Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh (1945)

“Ought we to be drunk every night?” Sebastian asked one morning.
“Yes, I think so.”
“I think so too.”
(Charles and Sebastian as students discuss their drinking habits in Brideshead Revisited)

Brideshead Revisited is probably Evelyn Waugh’s most famous novel, simply because of the huge success of the 1981 ITV dramatisation. Which is ironic, because there’s a strong case for arguing that Brideshead is the least representative of Waugh’s works.

It’s also odd that it’s so popular, considering it amounts to a prolonged description of the destructive effects of alcoholism, the bitterness of adultery and infidelity, and a sustained account of one of the most dysfunctional families in literature.

Brideshead Revisited is divided into five sections: a short prologue (13 pages) and even shorter epilogue (6 pages) and 3 long central parts which each cover a distinct period in the characters’ lives. At 331 pages in the Penguin paperback edition, Brideshead is by some margin Waugh’s longest book, his other novels averaging around 220 pages, the travel books a skimpy 160 or 170.

The novel begins in 1923 and tells the story of the friendship between Charles Ryder and the beautiful, debonaire Sebastian Flyte, second son of scandalous Lord Marchmain, who is the owner of the impressive country house of the title, Brideshead. (To be clear, the grand house is named after the little river Bride which runs through the shallow valley where the house is situated; the title the family own and pass on is ‘Marchmain’, so Lord Marchmain, Lady Marchmain and Marchmain House in London; but the actual family name as written in passports and legal documents is Flyte).

The 1940s perspective

But although the novel’s events are set in the 1920s, when Charles and Sebastian were carefree undergraduates, and then the 1930s, when they are young men exploring the world, Waugh goes to some pains in his 1959 preface to the book to emphasise that the novel is not of those relatively carefree times.

Very much the opposite, Waugh wrote Brideshead on a break from military duty from autumn 1943 through to June 1944, in the depths of the war, in the bleak winter of 1943, when not only the war against Nazi Germany was in doubt but, even if we won the war it had begun to seem to people like him as if the entire grand, upper-class, country house and high society world which Waugh had known and revelled in, would be swept away.

It looked increasingly as if a post-war England would be a grim, egalitarian, socialist place where the grand old families would be ruined by death duties (mentioned on page 96), the beautiful country houses would be pulled down to make way for council estates (as the family’s London base, Marchmain House, is pulled down to make way for flats) and that the frivolous hedonistic life he had enjoyed as a Bright Young Thing in the 1920s would be replaced by grim proletarian earnestness.

Therefore, Waugh’s memories of 1920s Oxford and 1930s London Society, his descriptions of the impossibly grand country house and the stirring nobility of its venerable owner, Alexander Lord Marchmain, even his descriptions of the food and drink consumed at various points, are all intensely coloured by wish fulfilment and fantasy, are the hungry fantasies of a man who, like everyone else in Britain, had had to put up with four years of rationing, for whom a really stylish meal was a distant memory, and who feared that everything he held dear in life was about to be crushed out of existence.

You could argue that one of the chief appeals of almost all Waugh’s other novels is their restraint, the way events, people and dialogue are, for the most part, clipped and understated. Several of his most shocking effects are created this way, by cutting dialogue or description at key moments right back to the bone and letting the reader do the work, imagining for themselves the characters’ responses.

It’s in this respect that Bridgeshead is so uncharacteristic of his oeuvre, because it is so overstated, so sumptuously over-written, so bloated.

Its unusual length, which I mentioned above, is one aspect of this, and both are related to the use of a first person narrator, Charles Ryder, to tell this long story (see below).

In the 1959 preface Waugh states all this very clearly and goes some way to apologising for the book’s florid excesses. But he also explains that, although he’s tinkered with phrasing all the way through and cut some passages (which ones?) he has not rewritten the entire thing, it would be impossible, it is what it is, a testament to a particular time and mood. His final sentence emphasises that it is given to the reader not as a souvenir of the 1920s or 1930s, which is so lavishly describes, but more as an imaginative fantasy spawned by the darkest days of the 1940s.

Prologue

The centrality of the war mentioned in the preface is immediately confirmed in the text itself by the short but grim prologue. We find ourselves in the depths of the Second World War and encounter a first-person narrative told by an erudite, self-aware, articulate person who is named half way through as Captain Charles Ryder. He is the somewhat insubordinate leader of C company in an infantry regiment.

He and his men are stationed in some sordid barracks in the middle of England in the middle of a rainy winter, with horrible food, broken windows and slack soldiers. He and the new colonel do not get on one little bit and his subtle insubordination brings down extra work and duties on his company, to the chiding of the regimental sergeant major.

The general crappiness of Ryder’s existence is crystallised in the person of Hooper (no first name is ever given), ‘a sallow youth with hair combed back, without parting, from his forehead, and a flat, Midland accent’. Hooper’s long hair, failure to shave and general slovenliness drive the colonel mad but Ryder grudgingly likes him because he sums up Ryder’s own disaffection with the army and its ways.

Ryder’s regiment are ordered to pack up and leave the barracks for new accommodation, a process which involves an enormous amount of fuss and bother and rules and shouting and loading up numerous lorries which pull out under cover of dark and drive miles through narrow lanes (no motorways and well-lit dual carriageways back in those days).

They eventually turn through the gates of some country house and drive up the drive and park alongside other lorries at a joining of the ways. It is only when someone casually mentions the name that, with a shock, Ryder realises this is Brideshead House, a place which meant so much to him in times past. And with that, the screen shimmers and we are transported back precisely twenty years to Ryder’s happy days as an innocent undergraduate at Oxford University.

Part one: Et in arcadia ego

Oxford 1923, giddy undergraduates living the high life. Charles Ryder is 19 and an undergraduate at (an unnamed) college and it is the heady celebrations of Eights Week. Ryder’s shy, secretive father had been to Oxford but in this as so much else slyly, and slightly maliciously gave him little preparation (‘Then, as always, he eschewed serious conversation with me’). It was a cousin, Jasper, who gave him the best practical advice on what to expect and how to survive. The old architecture, the friends, the parties, Waugh vividly conveys the cult of Oxford as a special place, a world apart, a glamorous, romantic fantasy world.

Charles’s father

Charles’s father is a grim figure. His mother went off to serve in the Red Cross during the Great War and was killed. It broke his father who, ever since, has dwelled in his London home, not far from the Edgeware Road, with one servant, Hayter, seeing no-one. Charles’s stays with him during the Oxford vacations are little wars of domestic attrition during which his father feigns indifference, occasionally rising to flickers of malice. His father is a deeply unhappy man and his unhappiness casts a pall over the grim little household and Charles when he’s staying there.

As usual with Waugh, the text is packed with lovely details and interesting reflections on the mood of the post-Great War generation of students, colourful characters and great scenes. But the core of the story is simple: it is a long account of the tangled relationship between the unhappy and self-conscious Charles Ryder with the glamorous but cursed Marchmain family, owners of the grand house at Brideshead, which starts with Charles’s student friendship with Lord Sebastian Flyte, fey, handsome, rich and blithely hedonistic, younger son of of the troubled family.

Oxford

In Charles’s first terms as an undergraduate, Sebastian is already a well known figure. Ryder is shy, a bit embarrassed, moves in much more modest circles, until, late one night, a very drunk Flyte sticks his head through Ryder’s open ground floor window and vomits copiously. Charles has a hard time explaining it to his ‘scout’ (or servant) Lunt, who has to clean it up the next morning. Feeling remorseful the next day, Sebastian invites Charles to lunch by way of apology.

And so begins the friendship which is to shape Ryder’s life. Sebastian’s social set is far above Charles’s, and includes the notable figure of the tall, south American, lisping, highly cosmopolitan and very camp homosexual Anthony Blanche, who is also to recur through the narrative, in that way novels have of introducing half a dozen characters who weave and bob throughout the text and the years to come.

Soliloquies

One aspect of Brideshead’s excess is the enormous great speeches its characters make. Half way through the first part the outrageously camp Anthony Blanche, turning heads wherever he goes with his loud, gay voice, takes Charles for dinner in Thame and talks at him non-stop for 8 pages. When Charles goes to stay with Sebastian at Brideshead during the long (i.e. summer) vacation, Sebastian is given to huge speeches of exposition, about the house and his family.

All this is in stark contrast with the tremendously clipped and abbreviated dialogue found in the previous novels. It makes you reflect that there is a relationship between brevity and wit (as Hamlet pointed out 400 years ago). A lot of the humour of the earlier novels derives from the clipped, snappy dialogue. The wittiness of dry understatement.

