We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Still on _Brideshead Revisited_ · 5 November 07

Dear Marianne,

I’ve had so many good comments on “Mesmerized by Brideshead Revisited all over again”, I thought I’d write another blog-letter and attach the first one to this & invite anyone interested to read the comments and respond to either if they like.

I’ve also just gone on to watch Episode 9, and would like to bring out another aspect of the film adaptation more emphatically: the theme of contra mundi.

In the comments there is the suggestion that part of the appeal of Sebastian (played by Anthony Andrews) and Kurt (Jonathan Coy) for one another is they are both contra mundi, against all the world demands of them in terms of self-sacrifice, control, hypocrisy on behalf of getting money, place, advancement. Earlier (at Oxford) Charles (Jeremy Irons) had been willing to enact this with Sebastian, but as he grows older, he wants to work at his art which he conceives as worthwhile, and he is willing to compromise and work hard in the way the world demands in order to have a career: he has money and can afford to go to an art school; he marries a socialite type, Celia (Jane Asher), boy Mulcaster’s (Jeremy Sinden) sister. Charles keeps himself sober and works at his vocation. He has the self-control to be civil and to keep to the proprieties with people like Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom) in order to be able to maintain a (marginalized) presence in the world they run (out of luck, privilege or ruthless personality).

Episode 9 (as I see it) shows Charles’s compromised enactment of contra mundi through his love affair with Julia (Diana Quick), and (by implication) her enactment of contra mundi through the way she is living her life (which the affair with Charles is one aspect of). Charles is presented as having a deep love affair with Julia on board ship: she has long ago abandoned any real relationship with her husband, Rex Mottram (Charles Keating), a man who returned to his mistress almost immediately after he married Julia—an anticipation of Charles Windsor and Camilla Parker-Bowles’ behavior shortly after Charles married Diana Spenser. Julia has discovered him to be “hollow” (Episode 6, an allusion to T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland); they have appropriately enough had no children. She makes no home, can find none to make anywhere.

When the lovers (Charles & Julia) come ashore, they part, Julia to go to Brideshead where her husband is now living with Bridey (Simon Jones): a convenient arrangement which allows Mottram to live rent-free and have a prestigious base for partying and politicking; Bridey gets a family living there with him (why this is to his advantage I’m not sure, except it looks good, & Mottram pays the bills for servants and food). Charles goes to London, sees his father briefly (John Gielgud), and then comes to where Celia has organized and is leading a day-long show for his pictures which does spectacularly well: many people come and all are induced to marvel at Charles’s pictures; his career is going to bring in yet more money and commissions.

The episode climaxes in Anthony Blanche’s (Nickolas Grace) coming to the exhibition and recognizing or declaring that Charles’s paintings are worthless. They are creamy pastiche, pretty kitsche, nothing more.

Anthony: “Where are the pictures? Let me explain them to you …”

A little later, Charles: “Are they as bad as all that?”

The whole thrust of the treatment of the exhibition is that Blanche (with all his sordid appetitive sides) is right. He himself is still not for sale, as he is still rich and in self-control so he can buy himself boy lovers and live well enough. He has not become shattered by his understanding of the rotten nature of the world’s organizations and prizes.

Why was I moved? Well, again there’s the music, Irons’s mesmerizing voice, the manipulation of nostalgia for beautiful places one dreams of as having existed in the past and in our dreams, longing for intense love and companionship with someone who understands and looks at the world the way we do.

The last is what I want to emphasize: Julia is contra mundi too, and has gained a deeply congenial love rin Charles: she stands by his side behind the billiard table looking out; she can put on an outfit and look the part of the rich luxurious chatelaine, but she cares nothing for any of the people around her as they care nothing for her. Julia does not pretend to herself she enjoys Rex’s parties nor does she take any pride in what he is doing as it’s all hollow hypocrisy to get himself ahead. Charles is sickened by the day-long crying up of his pictures. He cannot deny Celia has done him a great favor, but he loathes all she can do and her too for being able to be a hypocrite to sell, sell, sell and get empty ignorant admiration.

He: “I wonder which is the more horrible, Celia’s art and fashion, or Rex’s politics and money?”

She: “Why worry about them?”

He: “Why is it love makes on hate the whole world? It is supposed to have quite the opposite effect? I feel as if all mankind and God too were in a conspiracy against us.”

She: “They are, they are.”

