Brideshead Revisited was written in the midst of a war: a time of great change. Just as the national borders shifted with the changing fortunes of war, so too was a powerful tide of change riding within those boundaries. War, asserts Anthony Howard, "eroded practically every traditional social barrier". Waugh was, if not a snob, certainly old-fashioned and this change made him despondent. His depression was all the more acute during the bleak war years. Brideshead is an apocalyptic sermon preached by a soldier in a "foreign bivouac".
The characters in Brideshead are from a variety of backgrounds and generations. Waugh preaches his sermon through them - through the contrast between them. The book presents an old Catholic aristocratic family and in, stark contrast, Rex and Hooper. At the end of the book, the Marchmains are in decline and Rex and his fellows - the "Brideshead set" - in the ascendant, governing a new age, the age of Hooper. The Marchmains have to sell their London home, itself one of the few surviving examples of its kind. Julias is the "last of a splendid series" (173) of debutante balls held there. This wave of destruction, the advance of the modern age, makes Charless career as an architectural painter, preserving the memory of a dying age on canvas. Just as the pre-war recession makes Charless career as an artist, the war makes Rexs career as a politician. "Who would have thought of Rex doing so well", asks Nanny Hawkins (329).
Charles represents Waugh, a man struggling to adapt and live within a society that he dislikes more and more. Of his generation, it is men like Rex, "a tiny bit of a man pretending to be whole" who govern the country. Hooper, representative of the younger generation, are not romantic, "He had not as a child ridden with Ruperts horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side " (14). Charles sympathises with the madmen in the lunatic asylum, "happy collaborationists who had given up the unequal struggle the heirs-at-law of a century of progress" (10).
As with Brave New World, another apocalyptic novel (written by Aldous Huxley at roughly the same time as Brideshead), the future that Brideshead prophesises does not fully materialise. Brideshead is still a popular book which indicates that the romantic notions so lacking in Hooper are not necessarily so lacking in his heirs. Waugh himself describes Brideshead, in the preface to the 1959 edition (7-8), as "a panegyric preached over an empty coffin". He acknowledges that the ancestral seats, which he describes as "our chief national artistic achievement", have not, as he foresaw when he wrote Brideshead, come to the same end as the monasteries of the sixteenth century. "And the English aristocracy", he says "has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible". It is a shame that he did not live to see the age of New Labour, the age of the spin-doctor, the age of the Millennium dome. I would like to have read his new panegyric.
Brideshead is a book of memories - "My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of wartime" (215). For Charles/Waugh, this "winged host", soaring free above him, is a means to escape the desolate world that he sees around him. This urge to escape from the harsh light of reality pervades the book and many of its characters.
The Arcadia that Charles discovers at Oxford is like another world. It is an "enchanted garden not overlooked by any window" (32). It does not last long. Charles leaves Brideshead - "A door had shut, the low door in the wall I had sought and found in Oxford" - less than two years later, determined to "live in a world of three dimensions" (163f.).
Sebastian Flyte, like his father, also feels this urge to escape but their escape is of a slightly different nature. Ostensibly they both run away from Lady Marchmain but as Cara points out, it is from their conscience that they wish to escape. They are both in love with their childhood and cannot bear the reality that it has passed. They cannot bear the reality of growing up, the shattering of their innocent illusions, the loss of their innocence. Charles, too, says of his first summer term at Oxford, "It seems to me that I
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