to their wishes, that will feed their sated appetites.
John Plant is looking for distraction of a different sort, he knows someone in pain, but if we step back and consider Waugh the novelist up until this point, and we the readers, we have to acknowledge that there is no pain from those perspectives. From those perspectives there is only fictional characters here for our entertainment. And it's not much of a stretch to start treating real people the same way we treat these fictional characters there for our entertainment.

And that is what Edward Ryder does in life. His wry comments at Charles concern over Sebastian's injury are funny and not beside the point but he is not nearly concerned enough at others' pain. It troubles him not at all that he has put his dinner guests through a miserably boring evening just so he could be entertained.

Have you ever read A Room With a View by EM Forster? If you have read it (as opposed to just sitting down with the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation) you might want to read a couple of biographies of Forster. For when you do, one of the shocking discoveries is that Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View is a viciously cruel caricature of EM Forster. Done by anyone other than Forster himself, this caricature would be morally offensive.

I'd suggest the same thing is happening here. In Edward Ryder, Evelyn Waugh created a cruel caricature of himself. Read some biographical material on Waugh and you will see lots of examples of behaviour much like what Edward Ryder does. This is also a shot at his own works up until this point. "This is where you end up if you keep going the way you have been," seems to be what he is saying to himself here.

(Waugh reverts to something much more like his earlier style in the Sword of Honour trilogy, I think unfortunately. The first volume, for example, features a character with the telling name of Apthorpe who seems to be there for no more reason than a ape at the zoo.)

A tiny note of contempt

I'm off on a pastoral visit all morning and then meeting with a contractor this afternoon so posting will be light today. There is a Venus Day special drawing on Brideshead coming up and that will be it.

I leave you with a question. Here is a little excerpt from when Julia picks up Charles at the station. Reading it, I wonder just how aware Charles is?
Everyone else has gone. He tried to make me stay back with him. Well, I expect you know how maddeningly pathetic he can be. I almost gave in, and then I said: “Surely there must be someone you can get hold of,” and he said everybody was away or busy and, anyway, no one else would do. But at last he agreed to try you, and I promised I’d stay if you failed him, so you can imagine how popular you are with me. I must say it’s noble of you to come all this way at a moment’s notice.’ But as she said it, I heard, or thought I heard, a tiny note of contempt in her voice that I should be so readily available.
What jumps out at me here is the thing that doesn't seem to bother Charles but, it seems to me, ought to bother him.

"[A]nd he said everybody was away or busy ... at last he agreed to try you."

As the recent cliché would have it, "He's just not that into you." Charles is mad about Sebastian but Sebastian can't even be bothered to notice this just as he can't be bothered to notice or care about Charles' drawings. He doesn't much seem to notice Charles at all. This relationship is a little like Echo and Narcissus.

There is also something very Platonic about this relationship. Not in our modern sense of non-sexual love but in the sense Plato meant it; that is that Charles sees some intimation of God's glory in Sebastian. An intimation of the divine that Sebastian himself cannot see or is actively denying.

And we get a pretty powerful hint that Sebastian cannot see it in himself or hates himself for not wanting to see it just a few pages later. Charles says that Julia does much care for him, Sebastian replies:
‘I don’t think she cares for anyone much. I love her. She’s so like me.’
‘Do you? Is she?’
‘In looks I mean and the way she talks. I wouldn’t love anyone with a character like mine.’
And here there has to be some faint contempt whether anyone can hear it or not because Charles does love someone with a character like Sebastian's. It's not possible to have a loving relationship with some without some self love.

Later, when Charles and Sebastian are discussing his faith Sebastian will insist on his wickedness. We might think he doesn't mean it but he does.

A final self awareness question, Charles, riding on the train to meet Sebastian, imagines so easily that Sebastian will die. But he never asks himself why this should be so easy to imagine. His father is not nearly concerned enough about Sebastian but Charles is the exact opposite. Everywhere he sees death. 

And it makes sense doesn't it? Sebastian has an aura of death right from the beginning. I'll revisit that on Monday.

Have a grand weekend everyone. Gaudete Sunday this weekend.

She's a flapper

I've been reading Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier at the same time as Brideshead. Not for any strategic reason. I requested a copy from the local library back in October and it seems to be very popular right now. My name didn't come to the top of the request list until last week and now I have three weeks to read it.

And yet there is an overlap and it's an intriguing one. One of the fascinating things about Julia is that she is a flapper. We see this in her dress and her haircut and her behaviour.