In the background the music for Noel Coward’s “Night and day you are the one … I think of you, night and day …”

Over the top? Maybe. Nonetheless, we are to identify with Charles and Julia as contra mundi, and this episode (like the story of Sebastian’s tragedy) is a metaphor for how the world works so-to-speak. Instead of taking the stance that those who can’t thrust, who won’t or can’t sell themselves, those who retire or retreat from this contest of competition, dressing up and jockeying for position and interchange of crude gossip and living to make money, that they are the sick, inadequate, disabled, have something wrong with them, the film takes the view those who won’t play the game are the decent, are the humane, and people of real taste (ah, catch the elistism as it flies).

It’s the others who should have to justify themselves; the Mottrams who are (to allude to the books I’ve been reading) if not the self-injurers, the injurers of others on the way up. In Episode 9 we hear of Samgrass (John Grillo) again, and he’s dismissed simply as a “crook,” a sycophantic crook. Samgrass is Waugh’s version of Austen’s Mr Collins who is as desperate, hypocritical and self-congratulatory.

I feel this. To me it’s the others who should have to justify their decisions; even if I have to pay for living contra mundi (by accepting low positions, by having to endure arrangements intended to stigmatize me), my hours and life are my own for the most part. My memories of the little networking I’ve done indicate to me the much higher price I would have had to pay could I have acted the way the world says is health. The film asks us, what kind of life do we want to live? how spend our existence?

Waugh and Mortimer try not to idealize: it is disturbing that Charles cares nothing for his and Celia’s children. He has apparently only seen his son once, and never seen his daughter by her, Caroline. They are to him apparently what he has been encumbered with because he bought into what he didn’t want: marriage with Celia. He doesn’t want to play games with them, discipline them, and pretend to all sorts of feelings that he would have to in order to bring them up to function in this society he detests anyway. Perhaps we are to remember Charles’s apparent lack of any mother and the cold repugnant way his father has apparently treated him all his life. But maybe this is too kind to him. At any rate, he has no love to give children (not everyone does, and that includes women).

It may be disturbing to some that he and Julia do not care in the least about their marriage vows; but this is part of their reaction to what Julia discovered Rex was (a whole episode, No 7, is devoted to showing how obtuse Rex is, and to tell the truth, I cannot feel any sympathy for him (as I do not for Samgrass).

More: Celia is presented as not simply living some hollow life. She really does love her children and has created a nest, a home for them. She is willing to do what is necessary to bring them up, and see them integrated into human communities. She is the woman from women’s fictions and novels who finds meaning in sacrifice to her children.

As I recall, Waugh is simply dismissive of her; in this film, she is not presented as highly intelligent, but she is not amoral, and she has been used and betrayed, and will probably have to find herself another man to live with her the life she wants. Charles doesn’t want to live her way. She says she is “sorry it had to end” so coldly.

There’s nothing admirable in the way Blanche or (for that matter) Sebastian and Kurt live their lives or act out their homosexual love affairs. This reminds me of Marlowe and Goethe’s Faust. People may dream of high ideals, but when it comes to living them out, these turn into rather sordid love-making (what is love-making when physical?), getting drunk, eating: human nature’s pleasures are only in a small way satisfied by high art and merely contemplation and looking and listening (to music, landscapes & so on).

But to me this makes the contra mundi theme all the stronger as I cannot respond to meretricious depictions of happiness that never was or crying up of contentment through repression. I was much moved by Charles and Julia’s love affair because of how it was contextualized (as I’ve now tried to describe it), and also Charles’s story. Brideshead Revisited the film, Episode 9, is Charles’s story, showing us how Charles fits in. He too ends in tragedy, because (again as remarked in the comments) in the end both Sebastian and Julia tell him to go away. It doesn’t make rationale sense: Sebastian was much better off with his compromising friend, Charles, as Charles is the one who sets up the pension for him (goes to the bank, lies to Bridey about Sebastian’s sexuality), would have helped him control his drinking minimally to survive; Julia will now be alone with her crazy religious torments. Extrapolating out we could surmize that had she married someone who would have been the loving husband with genuine values she might have wanted, she might have gone on to live a life something like Celia’s (but without the networking), but she didn’t have that luck. It’s a grim thought she could have ended a Lady Marchmain. But she lacks the instinct of the mean denigrating bully.

To conclude, nowhere in the film is any human being presented as living rationally; they are all twisted, radically hit at some center of their being, maimed. The ones who get along (Rex, Samgrass, Blanche) and seem happy are all the hollow corrupted sold soulless men of T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland (the poem is alluded to in Waugh’s Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust). There is misogyny and male wet dreams in Waugh and Mortimer’s presentation of Lady Marchmain (Laurence Olivier) and Lord Marchmain’s mistress, Cara (Stephane Audran), but that’s another blog.

