Revisiting Brideshead

I’m reading Brideshead Revisited right now, or rather I’m listening to the audiobook version of it narrated by Jeremy Irons. As you would expect, the performance is exceptional. The book itself has left me with mixed feelings.

For the first couple of hours I was fascinated and compelled by both story and the quality of the writing. Like all the best writing it had both depth and authenticity. It seemed a uniquely English story, but of a time that sun has now set upon, and so had a melancholy tone that never fails to draw you in. After the first couple of hours though I began to drift, though I remain engaged.

I’m not sure if this drift relates to the story itself, or if because the initial novelty has worn off. I think likely a combination of both.

There is a great novelty to the story, particularly for an Australian boy. The story is set in an entirely different era, but as a reader you become used to that. What is less normal is the milieu described – the crusty landed gentry with their standards and expectations, not to mention their beliefs. Added to this is the central relationship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. They meet in the gilded halls of Oxford (which is a different world), and develop an intimate friendship at odds with anything I have ever known, and probably foreign to old school Australian psyche – it may be different now.

Nevertheless as I listened on the train to and from work, and walking home, I found a part of my mind fixed on that.

Growing up as an Australian mateship was always a big thing, and part of that was a knockabout intimacy. It drew the line though. Everyone says Australia is a masculine society and I can see that, though I also think it is simplistic. I experienced heartfelt friendship. I was bound to my mates, we became as one in thought and action, but there was always a harder edge, even as a boy. Growing up I remember you would show affection by abusing each other. No-one ever got offended, though later I saw that outsiders to this were confused by it.

What was not there was the soft intimacy as portrayed in this book. We didn’t express ourselves in those ways. Had we encountered the same circumstances we would have reacted to it with a tougher attitude, a bluntness edged with humour. We go about it in round-about ways which may not always be healthy, but which takes a lot of steam out of the situation. Ours is a more robust relationship – or at least it was. I wonder if it still is?

And so I was fascinated to observe the relationship between Charles and Sebastian, and in the background Sebastian’s complex family. In totality it’s an entirely different world to modern Australia – and, I suspect, largely foreign to modern Britain also.

I wished I could have been there. I would have loved to have seen this, and been part of it. Had I been I would have been the brash colonial outsider I expect, a bit like Mottram, uncouth by birth.

This is what happened as the story progressed. It became cloying. The innate snobbery pressed more firmly. The privilege seemed increasingly pointless. And the characters themselves seemed more futile – thought addled, tortured, but never really doing anything about it. Of course, that’s a big part of the story.

An aspect I haven’t touched upon is the Catholicism. I always find this absorbing. That is a different world, but I find it oddly alluring. I’m agnostic, born catholic if my father is anything to go by, but christened as a protestant. I’m virtually an unbeliever without having committed to it. I’m sceptical about religion in general, not so much the reason for it – I understand that – but the administration of it, which so often appears inept, if not corrupt.

Catholic lore and tradition is fascinating though, even if you don’t believe, even when you know so much of it has been rotten. As a religious outsider it seems like a proper religion, invested in mystery and ceremony, as if that is the religion itself. By comparison Protestantism seems mundane, a Clayton’s religion, an idiots guide to easy spirituality, turn up on Sunday.

True Catholicism seems a much more lived experience – at least it was – if the likes of Waugh and Greene are anything to go by. It is a crucial part of your identity, as those writers would describe, as the Flyte’s in this book embodied. They may be extremes, but where then are the great protestant writers?

I have not yet finished this book, and have but a distant recollection of the TV series. I expect as it draws to the end that I will be drawn into it once more. Regardless of my feelings, they are fascinating themes and, no matter how foreign, the characters are compelling.

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