Brideshead Revisited Yet Again

Why are we going back for a third time?

Rex Mottram (Charles Keating) and Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) dressed for dinner, and frowning, as they discuss the quirky and unfathomable Marchmains. From the 1981 Granada (ITV) production of Brideshead Revisited.

I am fascinated by the enduring appeal of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. This year (2022) will see the release of a new adaptation in the form of a miniseries from the BBC, which follows in the wake of a 2008 BBC film adaptation, and the highly acclaimed 1981 ITV miniseries. In anticipation of the new release, I returned to the novel and its previous adaptations. It seems to me that there is good reason to revisit once more; it remains a beguiling, flawed and confounding tale, and stimulus for reflection on how we came to be who we are today.

The story is narrated by Charles Ryder. The events of the novel follow him through Oxford, a career as a painter, and finally to the army in WWII, where he is serving as a Captain. At Oxford he forms an intimate friendship with Sebastian Flyte, the wayward son of Lord and Lady Marachmain. Through his interactions with the family, Charles, an atheist, is slowly drawn into their world, culminating in a spiritual awakening.

It’s a divisive novel by a divisive novelist. While it grapples with an impressive list of universal themes (youth, class, love, beauty, tradition, faith etc.) that offers a bit of something for everyone, at its very heart it is about a world that is practically alien to every person engaging with the novel in the 21st century. Moreover, the moral of the story (and it is a novel very much concerned with morality) casts a strange light on the present day, and secular ideas about the good life. Even during his lifetime, Waugh was regarded as a cruel, snobbish critic of modernity. He questioned the value of so much that is now heralded as progress, and, to the great consternation of some of his contemporaries, Brideshead Revisited advocates submission to the will of the God rendered by the Anglo-Catholic tradition. You might have come across him? At first glance He is quite demanding, not particularly fond of free love, nor homosexuality, nor happy-ever-afters for divorcees.

In a sense, it is a love story, in which two unhappily married people realise their forbidden love. In another sense, it is The Anti-Love Story, in which passionate romantic relationships between human beings are exposed as the “rival good”, the distraction that maintains our distance from God. And yet in another sense, it is the ultimate love story, that tells how, through human love and friendship, a man journeys towards the source of all the love in the universe.

I suppose this is where I have to drop any pretence of cool objectivity. This story shoots an arrow straight into the heart of a very personal quandary from my youth: the question of whether to seek romance, or to seek salvation, although I don’t think I thought of it in those terms at the time. I was raised on a diet of the Disney classics and Roman Catholicism. Life was about finding true love, but also about being perfectly innocent and not going to hell. In a sense I was sort of a budget Julia Flyte: haunted by both a fear of God learnt in the nursery, and a longing for love learnt from secular culture.

Walt Disney provided me with a wonderful bridge between my secular tastes and Catholic guilt. My favourite Disney film wasn’t about a beautiful, submissive princess; I was mad about Pinocchio, and its portrayal of innocence darkened by transgression, followed by eventual redemption (or at least another chance). Who knows if I loved it because it was about the person I was already becoming, or if I became Pinocchio as a result of continuous exposure. I was a recreational liar (or, at least, a romancer). I was mesmerised by the darkness, and the circus ambience of Pleasure Island. I am still probably a little susceptible to an Honest John. I think what made it worse was that I was also very much Jiminy Cricket, and tended to be aware of my folly even as surrender to temptation was in progress. I only wish I had been able to conceive of God as the Blue Fairy.

You might therefore be able to imagine why the fates of Julia and Charles interest me greatly.

Julia and Charles clasp hands in Brideshead Revisited

Arguably, the appeal of Brideshead Revisited to conservative (and confused) Christians is greater than ever. In addition to witnessing an inflated role for desire in personal life, the western world is rapidly adopting a less God-fearing stance in enshrining liberal ideals in law and policy, and Brideshead Revisited effectively criticises secular ideas of progress. However, there is also a secular, liberal audience for Brideshead Revisited. There must be, otherwise the secular, liberal BBC wouldn’t be having another go. What could be in it for those who don’t subscribe to Waugh’s worldview?

Its attraction might have something to do with the present moment. It can be a slippery affair trying to grasp what is happening to the self, and to communities, and to culture in an era of unprecedented social and technological development. Brideshead Revisited is set during an earlier period of seismic upheaval, starting a century ago, at a point in history before change became so rapid it surpassed most people’s ability to keep up, philosophically speaking. In a sense it is timely, especially as we find ourselves once more threatened by the prospect of a world war. And yet, we could ask, has too much changed? Perhaps the novel’s distant world can offer nothing other than a simulation of nostalgia, and bears no resemblance to our present predicament.

Modern man does not come off well in Brideshead Revisited. In the novel, Julia Mottram, Lord and Lady Marchmain’s eldest daughter and Charles Ryder’s ultimate love interest, characterises her husband Rex in deeply unflattering terms:

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. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole.

Her assessment of Rex exposes a theme at the heart of the novel, and has something to do with a failure to recognise unspoken aspects of culture. Rex attempts to convert to Catholicism, but for all efforts made to convey theological and moral concepts to him, he can’t go beyond simply agreeing to believe whatever a Catholic is required to believe.