I think we can see in Julia a bit of a mirror for what has been happening with men only going the other way. We have a lot of bisexuality and general prettiness of boys in the novel. Julia is, as she will later admit, a very hard girl.

That's interesting for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is historical. For many feminists of the time and much current feminist theory blame the flappers for killing first generation feminism. The first generation feminists had set about creating this ideal of a new woman who pushed for and won individual liberty. Apparently the ideal is based on Ibsen and we can see Rebecca West renaming herself in honour of an Ibsen heroine.

The story of what happened to first generation feminism will sound very familiar to anyone who lived through second generation. The movement starts out very radical. Its early authors question not just the role of women within Western society but the very basis of western society itself. They see feminism as a way to sweep away conventional Christianity, Christian morality and class distinctions. Pretty soon, however, they compromise on some of these in order to achieve more practical goals. And then along comes a generation of young women who use these hard-won freedoms not to transform society but to transform their youth by dressing in sexually provocative ways and living a sort of extended childhood stretching into their late twenties.

The sexual aspect is important. Although they dressed more provocatively than the generations that preceded them, the young women of the 1910s and 1920s were the herald of a more sexually conservative era. No one knows for certain, but there are indications that the women of the 1990s and the aughts are going to do likewise.

Anyway, back to the beginning of the last century. You can really see this in The Return of the Soldier because, contrary to what is claimed in just about every description I've ever read of the book, this is a book about women in a time when women's roles were changing. Most write ups praise it as the first book about the war by a woman but the war is only a plot device here and the case of shell shock supposedly suffered by the sole male character is ridiculously implausible. Not that it need be realistic because he  is nothing more than a  cardboard cut out of a man whose only real role is to cause drama in the lives of three women. He comes home from the war with all memory of his beautiful, tasteful, elegant wife erased and he can only remember the working class woman he once had a love affair with (consummated in, this is no accident, a folly made in the shape of a Greek temple). The story is told by Jenny a childhood companion who also loves him but has maintained a relationship that is Platonic.

The three women, On the other hand, are wonderful and intriguing characters. West contrasts them here in what I think is the most important paragraph in the book. The narrator describes how the only male character has treated the three of the women in the book:
I suppose that the subject of our tragedy, written in spiritual terms, was that in Kitty he had turned from the type of woman that makes the body the conqueror of the soul and in me from the type that mediates between the soul and the body and makes them run even and unhasty like a well-matched pair of carriage horses, and had given himself to a woman whose bleak habit it was to champion the soul against the body.
Now that is a brilliant echo of Plato's Phaedrus.
Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite—a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him.
...
As I said at the beginning of this tale, I divided each soul into three—two horses and a charioteer; and one of the horses was good and the other bad: the division may remain, but I have not yet explained in what the goodness or badness of either consists, and to that I will now proceed. The right–hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only. The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat–faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood–red complexion ; the mate of insolence and pride, shag–eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur. Now when the charioteer beholds the vision of love, and has his whole soul warmed through sense, and is full of the prickings and ticklings of desire, the obedient steed, then as always under the government of shame, refrains from leaping on the beloved; but the other, heedless of the pricks and of the blows of the whip, plunges and runs away, giving all manner of trouble to his companion and the charioteer, whom he forces to approach the beloved and to remember the joys of love. 
Our narrator Jenny is unconsciously presenting herself as the Platonic ideal who can balance both horses. Otherwise, however, West has reversed the thing. Kitty's elevated tastes turn out to be slightly suspect. This comes out in a telling scene where the narrator goes to see Kitty who has failed to win her husband back. She lies in bed and has her maid bring her all her sexy lingerie one piece after another so she can review them. As she sees it, this is the investment she has made in getting this man.  The rougher horse, working class Margaret, appears to have the more noble spirit (so far anyway, I'm only three quarters through). In any case, I'm guessing we're headed for a sort of reverse Jane Eyre where we will find that Margaret is the truly noble soul. It is shaping up to be a sort of Wide Sargasso Sea where the issues that have dragged poor Margaret down are not race but class, albeit written long before Wide Sargasso Sea (I'll keep you updated just in case I have to do a humiliating admission of wrongness here).

But I trust that readers can also spot the obvious parallel with Brideshead (there is, by the way, a Phaedrus reference coming up in it too). Here Charles is the balanced man with both his horses proceeding in an even and unhasty manner. Sebastian is the one who champions the soul and Anthony is our spokesperson for the baser pleasures.

