In 1959 Evelyn Waugh reflected on his 1945 Brideshead Revisited in the preface to the re-issue. There were, he admitted, "many small additions and some substantial cuts" and it had been written during "a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster--the period of soya beans and Basic English--and in consequence, the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful."
He had written an elegy for both the English country home that he considered, "our chief national artistic achievement" which he believed "were doomed to decay and spoilation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century." It did not seem then, in 1945, that the English aristocracy would survive. Yet by 1959, the "cult of the English country house" had resulted in the opening of these homes to trippers. He imagined Brideshead as one of these now with "treasures rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain."
He ended the preface by saying that "it would be impossible to bring it [the novel] up to date without totally destroying it" and much of the book was a "panegyric preached over an empty coffin."
Panegyric is one of those words you'd expect to find on a college entrance exam; it means a formal public speech that highly praises a person or thing. It is an elaborate eulogy without criticism.
I cannot, however, give high praise to director Julian Jarrold's film, Brideshead Revisited, with screenplay by Jeremy Brock.
The book's actual title isBrideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. From the beginning, the topic is love and the title introduces the concept of the sacred and religious.
In the prologue, Ryder comments, "When I reached 'C' Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning...I reflected now that it had no single happy memory for me. Here love had died between me and the army."
We soon learn that he is 39 and he "began to be old." He has lost something and seems to have no friends or family. Instead he "felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp" and "went to bed immediately after the nine o'clock news."
Taken to an unknown destination, Ryder is surprised to find he is at an old country estate called Brideshead and recalls how he had been brought there 20 years earlier by Sebastian when both were students at Oxford.
Ryder's affection for Sebastian is a forerunner to his love for Sebastian's sister Julia. He meets Julia when he meets their mother, a formidable woman who has held the family together when her husband fled to Italy to live with his mistress. They are both, after all, Catholic. Even the mistress, Cara, is Catholic. But what kind of Catholic doesn't seek an annulment under such circumstances except one who is utterly devoted to keeping up appearances, clinging to religion for salvation and sanity and dignity.
Her devotion reminds one of Katherine of Aragon, who remained faithful to her husband, King Henry VIII. It was Henry VIII desire to divorce Katherine that threatened Catholicism in England and challenged all Catholics in England to decide between faith and loyalty. In the book Brideshead Revisited, catholicism serves as a limitation of the aristocracy. No Catholic can rise to the highest status of all in society, queen consort as Katherine of Aragon had been, or king.
Yet Ryder doesn't marry Julia. She marries a more ambitious man, one with a socially well-placed widow as a mistress, one that he, Rex, doesn't give up. The marriage ceremony itself is an embarrassment to both Julia and her mother and in the end, neither really likes the ambitious Rex. Ryder married Celia who, it turns out, is also unfaithful. When Julia and Ryder meet on a ship bound for England (from America), they begin an affair. Sebastian has already gone off in an alcoholic haze to Morocco and their mother, has died. One senses that Ryder as much if not more in love with the Brideshead estate as to Julia and Sebastian. Yet their way of life was leading to financial ruin.
In the movie, the beginning is choppy, switching between a reserved captain in World War II, an artist crossing the ocean and a young man in his college years. Instead of the fateful meeting on the ship coming in the middle of Ryder's flashback into the past, Brock places it at the beginning before reverting to Sebastian and Ryder's Oxford days and continuing in chronological order. The scenes on the ship are then repeated, and fitted back into chronological order.
As Charles Ryder, our narrator and guide into the lives of Catholic aristocracy, Matthew Goode is no more than a reflection of the characters around him. He seems to float through life without any direction. Can one really believe that such a man would venture into the jungles and paint vibrant, wild scenes that would take at least the English art world by storm? I didn't. His passivity makes one wonder why Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) and later, his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) would be attracted to him.
We also miss the change in the novel between the poignantly lonely man returning to the magical place of his youth, to a young man infatuated with a way of life beyond his means and birth to the young, successful artist living in sin.
Brock's script also takes a few more shortcuts. Rex is such a cad that he willingly converts to catholicism while in the book his conversion is the subject of much consternation for the Father Mowbray and Julia's mother. Rex was already divorced and when he finally marries Julia it is with a Protestant ceremony. None of the mother's family attended and only a few of the father's. In the book, Julia explains to Ryder, "poor Rex found he'd married an outcast, which was exactly the opposite of all he'd wanted." In the movie, Rex simply converted and seems to chide Ryder for not having thought of doing so himself.
Emma Thompson dominates the screen with only Ben Whishaw able to muster enough charisma to equal her performance. Yet we don't sense, in Brock's script, Sebastian's redemption, to be remembered fondly as a brother who often would fail but return to the fold and be well-loved in his self-imposed exile in Morocco. The tragedy of Sebastian, as a Catholic "sodomite" who must deal contradiction between his own sexual preferences and his beliefs about sin and damnation, is more explicit in the movie than the book.
Waugh was a Catholic by conversion and not birth so the book is not a critical attack on catholicism and faith. In the book, Ryder begins as an atheist or agnostic and ends as one who would enter the chapel and say "a prayer, an ancient, newly-learned form of words." The movie is less definite about the character's conversion. So while the movie fails in addressing Ryder's spiritual transformation, it does succeed in delineating his love affair with a lifestyle and a country manor.
Both the TV series and the film used Castle Howard as a location. If interest in Castle Howard was waning as the memory of the 1981 TV series has faded, then this should boost tourism again. In this respect, Waugh's novel has been a great asset to the cult of the English country house and perhaps even saved Castle Howard and the surrounding city. Perhaps the coffin wasn't so empty after all.