We find another dispiriting assessment of modern man when Charles Ryder, as a listless and dejected army Captain, reflects on his platoon commander, Hooper. Charles observed that Hooper had, “no special illusions distinguishable from the general, enveloping fog from which he observed the universe.” The implication of Charles’ assessment is that it is not merely the dilution of religious tradition, but the lack of a culturally and historically anchored education, that makes Rexes and Hoopers of us all.

I wonder what Waugh would make of the present state of education. Recent times have seen a good deal of soul searching and conflict around changes to school curricula and university courses. There have been controversial cases of the removal of established literary classics from the curriculum on the grounds of taste and sensitivity, and to make room for a broader range of voices. Then there is the problem of our understanding of history, in which great art and achievements not only stand shoulder to shoulder with scandals of man’s inhumanity, but are in some sense causally linked to them. There can be no grand historical narratives, no glorious legends, from our present perspective. Waugh’s thinking about culture may well be far too conservative for the tastes of many modern readers.

Of course, it is possible that this is something of a pendular swing, and grand narratives may yet return to our historical consciousness. There are others who would argue that a pile of proverbial babies is building up in the drain following the great emptying of the bath of Western civilization. Some university lecturers have complained of a decline in standards of critical thinking owing to what they term “wokeism”—a rather clunky term used to refer to the prevalence of orthodox progressive opinions in young students. In any case, perhaps a new outing for Brideshead is good news for a society that feels morally obliged to analyse itself into cultural oblivion; a little guiltless escape into a place and time when traditions were merely fading, as opposed to being methodically deconstructed, or penitently obscured.

So, it seems that in addition to offering little of interest to those with a progressive liberal outlook, Brideshead Revisited also has the potential to offend those with progressive tastes. In that case, as well as asking why bother with another outing, we could also ask why brave another outing? Do the cultural wars really need more kindling?

I think one possibility, quite separate from moral and cultural considerations, is that the BBC still envy ITV its celebrated 1981 TV adaptation. It remains a beautiful watch. The casting, locations and direction seem to conjure a complete and convincing world for Waugh’s characters to inhabit. Writing in the Guardian in 2008, Peter Bradshaw noted the effect of the subsequent attempt by the BBC to render the novel as a feature film:

So far the movie has had a powerful effect on everyone who has seen it: it has returned us, not to the original novel, but [to] that remarkable television adaptation […] it is easy to think of the TV programme as the original text.

High praise indeed for the TV series, and it stands in stark contrast to the response to the film. The 2008 film adaptation from the BBC was casually dismissed as a travesty by Christopher Hitchens. I quite agree. This is a story that needs a thorough telling, owing to what I could clumsily term the subtle weirdness of the novel. Waugh is happy to paint a picture of dysfunction and apparent cruelty within a family, and yet end on a note of hope and redemption through the power of their traditions. To render this convincingly requires more than a couple of hours, so perhaps the project was doomed from the outset.

That said, the folly of trying to squeeze everything from the novel into a single film was only the beginning of the problems with this production. To get a little more specific, the casting fell far short of ITV’s achievement. To get personal, it seems Emma Thompson’s tuition fees at the Roger Hargreaves Academy of Dramatic Arts were well spent. Little Miss Marchmain is the perfect caricature of a sour-faced Catholic matriarch, clearly applying all the techniques from the portentous coughing module to signal her coming demise. It’s impossible to ignore the lack of charm exuded in her performance, and for those who have seen the ITV version, it deepens one’s appreciation of the icy grace of Claire Bloom’s Lady Marchmain. The character is required both to compel and to appal us, otherwise the internal battles of her wayward offspring, and the magnetic forces acting upon Charles Ryder, become much harder to fathom.

Some of the events related in the film stray far from the original novel. One could generously argue that this was inevitable within the constraints of a feature length film, but in that case, why the arbitrary inclusion of scenes from the Venice carnival? The Goodfellas-style ocean liner shot, as Charles and Julia appear to progress from unexpected shipboard encounter to rolling around on the deck in the space of a few short minutes, is also…inexplicable. This is an apparent example of modern sexual mores being unimaginatively (and, running time limitations considered, helpfully) imposed on people who would likely not, atheist or lapsed Catholic, have launched so merrily into an extramarital affair. However bad Christopher Hitchens alleged Waugh’s writing of the scene to be (“one of the most unsatisfactory moments of copulation ever committed to paper”), there is no clear artistic excuse for rendering Charles and Julia’s initial sexual encounter as a glamourous Tinder hook-up. I would even go as far as to say that Jeremy Irons’ awkward planking in the ITV production carried greater erotic charge. That is the power of good characterisation (and perhaps a little crush on Jeremy Irons).

There is something about the reliance on lavish style in the film that makes the lack of coherence and substance all the more jarring. As I previously suggested, this is partly the result of a shortage of time to imbue the large cast of characters with the necessary depth. I think we also see a conscious effort to undermine Waugh’s intentions and tell the story through a distinctly modern, critical lens. In any case, there is something fundamental, essential that is missing from the film. Perhaps it points not only to an ill-conceived and poorly adapted retelling, but to the dramatic cultural shift that we have experienced, meaning we lack the necessary access to a certain atmosphere and feeling, and to certain shared memories, that would help to communicate the strange tale convincingly.

