Evelyn Waugh is the greatest comic novelist of the last 100 years, and if you somehow dispute this fact, there is simply nothing to be done for you but a period of house arrest. One or another reputable online bookseller will deliver Waugh’s fiction to the doorway of your awful little warren, and you can begin your re-education at the beginning, with the debut novel Decline and Fall, wherein hero Paul Pennyfeather, cast out of Oxford for the indecent behavior of running around without any pants on, assumes a teaching job (for which he lacks all qualifications) at a school in Wales (a country disparaged in the rude, cruel, achingly hilarious terms that anticipate the author’s shabby treatment of Africa). You will go onward through the dark satire, brilliant viciousness, and unmatchable dialogue of Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and, especially, A Handful of Dust, with its stunning climactic swerve from light social comedy to perfect desolation. If you haven’t been converted by the opening chapters of Scoop—about a writer, incompetent even as a nature columnist, covering a war for a paper called the Daily Beast—then there is no hope for you, and you should just stay home forever.
But do not, when attempting any course of reading aimed at appreciating Waugh’s wit, give undue attention to Brideshead Revisited, a misfit of a book, much loved, and often loved in the wrong way, as the vomitous stupidity of Miramax’s new film adaptation attests. There’s a comic novel in there, but it is not, as the common expression goes, struggling to get out. It’s lodged there quite contentedly; the book’s acid portraits of dull dons and rich oafs are enmeshed with its affectingly tender peeks at lost youth and also with its eagerly overwrought splendor and its sincerely bogus religiosity. This was the seventh novel Waugh published—the eighth he attempted—a grasp at grandeur written in a mere four months, during a leave from the British army in early 1944. “Waugh wrote Brideshead with great speed, unfamiliar excitement, and a deep conviction of its excellence,” Martin Amis once remarked. “Lasting schlock, the really good bad book, cannot be written otherwise.”
All apologies to Wuthering Heights, but Brideshead Revisited has a claim as literature’s finest schlock. It sees narrator Charles Ryder reflecting, with a compound of sharp rue and magniloquent longing, on his past. In his youth, there was a powerful love for beautiful and doomed aristocrat Sebastian Flyte and a failed attempt to rescue Sebastian from alcoholism; in early middle age, a thwarted romance with Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and a continuing passion for the Flyte family’s huge and gorgeous country house. At 39, Ryder—and, with him, the credulous reader—is convinced that the world of the Flytes has expired and, with it, an essential part of the soul of England.
The rear cover of my copy finds a reviewer from the ‘40s calling Brideshead “Waugh’s most deeply felt novel,” prompting the belief that Waugh ought to keep his feelings to himself if he’s going to insist on writing passages like this one, which expands a point of sunlit truth into a large gaseous orb:
The languor of Youth—how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrevocably, lost! …. [L]anguor—the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse—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.
It should be noted that those sentences erupt in the 1959 edition, which saw Waugh, appalled by his book, trying to redo the overdone bits. But there’s no tinkering with emotionality as thoroughly bombastic as Brideshead’s. The only thing to do is to put it on-screen. Thus, in the fall of 1981, did a miniseries version of Brideshead Revisited emerge on Britain’s ITV, soon thereafter airing on PBS and becoming a smash on both sides of what its fan would doubtlessly refer to as “the pond.”
The producers at Granada Television gave the book a lot of room to breathe. The miniseries is 13 hours long: Though the density of Waugh’s dialogue requires close attention, it’s not difficult to read the book faster than that. The series goes heavy on voice-over narration—with Jeremy Irons, nicely haunted and hunted as Ryder, reading well-chosen slips of the book—and nearly follows the novel scene-for-scene. It’s no insult to the craft of John Mortimer’s script to say that the miniseries is not so much an adaptation of the novel as a straight-up televisualization of it, sensitive and servile.
The pleasure’s in the leisure. The time opens up a space that creates a distance from some of the novel’s excesses, humanizes some of its hokum, and allows you to submit to the flow of the characters’ feelings and of Waugh’s sentimentality. The miniseries gives texture to the efficient text of the original: cold shadows in the mansions; servants, stern and omnipresent, toiling amid the gaiety and the strife; the runny ruin on the sandy face of Anthony Andrews, who, as Sebastian, creeps from devil-may-care carousing to God-help-him squalor at an imperceptible pace. And there will never again be anything quite like the performance of Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche, a schoolmate of Ryder’s who takes dandyism to its logical and fabulously degenerate nadir. It is not possible to compare the performance to anything except a bushel of perfumed plums or maybe an outtake from an imaginary cult classic in which Peter Lorre plays Dorian Gray.
The miniseries is also, to use a term of Tom Wolfe’s, “sheer plutography,” inviting the Masterpiece Theatre set not just to peep through the windows of a divine mansion but to move in for a considerable while. The Moment, the blog of T, the Times’ style magazine, has recently deemed Brideshead Revisited “required viewing,” ushering it into a nascent pantheon of screen fashion greats: “[T]he general mood of Edwardian opulence and the aristocratic languor of the summery white men’s flannels are said to have inspired films like Chariots of Fire and A Room With a View.” Could there be any more appropriate tribute to “lasting schlock”? Waugh’s swooning elegy for the graces of yesteryear endures as a guide to all tomorrow’s parties.