Whereas here the characters go on for page after page and this fact is closely related to the general lack of comedy. There is still the general self-regarding drollery of undergraduate humour – Anthony teasing the butch bully boys of the Bullingdon Club from the window of his rooms is very funny, and some of the repartee when Charles and Sebastian are drunk is funny. But by and large the story is darker and takes itself seriously in a way none of his previous books did.

Unhappy families

I never watched Brideshead when it was first broadcast. The clips of it I saw seemed painfully stereotyped, the same characters wearing the same clothes and drawling the same 1920s upper-class mannerisms as in a thousand Agatha Christie dramatisations. TV is all the same. I can’t bear its dull predictability, its glossy sameyness.

And I managed to skip it the last time I read all Waugh’s novels, going straight from Put Out More Flags to the start of the Sword of Honour trilogy. So this is the first time I’ve read Brideshead Revisited and I’m surprised by lots of things about it, but chiefly by how gloomy it is. I thought Sebastian came from this grand, successful, happy aristocratic family. I am very surprised to discover how broken, dysfunctional and miserable it is.

A decade earlier Lord Marchmain had gone off to fight in the Great War and met some French actress and never came back. Lady Marchmain now lives the life of the peripatetic rich, shuttling between the grandest hotels in Europe. In other words the grand house is not the seat of a happy, extended and sociable family but more like a shell which is only episodically inhabited.

The eldest son and heir, ‘Bridey’, as Sebastian calls him, with his ‘Aztec face’, is earnestly Catholic and has toyed with becoming a Jesuit priest, before reluctantly assuming the role of son and heir. Sebastian’s sister, Julia, is the spitting image of him, same intonation, same toss of the head, but harder and more cynical. And then there’s youngest sister, Cordelia, ‘a robust child of ten or eleven’ at a convent school.

With the result that Brideshead is very far from being the happy home and social hive I assumed it to be. It is a gloomy, empty, shuttered place, where the various family members briefly alight, unshutter a few rooms, have a few meals prepared by the discreet servants (led by Wilcox the butler), then disappear off again.

Sebastian’s strongest attachment is to his nanny, Nanny Hawkins. It’s that kind of family, where the son’s deepest attachment isn’t to his remote, absent parents, but to his plain (and rather stupid-sounding) nanny.

The impact of having a first-person singular narrative

A very important thing about the book is that it has a first-person narrator, the first Waugh novel to do so. In all the other stories the beady gaze of a third-person narrator encouraged the tough detachment which suits narratives about multiple characters, often seen from a distance, through crowds, briefly mentioned by other characters: the kaleidoscope affect of his social novels. Waugh’s earlier narratives skip and jump at will from one character or social scene to another with great speed and dexterity.

Adoption of a first person narrator, however, drastically alters that pace and feel, by forcing us into the mind of just the one person for a whopping 300 pages. With this shift, all other aspects of the novel become heavy and long. Instead of jaunty, snappy dialogue, we get these 8-page monologues. Instead of very precise and, more often than not, drolly clipped descriptions, we get Charles’s lugubrious, long-winded and precious reflections. Here he is describing how his long stay at Brideshead that first summer of his friendship with Sebastian, led him to study its interiors and design and changed his taste for good.

Since the days when, as a schoolboy, I used to bicycle round the neighbouring parishes, rubbing brasses and photographing fonts, I have nursed a love of architecture, but though in opinion I had made that easy leap, characteristic of my generation, from the puritanism of Ruskin to the puritanism of Roger Fry, my sentiments at heart were insular and mediaeval.

This was my conversion to the baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those tricky ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

1. Note the obsession with self, with one’s thoughts and impressions and tastes and so on, which is an inevitable part of having a first-person narrator. The third person narrator of Waugh’s earlier novels flitted about at will, often only settling on a scene for a page or less, leaving as soon as it got boring. With Charles we are stuck with page after page of the same thoughts and ideas, beautifully described, but increasingly monotonous.

2. Stylistic indulgence: that final sentence is 78 words long, and is an example of Waugh letting himself go, just one of many passages of stylistic self-indulgence. This kind of thing crops up in the earlier novels, for example in passages describing Hetton, country seat of Tony Last, but previously it was very disciplined, brief, trimmed back, before the narrative reverted to crisp dialogue, and used sparingly. Here, these kinds of indulgent descriptions go on for pages. Middle-aged spread.

Brief summary

Charles meets Sebastian i.e. Sebastian throws up through his window, is carried off unconscious. Next day he gets an invite to lunch with Sebastian by way of apology. Is introduced to Sebastian’s bear, Aloysius, an ironic affection of Sebastian’s. Charles is introduced to the flamboyantly camp Anthony Blanche. A week or so later Sebastian borrows another undergraduate’s car and they drive through the country to his family’s stately home, Brideshead House, which is empty and shuttered, except for Nanny Hawkins in her attic servant’s room.

The long vacation i.e. summer holiday: Charles returns to his father’s grim joyless house in London with its view ‘across the grimy gardens and irregular backs of Bayswater, at the jumble of soil pipes and fire-escapes and protuberant little conservatories’.

Then he gets a telegram from Sebastian saying he’s had an accident and needs looking after, so Charles joyfully packs a bag and catches a train to the country station nearest Brideshead. Here he is collected by Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and for the first time gets her measure, sees she is a female equivalent of Sebastian, only much tougher.

It turns out Sebastian fractured a tiny bone on his foot having a hissy fit during a croquet game. He is in a wheelchair. Julia happily hands over responsibility for caring for him to Charles and drives off. Charles and Sebastian spend an idyllic month sunbathing or exploring the architectural riches of the house. Charles, we discover, is an amateur artist and sketches the main fountain and other features and even starts decorating one of the rooms with painted panels.

This idyll is interrupted when Sebastian is invited by his father to his place in Venice. Venice. Yes, Venice. Home of artistic and social snobbery. ‘You simply must see the Tintorettos in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, they are so much more subtle and spiritual than his fresco in San Giorgio, don’t you think, dahling?’ And ‘We have been invited to the Corombona palace for a party; one simply must see the Corombona palace lit up for the ball, there’s nothing quite like it, is there dahling?’ All laid on with a trowel.

Charles is introduced to Lord Marchmain who is tall and Byronic and detached, carefully playing a part. And to his ‘mistress’, Cara, in the event, after all Charles’s nineteen-year-old fantasies, just a middle-aged woman like any other:

She was not a voluptuous Toulouse-Lautrec odalisque; she was not a ‘little bit of fluff’; she was a middle-aged, well-preserved, well-dressed, well-mannered woman such as I had seen in countless public places and occasionally met.

They go to the finest restaurants, eat the finest food, drink the finest wine, are invited to the finest parties, visit the finest churches and see the finest art because they are the finest people. It was about this point that I began to dislike the book and its characters and began to hope that bad things were in store for them, as there so often are in Waugh novels.

It’s almost as if Waugh himself shared this dislike which is crystallised when Cara very frankly tells young Charles that the Marchmain family hate each other, taking their lead from Lord Marchmain’s furious hatred of his wife:

‘He hates her; but you can have no conception how he hates her. You would think him so calm and English — the milord, rather blasé, all passion dead, wishing to be comfortable and not to be worried, following the sun, with me to look after that one thing that no man can do for himself. My friend, he is a volcano of hate. He cannot breathe the same air as she. He will not set foot in England because it is her home; he can scarcely be happy with Sebastian because he is her son. But Sebastian hates her too.’

Cara explains that all the roles for a man are filled in Sebastian’s family: his father is a Byronic hero-cum-Lothario, his elder brother a solid chap but also a closet religious fanatic. In a sense all there is left for Sebastian is to be the baby of the family, pretending to talk to his teddy bear.

Oh and Cara for the first time sounds the theme of concern that Sebastian might become a serious alcoholic; she’s seen the way he drinks, obsessively, compulsively.

Holiday in Venice over, Charles and Sebastian return to Oxford for the first term of their second year. (There were and still are three terms at the University of Oxford: Michaelmas – October to December; Hilary – January to March; Trinity – April to June. Note that each term lasts precisely 8 weeks and, since 3 times 8 makes 24, this means that if you attend Oxford University you actually spend less than half the year actually there. You can stay in college rooms or rented accommodation before or after the term dates, and there are social events a bit before and a bit after, but essentially an Oxford education takes up less than half of each of its calendar years.)

