Telling It Like It Wasn’t

In 1963 a kindly professor of English ignored prevailing opinion that Waugh was “too lightweight for serious study”, listened to my contention that Waugh’s lightness plumbed interesting depths and approved my proposal to write a dissertation on Brideshead Revisited. Some days later a normally businesslike acquaintance asked about my topic; in return I asked whether she had read the novel. Uneasy silence followed. Then, with unbusinesslike shyness she replied: “Thirty-seven times. I was an alcoholic, and I feel so close to Sebastian that I can’t stop reading the book.”

Nor is the novel addictive only to former alcoholics. With help from Gore Vidal, Sebastian Flyte became a cult figure among Gays, and Queer critics now regularly configure Gay Sebastian as the victim of Straight Charles’s ruthless heterosexuality, a viewpoint reflected in the new film of the novel. David Flint and Jim Anderson revealed in the Good Weekend some time ago that even in the University of Sydney they made Brideshead Revisited “our book”. Many general readers become hooked on the “amour and glamour” of the high-life tale of adultery and passion. And some Catholics who find the institutional church unattractive, but the faith it holds compelling, deeply empathise with Charles Ryder’s reluctant steps to belief.  

In short, like no other Waugh novel but like many best-sellers, Brideshead Revisited has a power to seize—and to repel—the imagination of widely different audiences. A hint of an explanation for this “daemonic” quality might be gained from the theory, once popular, now forgotten, that saw fiction as a symbolic expression of tensions within a writer’s life. In 1943 Waugh was a member of the Special Services Brigade HQ and suffered a deeply humiliating blow. His brigadier, a close friend, left him behind (with a promise of being sent for) when the unit departed for the invasion of Italy. Then, in the brigadier’s absence, his deputy, Lord Lovat, a distinguished soldier but a notoriously vindictive prima donna, forced Waugh to resign from the brigade “for the Brigade’s good”. Waugh then proved virtually unemployable. In the public sphere, Marxism (in its many fashionable forms) seemed to pervade all areas of public policy, and the Russian alliance was set to change the shape of Europe.

In these deeply distressing circumstances Waugh obtained leave from the Army to write Brideshead Revisited. Reaction against personal and public pain (a more complex reaction than mere “wish fulfilment”) goes some way, I believe, to account for the strange (to Waugh) “zest” that possessed him while writing; the consequent “gaudiness” of the romance; the “more-brilliant-than-reality” characters; the “rhetorical and ornamental” language; the plethora of extended poetic metaphors and descriptions of nature; and the mystique surrounding what Waugh then saw as the “doomed” English upper classes.

Normally hyper-self-critical, Waugh, as his letters show, was at first inordinately proud of Brideshead. But he soon fell out of love with it. Unconditional Surrender contains a description of Ludovic’s novel, “The Death Wish”, that is clearly meant to send up the “glitter” and “melancholy” of Waugh’s own Brideshead Revisited. Moreover, admirers of Ludovic’s/Waugh’s earlier work “would not have recognized the authorship of this book”. In 1959 Waugh published a recension of Brideshead that cut the more luxuriant passages and toned down many others. Without mentioning the personal distress that might have better accounted for it, the preface explains the lushness of the novel as a reaction against various wartime privations, and it offers Brideshead Revisited as “a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals”.

If the daemonic qualities of Brideshead allow it to enthral or repel a variety of audiences, and to inspire love that is sometimes followed by disgust, film-makers must be allowed the freedom to dramatise whatever in the novel strikes them most forcefully.  

But does that mean that Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, who created the recent film, were justified in producing the version they did? Many good judges think not. Peter Craven cleverly hinted in the Australian that the distortions in this version of Brideshead amount to ending Hamlet with the Prince marrying Ophelia. (Unthinkable? This is already a feature of “Hamlet 2”, made in Tucson, Arizona.) Many critics have, with good reason, damned the crass dialogue, one calling it “vomitous”. Robert Murray Davis suggests that if the film’s religious adviser, Father Vladimir Feltzman, advised on any matter other than the words of absolution, he should be defrocked. But it does not pay to be too precious about film versions of much-loved novels, as Evelyn Waugh, a supremely professional novelist and a film buff, would have been the first to point out.

