What the critics are missing about Waugh's best novel
This essay appeared in Prospect’s Culture newsletter a couple of weeks ago. That newsletter is a good mix of short reviews about the literature, music, and art, as well as one longer piece each week. You can sign up here.
This is a time of Waugh. By which I mean: the ongoing publication of Evelyn Waugh’s complete works, in a collaboration between the University of Leicester and Oxford University Press—including the 85 per cent of his letters which have never before seen print—is provoking an enjoyable critical reassessment of his writing.
But amid all the discussion, Waugh’s greatest novel—Brideshead Revisited—is being undervalued. The story follows Charles Ryder’s love affair with the Catholic, aristocratic Flyte family. After an intense friendship with the hedonistic aesthete Sebastian, he has an adulterous affair with Julia, Sebastian’s sister, leading to a religious crisis of conscience. The combination of the charms of pre-war Oxford and Charles’s eventual conversion has sustained Waugh’s reputation with the common reader for around 80 years. But the critics aren’t impressed.
Take this essay from the London Review of Books, for example, in which Seamus Perry dismisses Brideshead’s purple prose—even in Waugh’s toned-down later edition, he says, “your main reaction is still: oh puh-lease.” Perry concludes, in a backhanded sort of way, that this is “splendid schmaltz, like the Albert Memorial.”
Or this absorbing reappraisal of Waugh by Will Lloyd for the New Statesman (perhaps the best Waugh essay in recent years). Here, Lloyd largely ignores Brideshead, calling it “quite inexplicable to non-Catholics.” He tells me if he were ranking the novels, it would be close to the bottom.
Jeffrey Manley has even recommended (at the Evelyn Waugh Society website) crossing out the religious passages so that you are left with “a very funny book”. On a different track, though running in the same direction, Alexander Larman has said that there is not “a worse and queasier piece of writing” in Waugh than Brideshead’s sex scene between submissive Julia and possessive Charles.
Several of Waugh’s contemporaries felt similarly. Nancy Mitford told him the general view was, “Too much Catholic stuff”. His friend Christopher Sykes said, “‘Roman tract’ is being hissed in intellectual circles.” There were other complaints. Too many semicolons. Too much about the nobility. Too reactionary. Even Waugh’s brother Alec missed the straightforward jokes of earlier books.
Yet what they’re all missing is what keeps drawing readers in: Waugh’s artistry. In Brideshead, Waugh is the best 20th-century writer of dialogue. His comic monsters, such as Charles’s father, surpass even Jane Austen’s equivalents, such as Aunt Norris. Small moments of grotesque absurdity—the tortoise with the diamonds studded in its shell—are simply unforgettable.
Ann Pasternak Slater’s short, scholarly and readable Evelyn Waugh (2018) draws attention to this artistry. Of the much-disliked sex scene in which Charles “takes possession” of Julia as if he had been given “a deed of conveyance”, Slater points out that “possession” recurs throughout the novel in ways that make it clear that Waugh disapproves of Charles’ chauvinism. The scene foreshadows Ryder’s temptation when Julia looks set to inherit a country house later on. Rather than queasy, purple prose, this is subtle, structured, morally damning writing.
And moral damnation is literally the point. Waugh’s aim was, in his own words, to “trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world”. Charles Ryder is his pagan, slowly being reeled back to God, feeling the twitch of the divine thread pulling him back to grace.
Critics react badly to this: their genius of dark comedy has turned himself into a missionary. But everything that might seem over-written or too emotional—such as references to Orphans of the Storm, a trashy film released when Waugh was young—are part of the bigger purpose. The high artistry that once made Waugh so funny is at work in Brideshead too.
We, too, are in the position of Charles. As Slater says: Waugh “knowingly exploits the allure of popular romance, reeling his readers in towards his serious purpose. It is his twitch of the thread.”
Some astute non-Catholic readers have always seen the book’s quality. Christopher Hitchens, in an unmissable essay, celebrated the immense subtlety of Waugh’s writing. You do not have to be Catholic—and Hitchens certainly wasn’t!—to revel in this level of accomplishment.
Brideshead Revisited is an exceptionally well-written novel, deeper and wider than anything else Waugh wrote. If you can allow Waugh to enchant you with his long, beautifully weighted sentences, you might just feel the twitch of the thread. You won’t be converted, but catching that sensation can bring you, as Waugh has it, “joy, such as strikes deep to the heart on a river’s bank when a kingfisher suddenly flares across the water.”
If we let our secular, modern attitudes resist the magic of Brideshead, we will miss out on its beautiful writing. Read instead as Waugh intended you to, “for the interest of the writer’s use of language”. Read for his true theme, that “the human spirit, redeemed, can survive all disasters”.
Read like this, and Brideshead will make your spine tingle.