By Henry Lane Hull
As a college student I read the novel, Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. The book made a lasting impression on me and later when it became the subject of the PBS series, I waited anxiously each week for the chapters to unfold on the screen. Never before, or most likely since, has a novel been presented on television with each character speaking every word that the author had written.
The series starred Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons with dozens of other significant actors and actresses playing supporting roles. Viewing the production was truly the same as reading the book, which I have done several times since that initial college experience.
The story is set in England, along with other venues, describing the lives and surroundings of an aristocratic family and those with whom they associate. The storyline is gripping, causing the reader to rush through the pages in eager anticipation of the various outcomes.
Recently I received a copy of Selina Hastings’ biography of Waugh, which I have read with alacrity, learning not only about the man himself, but also about the experiences that he transcribed into Brideshead as well as the many other books he authored. I have come to realize that he put his own life into his fiction, with only the names having been changed and in some cases not even.
Brideshead is Waugh’s name for the English estate where the Flyte family lived in opulent grandeur, the head of the family being Lord Marchmain, played in the series by Laurence Olivier. In the PBS series the location chosen for the filming was Castle Howard, the great North Yorkshire manor that fit the drama of the story perfectly. The characters and the setting merged in complete harmony, making for a seamless exposition of the intent of Waugh’s novel.
Waugh was an intriguing figure in his own right. Apparently he disliked his first name, as it can be confusing as to the person’s gender. Perhaps he might have been able to share that dilemma with Virginia’s own Admiral Richard Byrd, the polar explorer whose middle name also was Evelyn.
Selina Hastings presents a virtual day-by-day account of the important events in Waugh’s life, from his birth in London in 1903 until his death in his home at Combe Florey in the west county of Somerset in 1967. Her narrative makes one aware that all of his life Waugh was the quintessential curmudgeon, whether in dealing with his family, his publishers, his military comrades during the Second World War, or even people he met on the street.
An Irish friend told me that once when riding on a London bus he looked out the window and saw someone approach Waugh for his autograph, then watched Waugh chase the man away with his umbrella.
As a writer, Waugh was prodigious. He studied at Oxford, then led a cascading life of writing novels, travel books, current affairs articles and biographies. He travelled three times to Abysinnia, sending back reports on the siege undertaken by Mussolini’s Italians in 1936. He also went on paid assignment to Mexico for another expose on the corrupt government there.
As with many other profound writers Waugh was by modern terms an alcoholic, frequently getting drunk and needing time to himself to allow his creative genius to manifest itself. Often that entailed leaving his wife to cope with the care of their large family of children. He dutifully wrote her during these episodes, but clearly needed distance to produce. He wrote Brideshead during wartime leave from the service, having explained to his superior officers that he would be bringing forth a work that would give pleasure during the difficult time of war.
Later he wrote a biography of his friend Ronald Knox, the first person since Saint Jerome in the fourth century singlehandedly to translate the entire Bible into one language. Now commonly called the Knox Bible, it is a masterwork of modern English prose, all the better understood in conjunction with reading Waugh’s biography.
From reading Hastings’s biography I have a clearer understanding of who Waugh was, a disaffection for his abruptness and condescension and even greater awe for his literary achievements. Her 600-odd pages are worth every paragraph.