Reading this book is a journey through the wardrobe. A journey back in time. To being a teenager. To belonging to one of the most privileged, renowned schools in the world. A place marked by medieval craftsmen, Christopher Wren, Gibbons, Mallory, Victorian gothic, the first world war, the second, the wars to come. A place steeped in the history and nature of England and being British. A place I turned my back on, rejecting the roots I had been assigned, seeking to retain only the most catholic aspects of an education that offered existentialism, Colin Wilson, drugs, deviance, depression, repression and, for some, the birthright of privilege.
In the midst of the years I spent there, Waugh’s panegyric appeared as a luscious television series. Touched by old and new generations of British acting aristocracy. Geilgud, Olivier, Irons and more. Someone somewhere screened the episodes for us, and no matter how large the distance which might have been supposed to exist between the twenties and the eighties, the television in fact reflected our lives. The fey Sebastian and the louche Anthony Blanche were characters we knew well, fossils that had survived. And along with their feyness we also recognised their romanticism. A doomed hedonism, gilded with a hint of religious transcendence. The curse of entitlement. The mysteries of the elite.
I went away and sought to leave it all behind. Cut my ties and sought to enter into something more akin to the “real” world, as subsequent friends and partners might have put it. And these characters, both the fictional ones and the ones who echoed their fictional forefathers, came to seem egoistical, blinkered, narrow-minded. Crass. Indeed, some of their likes can now be found flitting around the current government, my contemporaries, shallow souls whose lives have been lead within this insulated bubble of privilege.
I left Waugh’s world behind and I never read the book. Indeed, I struggled with British literature per se, especially from the 20th C. So much of it filtered through the sieve of inured Oxbridge privilege, so far from the pulse of the world. But now, in Montevideo, I felt a yearning, a good Waughian word, to reconnect. Because, I suppose, there’s a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are aspects of England, Britain, the England of which Winchester, with all its mordant beauty, was a part, which will always have a hold. With the sense or ironic detachment which accompanies knowing the value and the absence-of-value attached to this culture, so apparently ancient, beseeching so much respect.
Waugh’s Ryder, the book’s narrator, ends up becoming a cynic, cursed by his association with Brideshead. He cannot bring himself to love his own family, even his children, The very notion of love is so lost in the Arcadian fields of Sebastian’s youth that he never recovers it. His relationship with Sebastian’s sister is a pale imitation, sacrificed on the altar of this agnostic cynicism. Conventional values and desires pass him by. He yearns for the transcendent, to live in a Poussin pastoral, the world kept at bay by beauty. Realising this is something he cannot have (and those who do have it don’t want it) reduces him, stymies his ambition, leaves him in middle age as nothing more than the husk of his youth.
Ryder is a model for many who have the fortune to attend the Winchesters of the world, which keep on trucking, Oxbridge and its ilk. Real life is a disappointment in the wake of the romanticism of youth. The drive to do things, to make the world in your image rather than pursue a forlorn image of Englishness, is missing. They find a way to make society accommodate them, carving out their anointed niches, but everything is hollow. Life becomes a perpetual hangover. It’s no surprise that Blanche declaims TS Eliot through a megaphone. This is the danger of history: it consumes the muscles from within, a silent malevolent host.
All of which helps to explain why I should turn to this book now. On the one hand, it is a symptom of homesickness, or nostalgia (albeit a nostalgia for a life which has nothing to do with the one I lead when in London). And on the other, if I read this book in the UK, it would quite possibly make me ill.