"Brideshead Revisited"... revisited. Some thoughts on this old bag of tricks the English love to venerate.
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
I very well remember the first day I became aware of "Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder". I can even, without too much difficulty, tell you where I was that momentous day in 1970. I was in Oxford, where I planned to spend as many festive weeks as I could squeeze out of my Harvard fellowship and live the life of an English lord. I took the train from Victoria Station, London, and was replete with every degree of enthusiasm and excitement for my unusual situation.
You see, I was working on my doctoral dissertation at Harvard at the time, and rationalized to myself that spending so much time in Oxford would enable me to do the necessary research which could only be done in a fine library, such as the one Oxford has possessed for centuries.
To do this research required a dinner jacket, black shoes (not so very scuffed), and nodding acquaintance with all the fine wines of France, and a strong head for advancement into further research into every single one of them. As it turns out, it also required a copy of "Brideshead Revisited". This novel, published in 1945, shows an idealized vision of everything author Evelyn Waugh's wand touched.
It was a magic I believed in, as did all my Oxen friends, bright, witty, clever... who made themselves past masters. We all understood "Brideshead Revisited" because we were all determined to live it... each and every page of it, until the action in the book shifted to Brideshead itself, later in the book and not nearly as interesting as I would find it years later.
This book and everything Waugh said had no more fervent supporters than we Americans, who used to gather everyday at a particular coffee shop in the middle of Oxford and posture, preen, and one up each other with devastating effect.
To meet these stringent requirements, we collectively determined that only Americans from the elite schools should be admitted to our fellowship. That included every Ivy League college of course (though Dartmouth and Brown were iffy), headed by Harvard, and occasionally someone from the Harvard of the West, Stanford... but usually we were too busy maneuvering our own social position to help a poor Western student or anyone else who wanted to join our merry, stringent company.
Of course, as a PhD candidate at Harvard, my own stellar credentials topped the list. And from the very first minute I was in Oxford, I was in just the right set at just the right time. I never missed a morning coffee (though I detest coffee and never drink it), for fear of what would be said about me if I weren't there to protect myself. This was no place for weenies, as my own brother Kevin quickly discovered when he came to visit me.
He was bicycling around Europe, preparing to take up his fellowship at Ohio State University, and only my recommendation allowed him to come into our circle. He was furious to be reliant on me. I said that if he would remove his distracting beard, it would give him a pass for a day or two. His response, characteristically truculent, was "Jesus himself wore a beard! If it was good enough for Jesus, its going to be good enough for you!"
It wasn't... and so he peddled on, to some obscure place where he could observe his rocks and mountainous formations without the presence of a censorious older brother, always correct on any subject, and his punctilious friends.
When the train pulled in to Oxford, I had a premonition that my life was about to change dramatically... that I had reached the Emerald City... and while I was ecstatic to be at Harvard as a student, I was happier to be in Oxford as a man, learning how to be a gentleman of means on a pittance. Harvard gave me money, but Harvard was not the place for an aspiring lord like myself. For that, it had to be Oxford.
William Powers Ingoldsby, always this man's best friend, was on time as always when the train rolled in. He gave me a quick once over, and started barking orders. I was to get my haircut at once. I was to dispose, in a way no one could find them, of my true American clothes. I must submit to being taken to his tailor immediately, a place where he was so well known that when he put in this order and asked for rushed service, he got it. These garments I was absolutely innocent of, for I had never worn what Americans wrongly call a tuxedo.
I was putty in the hands of Ingoldsby, who had come a term before I got there, with his house and servant, and unending parties, which made us and all the rest of our cadre very happy indeed. His further instructions urged me to ready myself for my first entree into English Society. Princess Imeretinsky, who was born English, was having a soiree at her gracious home in Cheltenham. It was of course black tie, all decorations to be worn. Sadly, I had none and felt naked.
As we walked up the drive to her home, Ingoldsby gave me my final instructions... all preceded by "Don't". I shall abandon this tedious list, and focus on his last instruction... "Don't break anything!" Twenty minutes later, I was assisting the hostess pick up the shards of an imperial Russian goblet, smashed by Ingoldsby to my unutterable joy and happiness.