Still I seem to remember the first time Edward and I watched it, we used to say to another for a while after (as a means of inspiriting and mutual encouragement): contra mundi.

Enough on Episode 9, no?


PS. I’ve a hunch the film adaptation (written by Mortimer, directed Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, with the producer Derek Granger) is better than Waugh’s book. This is true of the film adaptation of H.E. Bates’s Love for Lydia (written by Julian Bond, directed by different people, but mostly it was Tony Wharmby, with the producer Tony Wharmby). As a contrast I would say that Trollope’s Palliser novels and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet stand apart from the film adaptations; are too big to be encompassed by the films and still be presented with coherence. There is a limit to the number of episodes one can have for a set of books.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. “I think it is unfair to boy Mulcaster myself.” Thus Edward after reading my blog showing sympathy for Celia.

    I laughed and said as how he’s so good at debunking things, which remark he ignored, going on to shake his head: “He has it in for that whole family.”

    Elinor    Nov 6, 8:04am    #
  2. Another great blog and stills, Ellen. All the way through the series, I do respond to the beauty of the photography and to Irons’ voiceover, his quiet, haunted/sardonic tone, which as you say is mesmerising.

    However, I have to say that Julia and Charles’ romance left me rather cold when I re-watched the series – the first episodes where Sebastian dominates are the ones for me.:) I do find something rather self-satisfied about Charles and Julia, and I keep on remembering that both of them have plenty of money in the bank to be against the world with.

    As you say, Julia is living at Brideshead – and, as I think I’ve mentioned before somewhere or other along the line, it struck me when watching this episode that Charles seems to rely on Celia’s networking and promoting of his art at the same time as sneering at her.

    Still with Celia, I think Edward is on to something in his comment. Why did Waugh marry Charles to Boy’s sister? Presumably in order to make sure that some of Boy Mulcaster’s awfulness rubs on to her – and to prevent readers from having too much sympathy for her.
    At the same time, I’m aware that I probably have more sympathy for Celia than I should have because she is played by Jane Asher, who is such a sympathetic actress – but I do feel that Waugh is rather stacking the dice against the character. I don’t find either Celia or Rex altogether believable as characters – my feeling is that they are too ready to step into the background, and see themselves as bit players. I find myself remembering George Eliot’s comment about how Casaubon sees himself as central to his own life and Dorothea as secondary.

    It also strikes me that the whole setting of the country house world against the City world of Rex, also an American for added modernity, is partly a sort of snobbishness – aristocracy and old money are the thing, and modern people want to knock Brideshead down and build flats! I do find myself drawn to the beautiful greenness of Brideshead, but at the same time I’m aware that, as you’ve said, Ellen, this is a nostalgia for an England that never was – or never was for most people.
    Judy    Nov 6, 2:52pm    #
  3. From Nick,

    "Briefly and messily on Brideshead.

    First, I should say that I adore the TV series, or at least the first half of it. It is I suppose my favourite television drama (although Rome which I had for my Birthday and watched from beginning to end over two or three days might now challenge it – although they are so different that comparisons are impossible and it may well be that Rome would not stand up to repeated viewings in the way Brideshead does). Certainly, Brideshead is for me a clear case where the television series is a great television series made from a second or third rate novel.

    Having said all which you are much much kinder and more generous about it all than I would be! I shall need to rewatch with your comments in my mind. Probably you see further than me. But thematically (as opposed to visually, aurally), there is much I really, really dislike about Brideshead.

    First off. Of course the class hatred which emerges right at the beginning – Waugh was of course a class warrior of the most determined sort and this runs throughout the book and cannot be taken entirely out of the TV series though the writers tried (as – as you remarked – with the Catholicism) to reduce it. Working class characters are oafish buffoons with no cultural sense whatever; art is solely the preserve of the rich and powerful. Britics comment (wrongly as Alison Light in Forever England points out) about Christie’s class bias; that of Waugh seems to escape them altogether.