But there are also three women in the novel. One of whom represents the baser, another of whom strives for balance and third who champions the soul against the body. They are actually more important than the three men and yet rarely get their due.

"It had quite the reverse effect on me"

Do you remember that line? It comes from way back in Chapter one.

I'm not entirely confident even of who is supposed to be saying. I think it's Charles but ....

Here it is with a little context. Charles and Sebastian are driving back to Oxford.
'I'm sorry.' said Sebastian after a time. 'I'm afraid I wasn't very nice this afternoon. Brideshead often has that effect on me. But I had to take you to see nanny.

Why? I wondered; but said nothing—Sebastian's life was governed by a code of such imperatives. 'I must have pillar-box red pyjamas,' 'I have to stay in bed until the sun works round to the windows,' I've absolutely got to drink champagne tonight!'—except, 'It had quite the reverse effect on me.'
The last line—'It had quite the reverse effect on me'—is not an imperative. It doesn't apply to anything Sebastian says above. I think it is Charles question, 'Why?', is meant to apply to both the imperatives and the effect Brideshead has on Sebastian. It's one of the profound differences between the two young men: Brideshead is a revelation to Charles and a curse to Sebastian.

(By the way, the second imperative, 'I have to stay in bed until the sun works round to the windows', must make us wonder what context that can possibly have come up in doesn't it? I think it may also be a reference to John Donne's poem, "The Sun Rising". In it, Donne talks about being wakened to go hunting with the king when he'd rather stay in bed with his mistress. The love that Donne describes is almost solipsistic; it is a love that would make the whole rest of the world disappear not unlike what Sebastian is seeking, and the opposite of what Charles is seeking. It's also a magnificent poem, take the time to read it; I promise you your life will be richer for the experience. You can find it here.)

Here in Chapter four, Sebastian does get the something like that kind of love where the rest of the world leaves him alone and he can focus on his love. But what is the object of this love? As much as Charles would like to think it is him, it isn't. At this point Sebastian himself doesn't know. We'll see he keeps looking for this love in other contexts all the rest of the book.

Chapter four is the only one in Book one where we seem to get pure unbridled happiness right through. The sense of halcyon days here is so powerful that many readers, including me, have a tendency to forget the clouds that darken the whole of Book one and remember it instead as if it were all bliss and luxury. In fact, even the majority of this chapter is full of foreboding. In my edition, the chapter is twenty-four pages long. Waugh uses exactly four pages to describe the bliss at Brideshead as opposed to nearly ten pages to describe the enigma of Sebastian's faith. He is even more economical in the Venice section compressing all the wonderful experiences of Venice into a single paragraph and then devoting two pages to a single conversation between Cara and Charles where she says some rather foreboding things about how Sebastian hates his mother and, is overly fond of his childhood how he is destined to be an alcoholic.

First impressions
It's not an accident that we miss all this darkness for our guide on this tour, Charles Ryder, also misses it. He is so wrapped up in the memory of what was, for him, a time of discovery and growth, that he gushes about it. And, since he knows how the story ends, he lived it after all, he perhaps willfully overemphasizes the joys because he wants to underline that there were some after all.

One of the most powerful ways that Charles, unconsciously, and Waugh, consciously, tricks us into missing the darkness is in the opening paragraph:
The languor of Youth – how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth – all save this – come and go with us through life. These things are a part of life itself; but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it. Perhaps in the mansions of Limbo the heroes enjoy some such compensation for their loss of the Beatific Vision; perhaps the Beatific Vision itself has some remote kinship with this lowly experience; I, at any rate, believed myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead.
Prose doesn't get much purpler than that. Which raises the question: Why is it here? Those reading the older edition will encounter a lot of purple prose while those of us reading the revised edition will have been spared much of this but even if we'd been reading the unrevised edition, this particular paragraph is so far over the top that it has to stand out.

In the introduction to the Everyman Edition, Frank Kermode wonders why, given that Waugh revised the book precisely so he could cut the excesses, this section does not get cut. He also wonders about the long riff on the unfaithful wife in the prologue. He does not, but we might also wonder about why the exact details of the meals Charles has with Sebastian, his father and, later. Rex Mottram, are so important.