Believing silent film “the one vital art of the century”, Waugh made extensive use of its then revolutionary narrative techniques in his early novels. He also served for a time as a judge on the Daily Express’s Film Tribunal, which nominated the best film of the year; and the memoranda he wrote for the film-makers of Scoop and Brideshead Revisited reveal a clear grasp of the differences between the art of the novel and the art of film. Waugh wrote to Graham Greene, who had been asked for a screenplay:

“Please don’t try and get out of Brideshead. I am sure you can make a fine film of it. Don’t think I shall be cantankerous. I am cantankerous but not about that sort of thing—about cooking and theology and clothes and grammar and dogs.”

On the other hand, in “Hollywood is a Term of Disparagement”, Waugh savagely lampoons Hollywood studio writers for regularly “obliterating” every “individual quality, good or bad, that has made [a novel] remarkable”. Admittedly, he was extremely angry when he wrote those words. MGM, on the advice of the Director of the Hollywood Production Code, Joseph Breen, had just ruled out a film of Brideshead because adultery and divorce were prominent in the plot and could not be removed without destroying the essence of the story. Waugh wrote to a friend, Douglas Woodruff: “The Catholic dominated board of censorship has forbidden the filming of ‘Brideshead’ … The letter from Mr Breen refusing a licence was very funny.”

Everything said so far describes a novel open to many interpretations, and if I object to the current film titled Brideshead Revisited, it is primarily because the film-makers’ intent was not to condense, cut and add so as to present in a short film an interpretation of what is explicit or implicit in a long novel. Rather, these film-makers have retained the novel’s basic structure, characters and splendid scenes—Oxford, Castle Howard/Brideshead Castle, Venice—so there is still much to enjoy; but it overlays the bases with a view of Roman Catholicism and English society that they believe reverses Evelyn Waugh’s. As Andrew Davies, the original writer of the film, frankly explains:

“[The film] is written from the point of view of someone who does not believe in the religious themes as Waugh did. If God can be said to exist in my version, he would be the villain.” Davies should be delighted to hear of a conversation told me by a friend. His companion hated the dying Lord Marchmain crossing himself as a sign of reconciliation because it meant “the bad guys won”.

The Brideshead Revisited film-makers can correctly claim that they follow Waugh’s intentions (expressed in the memorandum he wrote for the guidance of MGM) in so far as they give the religious theme prominence. They also make a major feature of Lady Marchmain’s role in the destruction of her husband and children and her distress at their defection from their faith. In the preface to the 1959 recension, Waugh “makes no apology” for the novel’s “presumptuously large theme”, which he describes as “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”. “Grace,” his memorandum on the proposed film explains, is “the act of love by which God calls souls to himself”; and, like many Catholic novelists of that time, Waugh was far more fascinated with the operation of divine grace on “sinners” than he was with its operation on the pious. Thus, the basic structure of the novel and the film sees the wayward Lord Marchmain, Sebastian and Julia abandoning their religion and later, each in a different way, being “called” back to it. Observing the effects of their religion on Sebastian and Julia, which entail painful consequences both for them and for himself, Charles learns that Christianity is not a set of “quaint observances” but the expression of a “coherent philosophic system and intransigent historical claims”. In the novel he becomes a Catholic and is cheered by the sanctuary lamp still burning at Brideshead Castle; the film leaves him painfully ambivalent.   

Part One of the novel and of the film reveals Lady Marchmain’s inability to retain her husband, who has fled from her (and the religious demands she mediates) to live with a mistress in Venice. So, too, she loses Sebastian, who flees her (and the imperatives she represents) to live in a homosexual underworld. Julia’s role, however, is radically and inexplicably altered. In the novel, Julia defies her mother, her extended family and attendant clergy to marry the divorced and entirely unsuitable Rex Mottram outside the Church. In the film, in what seems to me an unjustifiable lapse from dramatic sanity, Julia marries Rex at her mother’s behest because he is a Catholic, and not the “atheist” Charles Ryder. Nonetheless, Waugh’s summary holds: “The failure of Lady Marchmain is complete.” All through her life, she has had the sympathy of everyone “except those she loved”; and those she loved hated her.