    Then there is the misogyny. This for me seems to come in a kind of glorification of gay sex as higher and purer – all very Athenian (and we know how misogynistic they were!) – a strand (and I emphasise strand) of gay culture which is misogynistic. For me, the relationship with Julia is a kind of displaced gay one where the rejected and parodied Celia represents real women. Waugh had a hatred of heterosexual sex; this is of course very interesting but it does not prevent the misogyny. I think you find this in all his books (Handful of Dust is classic in this respect). His idealised world excludes women or allows them in as nuns (desexualised, Cordelia) or male replacement figures (Julia). The television series partly allows us to see all this through the eyes of Cara (my favourite character) but I am not sure that is in the book. Mothers are of course repellent (Lady Marchmain) or non-existent (Charles) – mothering implies heterosexual sex and that must be kept at arms length – Virgin Birth is ideal which leads us of course finally … to all that wretched Catholicism – Waugh’s ultimate get out.

    This world is nasty, full of the working class and women so
    lets dismiss it and concentrate on the next one – a heaven full of rich young aesthetes no doubt – women and workers turned away by Anthony Blanche as St Peter.

    I have gone way over the top and I do see that you can present the arguments in a different way as you do – Waugh was contra mundum but for me while some of things he was contra (money as represented by Mottram) are satisfactory much is not. Brideshead is a perversion of the world’s truth for in general the Sebastian’s, Charles’s, Julia’s etc. do very well out of the world – they retain their power and their money (and only a small minority of them are cultured aesthetes :)) – it is those whom the world excludes (and Waugh despises) working-class
    people, women – who are truly contra mundum.

    Well – :) sorry this is all a rambling mess but I have thought a bit about Brideshead in the past so some of the arguments are to hand as you might say.

    Elinor    Nov 6, 5:32pm    #
  4. In response to Nick and Judy,

    Thank you both so much for your comments. I’ve just finished watching the series and find myself intensely ambivalent.

    On a literal level, it’s utter madness. The dream speeches of Lord Marchmain erase the terrible suffering of most people before the 20th century (and since) from lack of health care, the basic amenities, not to omit the usual wars, ruthless injustices and cruelties not mitigated by any Enlightenment or progressive thought or action. The dying scenes are to the rational mind ludicrous except insofar as respecting the life of the person who dies. Edward has said when he dies he wants not to leave a trace behind; the sensible thing is cremation and as little ceremony as
    can be got away with.

    Nick seems to me spot on about the elitism and classicism and misogyny; Judy’s quoting me about the English that never was. I’m not sure how much homosexuality is glorified. After all, Sebastian and Kurt are not living in a way that is admirable or attractive, and I think we are to find Blanche also repellent: the cosmetics used make him grotesque, nightmarish looking, a drag queen in the light of day.

    It’s endless what one can say against the film (the worship of Nanny Hawkins), and probably the book is inferior to the film itself. A case of a superior film made from a mixed up perverse book.

    But I have a counter point of view, and it’s analogous to what Samuel Johnson said of Cymbeline. You must abandon your mind to it. The film exists on a level beyond the rational. What happens in it, the music, the mise-en-scenes, the character types are all metaphors.

    Metaphors for what? Subversive sexuality of whatever sort gives you pleasure. I can’t speak for Edward, but think it draws him: when he makes fun of how no one remembers to say how unfair boy Mulcaster is treated, he’s calling ironic attention to how we are attracted to the anti-macho male, the gay themes. For myself Julia and Charles’s love makes me remember a favorite line from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day: it’s about the heroine’s love for the hero: “outside lies the junkyard of what does not matter.” I have felt that; not cared for anything beyond the ecstasies of moments Edward and I have known. Not job, not money, not people, the sort of thing Donne means when he says you are all states, all princes I, nothing else is. Or maybe it’s enough and we can blot out the rest.

    All the more to me is the Catholicism an appalling gouging of the self, except if you do see the set of incidents as metaphors, this too becomes a metaphor: of loss itself, of what the series’ longing is rooted in: we come to watch it to escape the endurance of existence’s hard terms. You can’t have this love; it’s a dream of congruence no one can know, and you have to have minimal solvency, so like Hamlet when he decides not to kill himself, the world kicks in when you have to get money somehow or other in a way you can endure.

    I can recognize Celia, but don’t identify with her as she stands for a type of woman I’m not at all: the networking is only part of what is outside how I’ve lived—she ever thinks of how things look to others and that controls not just her behavior but how she thinks and how she teaches others to behave and think. I see her as a metaphor for that. I cannot wish myself a Cara because it's too dangerous and I have no manners.

    I wonder also how it connects to WW2. The framing is this barbaric war, and it seems to me extraordinary art and books emerged from this time. The Heat of Day takes place during the blitz of London.