At the risk of being so impertinent to suggest that we might see something that Frank Kermode missed, I think that all these over the top bits were left in because they are Charles' going over the top and not Waugh doing so. That the purple paragraph above here is not Waugh's but Charles'. The problem with the purple prose for Waugh as he revised was not that there was any but that there was too much. If we read this purple prose as an indication of Charles Ryder's character we can read it in a different way.

Keeping that in mind, we can go back and look at that paragraph again and see that Waugh has let Charles unconsciously slip two details that undercut the wonder of it all. The first is the limbo metaphor. Limbo is the place where those who die before they can receive baptism go. It is a place where one is spared the horrors of hell but denied the glories of heaven. If we give that it's full weight, Charles believing himself "very near heaven" heaven in a different light for now it tells us there is a barrier between the heaven he can imagine and his getting there.

The second detail is the passing qualification here "I, at any rate, believed myself very near heaven." Which tells us that Charles does not think Sebastian was very happy in those days.

Put it altogether and I think we have a chapter in which Charles tells us about his aesthetic education and how Brideshead transformed him. The very different effect it has on Sebastian is left aside for a moment. Charles is growing here and Sebastian is diminishing.

Just look at the pronouns in the paragraph immediately following the purple passage above where Sebastian talks about how the great house came to be built:
We had a castle a mile away, down by the village. Then we took a fancy to the valley and pulled the castle down, carted the stones up here, and built a new house. I'm glad they did, aren't you?
When Sebastian talks about events in the past, he uses "we". When he talks about his present response to the house, he switches to "they". It is only in the past—in an historical past that might as well be the mythical middle ages—that Sebastian feels a part of the household at Brideshead. It is no surprise then that he will say that the house "isn't mine" a line or two later. But it is very much Charles's house now. Not in the legal sense. He doesn't own it but what he does own is something more precious than real estate, even real estate as grand as Brideshead.

And what is that something? We might say the aesthetic education and maybe that is enough for some but it isn't enough for Waugh. Compare the two scenes that Charles sets out to paint in the office—the romantic landscape that Charles succeeds at and the "elaborate pastiche" that Sebastian wants him to do. We might think, well the second thing is too complicated. We might also think that an "elaborate pastiche", no matter how elaborate, is just the sort of thing someone who is not growing anymore would suggest.

The point being not that Sebastian himself cannot do much of anything—although he cannot, even the harmonium in his room is played by others not him—but that there is something underneath that aesthetic education that Charles does get. And I appreciate that that this will not resonate with non-Catholic and even less with non-Christian readers than it would for someone like me or, more importantly, for Evelyn Waugh, but that thing is God's grace.

"English" Catholicism in Brideshead

Over the years some of the harshest critics of this book have been other English Catholic writers. You find quite a few of them, Anthony Burgess, for example, who attack the book because the kind of Catholicism it portrays is not typical. Waugh would have a short, and brutal answer to that, which would be that he doesn't write about typical English Catholics because he found them boring. We will have an example of an ordinary English Catholic coming up later and the picture we get is not flattering.

However, the thing not to do, and some critics have done just this, is to think that Waugh has any illusions about English Catholicism or that he means to glorify the Flytes. In chapter 4 it is painfully obvious that Waugh knows that the Flytes are very atypical. Nor is it the case, as is sometimes alleged, that Waugh has created some imagined glorious Catholic aristocracy going back for centuries. The family was once Catholic but that is true of all really old English families. Their Catholicism at the beginning of the book is the result of a  recent conversion.

And, far from glorifying this family and its Catholicism, Waugh laughs, and wants us to laugh along, at Sebastian and Cordelia's reaction to the possibility that they might no longer be able to have a consecrated chapel inside their very home. They are like spoiled children as were their parents before them.

How good it is to sit in the shade and talk of love

Here is another painting of Saint Sebastian. This one is by Antonello da Messina but, and this is the part that may apply to Brideshead, it was formerly believed to be by Bellini.


Years ago I saw this painting with my then girlfriend Katrijn. I, intending to be censorious, made a  quip about how tight the saint's pants are. Katrijn surprised me by saying, "I love it, you can see everything." I was shocked because I was still relatively innocent at that point and didn't think that women, especially women I was dating at the time, would respond quite so openly to something like this.

Update: The image below is a detail of a larger painting and shows not Christ as I had previously indicated but one of the two thieves crucified with him. Thanks to Roberto Maján for the correction.

She had a point, however. It isn't so obvious in the above image, courtesy of Wikipedia, but in the painting itself you can make out the exact shape and dimension of what is underneath those pants. You can as Katrijn bluntly put it, see everything. Messina, by the way, puts Christ one of the thieves crucified with Christ in exactly the same tight pants! That painting, mercifully, is not a front view.



