11 June 2020, The Tablet

The stones of Brideshead: Evelyn Waugh's classic novel asserts hope in darkness


The stones of Brideshead: Evelyn Waugh's classic novel asserts hope in darkness

Jeremy Irons played Charles Ryder in the 1981 TV adaption of Brideshead Revisited
Photo: PA/Empics Entertainment

 

Waugh’s ‘theological novel’ is an assertion of hope in time of darkness, and the possibility of the ultimate triumph of beauty and truth even in the most broken of lives

Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo; facta est quasi vidua domina gentium

(“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people; how like a widow she has become”)

Like a refrain, the first four words of these two verses from the Vulgate translation of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, once sung at the beginning of Tenebrae, echo through Brideshead Revisited, which was completed just after D-Day and published on 28 May 1945. Evelyn Waugh himself admitted in the Preface to the 1959 revised edition that the book is infused with “a kind of gluttony … for the splendours of the recent past”: the romanticised picture of Oxford in the 1920s remains one of the most loved (or loathed) parts of the novel.

Yet Waugh was quite clear in the same Preface that the central theme of the novel was “the operation of divine grace”. When Nancy Mitford, full of praise for the book, asked him whether he was on Lady Marchmain’s side, he replied: “No, I am not, but God is … and the book is about God.”

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