W is for Waugh


I can’t think of Evelyn Waugh without thinking of the scene in Lost in Translation, where Anna Faris tells Giovanni Ribisi and a bemused Scarlett Johannson that she always signs into hotels as Evelyn Waugh.

Contrary to her belief, Evelyn Waugh was male. I googled his name too, to find out if it was a nom de plume but apparently not.

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, is one of those books which are well known but not well read. Perhaps I’m making an unfair generalisation, but I don’t know many people who’ve read it, but they still know the story pretty well. There have been at least two screen adaptations – a 1981 serial with Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and a 2008 film where Matthew Goode was the lead.

The book begins with a middle aged Captain Charles Ryder, travelling to the next place the military deems fit for him and his men. It turns out to be Brideshead, given over to the army in wartime. This sparks a book long flashback, and explains why the book is called Brideshead Revisited. I remember asking my Mum why the first series wasn’t on telly, i.e. Brideshead.

The basic plot is that of the friendship between Charles and Sebastian Flyte, which begins while the pair are ‘up’ at Oxford and continues long after. Sebastian belongs to an eccentric, aristocratic family, the Marchmains. I often find, with books written more than fifty years ago, that I get confused about names. Sebastian’s mother and father are called Marchmain but he and his siblings are Flyte. Their house is the eponymous Brideshead, but their brother is also called Brideshead. Granted, it is daft to mix up a house with a person, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to do.

Charles is drawn further into the inner sanctum of the family, in every sense. He and Sebastian are obviously very close, and he frequently refers to him as the forerunner for his love. Waugh is delicate with this though, and if you’re like me, any metaphor or allusion will go right over your head. Sebastian begins to drink heavily, at the dismay of his family, who are so pious that they have a chapel in the back garden. After an ugly scene involving Sebastian gaining money from Charles to spend on whisky, Charles is banished from the family homes by Lady Marchmain.

The cast of characters are not particularly nice or attractive. They are all selfish and concerned with greed of some sort – money, women, liquor, God… Waugh is well known for satirical novels, and this one is no exception. I got the feeling that Waugh was fond of society in the way you are fond of your family, at times. You can’t bring yourself to leave, no matter how bad it makes you feel. Or maybe that’s just me.

Aside from greed, the other themes are fairly standard for what is essentially a memoir – regret, religion and family. All are indeed, intertwined. One of the things I am most grateful for is that Waugh allows the reader to make up their own mind, to an extent. Is it right to give a staunch atheist the last rites on his deathbed? Does it make a difference if the staunch atheist crosses himself after receiving the last rites? I still don’t know what I think about that.  The Flyte-Marchmains are a bunch of horrors (failed priest, wannabe nun, drunk, cold fish) but rest assured, the Ryder family are no better. Charles’ mother was killed in the first war, leaving his father to disintegrate gently into their stately home, while torturing Charles for sport.

I’m not making this sound like a comfortable read, and to be honest, it wasn’t really. It was definitely worth reading though. It made me think about how relevant Waugh is today – the style of conversation has changed drastically in the last sixty years. I don’t mean that all books should now be re-written as text speak, but just that some conversations left me bewildered, as they contained subtle nuances and hints at ‘scandal’ that I just didn’t pick up on.  I also have to say, I was surprised to see Waugh described as a humorist. I found Brideshead to be quite heavy going, and although they were lighter episodes along the way, it wasn’t exactly stand up.

Apart from that, I enjoyed the foray into High Society in the twenties. It was interesting to see what’s changed and what hasn’t – what is still important today that was back then. The only other thing I will say is that I thought the ending rather abrupt. If someone can explain to me what happened in the end, that would be lovely. Or maybe it’s one of those ‘make up your own mind’ endings. Either way, I reckon I’ll read other Waugh at some point.

Next up – Malcolm X’s autobiography. Not long left now, dear readers!


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