In any case, I take it I don't have to connect the dots to make the homoerotic elements here clear.

Phaedrus
The aesthetes were not all gay by any stretch of the imagination but the culture they favoured was welcoming to homosexuals. All his life Waugh was accepting of homosexuality. There is an exchange of letters between he and Nancy Mitford where they both wonder why American critics and writers kept insisting that homosexual man be depressed when those that Mitford and Waugh knew were so cheerful and pleasant.

Waugh was also deeply aware of the homosexual subculture of his time. The homosexual aesthetes were much concerned with Greek culture because of that culture's positive portrayal of the sexual education of boys by older men. A frequent allusion was Plato's Phaedrus.

This book, which I have mentioned before in this thread, is one of my favourite books and I have read it at least once every two years since I first read it the year I was eighteen. It's an amazingly current book. In the opening, Phaedrus greets Socrates with the news that he has heard a speech by Lysias in which Lysias argues it is better to "yield to a non-lover". In other words, the question is about whether sex without love is a good idea.

Socrates answer is no, sex without love is not a good thing. However, and here we can see how Waugh might read it, Socrates treats even sex with love as a temporary thing so it isn't quite the distinction your typical Catholic writer might make. And the issue here is purely with erotic love, which is a different thing from lust.

What is especially interesting for my purposes here is where Phaedrus and Socrates have their conversation. Plato is very clear that Socrates, who is out in the country, is not in his usual surroundings. Socrates allows Phaedrus to lead him out to a shady spot under a plane tree:
Phaedrus: Do you see that tallest plane–tree in the distance?
Socrates: Yes.
Phaedrus: There are shade and gentle breezes, and grass on which we may either sit or lie down.
The magic of the place where they have their discussion is an important aspect of the book.
By Herè, a fair resting–place, full of summer sounds and scents. Here is this lofty and spreading plane–tree, and the agnus castus high and clustering, in the fullest blossom and the greatest fragrance; and the stream which flows beneath the plane–tree is deliciously cold to the feet. Judging from the ornaments and images, this must be a spot sacred to Achelous and the Nymphs. How delightful is the breeze:—so very sweet; and there is a sound in the air shrill and summerlike which makes answer to the chorus of the cicadae. But the greatest charm of all is the grass, like a pillow gently sloping to the head. My dear Phaedrus, you have been an admirable guide.
And now to my very favourite line in all of Brideshead. Charles and Cara are sitting in a magical place. They are on the terrace out of the sun, sitting on comfortable couches, overlooking the Grand Canal. Cara has been Charles' guide.

She stirred on her sofa, shifting her weight so as she could look down on the passing boats, and said in fond, mocking tones: 'How good it is to sit in the shade and talk of love,' and then added with a sudden swoop to earth, Sebastian drinks too much.
Cara is one of only a very few mature adults in Brideshead—all the other characters refuse to grow up in various ways—and I will forever love her for saying, "How good it is to sit in the shade and talk of love." Because, well, because it is good good to sit in the shade and talk of love.

Is it an intended echo of the Phaedrus? I think so, especially given the subject matter of their conversation.
'I think you are very fond of Sebastian,' she said.

'Why, certainly.'

'I know of these romantic friendhsips of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long.'

She was so composed and matter-of-fact that I could not take her amiss, but I failed to find an answer. 
As I've mentioned before, there are people who go to great lengths to take her amiss; to fabulous lengths to convince themselves and others that there is nothing more than a close friendship between Charles and Sebastian. There is no room to take Waugh amiss here any more than Charles can take Cara amiss. And this is clear in the next few lines:
'It is a kind of love that comes to children before they know its meaning. In England it comes when you are almost men; I think I like that. It is better to have that kind of love for another boy than for a girl. Alex you see had it for a girl, for his wife.'
She doesn't mean pre-pubescent children here, she means adolescent children. Throughout the rest of the book you cannot help but notice the constant reference to Charles' young manhood as a sort of extended adolescence. Most, importantly, we get it in Charles' thinking about how he would answer Jasper.
In the event, that Easter vacation formed a short stretch of level road in the precipitous descent of which Jasper warned me. Descent or ascent? It seems to me that I grew younger daily with each adult habit that I acquired. I had lived a lonely childhood and a boyhood straitened by war and overshadowed by bereavement; to the hard bachelordom of English adolescence, I had added a sad and grim strain of my own. Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.
It's not just that these hints keep coming up, it's that they always connect to love. You could, I suppose, try and convince yourself that drunkenness is high in the catalogue of high sins but what you cannot ignore is the way he comes back to love and this extended adolescence over and over again.  And it is important that they connect with love for love is what will redeem Charles.

