Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge
Danger: The Uppercrust Factor and the Mini-Series Mystique
Rating: 4.5 dynamite sticks out of 5
Plot in a nutshell: The novel chronicles the journeys of Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, once he is befriended by Sebastian, the younger son of an aristocratic family. Sebastian takes Charles to his family’s palatial home, Brideshead Castle, where Charles eventually meets the rest of the Marchmain family.
As the story unfolds, Sebastian becomes more distant, troubled, and even derelict with his retreat into alcoholism. Charles also drifts away from the Marchmains, but also finds himself returning to Brideshead and the Marchmain family over the years. In the second book, Charles even becomes involved with one of the sisters.
According to Wikipedia, Waugh desired that the book should be about the “operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” While religion (Catholicism in particular) is a motif, it did not speak to me as strongly as the idea of what binds people together or forces them apart. It can be a religion or set of ideologies (including aristocracy) and it can also be character, such as someone suffering from alcoholism, or it can be love.
What I liked: The characters were subtly drawn and very complex. The passages between Charles and his father (and cousin) were witty, cutting, and completely original — albeit not a major part of the plot. Here’s a passage where Charles’ cousin dispense advice about survival at Oxford:
“. . . You’re reading History? A perfectly respectable school. The very worst is English Literature and the next worst is Modern Greats. You want either a first or a fourth. There is no value in anything between. Time spent on a good second is time thrown away. You should go to the best lectures – Arkwright on Demosthenes for instance – irrespective of whether they are in your school or not. . . . Clothes. Dress as you do in a country house. Never wear a tweed coat and flannel trousers – always a suit. And go to a London tailor; you get better cut and longer credit. . . . Clubs. Join the Carlton now and the Grid at the beginning of your second year. If you want to run for the Union – and it’s not a bad thing to do – make your reputation outside first, at the Canning or the Chatham, and begin by speaking on the paper. . . . Keep clear of Boar’s Hill . . .” The sky over the opposing gables glowed and then darkened; I put more coal on the fire and turned on the light, revealing in their respectability his London-made plus fours and his Leander tie. . . . “Don’t treat dons like schoolmasters; treat them as you would the vicar at home. . . . You’ll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first. . . . Beware of the Anglo-Catholics – they’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents. In fact, steer clear of all the religious groups; they do nothing but harm. . . .”
I mean, this is a character we never see again — yet how much richness is dispensed with this passage about Charles’ family, about the milieu he is now operating in having joined Oxford, and about general snobs like the cousin. And the wit is ever-present. (Come on, you did SMILE at the reference about English Lit, didn’t you?)
And I adored the prose. Waugh wastes little in terms of characterization and phrasing; he cuts through the bull in the most erudite manner and with fine and layered observation. Here’s another early passage, where Charles recounts how he decorated his college rooms — which the character equates with his own passage of youth. Note how he not only provides clues about this character in the present, but also through that, sheds more light on the character during his youth. Just as in the passage above, the details are all so carefully chosen; however, the prose flows so beautifully in tone and manner that the details never seem overly laden with portent or overdone. And, finally, the last sentence propels the reader neatly into the plot:
It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one’s youth with a false precocity or a false innocence; to tamper with the dates marking one’s stature on the edge of the door. I should like to think – indeed I sometimes do think – that I decorated those rooms with Morris stuffs and Arundel prints and that my shelves were filled with seventeenth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered-silk. But this was not the truth. On my first afternoon I proudly hung a reproduction of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” over the fire and set up a screen, painted by Roger Fry with a Provençal landscape, which I had bought inexpensively when the Omega workshops were sold up. I displayed also a poster by McKnight Kauffer and Rhyme Sheets from the Poetry Bookshop, and, most painful to recall, a porcelain figure of Polly Peachum which stood between black tapers on the chimney-piece. My books were meagre and commonplace – Roger Fry’s Vision and Design; the Medici Press edition of A Shropshire Lad; Eminent Victorians; some volumes of Georgian Poetry; Sinister Street; and South Wind – and my earliest friends fitted well into this background; they were Collins, a Wykehamist, an embryo don, a man of solid reading and childlike humour, and a small circle of college intellectuals, who maintained a middle course of culture between the flamboyant “æsthetes” and the proletarian scholars who scrambled fiercely for facts in the lodging houses of the Iffley Road and Wellington Square. It was by this circle that I found myself adopted during my first term; they provided the kind of company I had enjoyed in the sixth form at school, for which the sixth form had prepared me; but even in the earliest days, when the whole business of living at Oxford, with rooms of my own and my own cheque book, was a source of excitement, I felt at heart that this was not all that Oxford had to offer.
How many authors cover this much territory in so few paragraphs, much less sustain it for an entire novel? Awesome. Never had a word been so apropos.
What I didn’t like: Oh, so unfortunately, the second book simply did not hold up to the skill of the first (in my humble opinion). The plot seemed rushed, as if Waugh had to meet a deadline. He didn’t spin out the fine and intricate web of character and theme; rather, he seemed to just employ plot devices, one, two, three, as if he was channeling Dickens on a bad day.
Still, I’m so very very glad I blasted through my intimidation of Waugh and tales of aristocrats, which tend to make me feel deflated and petty-bourgeois, and the fact that the book cover was adorned with photos from the miniseries (should I just watch the miniseries, my inner sloth suggests) starring Jeremy Irons (more British upper-crustedness).