In 1944, Evelyn Waugh wrote to a friend: "I am writing a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves . . ." When "Brideshead Revisited" was published the following year, it was ecstatically reviewedand brought Waugh international fame.
In the chorus of praise were strong notes of dissent from critics who found much of the writing overly sentimental and lush. Waugh himself later noted, "This novel . . . lost me such esteem as I once enjoyed among my contemporaries and led me into an unfamiliar world of fan mail and press photographers."
But in 1945, "Brideshead Revisited" was a splash of color in a gray postwar world: Oxford in the '20s, parties at great country houses and beautiful people languishing on luxury liners. It was of course much more. The central theme of the novel is religious -- death and how to face it, the renewal of faith, and Christian truth as envisaged by the Catholic church. It was inevitable that Waugh should come to write such a book, because his own conversion to Catholicism as a young man was the most important event in his life.
For Waugh, religion was a defense against the bouts of depression and melancholy that constantly threatened. From his earliest years, Waugh lived in what his biographer and friend Christopher Sykes described as "a state of chaotic disturbance"; amiable good humor would be followed by thunderous bad temper, unbounded joy by unbearable depression.Waugh was deeply aware of his own shortcomings, and often stricken with feelings of guilt and self-hatred. Evidently religion helped to keep these internal devils at bay. He once said that being a Catholic made him "less bad."
Most people prefer the Oxford sequences of "Brideshead Revisited." Did this Oxford ever really exist outside of Waugh's imagination? According to contemporaries, it most certainly did. The postwar generation of undergraduates to which Waugh belonged rejected the years between 1914 and 1918 and looked back to an earlier age.
Waugh belonged to a coterie of undergraduate esthetes under the loose leadership of Harold Acton. Their efforts to lead the university into appreciation of contemporary literature and art had considerable impact. With their flamboyant dress and flagrant exhibitionism, the group quickly gained the reputation of being a bunch of homosexuals.
"It must be said that at this period Evelyn entered an extreme homosexual phase," writes Sykes. "As he owned, not only to me, but to many other of his friends, the phase, for the short time it lasted, was unrestrained, emotionally and physically." But the phase, like many adolescent ones, was quickly over, and for the rest of his life Waugh remained firmly heterosexual. Another habit which developed during those dissolute days took a more permanent hold, however. From Oxford until his death, Waugh was a heavy drinker.
The novel is "certainly partly autobiographical," says Waugh's son, author and journalist Auberon Waugh. "But I think the characters were made up of a number of people. For instance, Anthony Blanche was definitely Brian Howard but not entirely Brian Howard. Some of the episodes he was involved in, such as reciting Eliot's poems through a megaphone at Christ Church, were taken from the life of Harold Acton."
Sebastian Flyte also seems to have been a composite of two people. Waugh's Oxford friend Hugh Lygon had all the charm and sweetness of the young Sebastian, while another friend, Alastair Graham, described by Waugh as "the friend of my heart," contributed much to the portrait.There is little doubt that the Flytes, as a family, were based on the Lygon family who frequently invited Waugh to their sumptuous ancestral home, Madresfield.. It was the two Lygon brothers, Hugh and Elmley, later Lord Beauchamp, who introduced Waugh into the exotic reaches of high society. And the two younger Lygon daughters, Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy, enjoyed similar friendships with Waugh to those between Ryder and Julia and Cordelia Flyte. The family situation was also similar, although Lady Dorothy Lygon later wrote: "I feel the resemblance between my family and the Flytes has been greatly exaggerated."
The undoubted triumph of the TV series is a performance by Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain, returning home with his mistress after years of exile in Venice to die at Brideshead. A lapsed Catholic, he is scornful of the parish priest almost until the very last moment when he makes a faint sign of the cross. Waugh's inspiration for this scene came from personal experience. "I was present at almost exactly that scene, with less extravagant decor, when a friend of mine, whom we thought in his final coma and stubbornly unrepentent, whose womenfolk would only let the priest in because they thought him unconscious, did exactly that, making the sign of the cross," Waugh wrote in his diary. "It was profoundly affecting and I wrote the book about that scene."