The find that Anthony Blanche has left the university (the correct terminology is ‘has gone down’). Sebastian drolly tells us: ‘Apparently he’s taken a flat in Munich – he has formed an attachment to a policeman there’. And it turns out Anthony was the centre of a circle of loud hedonists who, without him, break up into ‘a bare dozen lethargic, adolescent Englishmen’.

Charles had gone into debt in his first year and been forced to grovel to his distant father for money, something he determines to avoid in his second year, and so he lives more sensibly, buys sensible clothes, the kind you would wear for a country house party, takes his degree subject (History, like Waugh’s) fairly seriously, even attends a few lectures! He writes his two essays a week and signs up for an extra-curricular course in life drawing at the Ruskin School of Art (fancying himself, as mentioned above, as an artist). Sebastian, meanwhile, feels alone and alienated. They take to shunning their colleges and hanging out in low pubs in town.

One day Julia arrives en route back to London from a country house party, driven by a dashing 30-year-old Canadian Great War veteran named Rex Mottram. A few days later Rex invites them to a charity ball in London, along with Sebastian’s boyhood chum, Boy Mulcaster. They stay at the Marchmain family’s London house, which is inventively named Marchmain House.

The three of them get rat-arsed drunk and slip out of the charity party and off to a seedy nightclub-cum-brothel which Boy Mulcaster claims to know about. It is the Old Hundredth at 100 Sink Street, which some readers may remember is where Jock takes Tony Last to pick up a tart who they can pay to pretend to spend a dirty weekend in Brighton with him, in order to provide evidence for the divorce case, in A Handful of Dust.

Anyway, they get even more drunk at the club and pick up two ugly tarts, but Sebastian insists on driving back to Marchmain House (it only appears to be a few hundred yards away, down Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly). Unfortunately, Sebastian manages to do half the distance on the wrong side of the road before pulling up right across the road to let one of the girls out. This is when the police arrest them.

They are astonished to be actually arrested and thrown into some cells, where Sebastian and Boy kick up a fuss but Charles, being the moderately sensible one, gets a message out to Rex Mottram. Rex thoroughly enjoys visiting them in the cells and playing the part of older, more responsible friend. He very smoothly chats up the police and the authorities, gets them released, handles their court appearance, provide lawyers, deals with the press, and then with their college authorities back at Oxford. Quite the adventure!

The last few chapters of Part One describe Sebastian’s decline into depressed alcoholism.

Part two: Brideshead deserted

The end of their undergraduate degrees. Sebastian disgraces himself for the third time (the first was getting arrested, the second appearing drunk in front of the whole family before dinner) when he’s found at 1am wandering drunk as a skunk round Christ Church’s main quadrangle.

He is ‘rusticated’ (i.e. expelled) for a term and only lobbying by Lady Marchmain and a friendly don she cultivates named Mr Samgress ensure that he will be allowed to return, but only if he goes and stays with the respectable Catholic, Monsignor Bell which, predictably, Sebastian refuses to do.

I began to realise the novel was going to be about the decline and fall of this lovely pretty boy whose decline into alcoholism would be a symbol of the sad degrading of undergraduate innocence.

In the interim i.e. while he is forbidden to attend the autumn term, it is decided that Sebastian will be taken under the wing of this affable and obsequious don, Mr Samgrass, who will take him on a tour of the sites and sights of the Levant i.e. Turkey.

For his part, Charles realises he’s come to dislike Oxford and asks his father if he can leave without a degree and enrol in art school. His cold and indifferent father is delighted at his leaving the city of dreaming spires but predictably poo-poohs his chances of a career in art: ‘Do what you want, son.’ So Charles goes to art school in Paris.

Worth pointing out that Charles never seems to me to be a believable artist. For a start he is snootily dismissive of all modern art, reassuring young Cordelia that modern art ‘is all bosh’ (p.147).

Back from Paris at Christmas, Charles is invited to Brideshead and so goes for the traditional family time. Mr Samgrass gives a dull lantern lecture about his and Sebastian’s trip around Anatolia but the only thing on everyone’s mind is Sebastian’s further decline into alcoholism. Sebastian now smuggles whiskey up into his room, is tipsy all afternoon and offensively drunk at dinner time. The drinks tray which used to be on the sideboard is removed at Lady Marchmain’s orders. The butler, Wilcox, needs Lady M’s approval before bringing Sebastian the champagne he orders.

When Lady Marchmain announces she is too tired to go to Chapel and Lord Brideshead announces he will be riding to hounds tomorrow, breaking in Julia’s new horse, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the colossal, thick-headed, philistine boredom of these people’s lives. None of them appear to do anything productive at all except eat and bitch about each other.

Sebastian is now an alcoholic. The family have cut off his bank account, so he’s resorted to pawning his watch and cigarette holder for money for booze. Charles visits Sebastian in his room and remonstrates with him, as he sits numbly by the blazing fire. But it’s the same old argument: Sebastian’s dislike of his family, his wish to be left alone, has hardened into this escape into alcohol. Their attempt to deprive him of drink has come to stand for their attempts to stifle every aspect of his life.

So Sebastian surprises the family by saying he’d like to go hunting tomorrow. Maybe the fresh air and exercise will do him good, his mother says, hopefully. But naively. Sebastian lets on to Charles that his plan is to break away from the hunt as soon as possible and spend the day drinking in a nice quiet pub. He asks Charles for some cash to buy drinks and Charles loyally gives him two pounds.

(He also shares the big secret of the so-called Grand Tour he did with Mr Samgress, namely that he did a bunk as soon as he could, bumping into Anthony Blanche of all people and staying with his and his ‘Jew boy’ [Sebastian’s words] boyfriend. Blanche negotiated a deal with Mr Samgress, that the latter would continue with his tour, sending letters back to Lady Marchmain assuring her all was well, while splitting the money for the trip with Sebastian and letting him go his way, until they were reunited to return to England for Christmas. Now Charles realises why Samgress looked so damn nervous throughout his lecture and every conversation about the trip: he was lying through his teeth.)

So next morning comes and Sebastian is up and joins the merry throng in the stables and sets off on horseback, but as the pack breaks up makes his way to a remote country hotel bar. From where he has to be collected, blind drunk. That evening the family barely make it through an embarrassed dinner.

Next morning Charles bluntly asks Sebastian if he still wants him to stay and Sebastian bluntly says no. So Charles packs his things and prepares to leave. He goes to say goodbye to his hostess, Lady Marchmain, who bluntly asks if he gave Sebastian the money he used to get smashed the day before. Charles immediately admits it. Lady Marchmain takes an unusually high-handed line and says she is astonished at such wickedness. They all thought he was their friend. What on earth possessed him to do something so wicked, etc? Charles reflects it was very like being expelled from school, and suddenly wonders what he’s doing there.

As the car drives him away from the house Charles is only too glad to wash his hands of the whole silly family. Good riddance. He’s had enough. He returns to Paris, to his nice little apartment overlooking the Seine, to art school. This was Christmas 1924 going into the new year of 1925.

Rex in Paris

Only the Marchmains haven’t finished with him. Next thing he knows Rex Mottram is knocking on the door of his Paris flat. Seems he persuaded the family to let him take Sebastian abroad, to Switzerland, to a doctor who runs a clinic for alcoholics (‘Dr Borethus at Zurich.’). But, stopping over in Paris, Rex made the mistake of going to a club where he won a fortune at cards, coming home late at night, cheerfully telling Sebastian. In the morning Sebastian was gone and so were Rex’s winnings, a cool £300.

It’s infuriating for Rex because, as he explains to Charles over dinner at ‘a little place Charles knows’, he is far advanced in his campaign to marry Lady Julia. With disarming and rather repellent candour Rex explains how he has wormed his way into London’s high society by becoming Lady Brenda Champion’s lover, hence golf with the Prime Minister, influential friends in the City and so on. But having conquered that world, he now needs to mate, to make a permanent connection, and obtain the classiest dame at the cheapest price (remember Rex is a Canadian and lives for The Deal [I wonder why Waugh didn’t make him the more obviously mercenary nationality of American]).

Rex and Julia

All of Part Two, chapter two is devoted to a long exposition of Rex’s efforts to woo Lady Julia, starting with her coming out parties as a debutante in the 1924 season, through his slow patient wooing, including reassuring the family and Lady Marchmain of his good intentions, while carrying on a similar campaign to win over Julia’s absent father, residing in Monte Carlo.

Things are well advanced, and Rex is even prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and convert to Catholicism (though it means nothing whatsoever to him, to the comic dismay of his catechist, Father Mowbray). The church is booked, the bridesmaids have been chosen and the family are reviewing the guest list when Bridey walks into the living room at Brideshead and delivers a bombshell: Rex is already married, to a woman back in Canada in 1915.

