Brideshead Revisited at 75; its Historical Context | Jasper Gardner
The nineteenth century is often called ‘the long nineteenth century’ by historians to signify that in many cultural ways it extended into the early twentieth. However, the mid 1900’s was one of the greatest periods of upheaval and change in history. Evelyn Waugh detested this change, and Brideshead Revisited, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is in many ways his elegy for the vanishing, now totally vanished, England of his youth. In fact, it may be the best window from which, in our world that is technologically sophisticated but in other ways almost completely hollow, we glimpse the world that preceded, the one that is, as Waugh wrote, ‘submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonesse’. Brideshead Revisited, along with other distinguished works such as Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist, is in the rather exclusive club of books that have more of an era contained within their pages than any history.
In many ways, the experience of Charles Ryder, the narrator, is that of Waugh himself. Too young himself to fight in the Great War, it nevertheless had enormous effects on him and the society he grew up in. The great war has been largely eclipsed in memory, particularly in America, by the morally simpler Second World War. However, The Great War was a far more deadly and cataclysmic event for Britain. 700,000 British men died in the Great War, compared to roughly 350,000 in the Second World War. And while the losses fell heavily on all groups, they were particularly harsh on the officer corps, which was comprised mainly of Waugh’s social class and above. The now famous J.R.R. Tolkien’s experience was exemplary. At Oxford twelve years before Waugh, he came up in Exeter College’s class of 1914 with 58 other students. He survived his period of duty, but of his 58 classmates, 23 never came back to the august and leafy streets of Oxford.
Waugh was twelve in 1914, and seventeen when the war ended, but despite missing military service, it was everywhere around him. He recalled later that on Sundays at Lancing, his college, the names were read of former students and teachers that had been killed that week. In an acerbic and melancholy passage of Brideshead, Charles, thinking of the three noble brothers of Lady Marchmain who fell in The Great War observes: ‘These men must die to make a world for Hooper…so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman’. Hooper in the novel is the explicit stand in for the jaded, somewhat vacant successors to the generation who gave many of their best to the vastly, muddy, and mortar-filled fields of France. The idealism and romanticism of young England died with them. This was the price of victory, and it was higher than anyone could have thought possible in 1914.
In addition to the pure horror of the death toll, the war and circumstances surrounding it changed British society forever. The industrial revolution, which had already been chugging along in Britain since the mid 1800’s, was enormously accelerated in the first portion of the twentieth century. The pastoral, rural, and largely agricultural economy of Britain before the industrial revolution was transformed into one far more focused on factories and the cities.
These events had a massive effect on the great aristocratic estates that Brideshead Castle is a fictional example of. The estates relied on tenant farming the vast majority of their income, renting land to be farmed, in exchange for a share of the profits. With industrialization and the war, this ceased to be viable, as the farmers left to seek higher paying jobs in the factories or were killed in the war. This left tourism as the only source of income for most of the great estates, and many of them were sold after hundreds of years of ownership by the same families.
Government policy played a part as well. In order to finance the nation’s huge military and social expenditures, the state raised the inheritance tax from a maximum of 8% in 1900, to 65% by 1945, the time that Waugh was writing Brideshead. This, combined with the loss of revenue from tenancy, brought to an end the era of the landed English aristocracy of which the Flyte family are emblematic.
The experience of the various characters in Brideshead Revisited is illustrative of the moral and social drift that followed The Great War. Sebastian, smothered by a legacy he is incapable and uninterested in fulfilling, descends into alcoholism, while his sister Julia and Charles go on to unhappy marriages. Julia marries Rex Mottram, a wealthy Canadian divorcee, and Charles, more out of convenience than affection, marries Celia Mulcaster, the sister of a viscount acquaintance. Julia and Rex drift apart, while Celia maintains infidelities. Eventually Julia and Charles turn to each other before Julia’s faith rises from the ashes and they sorrowfully end their love affair.
Certainly one cannot read Brideshead Revisited without noticing that it is steeped in Roman Catholicism. It is ever present, sometimes to the annoyance of Charles, who is a firm agnostic for the majority of the book. Just as Charles asks Lord Brideshead ‘Why bring God into everything?’ one could ask the same thing of Waugh with respect to his novel. His response would likely be the same as Brideshead’s when he responds that ‘you know that’s an extremely funny question’. The unwritten part of Brideshead’s response being that of course, God is in everything, just as He is everywhere in Brideshead Revisited. In today’s England Christianity is to be found everywhere in retreat, and it was already so during the writing of Brideshead. In the novel the Flytes, particularly Lord Brideshead and Lady Marchmain, are portrayed as specimens of an endangered species.
Brideshead Revisited was described by Waugh as his ‘Magnum Opus’, and it is by far his most famous and popular work. This is partly because, of course, it is written resplendently and with memorable characters, but most of all because it represents a past that, despite being only just outside living memory, is every bit as lost to us as the Roman Empire. You can see its remnants; the city and university of Oxford are still there, mostly unaltered since Waugh came up in 1922, but that past is past and will never be again. Yet Brideshead remains, just as Charles Ryder described it so evocatively ‘a conjuror’s name of such magic power, that, at its ancient sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight’.