In Part Two of the novel “grace” (“a twitch upon a thread”) brings all three “heathens” back to God after Lady Marchmain’s death. Sebastian becomes “very religious” and informally attached to a monastery; he is made “holy” by suffering. Lord Marchmain makes a death-bed repentance. And Julia, although divorced and longing to marry Charles as soon as he is free, refuses for reasons of conscience to marry him. So goes the novel. 

In the film, Emma Thompson gives a striking performance as Lady Marchmain, but, as she explained in an interview, she contrived a character strategically skewed away from that in the novel. In Waugh’s version, because of her great charm, the plovers, as Sebastian says, “always lay early for Mummy”. In the film, the plovers lay early because, “You would too if you knew my mother.” Waugh’s Teresa Marchmain is a spider mother and femme fatale whose weapons are charm, tact and gentle irony. In the film she becomes a stony-faced enforcer, a cold bigot. Cara, Lord Marchmain’s mistress, says of Lady Marchmain in the novel that she “is a good and simple woman who has been loved in the wrong way”. In the film Cara (superbly well acted by Greta Scacchi) crudely says that Lady Marchmain has “suffocated her husband and children. Her God has done that to her.”

In short, Andrew Davies’s and Emma Thompson’s Lady Marchmain is the principal human agent of the film’s real villain—God. Her destructive power is formidable. The whimsically charming Sebastian, who craves only happiness and cannot sustain the demands of his religion (nor of Charles’s betrayal of their love), disintegrates through alcoholism and illness into something approaching an Oxford Street derelict.

Julia’s downward path in the film is radically different from that in the novel. When she, Sebastian and Charles visit Venice, Charles falls in love with her and they are found out by Sebastian, with grave consequences for Sebastian. Later, as mentioned above, she is compelled to marry the wildly unsuitable Rex “because he is a Catholic” and not an “atheist” like Charles. Then, on the point of divorcing Rex and marrying Charles, Julia is deterred, not by recalling the nursery teaching of Jesus suffering for sins or the burdens her mother carried to her grave, but by the strident voice of Mummy incessantly accusing “wicked little Julia”. The expansion of Julia’s role, and the changes to it, were apparently designed to demonstrate more forcefully the destruction wrought by religion on human happiness. Unhappily, the changes lead to inextricable confusion. 

Many years ago, Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote a sustained piece of invective seeking to demolish any credibility the politically incorrect Brideshead Revisited might have. A rhetorical (but not logical) masterpiece, the article averred that the novel was not about the love of God: the characters were really sanctified by birth and money. Later critics, some distinguished, expanded this notion, making Julia “not just the woman that Charles was in love with” but also the symbol “of Brideshead Castle and all its treasure”; that is to say, Charles really wants the house more than the woman. The film embraces this dubious theory and dramatises it with a crudity that would make O’Brien wince.

In the film, Charles Ryder features as a “hungry” go-getter. Anthony Blanche, in the novel Charles’s artistic conscience and in the film his social mentor as well, had thought Charles the Flytes’ sacrificial lamb; now, the affair with Julia convinces him that it is Charles who is hunting the Flytes: “There’s no end to your hunger, is there, Charles?” In attempting “to settle things” with Julia’s husband Rex, Charles, Julia’s lover, is induced to “buy” Julia (and, if I heard right, “an annulment”) from Rex, the price being two of his “jungle pics”. This must be one of the silliest scenes in the history of film, perhaps designed only to prove that the writer knew Vile Bodies, in which stony-broke Adam sells Nina to Ginger for the price of an unpayable hotel bill.

A more plausible reason may be that, with Rex validly married to Julia in the eyes of the Catholic Church, some means of prizing her away from Rex other than civil divorce has to be found. Hence Rex’s “selling” Julia to Charles with an annulment thrown in; and, included in the package, Brideshead Castle, which Rex doesn’t own and which is still the inheritance of Bridey, Lord Marchmain’s eldest son. No matter how absurd, the scene convicts Charles of being so “hungry” for Brideshead Castle that he will endure any humiliation to get it. Allowing Julia to overhear the conversation diminishes Charles in her eyes and gives her a non-religious reason for not marrying him.   