And, if it's being same-sex love isn't jolting enough, the other thing about it is that it is temporary. It is a phase for Charles to go through on his way to a more mature love. And that love turns out to be for ... well, it's complicated.


The incomparable Charlus

Overall, the 1981 television series of Brideshead is pretty true to the book. Of the very few things it gets wrong, the only really troubling one is Mr. Samgrass. Take a look at the following three sentences. They occur during Charles first Christmas at Brideshead. Everyone has left save Bridey who is occupied with estate management, Theresa Marchmain and Sir Adrian Porson who are occupied with one another and Mr. Samgrass who is occupied with the book he is doing for Lady Marchmain. So here are the three sentences,
We [Charles and Sebastian] saw little of them except in the evenings; there was room under that wide roof for a wide variety of independent lives.

After a fortnight Sebastian said, 'I can't stand Mr. Samgrass anymore. Let's go to London,' so he came to stay with me and now began to use my home in preference to 'Marchers'.
That is very economical writing—those three sentences cover a lot of ground. It was a little too economical for the producers of the series and they created a new scene to intersperse between sentence number one and two of the three I cite above. Probably because Waugh doesn't tell us what it is about Mr. Samgrass, of whose presence Charles, at least, isn't all that aware of anyway, that Sebastian can't stand anymore. In the imagined scene created by the makers of the series, Charles leaves Theresa Marchmain's little talk and comes and finds Sebastian shooting skeet while Mr. Samgrass operates the mechanism that fires the clay pigeons. And they talk and Mr. Samgrass reveals himself to be a goofy fool who obviously does not know how to conduct himself in an atmosphere like this. He becomes a sort of George Kittridge character. This goofiness and ineptness is presumably what Sebastian can't stand. That makes he and Charles mere snobs.

And this is a  big problem because he isn't George Kittridge, he is Mr. Samgrass and there is something rather menacing about Mr. Samgrass that Waugh doesn't want to say in so many words but he leaves us some powerful clues in the scene where Charles arrives at Brideshead after Christmas to find Mr. Samgrass sitting alone before the fire in the Tapestry Room. Interestingly, the TV series, drops all three. Perhaps they didn't seem all that important.

Hints number one and two are hiding in plain sight:
'You find me in solitary possession,' he said, and indeed he he seemed to possess the hall and the somber scenes of venery that hung around it, to possess the caryatids on either side of the fireplace, to possess me, as he rose to take my hand and greet me like a host ....
  1. "Venery" is an archaic word that means two things. It means hunting and the straightforward sense of the word is that the tapestries around Mr. Samgrass are of hunting scenes like the famous room of hunting tapestries at the Louvre that perhaps inspired this scene. But "venery" has a double meaning and the other archaic use is to mean sexual indulgence. And Maurice Bowra, on whom the character is based, was notorious for his predatory sexual behaviour. He was the man who said, "Buggery was invented to fill that awkward hour between evensong and cocktails."
  2. Caryatids are columns carved into the shape of women draped in long gowns. The name "carya" comes from young virgins who danced for the festival or Artemis. Even they are "possessed" by Samgrass.
  3. He even seemed "to possess me" says Charles completing this little trio
And we should not miss the basic point that, far from not fitting in, Samgrass fits in rather too well.

And then there is this:
I have been spending a cozy afternoon before the fire with the incomparable Charlus.
And odd sort of thing to say, don't you think? Who is this Charlus and why does Mr. Samgrass assume that Charles will know what he is talking about.

Charlus is a character in Proust and not just any character. He is an older man who preys on younger men. He disguises his interest in men by pretending to be a womanizer. In Proust, he first preys on the narrator and then, having failed with him, more successfully pursues a young violinist named Morel. He is a very dominant character, a powerful personality who supports and shapes the young Morel, using his rank and wealth. With rather an interesting twist, however. Outside the bedroom, he is a very dominant but inside the bedroom he is a very submissive character who likes to be whipped.

I suppose you might say someone like that was "incomparable" but left unqualified that would mean a good thing; if we mean bad, we will say "incomparably bad" not "incomparable" tout court.