I managed to insinuate to the hostess, who I treated with the most exaggerated politeness, for I had never met a Princess before, Russian or otherwise, I managed to insinuate the fact that my poor friend Ingoldsby was known to be rather clumsy, which was not the truth. But again, we were always on guard for moves of studied one-upsmanship.
But I digress...
The last thing my dear friend Ingoldsby gave me was his well thumbed copy of "Brideshead Revisited." His need for a pupil was satisfied by standing over me that entire afternoon and urging me to "Get on with the book! Vite! Vite!" I needed no encouragement. From the very first page, I succumbed to the heady magic of Brideshead, for I was too young and inexperienced to know that Brideshead is a fantasy, without a word of truth or historic fact.
Years later, when I discovered author Waugh had completed the book in just six months, I said to myself, "He could only have raced along at that speed if he was making up all the things along the way." And so he was.
When you tell an English friend, for you I'm sure know only the best of people, he'll want you to believe in the veracity of Waugh's vision. It opens with Lord Sebastian Flyte, during his first year up at Oxford. Lord Sebastian was well known to everyone at the "Varsity", for his chauffeur drove a car of exaggerated luxury... one of those darlings with odd names and a look which made you madly jealous with envy, while at the same time hoping he waved to you as he was driven slowly through the narrow streets, greeting his particular friends, ignoring the rest, including to your chagrin, you yourself.
Lord Sebastian, in the entire volume, never cracks a book of learning. I cannot recall a single instance where he actually learns anything... no doubt one of my knowledgeable readers will send me an irate letter, punishing me for forgetting that on page 364, Lord Sebastian read a paragraph in some book or other. Don't bother to look it up; that "fact" is just a lie.
Lord Sebastian's importance is that he is beautiful, the most astonishing undergraduate of his time at Oxford. There are people who would say this paragon of gorgeous visage had a perfect smile, clothes made by the best tailors on Savile Row... a knowledge of the wines and liqueurs unsurpassed by any 18 year old in history... rooms in the very best part of College... and of course, Aloysius... his teddy bear and alter ego, to whom he submitted himself when he needed guidance or advice, which was frequently.
Everyone who saw this quintessence of English nobility succumbed to his charm... not merely considerable, but lethal when he bothered used it. And of course he did. You may rest assured that an Englishman dislikes you if you find yourself the focus of his charm... the greatest weapon in the entire history of the Empire.
The story begins with Lord Sebastian, tight again, a state of affairs the young English aristocracy knew so well. Unfortunately this particular evening, Sebastian had imbibed too much, which concerned absolutely no one; after all haven't you heard the expression "drunk as a lord?" That was Sebastian's standard condition. Unfortunately, this particular evening, he had drunk too much.
One of the windows on the ground floor was open, and in a moment his rancid vomit filled the bedroom of Mr. Charles Ryder, 18, unhappily middle class, equally horrified by Sebastian's conduct and envious about how one could regurgitate with such grace and savoir faire.
Sebastian cast Charles Ryder a winsome smile, which said "I am so charming and beautiful, you won't mind will you?" Charles's friends minded, but Charles, casting his eye in the direction of another better place, accepted his role as explainer of Sebastian's conduct, and friend, which entailed being a consummate babysitter for Lord Sebastian. Men of course, are so far superior to women in that capacity.
Here the game gets both more interesting and more complicated. Sebastian knew, or at least he seemed to know, that his behavior of random vomiting into a fellow undergraduate's room may have gone just a bit beyond the limit. He therefore calls into service every florist within the greater Oxford area. They were needed to deliver their best, most prepossessing, and most fragrant blooms to Mr. Ryder's rooms, to the consternation of his scout. He would have been irritated, but for the fact, yes, you knew it, his lordship was beautiful.
Now begins the great flaw of this book. Charles Ryder hungered for love and affection, and Sebastian did too. And so we are led to believe these two young men, captivated with each other, stayed for months at a time at Brideshead, the great country house of Sebastian's family. It was a city unto itself on a hill overlooking the green, green grass of Wiltshire; packed with treasures of generations of aristocratic brigands who always knew the best things to take (think Elgin Marbles), and did so with breathtaking assiduity.