As is evident from the above, the film is very much about class. In the novel, the first meeting between Charles and the grandly aristocratic Sebastian is a quiet lunch involving Anthony Blanche and three “mild, elegant, detached” and exquisitely “polite” Etonians. The film substitutes a party which includes the aristocratic Boy Mulcaster and other Rowdies, who snobbishly question Charles about his school, boorishly hector him about art and generally treat him as an outsider. This theme is developed in more extreme form when Charles first has dinner at Brideshead Castle. The only person in “flannels” instead of a dinner jacket, he is made uneasy on that account; and when he reveals that he lives at Paddington, he is offensively mocked about trains.

And yet in the novel Charles comes from an educated middle-class family of substantial means (in the manuscript the Ryders are “quite rich” and in Debrett, which Sebastian has looked up). Charles enjoys an allowance of 550 pounds (not one hundred as in the film), double what is normal and much of it spent on Sebastian. Nor does he live in Paddington, as in the film, but in Hyde Park Gardens, which overlooks the Park and is in Bayswater; not a smart address, but a solidly comfortable one, a fitting locale for his father’s very valuable collection of antiquities.

What conceivable purpose does the film hope to serve by reducing Charles’s social standing? Presumably, depicting the Marchmains and their ilk as snobbish and rude and Charles as so poor and “hungry” that he is willing to endure any snub at their hands in order to secure the Castle, is meant to be a brave shot in the class war. Davies and his chums no doubt seek to prove to the legion quality journalists, critics and academics who despise Brideshead Revisited and loathe Evelyn Waugh that the Brideshead team is “not enamoured of all that Oxford snobbery” and knows how to put Waugh in his place. Non-residents of the British Isles tend to find a class war waged against a long defeated enemy rather puzzling.

Even more puzzling is the question as to why the dialogue in which the class and religious wars are conducted is so banal. For example, the constant use of “atheist” to stigmatise Charles, a self-described “agnostic” but in reality a conventionally educated Englishman with no interest in religion, illustrates a policy of stating everything in crudely over-simplified terms. “It is our duty as Catholics to do all in our power to save those we love from themselves.” A Presbyterian might reject this as a call to a work of supererogation; but Catholics, no matter how old, will wonder why they have never heard of it. The real wonder is that, with countless talented writers in Britain who share the film’s point of view on class and religion, no one could be found to produce reasonably competent dialogue. A very black mark indeed must go to the “You-haven’t-changed-a-bit”—“Neither-have-you” routine that debases the moment when a much grimmer Charles meets a much sadder Julia after many years apart. 

Would I have enjoyed this film if I’d not read the novel? It is difficult to speculate because, as in reading a translation, the echoes are always there. But I am happy to say that there is much to enjoy, what with a generally fine cast, some magnificent photography, much of Waugh’s story remaining and odd snatches of his original dialogue. Even the death-bed scene achieves a genuine tension. Moreover, the difficulties of condensing Brideshead into a feature-length film are legion. It is a first-person narrative that does not tell the story of the observer-narrator Charles (as Robinson Crusoe tells the story of Robinson) but relates the history of a complex family and its friends. It therefore has to have a backwards-and-forwards chronology and multiple points of view that do not easily translate into a straightforward narrative. Moreover, the multiple points of view mean that someone will inevitably say something somewhere supportive of almost any reading.    

No, what I object to is the systematic attempt to impose an alien point of view on an existing novel. The procedures of the Brideshead team (and that of course has been a very fluid entity) seem to me akin to that of a film-maker declaring of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “I do not believe in liberal anti-authoritarian values as Orwell did. I shall therefore represent Winston Smith as a dangerous dissident and the authorities who suppress him as bravely defending the Revolution. The villain in the film will be liberalism.” While some people sincerely believe the political stance expressed here, I suggest that a film made along those lines, however successful cinematically, will not be an adaptation of Orwell’s novel so much as a politically motivated attack on Orwell’s beliefs. So too with the current Brideshead.

It seems to me that the Brideshead team decided to make a film out of a novel they despised in order to attack the opinions of an author they loathed; this led them to suppress Waugh’s point of view and substitute invented material expressing their own opinions and prejudices. How very like they are to Mr Joseph Breen, the Catholic censor, in suppressing material that they, no doubt sincerely, believe harmful to the general public. But how much less wise than Breen they are in failing to realise that eliminating elements integral to a story and substituting more “correct” opinions will obliterate the very qualities that made the novel remarkable in the first place.

Donat Gallagher is Adjunct Associate Professor of English at James Cook University. He edited The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh.

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