In the spring of 1991, as a senior in college enrolled in a Satire Seminar at a small, liberal arts Catholic College, I read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited for the first time. Only 6 or 7 seniors took the class and we’d all known each other all 4 years of college. We were only a few months from graduation and together we’d trudged and delighted through Shakespeare, Spenser, Camus, Old English, Faulkner, Hurston, Achebe, Steinbeck, Conrad, Swift, Pope, Wordsworth, Austen, Tolstoy, Dr. Johnson, Joyce, Morrison, Dickinson, Hurston, Whitman, Derrida, Hughes, Sexton, Twain, Bradstreet, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Freud, Plath, Morrison, Vonnegut, Walker, Borges, the Brontes, Tenneseee Williams, Ibsen, Yeats, Keats . . . and, well, you get the idea. We read a lot.
It was a wondrous 4 years and there was always another Great Book waiting around the corner in the next class. I feel similar excitement about my Reading Life today, except I rarely have anyone to talk to about what I’ve read. I’m married to an English teacher, but it’s still lonely for me, being a reader. When you’re an adult and you work an office job and you also must exercise and buy groceries and pay bills and play with your kitties and mow the lawn and weed the garden, there’s not much leisure time available to just sit and talk and laugh and argue about everything you’re reading.
I also formed a book club a few years back, and we meet every 6 weeks or so to discuss a book. It’s fun, but we are all in our 40’s and 50’s. We’re “young” by our standards, but unfortunately for us young bucks, we are usually exhausted by 10:30 or 11:00 at night, so we go home and go to bed. There’s no good-natured bickering, very little critical thought, and no philosophy. There’s no insulting each other about what bad taste we have in literature, or about what ignoramuses we are. Also, adults with life experience are touchy. Sensitive. Several of our members are really into their churches—nice enough people, but not exactly open minded to, or even aware of, other religions or philosophies. One Catholic woman, who dropped out of our book club after only a couple of books, said one night in relation to a character in a book, “I guess she’s an ag-on-ostic. Have you ever heard of that?” Her eyes grew large and afraid. She lowered her voice. “An ag-on-ostic. It’s someone who doesn’t really believe anything, or doesn’t know what to believe, or something!”
I took a sip of wine and stuffed another cracker in my mouth so I wouldn’t say anything snippy. At least Hubby and I howled with laughter all the way home. He is an ag-on-ostic and I am even less hopeful.
We have another book club member (also Catholic) who took issue with me one night when I mentioned that the world is overpopulated and that the Earth can’t sustain this rate of growth for much longer. She replied, “But, a speaker just came to our church and told us the entire population of the United States could fit into Texas.” (Yes, that’s true. I can fit 30 babies into my closet, too.)
There was no wine that night, so I just turned red, explained myself badly, and drove home, irrationally feeling like I had attacked her just because I don’t want to live in Texas with everyone else. Like I said, adults are touchy. We hurt others’ feelings easily and our love of books does not transcend most, if any, of our beliefs. You can’t easily argue with people in a Book Club because they’re all just there to read books, not necessarily to expand their minds or to find new perspectives on the world. And that’s not their fault, either. And of course I know I’m always right, so they can’t argue with me, either, heh heh.
But from 1987 through 1991, my fellow English majors and I drank much beer while arguing our way through The Canon—beginning with whether there was a true Canon, what The Canon should be, what it had become, what it wanted to become, what it lacked, and why we had to read it. Robert Frost himself didn’t show up, but visiting poets and scholars came to campus and gave readings, then came to after-hours gatherings to socialize with us, and our professors seemed to have so much life experience, too, so we seemed surrounded by points of view wiser than our own, while we still felt safe and nurtured enough to make mistakes and say dumb things.
A wonderful and unique professor, a Christian Brother named Stephen Rusyn, who introduced us to the great Evelyn Waugh in early 1991. We read A Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall, and finally Brideshead Revisited. I loved Brideshead because it seemed to me a love story, and I was in love—not only with a boyfriend but also with the new springtime, my extremely fun roommates, the romance of college life, being 21, the freedom of having an education, and the confident that I was in for a lifetime of great opportunity and no problems. (Ha!) In Brideshead, Charles’s love for Sebastian and Sebastian’s young carefree lifestyle seemed a perfect reflection of my own college experience. Just as these young men’s perfect holiday in Venice couldn’t last forever, I knew I was about to graduate from college and I’d have to find a new road.
Fast forward 21 years.
I just re-read Brideshead Revisited. What do you know, it’s not just a love story! What is it really about? When I wrote out a list very quickly, without even thinking about it, I realized the question should be: What isn’t Brideshead Revised about? Here’s my first go-round at the subject matter:
The Catholic Church (oh yes, they are different)
Post-World War I changes in the social structure in England (old money, old homes, new money, etc.)
What it means to be English
Individuals’ self-awareness (and how hard it is to achieve)
Property inheritance in England
Women and their power in a family
The ability of individuals to change along with a quickly-changing society
On the screen, it’s not so impressive a list as it seems to be in my mind. I guess I’m just amazed at what a shallow read I must have given this novel back in college. I am not sure if I was capable of introspection or if I read the book outside of my own world context. Oh, I suppose I was in a great hurry; final exams were right around the corner, I had a couple of difficult classes in addition to this great one, and I am a slow reader, so any college course that required a lot of reading took a lot of my time. Of course I had my social life to maintain, too. (I say that satirically, in case you can’t hear it in my writing.)
Now in 2012, I am still not sure if I have properly read Brideshead Revised. When I look at the small list above, I realize how many of the subjects that Waugh addresses have been also been subjects of interest and education in my life. Do we always read books only from behind our own curtain of life experience and awareness? Without mediators such as college professors, book clubs, and discussion forums, or even with them, can we ever understand what an author has set forth in a dense piece of literature such as Brideshead, beyond our own context? To some extent, I suppose the answer is no.
(Aside: I just read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The book did help me to give a damn about how my country, the United States, played a direct role in the failure of Congo/Zaire/Congo to get on its feet after independence from Belgium in 1959. So yes, sometimes fiction succeeds in bringing us out of ourselves for awhile. Thank you, Ms. Kingsolver.)
On the other hand, the issues Evelyn Waugh explores in Brideshead continue to pester us now. (Catholicism! War! Old Money!) One sign of a great book, no doubt. Is Brideshead in The Canon?
Brother Rusyn, thank you for introducing me to this book. Mr. Waugh, thank you for your efforts. Now that I’ve gone through it again, I can at least go online and see what others think about it. By sheer coincidence, my brother also recently read this book, so I have someone to talk to about it. I’ll be calling him.
I’d love to hear from anyone else out there who’s read Brideshead Revised. What isn’t it about?