Rex says he divorced her. Yes but in the Catholic faith you cannot divorce your partner, and you certainly can’t marry someone who has been married before. Rex doesn’t get this and thinks he can just throw money at the problem. In a rational world he would be able to, but these people are Catholics and so live their lives via a matrix of life-denying rules and obligations.

Julia insists she wants to marry Rex but it simply can’t be done in the Catholic faith, so they settle on a compromise, to marry in a hurry in an out of the way Protestant chapel with a handful of witnesses. It is exactly the opposite of the grand society wedding both of them wanted, it is a huge disappointment to their family, it is a scandal to all their Catholic friends, all the guests have to be disinvited, all the gifts have to be returned, it is a shamble all round, and gets Julia and Rex’s married life off to a miserable start from which it never recovers. Yay for Catholicism.

Lady Teresa a good and saintly woman and yet everything bad happens to her. She had to watch her handsome husband become an alcoholic and then an adulterer. She had to watch her beautiful son become another alcoholic. Now she has to watch her daughter apostasise from the Catholic faith in order to have a squalid little hole-in-the-corner wedding to Rex Mottram. Julia on her mother:

‘All through her life Mummy had all the sympathy of everyone except those she loved.’ (p.192)

The General Strike

Charles reads about it in the English newspapers in Paris. Very funny how all Rex’s grand plans were foiled by the family’s irrational beliefs.

Next episode is the General Strike of May 1926. Charles and other posh ex-pats genuinely fear that a revolution is breaking out and so he leaves his studies in Paris and returns hot foot to London – only to find everything absolutely as boring as usual, except his friends are now going to jazz clubs and getting drunker than ever.

He is inducted as a special constable and protects a convoy of milk churns, only once getting into a mild dust-up in the Commercial Road. He came from Paris with a colleague in the art world, a Belgian Futurist named Jean de Brissac la Motte. This chap was the only casualty of the General Strike that Charles heard about:

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week. (p.199)

Very much in the same spirit of absurdity with which he describes the comically inept conflict in Waugh in Abyssinia and Black Mischief.

Anthony Blanche again

But in fact this brief return to London is mostly notable for bumping into the egregious Anthony Blanche in a very sleazy Soho club. Anthony is, of course, full of gossip about Sebastian, to wit, Sebastian came to stay with him in Marseilles, stole and pawned his belongings to keep himself in booze, so Anthony took him away from Europe to Tangiers, where Sebastian appears to have fallen in with some rough trade from the Foreign Legion. Not looking too good for young Seb, is it?

Julia contacts Charles while he’s in London and asks her to come visit Mama in Marchmain House. There Charles learns Lady Marchmain is dying, the docs say she has a few weeks at most. When they arrive Lady M is sleeping so can’t see him, but while he’s there Julia asks, begs, Charles to go to North Africa and rescue Sebastian.

Charles in Casablanca

So Charles finds himself dragged back in. He flies to Casablanca, is briefed by the British Consul who finds ‘young Flyte’ a worry and none too popular with the Moors who are anti-booze. Charles is directed down a warren of dodgy alleyways and comes to a filthy house at the end of a dirty alleyway, to discover Sebastian’s partner or friend, the disreputable German there. The German tells him Sebastian’s in a hospital run by monks, so off Charles goes. At the hospital they tell him Sebastian’s made himself  so weak with drink that the slightest infection could carry him off. Sebastian is surprised to see Charles and Charles is distressed to see how poorly Sebastian has become, thin and lined.

He sorts out a deal between the family and a local British bank to supply Sebastian with a regular weekly stipend as long as he’s judged to live regularly, eat regularly and look after himself.

Back in London he discovers Lady Julia has died. In the Paris restaurant Rex had told him the Marchmain family had lived beyond their means ever since the war. Marchmain is hugely in debt. Now Charles learns the family are selling Marchmain House in London which will be turned into a block of flats. Bridey commissions him to paint it before it is demolished and these turn out to be the architectural paintings which launch Charles’s career as an artist.

Part three: A twitch upon the thread

Chapter one

‘I was glad when I found Celia was unfaithful,’ I said. ‘I felt it was all right for me to dislike her.’

I liked this part best. It seems the least immature and snobbish. It is ten years later. Charles has become a successful architectural painter, had umpteen exhibitions, published best-selling books of paintings of classic English stately homes and winsome cottages. Some six years earlier he married Celia, sister of Boy Mulcaster. Two years ago he discovered she had been unfaithful to him and it turned his heart to stone. He surprised everyone by setting off on a long tour through Mexico and Central America, painting and sketching ancient ruins being reclaimed by the jungle.

That’s all backstory. Part three opens with Charles having completed his South American odyssey and flown to New York to be reunited with his wife before boarding the liner to take them back to Blighty. Celia is bright and super-sociable, organising a farewell party then, as soon as they’re aboard, another party with a huge swan carved of ice in the ship’s main room which is soon packed to bursting with all their guests.

But reunion with Celia just proves to Charles he doesn’t give a damn about her, or the children he’s had with her. His heart is hard. He discovers Julia Mottram née Flyte, Sebastian’s sister is aboard. Realises he hasn’t seen her for ages. She’s invited to the party but doesn’t attend.

At the height of the party the ship begins to heave. Soon it is in the midst of a big Atlantic storm, bucking and rolling for days. Charles’s wife takes to her bed very sick and this gives Charles the opportunity to look up Julia. They walk round the ship in the storm, brave the dining room, talk for hours about their lives and hopes. She describes how her marriage to Rex Mottram became a sham as she slowly realised he was only part of a man, a big Ambition and nothing more. He managed to get her pregnant but the baby was stillborn which cemented their rift.

Julia tells him that since Lady Marchmain’s death and the sale of Marchmain House, her father refused to come back from his Continental dalliances and so she and Rex live in big old Brideshead, along with Bridey who has holed up in a room in the same tower as old Nanny Hawkins and become more and more reclusive. Nobody’s heard from Sebastian in years.

After some shilly-shallying, they try a walk along the ship’s rails but are thrown together by the ship’s roll, with the spray in their hair and suddenly the sun breaking through in glory, she whispers in his ear, yes, she will sleep with him, yes, and leads him below to her cabin where they commit adultery.

Adultery itself is a very boring subject as is the spurious air of tremendous importance it gives its practitioners, who think their little drama is the centre of the world – but I liked the setting of a luxury 1930s liner in a severe storm, that felt novel.

Chapter two

Charles arrives in England and almost immediately has an exhibition in a London gallery. His wife Celia a) knows nothing about the fact he’s fallen in love with Julia b) is his very capable manager; she organises his exhibitions, draws up the guest list, worries about reviewers and sales.

Charles is haughtily contemptuous of the whole circus as he had been of the huge party his wife organised on the ship. That is what makes this third part the most enjoyable, Charles’s withering contempt – for the critics, for the reviewers, for the cognoscenti, for his wife, for the minor royalty who pops in to shake hands, for the insincere snobs his wife has invited to luncheon, and finally, for his wife herself, who he still cordially despises as much as he did when he discovered her infidelity two years earlier.

By the way, Waugh captures the excruciating embarrassment of these kinds of occasions but he in no way at any point persuades us that Charles is an artist. Author and character’s failure to mention any art movements of the day or any living artist convinces the reader that Charles a literary man’s idea of an artist i.e. an observer of people and psychologies and characters and whatnot i.e. a novelist and not an artist at all. The artists I know are obsessed with how things look and light and angles and composition.

At the end of the opening day of his exhibition Charles cries off going down to their country seat (the Old Rectory) or seeing his small children, in preference for going with Julia to Brideshead. At that moment, Celia realises he is leaving her, is in love with Julia.

And he really is in love with her, the night of passion on the transatlantic liner really opened a door into a new world of wonderful love. He waits excitedly at Paddington till she arrives and they hop on the train, enjoying dinner in the dining car. Then a car collects them at the station and drives them to grand old  Brideshead where Rex, older and thicker and coarser, is entertaining a gang of his friends in politics and finance, all roaring and shouting over each other. They are discussing the Spanish Civil War which broke out in July 1936 and the British Abdication Crisis of November to December 1936.

Chapter three

It is two years later, 1938, and Charles has moved into Brideshead and is an accepted fixture there. Rex mostly stays up in London, Bridey drops in at mysterious intervals, Charles only sees his wife and children at Christmas of which there have been two since he and Julia became lovers.

