‘Brideshead Revisited’ changed my life. Can it work its magic on the ‘Downton Abbey’ generation?
I am not quite sure how it happened, but by the age of 13 I was a blissfully indiscriminate Anglophile—a devotee of Jane Austen, “Doctor Who,” Monty Python and the Beatles. The summer of my first teen year, I didn’t just wake up in the wee hours to watch the televised wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer; I dutifully recorded the audio of some of it on a small tape deck for easy replay. When “Chariots of Fire” surprisingly won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1982, it felt like a personal triumph.
It was in that impressionable state that “Brideshead Revisited” entered, and changed, my life. The 11-part television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s great novel aired weekly on PBS, the main supplier of my Brit fixes, and I sat gape-jawed at it, drinking it all in, even as its narrative took turns I didn’t understand at the time (some of which I still wrestle with, in different ways). The book soon became a beloved talisman as well. And while my initial attraction was the usual aesthetic one—the accents, the clothes, the vintage motorcars—the novel’s deeper strands wove themselves indelibly into my own story.
The 11-part television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s great novel aired weekly on PBS in 1981.
“My theme is memory,” Waugh has his narrator, Charles Ryder, say at one point. It is my theme here too, and not just in the personal sense but in a cultural sense as well. For I realized something startling about “Brideshead” as I rewatched and reread it recently: More years have now elapsed since the series aired (37) than passed between the novel’s publication in 1945 and the creation of the series in 1981 (36). That doesn’t just make me feel old; it also happens to refract the last century in a sobering and clarifying new light. Waugh’s novel takes much of its animating energy from the death-haunted abandon of the Jazz Age years, between the grim bookends of World Wars I and II, when he was a giddy young Oxonian. The intervening years between the novel and the series, though ostensibly chilled by the Cold War, witnessed the cultural revolution of the 1960s, then the retrenchment represented by Thatcher and Reagan, into which the apparent aristocratic nostalgia of the “Brideshead” series sailed with perfect timing.
And the ensuing four decades? We have somehow hurtled past the supposed end of history into a volatile new order, where diversity surges alongside inequality, old alliances have been alternately reformed and fractured, technology both connects and divides us, and even war has been decentralized, disaggregated and outsourced. Were he alive now, Waugh would find a surfeit of black-comic grist for his satirical mill.
Waugh called his novel “nothing less than an attempt to trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world.”
But what remains of the world Waugh wrote about, not to mention the world the TV series first spoke to? Is there a throughline that connects these blocks of history and upheaval, and that places me within them? Waugh called his novel “nothing less than an attempt to trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world,” and elsewhere named its theme as “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” While it is well above my pay grade to speculate on God’s place in the larger tumults of the past century, having now lived half that long I can trace the ways “Brideshead” unexpectedly modeled and even determined my own spiritual journey, which I humbly take to be the workings of some kind of grace.
A key thread of the novel is the Augustinian insight that our cravings for the delicious, fleeting experiences of the world—the things we feel, in our youth particularly, as love or pleasure—may lead us to sin, to excess or to addiction; but these seemingly superficial delights are signifiers of, even gateways to, the deeper felicities of creation. As Waugh tells it, the path to this knowledge is neither clear nor sunlit. At one point Charles Ryder reflects, after an idyllic youthful fling at Oxford with the charming drunk Sebastian has given way to a passionate but doomed affair with Sebastian’s sister Julia:
Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.
Ryder eventually recognizes that furtive shadow as God, in whose grace he finds the true source of the attraction he has felt not only for the flawed individuals who people the Flyte family but for the beauty signified by their capacious, castle-like baroque estate. I can claim no similar infatuation with a single house or family, but I can now see my Anglophilia, which viewed from another angle was simply a form of preppy snottiness, as a similar kind of youthful folly—not least because it, like Ryder’s, matured into something quite different, even opposite.
Truth to tell, it was my self-styled snobbery that led me to lobby my parents to send me to Brophy College Preparatory, the closest Phoenix, Ariz., had to an Oxford. It was a boys’ school, it was exclusive, and it had been founded in 1928, the same year Waugh published his first novel, Decline and Fall. I’m not sure I explicitly saw the connection between Waugh’s Catholicism and the Jesuit-run Brophy, but it certainly did not hurt that the school’s architecture, like that of the fictional Brideshead estate, included church-like domes.
Might “Brideshead Revisited” work its bait-and-switch alchemy on the “Downton Abbey” generation?
I don’t want to oversell the transformation that followed. I did not become Catholic; I remain, as before, mainline Protestant, though I guess I would call myself Rome-curious. And certainly adolescence played a key supporting role in the change. But my exposure to Catholic theology and social teaching at a Jesuit school—which in addition to classroom work included a community service requirement and an Ignatian retreat—was more than I had bargained for when I had signed up to be a little faux-Oxfordian. These did as much as anything else in my life to turn me from a class-obsessed preppy into something of a left-leaning, redistributionist hippie. My faith would weather more challenges in adulthood, but by the time I left Brophy it was as strong and deep as an 18-year-old’s faith can be; at last rooted in something more enduring than a taste for argyle sweaters, it had blossomed accordingly. But there is no denying that superficial material attractions are what had lured me into the realm of the selfless and the spiritual, and planted at least a part of me there forever. (I won’t dwell here on the irony that Waugh, a notoriously conservative crank, would be mortified by the socially liberal form my religion has taken.)
Might “Brideshead Revisited” work its bait-and-switch alchemy on the “Downton Abbey” generation? It is hard to say. The series is languorously long, and the book deeply peculiar though still a sparkling read; the two still make indispensable companions, in a way precious few filmed adaptations of great novels do. But a misbegotten 2008 film version fizzled, and contemporary readers may simply not find as much to grab them in the social history of between-the-wars England. They may detect traces of Trump in the character of Rex Mottram, an amoral industrialist whom Julia calls, “just a few faculties of a man highly developed; the rest simply isn’t there.” They are likely to find the unmistakable but underplayed homoeroticism of the book maddeningly tame and evasive by today’s standards.
Still, to wonder why Waugh wasn’t more explicit about that, or to speculate on his own sexual identity, is to miss the point the book is making, and certainly made in my life: Earthly delights are but a foretaste of the feast to come. As St. Augustine wrote: “Late have I loved thee, O beauty so ancient and so new.” In contemporary parlance: Better late than never.
Correction, Dec. 11: The preferred term for describing things related to Oxford is Oxonian.