Is there anything quite as poignant as a remembrance of more innocent times written in the midst of war – and a war with an uncertain outcome at the time of writing, at that? Possibly, but it still hits very hard.
Evelyn Waugh is possibly best remembered for his more mordant work, of course, but Brideshead Revisited has to be one of the best books about a lost era that one can read, heightened perhaps by the simple truth that the protagonist, and his contemporaries knew that they were living the end of what had been a glorious age.
It is a fact that everyone living in the inter-war years in England had to know that the times they were a changin’. But though they had hopes, none knew whether what was coming would be better or worse… and the horrors of just how bad “worse” could be were extremely fresh in their minds. When this insecurity was combined with the uncertainty of Waugh himself at the time of writing – in the midst of the second world war – even this slim, seemingly superficial volume can hit like a hammer.
It’s tempting to compare this with other writers of idylls, particularly Wodehouse, but while with Wodehouse the reader wants to be there, with Waugh, the reader mourns the loss. Wodehouse, for this reason, is much nicer to go back to; he reconstructs the utopia in the reader’s present, making it seem alive. Waugh, on the other hand, makes it plain that Arcadia is gone… and it hurts, because Waugh’s world seems much more real.
But at time, especially in the beginning, this is a book that transports the reader powerfully to another era, another place, and that is its lasting beauty. The charm certainly isn’t in the story itself although the progression is interesting and absorbing, but is let down by an ending is that is unsatisfying and with ultimately uninteresting religious symbolism.
But the imagery… It’s impossible to read this book and not be immediately overwhelmed by the sense of loss for the more gentle times in England, where every day was a sunny spring in the countryside around Oxford, and where pain, suffering and responsibility existed only in the dark writings of Dickens.
Of course, it is a time that never truly existed – at least not for everyone – but that won’t keep you from pining for it.