At the end of another pleasant day spent trying to paint Julia, Bridey drops by for dinner and drops a bombshell. He is getting married, he will resume his ownership of Brideshead, Rex and Julia will have to move back to London to be nearer Rex’s constituency (he is an MP), Charles also will have to move out.

Bridey makes the insensitive remark that his bride-to-be is devoutly Catholic and so won’t allow a woman in sin to inhabit the same building. That would be Julia, living in sin with Charles. Julia bursts into tears and runs out onto the terrace where Charles goes to comfort her, which leads into a great long incoherent speech about Catholicism and sin she delivers, written in a completely different style from anything else in the book, and which is, apparently, a highpoint of the novel for many people. It’s her own acknowledgment of the Catholic faith and theology she has spent her entire lifetime running away from.

Chapter four

The details of the divorces. Charles divorces Celia. She retains the Old Rectory and the children. Rex asks Charles to ask Julia not to divorce him, hasn’t he been reasonable, he hasn’t minded his wife having an affair, he’s had a few of his own, but a divorce is different, bad for the reputation, old boy.  But she persists. Lawyers, depositions, witness statements, accountants, settlements, properties.

Cordelia turns up. When Charles last saw her she was a religiose 15-year-old heavily influenced by the nuns of her convent education. 14 years later we learn that she packed all that religious stuff in and went off to serve in a hospital throughout the Spanish war. Charles is shocked to see she is so plain as to be ugly, blunt, to the point, efficient.

She tells a long story about how she heard Sebastian was in Tunis and went to see him. He really is an impoverished wreck of a man now. He had taken his German, Kurt, to Greece where he began to get better. But then got in a fight and thrown in prison which is where the Nazi authorities heard about him and had him repatriated back to Germany. Sebastian travelled to Germany to find him and took ages to track him down only to find he had become a propaganda-spewing Nazi. He refused to recognise Sebastian, but the latter’s doggedness eventually broke him down and, finally, the pair planned to escape back to Africa, but the authorities realised Kurt was about to defect so threw him into concentration camp. It was a long time before Sebastian learned he hanged himself there, and made his way back to North Africa.

When Cordelia arrived he was in absolute poverty and pestering a fellowship of monks to be sent to Central Africa as a missionary. Cordelia discovers that everyone who meets this ravaged shambles of a man is moved by him and convinced of his beatitude. He’ll become a poor servant of the brothers. Everyone thinks he is very close to God. Charles can’t see it. Cordelia patronise him. It’s because he’s not a Catholic. Catholics are special people. They know God. Sometimes it takes great suffering, oh me, oh my, tremendous suffering. But then one comes out of it with a greater sense of one’s faith. Doesn’t one?

Catholicism, in this guise, seems to be a way of proclaiming how special one is. Since all these characters are already frightfully special because they come from a special family and went to special schools and have special feelings, being Catholic on top is like being special squared, cubed, special to the nth degree. It’s an accusation often made against Waugh that his Catholicism was just another form of snobbery, only instead of being in with the aristocracy it meant being in with God. The ultimate club.

Of course one doesn’t like to brag or get above one’s station but one is just quietly confident that one knows a bit more about God and life and morality and the purpose of the universe than non-believers possibly can. Poor mites.

Chapter five

Bridey and his new wife were just about to take possession of Brideshead when, to everyone’s surprise, in view of the deteriorating international situation, Lord Marchmain announces he is returning to occupy his ancestral seat. Great fussing among the servants and tenants but it is a cold blustery day when the car draws up and Lord Marchmain emerges a tied, weak old man, who needs help getting out of the car and can only stand with a stick.

Charles and Julia remain with Cordelia, as Lord Marchmain has himself installed on the ground floor, in the old ‘Chinese room’. He wants them to be around him at all times, he is scared of being alone, he knows he is dying.

He candidly announces he has taken violently against Bridey’s new wife, a middle-aged divorcee named Beryl Muspratt, bourgeois wife of the deceased Admiral Muspratt. Over and over Marchmain reverts to the subject of the ghastly Beryl and tells the others he will not let her occupy the same rooms and role as his beloved wife and his mother before her. She is coarse and vulgar. Why, he’d rather gift the house to Julia and Julia, later, tells Charles she would love to inherit it, own it, and run it. And this opens up for Charles the possibility of becoming the man, the effective owner of Brideshead House!

But Lord Marchmain declines very fast and on the couple of times the lawyers are called to amend his will to let Julia inherit, he’s too ill to see them. He says he has plenty of time and, surprisingly, he has, lingering on into midsummer.

This gives him long enough to be given pages of rambling speech, mixing up the Chinese figures on the painted walls of his bedroom with a sentimentalised vision of Brideshead’s history, the old medieval castle, Agincourt, Nelson, Waterloo etc.

And for Marchmain to become the centre of a bitter tussle among his children and Charles. As Marchmain goes downhill and, eventually, can’t breathe without an oxygen cylinder, Bridey insists he is given the last rights by a local priest. Charles takes the agnostic view that the shock might kill him and recruits his doctor to back him up. Julia is in the middle and the theological argument gets mixed up in the psychology of their relationship.

In a nutshell, right at the very end, the local Irish-Scottish priest is a model of gentleness and restraint and it is Julia who breaks the deadlock by taking the responsibility for taking him into her father’s room. The priest says the last rites over Lord Marchmain’s unmoving body, they all kneel, even Charles who finds himself praying that Marchmain will make a sign and signal that he hears the priest, that he repents his sins, that he lets God into his life.

And there, at the book’s climactic moment, after the priest has finished anointing him, the half paralysed old man does feebly make a sign of the cross. He accepted the grace of God. They are all very moved.

Later that evening he dies. Julia meets Charles at the corner of the stairs and tells him she cannot marry him. He’s seen this coming for months, the rebirth of her Catholic faith. Now she says she cannot set up him as a worldly good in rivalry to God. She must forsake him in order to devote herself to God. She is condemning them both to lonely lives of regret and unhappiness but, hey, that’s what her religion is all about.

Epilogue

Back to the present and Charles is given a tour of the building by the Quartering Officer. He informs Charles that the place belonged to a Lady Julia Marchmain but she vacated it some time ago when the army requisitioned it. She is overseas, working as a nurse with the army (in Palestine, with Cordelia, it turns out).

The point if the tour is to show how the hooligans of the army have treated the house, damaging everywhere, boarding over panelling and paintings, pulling down trees to build an access road, driving three ton lorries into the balustrade, chucking fag ends into the dried up fountain. Yes the place has been trashed and vulgarised. In Charles’s eyes this all represents The Age of Hooper, his sordid, useless, layabout adjutant.

He bumps into a servant he knows who’s taking tea to Nanny Hawkins, the only original member of the crew in the place, and he sits and listens to her for half an hour talking of all the changes. But right at the end, despite the squalor, the emptiness and the echo of past tragedies and unhappinesses, Charles becomes convinced it all has been for something, because despite the house’s decline and fall a small red flame of faith was rekindled, in Julia’s breast and in his own heart. Out of ashes has come God’s grace.

Summary

Although its many flaws are obvious (the over-writing, the sentimentality, the snobbery and elitism, and then the peculiar heartlessness and cynicism) in the end I liked it. It feels significantly more… more serious than the comedies of the 1930s. And although his account of people screwing up their lives in the name of Catholicism reminds me all too much of Catholics I’ve known in real life whose religion made them deeply unhappy…on a fictional level, I was won over by the idea that Waugh’s aim was less a sentimental nostalgia for the heady days of his 20s, but a more hard-headed intention to show the playing out of the Holy Spirit among a cast of characters, centred on an old Catholic family.

I didn’t burst into tears when old Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross but I can understand people who might. I mean I enjoyed the plan, the composition of the thing, its design: in which old Marchmain finally repents for his sins and returns to the church after a quarter century of scorn, how it plays out in the strange haunted holy figure of the beggar-before-God Sebastian; how it plays out in the different characters of Julia and Cordelia who both become nurses and servers. And how it appears to revive his schoolboy faith in Charles himself. Brideshead Revisited is a long book. A lot happens. It has many vividly imagined scenes. it feels much deeper and richer than anything he’d written before. I can see myself becoming a little hooked by it…


Unashamed nostalgia

The old ways are best:

We shared what had once been a dressing-room and had been changed to a bathroom twenty years back by the substitution for the bed of a deep, copper, mahogany-framed bath, that was filled by pulling a brass lever heavy as a piece of marine engineering; the rest of the room remained unchanged; a coal fire always burned there in winter. I often think of that bathroom–the water-colours dimmed by steam and the huge towel warming on the back of the chintz armchair–and contrast it with the uniform, clinical little chambers, glittering with chromium plate and looking-glass, which pass for luxury in the modern world.

