By Charlotte Stevenson
Each year, to accompany reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, third year students studying our Twentieth-Century Writing module visit the Brideshead of the screen, Castle Howard. Here Charlotte Stevenson reflects on her thoughts of the 2018 trip and her experience of reading Waugh’s novel.
Et in Arcadia ego – Even in Arcadia, there am I
There are many books you get the opportunity to study as a literature student that are difficult to read. Whether it be because these are texts from long ago with complex language difficult to process or simply because you don’t find the topic the most interesting in the world, these texts end up becoming the ones which you ironically end up writing on because that’s where you find the most scope regarding ideas and criticism.
For me, that was most definitely not the case with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I absolutely adore this novel and think the characters of it, the general mechanics of Waugh’s writing and the world of Brideshead are astonishing in what they unite to achieve. This is not just a story; this is a ‘souvenir’ of the past that much as with all of my favourite books has a very organic element in how it has grown overer time. In being read and shared, this collection of ideas has come to permeate the public mind throughout the decades presenting certain ongoing questions in new guises which hang in a fresh state of poignancy with each return. These ideas to an extent render us into Charles Ryder himself, the text becoming our Sebastian Flyte; our Brideshead.
Brideshead Revisited is a novel which was written by Evelyn Waugh (#EvelynWaughWasAMan), first published in 1945. Beginning in Oxford and centred around the narrator Charles Ryder, his friend Sebastian Flyte and the Flyte family, the novel moves through three volumes. Throughout this time, identity, conscience and their connection to the Catholic Church are discussed at length. The intertwined nature of these elements, especially for the Flytes/Marchmains as well as Charles himself, waxes and wanes until ultimately a point of individual conversion and redemption is reached before deteriorating again in some way. In this manner, the evolution and similtaneously (and paradoxical) static nature of these fictional individuals is dissected. These elements are brought up close under the microscope that we might understand what exactly is behind the way they view the world, their justification for bad behaviour as a necessary evil required to repent and why. these perceptions exist. Furthermore, an observational experiment is played by Waugh in which right and wrong, good and bad, gain a three-dimensional definition opposed to remaining simple, childlike and glaringly obvious paths. As readers, we are not asked to sit and point out the ways in which Julia or Sebastian could improve themselves into more sensible figures but instead we are asked to let ourselves struggle as they are wont to – as it is human to.
Getting to visit Castle Howard for the Twentieth Century module, and on Halloween nonetheless, has certainly been a highlight of third year thus far for me. As an avid traveller, a big part of what drives me to see new places and to learn about them is reading. It wasn’t a surprise to find myself drawn to stand at the edge of the fountain looking out at Castle Howard, feeling very much what I imagined Charles and Sebastian felt on such journeys; nostalgia, freedom from the banal and to an extent, a sense of Home (no matter how begrudingly). As our tour guide said, it well may be the case that Waugh claimed everything he wrote to be fictional and faraway, but his own visit to Castle Howard clearly had some significance to his designs and writings regarding Brideshead Revisited. This resonance is felt in the use of the setting throughout multiple film and television adaptations which have rendered the location almost synoymous with the original imaginary setting. Instantly recognisable in these first moments of our visit, this was the space that had so vividly been created by Waugh’s descriptions in my imagination. It was a relief almost to walk into what had seemed so tangible and real, yet never before glimpsed with seeing eyes.
In terms of my thoughts on the trip, my main observation of sorts is just how important art and beauty just beyond grasp is to both the construction of Castle Howard and Brideshead. The sweeping architecture in each example is always tall and reaching, but never quite touches the sky; there is always just something which is not quite able to latch on, even millimetres away from the grasping hand. But this is after all what so many writers, both past and present, recognise as the meaning of anything being beautiful; the beauty is in that space just between the metaphorical foot and the floor as it reaches for the extra stair that is not there. Especially in the statues and paintings, such as that of the painted central dome replica (the original was burned beyond repair during a 1940’s fire) or those in the rooms fashioned for the television series, this is evident in how alive the figures seem, how real the representations of the house appear, but the absence of true life in them. Human hands such as those of Charles Ryder can fashion something that look and seem like the object in question (a house during a particular sunset, a time whilst it is still ticking) but it will never truly be that desired object without life, only a shadow.
As we stepped into the chapel attached to the building, Miserere Mei Deus was playing; one of the most exquisite pieces of choral music ever to be written. A piece of choral music which, much as the Baroque architecture which renders Castle Howard recognisable, wouldn’t exist if it were not for the existence of the Catholic Church. These subjective art forms, appreciated by some and despised by others, were designed partly to rekindle and maintain mass public faith as the norm opposed to dismantling it, as the World Wars to a degree were responsible for. But even still, regardless of our religious thoughts and beliefs, there is an otherness to that music which touches on something; it makes us feel and it makes us think, even if those responses aren’t necessarily those such art was initially designed to ignite. Despite the original intentions, that art remains something with which we can resonate and recognise ourselves within.
It is difficult to know exactly what to say to summarise and conclude this collection of thoughts as I have so many on both Waugh’s novel and the location of our trip. However, what I think I would like to end on is an observation in relation to this quote:
‘Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all’.
Besides that unattainability of a grasp on those things we hold dear or by which we understand the beautiful, and also beyond that inevitable interweaving of history/religion, for me Brideshead Revisited is a testament to the fact that all of us have our own version of Brideshead.
All of us have a place in which we have been changed or impacted to an extent that we received something akin to epiphany which led to transitions for better and for worse. For some those sites of epiphany are less limited more numerous than one, perhaps too numerous even to count, but all are memorable. Through those sites of change, we are shaped and moulded by both our responses to internal and external influences into something often beyond our own understanding – that is, until we have the luxury of hindsight by which to digest.
‘Et in Arcadia ego’ is not just a memento mori in this context; it is something far more hopeful than the continued reminder of ever lurking death and far more worthy of our attention than it is often merited. To me, Brideshead is for Charles, forJulia, for Bridey, for Cordelia, for Lord Marchmain and all other figures who visit and return again, the epitome of what it is to be human. It is a site of change into which we project a piece of what is us ourselves and, in the pursuit of a label that we might attempt to grasp on and hold tight to it, something we label ‘Home’.