    This is not to deny the series is also meant to be taken literally and can be seen as bogus heritage myth. Cannadine in his Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy manages to come up with words that satisfy his left-wing conscience and acknowledge that some of what this arisocratic history left is valuable. I sometimes think churches have stolen some of the beautiful sounds of life, like bells and chimes.

    If I were delving the film seriously, I’d now turn to reread Mortimer’s Paradise Postponed which I recall was about some of these themes. It would be instructive to compare the film adaptation of that book (also a mini-series) with Brideshead. I wish I knew more about Mortimer. In so many of these film adaptations, it's so hard to find anything to hang onto but the writer is there, and I'm wondering how much of an agnotistic or atheist Mortimer was. The scenes in which the priest does his petty theater was repugnant to me. I'm wondering if I am also supposed to feel this. I would have much preferred Charles to have stood.

    Some final note on Waugh’s biography: tonight Edward said Waugh cared little for his children. According to Auberon Waugh, his father was remote, distant. Ryder is Waugh. And a theme in the series is you sow what you reap. Charles is alone because he has not given of himself outside his own needs to anyone anymore than Lord Marchmain did.

    Now I shall stop writing about this mad set of films. After all I'm supposed to be studying the Pallisers and Austen films :) It just so rivets me. Maybe it has to do with why I majored in English literature and married an Englishman who values his heritage. I also structure my teaching so that great Anglo- books and European art are presened as intensely valuable.

    Elinor    Nov 7, 12:19am    #
  5. No. It doesn’t draw me any longer. It did the first time. But not now. Probably because I’ve changed, for me the series doesn’t bear repetition.

    Waugh intensely hated society, modern anglo-american society. His satires against it are unremitting. There’s occasionally a sympathetic character to throw the horror of society into even sharper focus (Boot in Scoop, say), but most of the time, he can’t bring himself to portray even that. A society which creates, let alone exalts, a Mottram or Metroland (or Forest Lawn) is damned. And while the war might have been necessary, he saw the hard-faced men doing well out of it, once again.

    He looked back, though, to his Oxford days, and perhaps through a haze of nostalgia remembered a society which, though corrupt in its own way, was infinitely preferable to the larger society. Its leading members happened to be homosexual, which, of itself, put them at odds with the larger society (Acton went to live in Florence, remember. Didn’t Howard commit suicide?). And, whatever we may think of his Catholicism, it was clearly a comfort to him.

    Brideshead, the novel, is an attempt to present a positive vision, based on Catholicism and memories of Oxford, as opposed to the negativity of his pre-war satires. I don’t think it’s a gay novel. Blanche is right, not because he’s gay, but because he’s the voice of the old Oxford set, reminding Charles of what he once new.

    I think I once accepted that positive vision. I don’t today. But people in general today find the Oxford bit more compelling than the Catholicism bit, and the series reflects that.
    jim    Nov 7, 9:33am    #
  6. IN response to Jim,

    I’ve only read a very few of Waugh’s novels, and agree that these are bitter and nihilistic. A Handful of Dust is the book by Waugh that students were set in typical US colleges in the later 1960s. It’s a bleak bitter book and there is no compensation, no solace, no hope for anything worth while from society; Tony is a fool; Brenda without love or any loyalty. I really remember it best as the one where the man ends up in a jungle endlessly rereading Dickens as a final cruel punishment. Now in BR there are people with intelligence and insight: in BR at the opening has a character reciting T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland where the line “a handful of dust” is used.

    The other novel by Waugh I remember is The Loved One. Hilarious send-up of ludicrous funeral parlour practices in the US (California to be exact). At the time I thought no one could ever used the phrase “loved one” again. How naive I was.

    The trouble with your interpretation is it’s so academic. It seems the sort of thing one reads in literary handbooks. I find the autobiographical, psychological and sexual themes provide a more adequate explanation for everything we see in BR. So I’d say gayness is central; Waugh distrusts family life intensely: the mother destroys her children(she has made them helpless against her; they can’t escape her views); yet family life with one another is all they have to cling to in the end. Charles is alone because he never acceded to the family he married into. The Flytes were a surrogate family for him but drop him with ease.

    I would agree the positive vision (Catholicism, elite culture) in BR is an illusion. Rex Mottram stands for all Waugh hates about modern society and is an important character in the film and book. So I still think the contra mundi theme is the most meaningful, and the destruction of Sebastian the most powerful site of the film.

    Elinor    Nov 7, 11:11pm    #

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