Then on to Venice to stay with Sebastian's father, the Lord Marchmain, who years before had abandoned his wife and all of his children because of his wife's adamant, inconvenient, and unbending Roman Catholicism. His life in Venice plunged Lord Marchmain into debt, but no one pressed him, for after all, he was an English aristocrat with a lovely palace at his disposal.
Now picture if you will two young men of normal concupiscence, together day and night, surrounded by beauteous objects, and a staff always at their disposal. The English critics, so literate, so clever, so blind or so conspiring, say that the relationship between these boys was not vicious (code word for homosexual). That suggests they never touched or hugged, or cuddled in a way that they could deny everything in the morning... in short, that they were "good boys", and Charles a true friend, eschewing the delights of love for the solidity of friendship.
And I say to these critics, and I say it with zeal, "You are wrong, you are wrong, you are wrong!" The English as a people have had a very hard time speaking frankly about male relations. They passed the most repressive legislation against gay men, and threw thousands of them into disgrace and often imprisonment. And so Waugh has his characters remain inches apart, but unable to reach out and touch each other. In short, coitus interruptus, indeed.
It is no doubt my revolutionary American outlook on things British that causes me to be so enraged against the British tendency to avoid calling a spade a spade. Rather I am of the "If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck" school of thought.
Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain, understood I think the precipice that Sebastian was walking. And I do believe she preferred him drunk to the thought of disgusting embraces with his only friend Charles Ryder. This conclusion is more sensible than the one that the author tries to impose on us, that there was nothing but innocence and no jolly rogering... secret or otherwise.
His increasingly self-destructive alcoholism enabled Lady Marchmain, a staunch Roman Catholic of the Pius XII variety, to intervene at frequent intervals... the better to control his increasingly out of control life. But where was Charles Ryder in all of this, the supposed best friend, the sensible one? He himself was so lonely and friendless that he would have accepted most anything from Sebastian, so that he might continue to stay with him in Brideshead and in Venice.
But of course, the real sin was that they loved each other... not wisely, but too well. And whether they fornicated or not (and of course I think they did), their relationship was doomed, for the English have always valued hypocrisy more than truth, which can so often be indiscreet.
Waugh's book is always most believable when the situations he describes crush individuality, and sacrifice it for one of the most obnoxious words ever invented... gentleman. Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte never had a chance. This is what makes the book so wistful, so yearning, so unsatisfactory... for this is a book about how the English, aristocratic or not, work to impose rigid rules and regulations, especially on people who might well flout the system and enjoy themselves.
Thus I came away from "Brideshead Revisited" enraged... and this rage sent me back to my own golden days at Oxford, when I believed the great myth and strove mightily to live it... and succeeded, too, to a great extent. I wonder whether those days when I was young and sought love were in any way real, substantive... whether the magic had power in reality, or whether this was all designed to deceive. I do not know the answer, even now, 50 years later and counting.
I still cannot quite believe that this place dedicated to youth, beauty, truth, and knowledge was a sham... this stage for a play where nothing is as it seems to be.
A few years ago, I returned to Oxford, anxious to see the sights of my youth, and how many of them remain, or had been washed away by relentless time. I came away unsettled, even depressed. The magic was gone. The magic, which may never have been there in the first place, was certainly gone now for me. I can only hope that somewhere among these students I did not see and did not know, there was a teddy bear named Aloysius... and the chance of love.
I've selected as the musical accompaniment to this article the theme song for Granada Television's magnificent 1981 miniseries "Brideshead Revisited" by Geoffrey Burgon (1941-2010). It is perhaps the best series ever, meticulously crafted, accurate to a fault. If there are faults, they emanate from Waugh and his knowingly dishonest vision, not the producers. They are innocent and free from responsibility.
Click here for the song.
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Dr. Jeffrey Lant, Harvard educated, started writing for publication at age 5. Since then, he has published over 1,000 articles and 63 books, and counting.