Julia on Rex Mottram as a type of the ghastly modern world:

‘He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce.’

Silly billy modern world.

Gorging

Waugh freely admits in the 1959 preface that some of the descriptions were written by a man half starved by four years of severe rationing and fantasising about mouth-watering pre-war dinners. Here’s Charles impressing Rex Mottram at a restaurant in Paris:

I remember the dinner well — soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in a white wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bère of 1904. (p.166)

And wine:

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St. James’s Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day, as at Paillard’s with Rex Mottram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope.

The British Empire

Lady Julia on Sebastian:

‘Well, I’m fond of him too, in a way, I suppose, only I wish he’d behave like anybody else. I’ve grown up with one family skeleton, you know–Papa. Not to be talked of before the servants, not to be talked of before us when we were children. If Mummy is going to start making a skeleton out of Sebastian, it’s too much. If he wants to be always tight, why doesn’t he go to Kenya or somewhere where it doesn’t matter?’

Satirical in tone but an enduring reminder that John Bright’s famous remark that the British Empire amounted to ‘a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes’ was, in fact, true. Failed in London, try in Kenya.


Credit

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1945. All references are to the 1984 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

Here is another analogy… (p.12)

Although this book is over 20 years old, the issues it addresses (the anti-scientific tendency of much traditional literature and the inappropriate use of poetic writing in bogus pseudo-science – versus the hard scientific fact and clear scientific thinking Dawkins promotes) are still very current, and since Dawkins is still writing books attacking non-scientific ways of looking at the world (such as his most recent tome, Outgrowing God, published just last year) I think it’s still worth reviewing this one as an analysis of his overall style and approach.

The aim

The full title is Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder and the book’s purpose is simple: For thousands of years humans have written poetry or concocted religious myths and symbols to explain the puzzling world around them. But (Dawkins says) the scientific worldview as we now have it explains more or less everything about the world around us from bacteria to supernovas and, if properly understood, is far more beautiful and inspiring than the poetry, myths and legends it supersedes.

My advice

However, in my opinion, if you want to be inspired, watch a David Attenborough documentary about the natural world or a Brian Cox one about the stars, because this book is a hilariously silly, shallow, ragbag of random quotes, fragments of science mixed up with countless personal anecdotes, snippets from newspapers or TV and, above all, a relentless stream Richard Dawkins’s pet peeves and trite opinions.

Do not read this book.

Dawkins shares his opinion of modern journalists (lamentably anti-science)

Dawkins opens the book with a sustained attack on a shopping list of contemporary authors who have written disparagingly about science, including Bernard Levin (who once wrote an article specifically about Dawkins God, Me and Mr Dawkins 11 October 1996 – hence the enmity), Simon Jenkins, A.A. Gill, Fay Weldon (author of a ‘hymn of hate’ against science in the Daily Telegraph) and so on and so on.

Dawkins quotes articles in the newspapers, or letters he has received, or questions he gets asked at the end of his lectures, or anecdotes about students of his, to demonstrate that anti-scientific prejudice and ignorance is everywhere – There are creationists under the bed and anti-evolutionists hiding in the closet. It isn’t safe to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without someone spouting unscientific rubbish or promoting astrology or showing the deepest scientific illiteracy. Fools! Knaves! Dawkins has no patience with error.

This is dramatically, profoundly, hugely wrong. (p.90)

Dawkins shares his opinion of British poets (lamentably anti-science)

And then – oh dear, oh dear – Dawkins takes it upon himself to be the judge of a raft of classic poets including Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth, Blake or Yeats or Lawrence.

Dawkins has located quotes from all of these luminaries lamenting the ‘death of romance’ and the role science has played in ‘dis-enchanting the world’ so, as usual, Richard loses no time in telling us that they were all dead wrong in thinking science dis-enchants the world: if only they’d understood modern science, they’d have written poetry ten times as good!!

Dawkins then goes on to prove that he has absolutely no feel for poetic writing or for the luminous quality of poetry:

  1. by the way he quotes schoolboy tags and the most obvious ‘greatest hits’ moments from the most obvious Great Poets
  2. by the way he treats poems as rhythmic verse i.e you can do a prose summary, and then evaluate them on whether or not they show the ‘correct’ attitude to the scientific worldview
  3. and by the way he has rummaged through the diaries and letters and table talk of the Great Poets to find quotes of them stating anti-scientific or anti-rationalist opinions

Which he considers case closed. He cannot entertain the idea that poetry might not be written to put forward clearly defined and logical points of view, but might be an alternative way of perceiving and expressing the world and what it is to be human…

He refers to D.H. Lawrence who (allegedly) refused to believe that moonlight is reflected sunlight (that sounds too pat and too stupid to be true), but even if it were, you kind of know what Lawrence is talking about. We have evolved over tens of millions of years to find night-time eerie and the changing shape and movement of the moon uncanny. Is it possible that part of a poet’s role is to respect ancient beliefs, to excavate and re-express deep ancestral feelings, no matter how irrational?

Not in Dawkins’s view. No! They were all wrong wrong wrong about science and deserve to be sent to the back of the class. He speculates that:

Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science from some of his inspiration. (p.27)

If only the Great Poets were more like, well, like Richard Dawkins!

Dawkins’s bêtes noirs and pet peeves

He fills the book with his own Daily Mail prejudices and bêtes noirs.

Post-modernism is rubbish Once again we get his shallow critique of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural relativism’ – ‘the meaningless wordplays of modish francophone savants‘ – which he dismisses in a sentence as existing merely ‘to impress the gullible’ (p.41).

Now maybe a lot of French post-war philosophy is pretentious twaddle, but, for example, Derrida’s attempt to rethink the entire tradition of writing as a way of encoding authority which constantly undermines itself because of the looseness and deeply unfinishable nature of writing, or Foucault’s histories of how power is wielded by supposedly ‘objective’ academic disciplines and public institutions, or Roland Barthes’ explorations of how texts have lives of their own, determined by structures or levels of activity which have hitherto been overlooked – these are all fascinating intellectual endeavours, certainly more worth spending time reading about than the Daily Mail philistinism of Dr D.

It’s a telling irony that soon after a passage attacking writers and journalists (Bernard Levin, Simon Jenkins et al) for their shallow, ignorant dismissal of science as being a worldview which they don’t like — Dawkins himself carries out just such a shallow, ignorant dismissal of post-modern philosophy, for being a worldview which he doesn’t like.

Could it be that there are multiple worldviews, countless worldviews, and that we get along best by enjoying their diversity? No! Wrong wrong wrong!

Children’s book awards are vulgar Dawkins gives an account of attending an awards ceremony for children’s science books where the audience was encouraged to make insect noises, which he found insufferably ‘vulgar’.

Computer games are vulgar In much the same way, in The Blind Watchmaker, he dismissed ‘vulgar’ arcade computer games (not as dignified and worthy as the computer game he had devised, of course).

The ‘Top 20’ shows how vulgar people are This kind of lofty condemnation of ‘popular’ interests and tastes comes, of course, from a long line of lofty and contemptuous Oxford intellectuals, and sits alongside his fastidious disapproval of the so-called ‘Top 40’ and how easy it is to promote ‘worthless pop singles, an attitude of fastidious elitism which made me laugh at the end of The Blind Watchmaker. Later on he finds the space, for obscure personal reasons, to go out of his way to tell us that the activity of bodybuilding is an ‘odd minority culture’. Possibly. But not as odd as writing a book supposedly about science and going out of your way to include a paragraph disapproving of body building.

The X-Files is anti-scientific Dawkins takes the time to explain why he dislikes the popularity of the TV show The X-Files – namely, because of the way it foregrounds the spooky, irrational explanations for the weird occurrences it depicts (p.28) – which is so frightfully anti-science.

Douglas Adams is masterly By contrast, he wants us to know that he approves of the ‘masterly’ science comedies of Douglas Adams (p.29).

Science fiction is serious literature! Science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov et al:

seems to me to be an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature (p.27)

Oh yes, if Dawkins ran literature departments, things would be different! Out with Derrida and Barthes, in with Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov!

Dr Dolittle is not racist Dawkins finds time to share his opinion that Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books do have a little racism in them, but then that was the universal worldview of the 1920s, so it is silly for ‘pompously correct librarians’ to ban them. And, anyway, Dolittle’s love of animals is superior to the speciesism which even the most politically correct of our own time are still prey to (p.53).

