Millions will see Brideshead Revisited dramatised on television. Christopher Howse uncovers the Catholic heart of the novel and warns against the dangers of its surface attractions.
EvELYN WAUGH as quite happy at the prospect of Brideshead Revisited being filmed. He wrote to Graham Greene, suggested as a script writer in 1950: "Please don't try and get out of Brideshead Revisited. I am sure you can make a fine film of it. Don't think I shall be cantankerous. 1 urn cantankerous but not about that sort of thing — about cooking and theology and clothes and grammar and dogs."
But the adaptor for the Granada television film of the novel (which continues next Tuesday) is John Mortimer. a convinced atheist, defence counsel in the Lady Chatterley trial. Would Waugh be so confident about his version as Greene's?
The book's theme is the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters." Its very composition vas for Waugh a religious act. On June 24 1944, he wrote: "On Corpus Christi Day 1944. haying been to Communion at Gidleish, I finished the last version of Brideshead Revisited and sent it off to be typed."
How wrong-headed some modern readings or the book can be is shown by an epitome of the
plot presented to the readers of Saturday's Daily Mail: "The story of the aristocratic Marchmain family from the early Twenties to the end of the Second World War as seen through the eyes of Charles Ryder, who falls under the family's spell after meeting the dazzling, ill-starred Sebastian Flyte at Oxford in 1923.
"After his introduction, by Sebastian, to Lord. and Lady Marchmain at their family seat. Brideshead Castle. he becomes obSessed with SehaStian•s headstrong sister Julia. who later spurns him.
"Revisiting a bleak Brideshead. now requisitioned as an Army camp, Captain Charles Ryder. a disenchanted, middleaged tragic-figure, relives his own memories of the castle in the days of its glory."
If you believe that, you're wasting your time.
Worse, Mr Mortimer could be in the position of a blind man writing as guide to the Prado. I hope he is more like a sensitive astronomer interpreting the cosmology of Dante's Divine Comedy.
One of his best advantages was 0-have time to tell the story, The 11 episodes amount to 13 hours. In that time you could read the book.
On this scale, the novel can be allowed to speak for itself. The greatest danger is the injection of some fatal imbalance of emphasis. Of one which almost marred all in the first episode. I shall speak in a moment. It is worth noticing first that waugh*s Magnum Opus (as he called it at the time of writing) is well suited to dramatisation.
Apart from anything else, Eveylyn Waugh was consciously affected by the narrative techniques of cinematography. Fr Martin D'Arcy wrote: "One of the most noticeable traits grew with this sleeplessness or laediunt vitae, a boredom which was almost constant. Frances Donaldson tells that 'twice a week he spent the afternoon in the cinema in Dursley, irrespective I think of the programme." This had as much to do with his long habit of looking out for film conventions that could be used in writing as with the accidie that plagued him. With his friend Terence Cireenidge he had long before attempted a dramatic film of his own.
The ear Waugh showed for dialogue had developed from those magpie colllections of conversational fragments which decorate the novels of Ronald Firbank. The style transfers well to the little screen. For the critics previews. they project it on to a big one. It makes a difference.
For all the delights of th filming — the scenes of Oxford (less grimy than in the twenties), Castle Howard (George is embarrasingly head of the BBC). Venice and Malta (passing as North Africa) — that fatal imbalance I referred to might make it better to stick to reading the book. As one TV pro said to me "They do camp it up rather." That I'm afraid is true, Christopher Hollis reminds us of the frequency of homosexual attitudes in the Oxford of the twenties. And more recently. But Anthony Andrews' Sebastian does not ring true. Waugh destroyed his Oxford diaries and few letters remain from that period. His letters to Fr Martin D'Arcy remain mysteriously immured by the Jesuits. But biography might not be the point.
A favourite game of critics is to match up characters in novels with real life models and incidents with the author's own experience. Waugh writes on the first page of Brideshead: "I am not I, thou art not he or she, they are not they." Perhaps that is not the whole truth. Yet the theme of memory is the memory of Ryder, not Waugh.
Waugh fell in love with the Lygon family. the children of Lord Beauchamp, exiled for homosexual acts, but he explained to them that Brideshead was only partly their house, Madresfield. It is only partly Castle Howard. The death of Lord Marchmian is only partly the death of Hubert Duggan. brother of Alfred Duggan, the historical novelist.
Brideshead Revisited remains essentially about the action of grace. Ryder comes to terms with it in the end. Julia does not spurn him; she just cannot do without God. When Waugh later turned against the rich texture of the novel, the product of wartime austerity, he was not rejecting the most difficult central matter of his plot.
When Evelyn Waugh became a Catholic. (aller his wife had left him) he thought he would never be able to marry again. Fate provided otherwise. His Faith always cost him much, if it was his only source of joy. He died in a Church stripped of the ornaments of worship that he had always treasured. But he died after receiving Communion on Easter Sunday, That is what Brideshead is about.