Incidentally, the volume in which Charlus pursues his relationship with young Morel, called Sodom and Gomorrah, was published in 1923 and this conversation where Samgrass praises Charlus takes place just after Christmas of that year.

Whether Charles recognizes it or not, the hints that Waugh is dropping here tell us that this man is a sexually aggressive man not above using his position and power to try to have his way with Sebastian. When Sebastian angrily picks on Samgrass by singing, "Green arse, Samgrass — Samgrass green arse" we might, if we can stand the thought, think about what Bowra said about buggery. Not that Samgrass succeeded in his preying but that he tried would be enough.


A pot pourri

I want to move along fairly quickly, so here is a pot pourri of stuff from Chapter 5.

Jasper's vindication
There are four vindications of Jasper's advice. All four can simply be drawn from the text:
  1. The experience with his father convinces Charles never to live beyond his means again.
  2. The flamboyant dress of the art instructor convinces Charles to dress as Jasper advised.
  3. Charles and Sebastian shake off many of their first year friends just as Jasper had said.
  4. Sebastian is in trouble precisely because, as Jasper said, he has gotten himself noticed.
I think the more poignant, and profound thing, is when we see what is lacking in Sebastian. He says, "How does one mend one's ways?" and lists a bunch of things he has seen others doing  but it is clear he has no idea how. He lacks the central thing that Jasper advised which is a project, a purpose, for one's time at university. He is helpless with no sense of direction or purpose in his life.

And that, in a large part is because his mother has chosen to try and manipulate her children into doing what she wants rather than trying to raise them to be independent adults. None of her children, not even my beloved Cordelia, ever moves completely beyond childhood. (Waugh later described the time he spent with the Lygon family at their ancestral pile as a world free of adults. That is another reason for the continued relevance of the book, it speaks to us who also grew up in a  world almost free of real adults.)

Yesterday, I talked about the hints that Mr. Samgrass may be trying to manipulate Sebastian into his bed. The other thing to note is how well He and Lady Marchmain get along. On the surface, anyway, her motives, to get her son out of trouble, may seem less malignant than what Mr. Samgrass wants but it ought to trouble us a whole lot that they work so well together. Mr. Samgrass is in on the secret right from the beginning.

The final nail in her coffin as far as I'm concerned in her telling Charles what is certainly a lie: that it was Msgr. Bell's idea that Sebastian come live with him and not hers. Both Sebastian and Mr. Samgrass talk of this as if it had been very much in the works for a while. And then Charles and Bridey pack up Sebastian's things and Bridey lets slip that he spent his final year at Msgr. Bell's. Charles is too chivalrous to betray such and emotion even if he felt it but the emotion he and we should be feeling towards her is not a kind one.

Like everyone, she could be forgiven but there is a lot to forgive.

Elaborate pastiches
We saw last chapter that Sebastian wanted Charles to progress in the direction of doing an elaborate pastiche. In this chapter he gets his way but, telling the story years later, Charles casually dismisses the result of this work.
 My drawings were worthless; in my own rooms I designed elaborate little pastiches, some of which, preserved by friends of the period, come to light occasionally to embarrass me.
Sebastian who could change Charles' whole world view by making a remark while casually flipping through Clive Bell, now directs Charles in ways that are useless to him. He is diminishing. Who will replace him?

Anthony leaves and Rex appears
We get an elegiac bit of writing about Anthony now gone. Again, the purple prose here is meant to reflect Charles' memory not the way Waugh would express it. The admission of Anthony's importance now is an important one.
The Charity matinée was over, I felt; the impresario had buttoned his astrakhan coat and taken his fee and the disconsolate ladies of the company were without a leader.
And it goes on some length after that. But the detail that I want to focus on here is the astrakhan coat. for the boys, without a leader, will shortly get themselves in big trouble after an outing to a brothel and they will call Rex Mottram to bail them out—there is a new impresario in town. And note the fascinating detail that recurs:
Rex stood in the charge-room looking the embodiment—indeed the burlesque—of power and prosperity; he wore a fur-lined overcoat with broad astrakhan lapels and a silk hat.
Anthony was never an entirely benign figure and neither will Rex be but from Charles needs a figure to respond to to grow and from here on in the principle figure will be Rex Mottram. As I said a while ago, very few of the names in this book are accidental. Rex means king, of course and we would do very well to pay close attention to him because he is an immensely important figure in Charles' life, much more important than Charles would like to admit.