Ruskin didn’t understand science I was actively upset when Dawkins quotes a passage of Ruskin about how people prefer myths and stories to the cold empirical facts – and then goes on to ridicule Ruskin’s attitude not by countering his views but by retelling the hoary old anecdote about the great critic and social reformer’s disastrous wedding night.

It stood out to me as a moment of gross insensitivity and schoolboy bullying. Ruskin was a genius, who struggled to transform the way the philistine British thought about art and design and handed his cause on to the young William Morris. To drag up this hackneyed anecdote is in the worst possible vein of Daily Mail ad hominem philistinism.

Summary

a) Dawkins is a modern reincarnation of just the kind of literal-minded, unbending, unsympathetic and impenetrably dense philistine who forced so many of the Great Poets – Shelley and Byron and Browning, Lawrence and Auden – to flee claustrophobic, puritanical, judgemental England for hotter, more laid-back climes.

b) There seems to be no subject too trivial or too minor for Dawkins not to be able to use it as the pretext to share with the reader his trite and obvious opinions and prejudices, or to prompt another anecdote from his endless store of ‘fascinating’ encounters.

Imagine if David Attenborough interrupted his voiceover about humming birds or polar bears to share an anecdote about a distinguished professor he had a squabble with over dinner at his Oxford college, or took a minute to explain to his viewers why Star Trek is better than Dr Who, or why Douglas Adams’ novels are criminally under-rated.

You’d think he’d gone mad. But that’s what most of this book is like.

Snobbism

Although Dawkins goes out of his way to sound reasonable he can’t help quite frequently sounding like a snob, fastidiously distancing himself from the ghastly taste of the mob. Richard – alongside the Daily Mail – laments how standards have slipped and once-mighty institutions have pandered to popular taste. O Tempora! O mores!

In his chapter rubbishing horoscopes and astrology, Dawkins quotes surveys in which most people say they read horoscopes just for entertainment:

Their taste in what constitutes entertaining fiction is evidently different from mine!

Indeed. Dawkins has told us several times that he cycles through the streets of leafy Oxford. I wonder if he’s ever thought about people like me who have to fight their way onto over-crowded tube trains, or flop exhausted at the end of the day onto a muggy bus, brain dead and pick up a copy of the Metro or Standard to leaf through, treating the horoscopes as much the same as all the other brainless twaddle in it which helps pass the time if you are very, very tired. Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live, maybe…

I chortled when he referred to the Radio Times as ‘that once-respected organ of the BBC’ (p.124). Could anyone sound more pompous?

After taking part in a BBC programme promoting a faith healer who claimed to be the reincarnation of a 2,000-year-old dead doctor, Dawkins clashed with the commissioning editor of this programme. He was horrified that the BBC should:

lend the weight of its long built-up reputation by appearing to accept the fantasy at face value (pp.125-6)

It’s so often the BBC which draws the ire of the Mrs Angry’s from Tunbridge Wells… and so it is for Dawkins. I smiled when he described David Frost as:

a veteran British television personality whom some government saw fit to knight… (p.126)

‘Whom’. I know it’s technically correct but I don’t like using ‘whom’ precisely because Dawkins is typical of the kind of people who still use it, the kind of people who perpetually think the BBC is going to the dogs.

The long chapter demolishing astrologers and fake magicians is an orgy of supercilious superiority to the immoral tricksters who make money be exploiting a gullible public, aided and abetted by intelligent people in places like the BBC who really should know better!

Dawkins’s personal stories and gossip

I’ll begin with a personal anecdote. (p.138)

The book is jam packed with chatty stories and anecdotes from people he’s met, and letters he’s received, and newspapers articles he’s read, and debates he’s taken part in, and lectures he’s given, and children he’s chatted to, and anecdotes about his wife, and his mother-in-law, and his parents, and uncle and aunt.

  • I am told on good authority that defence lawyers in the United States sometimes object to jury candidates on the grounds that they have had a scientific education (p.83)
  • A colleague tells me of a time when he was up for selection on a jury… (p.84)
  • I had a schoolfriend who claimed that he could recognise any member of the 80-strong residence in which we lived purely by listening to their footsteps. (p.88)
  • I had another friend from Switzerland who claimed that when she walked into a room she could tell, by smell, which members of her circle of acquaintances had just left the room. (p.88)
  • I once received a lawyer’s bill, the last item of which was ‘Time spent making out this bill’ (p.106)
  • My wife Lalla Ward recalls an occasion when an American starlet approached the director of the film they were both working on with a ‘Gee, Mr Preminger, what sign are you?’ and received the immortal rebuff, in a thick Austrian accent, ‘I am a Do Not Disturrrb sign.’ (p.118)
  • I once met a woman who was employed full time to invent these stories [Elvis sighted on Mars-type stories] for an American publication… (p.124)
  • I recall an entertaining dinner with a philosopher who told me the following story: One day in church he noticed that a priest, in a kneeling position, was hovering nine inches above the church floor. (p.133)
  • I remember once trying to amuse a six-year-old child at Christmas time by reckoning with her how long it would take Father Christmas to go down all the chimneys in the world. (p.141)
  • I used a similar illustration in one of my Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1991. (p.145)
  • My wife once bought for her mother a beautiful antique watch with a pink face. (p.154)
  • During this particular minute, my thoughts have strayed to a schoolfellow called Haviland (I don’t remember his Christian name, not what he looked like) whom I haven’t seen or thought of for 45 years. (p.159)
  • Daniel Dennett has told me of a conversation with a philosopher colleague who had read Wonderful Life as arguing that the Cambrian phyla did not have a common ancestor – that they had sprung up as independent origins of life! (p.207)

He spends a page and a half describing the time his parents persuaded little Richard and his sister to put on blindfolds and led them out to the garden where they sat them in a wooden frame which they persuaded the children was an airplane, trundled it along the ‘runway’ and then lifted it into the air and zoomed it around the garden, sometimes brushing against low-hanging branches of trees.

This anecdote is the basis of a couple of pages of complete speculation about why credulity, the ability to believe anything they’re told, might be an evolutionary advantage in human children – but how adults should grow out of it and apply serious scientific standards of scepticism and an informed understanding of statistics to every aspect of their lives.

But why? Why can’t people believe what they want to? In reality they already do, and always have, and always will. Charming, page-long anecdotes about Richard’s upper-middle-class childhood aren’t going to change anyone’s minds, they just warm the hearts of the upper-middle-class book reviewers who, as a result, shower his books with praise (enthusiastic blurbs on the back of this book come from A.S. Byatt [private school and Oxford] and Matt Ridley [the fifth Viscount Ridley, Eton and Oxford]).

On and on it goes in an endless burbling stream of jolly gossip which is entertaining because it’s so inconsequential and vain, a self-satisfied family album of preening opinions.

Sometimes there are bits of science…

Why rainbows appear like they do, sound waves, how we can read the chemical composition of different stars, DNA fingerprinting – there are interesting fragments of actual science, reasonably clearly explained, buried amid all the gossip and personal prejudices.

There’s another explanation of the structure of the eye (repeated from River Out of Eden), a page about qasars, and 4 or 5 pages about ‘Skinner boxes, and the behaviouralist B.F. Skinner’s experiments rewarding animals (pigeons and rats) which led him to notice that animals, too, appear to develop superstitious rituals i.e. if they happened to be doing something (pecking a particular part of the box, or huddling on one particular corner) when some food pops through the chute into the box, then they will repeat the same behaviour again and again in the hope that lightning strikes twice. Like humans who carry out lucky tics and rituals.

There’s a lengthy passage (pp.193-209) attacking Stephen Jay Gould. It’s typical of Dawkins in that he says he respects the great American populariser of evolution, but then goes on to systematically demolish every aspect of Gould’s book Wonderful Life. Gould uses the fossil discoveries in the Burgess Shale to assert that the Cambrian period when they were laid down saw a spectacular and unprecedented explosion of evolutionary growth and diversity, hundreds of wacky designs for life forms, many of which flourished and disappeared. Dawkins powerfully disagrees that evolution works in such bursts and spurts, and lines up a barrage of critics and authorities to demolish Gould’s position, concluding with a quote from Peter Medawar claiming it was a shame that Gould had (before his death in 2002) become the pre-eminent popular exponent of evolutionary theory in the United States because his ideas are ‘confused’ and totally unrepresentative of the mainstream of evolutionary thought (‘in fact the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with…’, p.207).