But what exactly is missing here? What do we get from the novel, and the original television adaptation, that the 2008 film does not deliver? David Rothstein’s assessment of the novel yields an insight into Brideshead Revisited‘s enduring allure, suggesting that it is in part concerned with, “tracing one’s history by studying the traces and sites of memory that provide one with a sense of historical identity.” The novel contains, “historically conscious characters […] who are acutely aware of their break with the past and seek to anchor themselves through their active relation to sites of memory”. Although Rothstein is referring to this drive on the part of the novel’s characters, we engage with these fictional events, set at their earliest nearly a century ago, and feel a tug of abstracted nostalgia. These people, their worries, their world are, were, in some sense, ours too. But in what sense? At what point does solidarity with the members of the societies that were precursors to our own escape our imaginative powers? Could it have happened sometime between 1981 and 2008?

Last year, Unherd published an essay by Park MacDougald about repression and “therapeutic culture”. I wonder if this concept might shed some light on why it’s so hard to tell the story of Brideshead Revisited convincingly. The essay centred on the work of American academic Philip Rieff. MacDougald asserted that:

Even if we no longer speak of our id or superego, our everyday language is filled with pop-psychiatric jargon—trauma, grief, and abuse; narcissism and ‘borderline personality’ and PTSD.

According to MacDougald, Rieff regarded the therapeutic language of modernity as the result of an attempt to build a culture that is not based on an external, sacred set of prohibitions and interdicts. These prohibitions had formed a kind of scaffolding. He claimed that without them we struggle to maintain a culture in the true sense of the word, because culture itself relies on the existence of proscriptions. We’re falling apart because we lack the supporting structure of limitations.

When reading Waugh’s tale of love, sex, alcohol, and hysterical sobbing after dinner, it might be tempting to conclude that what these kids need is counselling. It is doubtful that many members of the novel’s original audience, whose thought was less steeped in therapeutic language, would have responded in this way. Most of Waugh’s original readers would have held onto a sense of long-standing moral conventions concerning relationships and lifestyle choices, even if they themselves had consciously broken with them. Although the world around them was becoming a more liberal place, they would still have viewed the characters through the cracked lens of Christendom that had been placed before their eyes in childhood. I say cracked because, even at the time of Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism, the secularisation of society was well advanced. As Waugh himself argued:

The loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanized state. […] It is no longer possible […] to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests.

Owing to this enormous tension with modernity, I’m looking forward to the new adaptation with curiosity. I hope the BBC has learned lessons beyond simply allowing a little more time to tell a challenging story.

I must confess, when I first heard that the new series would involve the director of Suspiria, my first thought was “Dario Argento!” The director is in fact Luca Guadagnino, who was responsible for the Suspiria remake. Once I got over my disappointment that the new Brideshead wasn’t going to be a carnival of lurid interiors and garish lighting, with a soundtrack by Goblin, I realised I know very little about Guadagnino’s work. He is a versatile director who, although not primarily concerned with horror films, found himself drawn to filmmaking by his passion for the genre. He describes it as the “cinema of the senses”, in which film is used to present a “heightened reality”. Perhaps my hopes for a giallo Brideshead aren’t entirely dashed after all. Intriguingly, he says that he values intuitive filmmaking, as opposed to the purely rational, and sees the finished film as something independent of him; “an arrow that flies through time”. This leads me to hope that he will avoid the pitfalls of the overly rational Brideshead Revisited film, which was burdened by a clumsy desire to replace the spiritual elements of the novel with caricatures of Catholic guilt.

Listening to Guadagnino got me thinking, who else could bring radically imaginative direction to this slippery tale of dying cultural embers? Yes, you guessed correctly. What if David Lynch were to direct Brideshead Revisited? Lynch has that beautifully confounding habit of giving a character two different lives. Suppose Julia and Sebastian are the same person in flight from a spiritual awakening? Both Waugh and Lynch show a consciousness of the poetic significance and meanings of names, and a sense of the unspoken things that are easily lost. I’m not entirely sure Waugh would approve, though.

For now at least, I suspect we will have to settle for a more conventional retelling. While I remain eager to see the result, I’m still a little sceptical about the possibility of an adaptation that faithfully captures the spirit of Waugh’s world. Maybe one day someone will render the tale in a way that reconnects us with something lost. Otherwise, I fear the low door in the wall will soon be locked forever, the lamp finally extinguished, and there will be no going back.

Written by Ellen Peden


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  1. This a book about grappling with one’s faith…quite simple actually. Akin to St. Augustine or St. Paul. Any “interpretation” to the contrary would be a monstrosity. How about we leave it be? Sometimes things just are and don’t require a reinterpretation.

  2. Outstanding Summation! I passed it on to my friend whom is a member of the clergy with assurances she’d like it (The REAL Version) and passed on your article to explain why!

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