And Charles is intimidated by Rex and we should not let his subjective reactions blind us to the truth about Rex. Or, perhaps a better way of putting it, we should pay close attention to what Charles' inadvertently lets out by what he remembers. This little two line exchange between Brenda Champion and Rex, for example:
'Why a Jeroboam Rex?' she said peevishly. 'You always want to have everything too big."

'Won't be too big for us,' he said, taking the bottle in his own hands and easing the cork.


A while ago, long before I started blogging Brideshead, we had a lively discussion in the comments here about shaving which led to a discussion of the symbolic role it plays in the book. To have your beard removed by another man is an act of shameful submission. Rex has the boys shaved.

By the way, the biggest clue that something is amiss in Charles account of Rex is his appalling lack of gratitude towards the man to whom he owes gratitude.

Death's head
The two women that Charles and Sebastian meet are, of course, symbols for one another. Sebastian has been associated with death ever since the beginning of the book and, we should remember, a skull is one of the attributes that St. Aloysius Gonzaga is pictured with. It is no surprise at all then to read Charles saying,
The Death's Head seemed destined for me.
What is perhaps more important to note is that, while the skull symbolizes Sebastian, the sickly child symbolizes Charles and this is the first hint we have had that there is something in Charles that needs fixing. It's no accident that this comes to light at precisely the moment that a rival in manhood also appears.

By way,  a final bit of naughtiness, this time very much on Waugh's part. The brothel that Charles and Sebastian is very much based on a real one that was called "the 43" because it was located at 43 Gerrard Street. Because you can't exactly hang a sign out in front of such an institution, it is was named after its street address. Waugh fictionalizes the club by placing it at 100 Sink Street (an address that does not exist). But he doesn't call it "the 100 club", or even "The Century" but the "Old Hundredth" and that is very naughty on his part.

For those not familiar with Christian hymnbooks, the Old Hundredth is the name for one of the most famous hymns. It's called that because it is one of the oldest melodies used to set the 100 Psalm.

So why did Waugh name his brothel after a psalm? Perhaps just as a sly dig. I think, however, that if you follow along with the words of the psalm in the video below, something else that he is up to may occur to you.







The Franciscan way of seeing

Theresa Marchmain is not very good at exegesis. You can see the problem here:
'But of course,' she said, 'it's very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It's not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It's all part of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.
As regular readers will know, it is my vocation to make sure that everyone knows that there is no ox and no ass nor any crib for Jesus's birth anywhere in scripture. Nor is there a stable. All there is is a manger, which is a feeding trough, where the baby is laid. Where that manger was is anyone's guess. It might have been in a house or it might have been out in the middle of a field somewhere or it might be a creative interpolation of Luke's.

Before going on, I will say that I tend to think that Lady Marchmain is so wrong she is sorta right here. I suspect that the point of the eye of the needle is to underline not the impossibility of the rich getting into heaven but to point to the absolute necessity of God's grace for anyone to get to heaven.

But if the ox and the ass are not in the Gospels, where do they come from? They come from Saint Francis Assisi. But even that is a little weird. The whole point of Saint Francis recreating creche scenes with actual animals (a tradition some people keep up to this day) was to make the experience more natural and less superstitious. But generations of Theresa Marchmains have fought hard to turn it all back into Alice in bleepin Wonderland.

Anyway, all this is my excuse to post a Giotto (courtesy of Wikipedia). This is the Madonna Enthroned. Giotto was very much influenced by the then-new Franciscan naturalism.



That is one very real woman. You can imagine her sitting on the bus next to you, and lucky you if she does because that is one very beautiful woman. The key thing, however, if you don't mind being so indiscreet as to check out Our Lady's chest you will note that Giotto's commitment to naturalism extends, as Helen Gardiner quaintly and prudishly  puts it, "even to the swelling of the bosom." To be blunt, this Madonna has breasts. Giotto's path-breaking move here started a near revolution in the way Mary was presented. Unfortunately, the bad people won eventually and you hardly see a naturalistic representation of Mary today except as a child.

I've written about this before.

Anyway, I think naturalism is part of Waugh's purpose in Brideshead Revisisted. He is portraying men who behave and think like men actually do on their way to Christianity. This is something to keep in mind as we watch Charles fall in love again.


1 comment:

  1. Huge thank you for posting this - I am currently studying Brideshead for A level, and am so far finding all this extremely useful!

    ReplyDelete