OK so there’s some science in this passage, as Dawkins explains why he disagrees with Gould but, as you can tell, the explication of the facts of what was found in the Burgess Shale take a poor second place to Dawkins’s argufying about it. The point of these fifteen pages or so is not to explain the thing to you, it’s to convince you that Gould was wrong wrong wrong!

The passage I liked best explained how evolution, among other things, has selected for the correct shapes of key proteins – some crucial proteins have multiple shapes and versions: the correct shapes are the ones which allow them to carry out their life-enabling activities, but it explains why things go disastrously wrong if the body, for whatever reason, starts to produce wrong-shaped alternatives: which is what happens in mad cow disease, when an alternative shape of the prion protein occurs and then triggers a cascade of mishapen prions throughout the body, which leads to holes forming in the brain, and madness.

Moments like this are obviously interesting, but they are oases of sense in a book most of whose text is made up of anecdotes, stories, far-fetched analogies, pitifully simplistic opinions about Great Literature, and a wholesale misunderstanding of human nature.

Conclusion

As to Dawkins’s central point that all kinds of people think unscientifically, don’t understand statistics or probabilities or how DNA fingerprinting works or how the rainbow is made, and instead believe gibberish about horoscopes and astrology and magic tricks… well, so what?

People have always been fools, always will be, as John Gray points out (see my review of his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette). On the whole, people don’t burn witches or lynch strangers or march gaily off to war like they used to, so that’s progress of a sort.

But expecting everyone to suddenly abandon junk TV, sensationalist tabloid journalism, horoscopes and the countless promises of overnight diets and anti-ageing creams, and suddenly, miraculously, become hyper-intelligent, private-school educated, Oxford academic experts in DNA and astronomy is… well… a fatuous fantasy.

Dawkins and Junior

When my son (22 and studying Biology at university) discovered that I was reading Dawkins’s books, he was genuinely outraged. He crossly told me that all Dawkins’s contributions to biology have been discredited, and that his only achievement has been to create in many people’s minds a vision of science and scientists as narrow-minded, intolerant, anti-religious and bigoted – a view which my son has personally found himself having to extricate himself from in student conversations, and which has been extremely socially unhelpful.

P.S.

One last Dawkins anecdote to finish with:

In a previous book I gave away the number of the combination lock on my bicycle. I felt safe in doing so because obviously my books would never be read by the kind of person who would steal a bicycle. Unfortunately somebody did steal it, and now I have a new lock with a new number. (p.147)

This vignette perfectly captures Dawkins’s spirit of winning naivety and complete ignorance of human nature. Maybe you can see why, in my review of The Blind Watchmaker, I dubbed Dawkins the Mr Bean of Biology.

Credit

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins was published by Penguin in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Evolution

Genetics

Human evolution

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Anecdote or art?

In 1877 the American artist Whistler sued the English critic John Ruskin for libel. Ruskin had written of Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket that he had

never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face

During the trial Whistler said many interesting things, including explaining to the judge that the painting was not intended to be an accurate scientific portrait of the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea. It had been composed to create artistic interest as opposed to anecdotal interest.

It is ironic that this statement is quoted in the sixth and final room of the Whistler exhibition at the Dulwich picture Gallery entitled An American in London: Whistler and the Thames because the exhibition, in its layout, content and the way I overheard it being perceived, is overwhelmingly anecdotal.

Rather than concentrating on form and design for their own sakes, the exhibition places Whistler’s etchings and paintings of the Thames next to late Victorian maps and photographs to repeatedly emphasise the anecdotal and factual basis of the images.

James McNeill Whistler

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), American artist and dandy, was born in Lowell Massachussetts, studied in Paris, then arrived in London in 1859. He made an immediate splash, this long-haired aesthete with his velvet suits, his witty quotes, friendship with the young Oscar Wilde as well as all the young artists of the day e.g. Rossetti and Millais.

Room 1 highlights Whistler’s earliest works, his etchings of the Thames – a hard-working river in the 1860s – cluttered with sailing ships, cutters and tugs, as well as miles of ramshackle and picturesque riverside wharves and workshops. Each one is meticulously described alongside contemporary locations and maps of 1860s London.

Eagle Wharf, from 'A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames', 1859, Published 1871, by James Abbott McNeill Whistle

Eagle Wharf, from ‘A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames’, 1859, Published 1871, by James Abbott McNeill Whistle

In 1863, Whistler settled on the Thames at Chelsea, becoming neighbour to Rossetti and Swinburne. Etchings he’d made throughout the 1860s were gathered in The Thames Set (1871).  The etching Limehouse (1859) features the Bunch of Grapes pub which, the caption informs us, was immortalised by Dickens as the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend.

Limehouse by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Limehouse by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Room 2 contains early paintings and these are not good. Whistler was fascinated by old Battersea Bridge close to his home and made etchings and paintings of it such as Grey and Silver Old Battersea Bridge (1878).

Room 3 contains more paintings such as the famous Wapping (1864). Here again the commentary is keen to root the image in historical and biographical anecdote, so we learn that the woman with the smudgy face in the centre is Whistler’s mistress.

Wapping on Thames by Whistler

Wapping on Thames by Whistler

Apparently, a common contemporary criticism of Whistler’s paintings was that they looked unfinished, with details and surfaces left underdone. Actually, there IS something unfinished and unsatisfactory about many of the paintings in this exhibition.

Also he is not good at painting faces, something which held him back in a great age of Society portraitists such as John Singer Sargeant.

Take Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864). As usual the commentary tells us about the subject of the painting, and about the growing influence of Japanese design – the movement known as japonisme – symbolised by the vase, the spray of flowers and the fan the lady is holding. (The same fan is included in the exhibition just in case we don’t get the point.) And the commentary explains that using a title usually reserved for a piece of music – symphony – is also a piece of daring experimentalism. Art for Art’s sake, Aestheticism etc.

Yes. But it’s not really a very good painting. As a composition it isn’t really that arresting. And the face in the mirror is poor. Bad. As soon as you notice how poor it is, it’s difficult not to let it influence your reading of the whole thing.

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864)

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864)

As London’s leading aesthete Whistler created a Palace of Art at the White House in Tite Street, Chelsea. The English establishment reacted, as it so often does to artists who fly too high – by ruining him.

The libel case Whistler brought against Ruskin, and which is the focus of room 6, led to his bankruptcy in 1879, the selling-off of all his possessions and works… although Whistler continued to live in the same house until his death in 1903.

Room 4 There was something to admire in every room – just not necessarily to love. For example, Battersea reach from Lindsey House painting (1879) unfinished, yes, but atmospheric. Spot the Japonism! (the ladies with Japanese fans at bottom).

Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses (1863)

Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses (1863)

Or a later etching, The Adam and Eve, Old Chelsea. The etchings are like superior book illustrations. They would make good table mats or prints hung up in an old pub. I.e. they are attractive to look at but… but… the interest, the appeal is more anecdotal than artistic.

The Adam and Eve, Old Chelsea by Whistler

The Adam and Eve, Old Chelsea by Whistler

All around me people were peering at the etchings and comparing them with the photographs which the exhibition hangs next to as many works as it can – and then locating them on the old maps of London which are also thoughtfully provided – and wondering out loud how much Battersea and Chelsea have changed. Is that where PC World is now? My! hasn’t it all changed!

Installation view of An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

Installation view of An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

Anecdote, not aesthetic.

Room 5 I liked the Nocturne (1878). This seemed to me a rare example of a Whistler painting which really successfully achieved what it set out to do, impressionistically creating the sense, the feel, of fog over the Thames.

Nocturne by Whistler (1878)

Nocturne by Whistler (1878)

Room 6 was devoted to the Great Anecdote which squats at the centre of Whistler’s career like an ugly toad. The Ruskin libel case which exonerated the painter but ruined him, because the wealthy patrons he’d spent decades building up, abandoned him in droves, he lost all his income and eventually went bankrupt in 1879.

This final room contains more etchings and preparatory paintings of Battersea Bridge but not the one which prompted the trial – Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket – instead displaying the related but significantly different Nocturne Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge.

Conclusion

I was disappointed. I like this period of history and culture, I love London history and views, I am sympathetic to Impressionism and post-Impressionism and late-19th century art of all types – and yet this exhibition didn’t do it for me.

It left me feeling Whistler was a smaller figure than I had previously thought: a name in the history of culture; a catalyst for new ways of thinking, maybe; the victim of a typically English Establishment stitch-up. for sure.

The 30 or more etchings I liked as interesting book illustrations, some of amazing detail and character; but almost none of the paintings did it for me, and I left feeling a lot of them really were the unfinished daubs which his critics accused him of.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: