Brideshead Revisited enchants readers with its luscious portrayal of upper-class life. But at its heart is the working of grace

Fifty years after his death on April 10, 1966, Evelyn Waugh’s life and work still captivate us. It’s not hard to understand why – he is one of the prose stylists of the age, and one of its funniest writers. His comic gift is all the greater for being shot through with pleasing melancholy and joyful malice.

The curious thing is that, of all his books, it’s Brideshead Revisited that enchants the public more than any other. Waugh obsessives, including me, prefer A Handful of Dust – for its macabre chill – or Scoop, for its mixture of comedy and eternal accuracy about the ridiculous side of journalism.

But it is Brideshead that dominates the popular vision of Waugh; Brideshead that was a huge hit in America after it came out in 1945; Brideshead that was made into the excellent Granada series in 1981, and the third-rate film in 2008.

Waugh was clear about the main point of Brideshead in his 1959 preface to the revised edition. “Its theme – the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters – was perhaps presumptuously large, but I make no apology for it.” And, it’s true, Catholicism provides the spine of the book.

Charles Ryder begins, at his own admission, with “no religion … The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth.”

By the end of the book (spoiler alert), Ryder is kneeling before the tabernacle in Brideshead’s chapel, saying a prayer, “an ancient, newly-learned form of words”. The implication is that he is about to become a Catholic. Lord Marchmain receives the sacraments on his deathbed. Sebastian ends up in a monastery. A devout Julia separates from the divorced Rex Mottram, and backs out of marriage to Charles, who has already been married.

So, yes, Catholicism is the central theme of the book – but it is only one of several themes. Even Waugh acknowledged that religion is concealed below them. He said to A D Peters, his literary agent, “The whole thing is steeped in theology, but I begin to agree that the theologians won’t recognise it.”

In 1944, Waugh wrote to his old friend, Coote Lygon, whose family – and family home, Madresfield Court in Worcestershire – inspired Brideshead Castle. He said of Brideshead Revisited, “I am writing a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high-born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves and those are mainly the demons, sex and drink.”

Yes, Catholicism was the heart – and the point – of Brideshead Revisited for its author. But, still, Waugh didn’t mention religion in that letter. He knew that most of his readers, including Coote Lygon, would be more gripped by sex, drink, tears, beauty, high birth, palaces and the demons.

Books often have an afterlife independent of their writers’ intentions. And, to most readers, it’s the non-religious themes that loom larger in Brideshead Revisited. The theme that looms largest today is class. If a newspaper wants to attack Oxbridge for supposed class bias, it still uses “Brideshead” as a shorthand for floppy-haired public schoolboys declaiming Homeric hexameters to each other in port-crammed punts.

The big reason for that is the 1981 Granada series – a triumph that can claim to be the best television adaptation of any classic novel ever. That’s because it was given 11 one-hour episodes, so it wasn’t compressed like so many adaptations.

It also helped that much of the book was read out by Jeremy Irons in that elegiac, mournful voice of his. Most of the words in Irons’s voiceover were Waugh’s – not a screenwriter’s poorer version, as in the screenplay of the dire 2008 film. In fact, John Mortimer’s script for the TV series was largely replaced by one that depended on Waugh’s original lines.

The Granada programme, then, was pretty faithful to Waugh. Certainly, the Catholic theme came through – but not nearly as strongly as the Oxford theme, of teddy bears and plover’s eggs; or the baroque splendours of Castle Howard, starring as Brideshead Castle. Enhanced by Geoffrey Burgon’s elegiac music, the telly Brideshead hammered home the lotus-eating, champagne-glugging joys of inter-war, upper-class life in Britain.

At Oxford in 1981, the series kicked off a revival of fashionable poshness – Barbours and cords became all the rage. Even eight years later, in 1989, when I went to Oxford, the cult lived on. One friend gorged on charcoal biscuits and iced black coffee the night before his PPE Prelims, just as Charles Ryder did. How excited we were when the second son of a marquess turned up at Christ Church, as if by magic.

Before the Granada series, Brideshead hadn’t exactly slipped off the literary map. But Waugh, Brideshead Revisited and the book’s association with grand young things weren’t nearly so celebrated. After the Granada series, Brideshead became Waugh’s most famous book; and the associations with Oxford and class have been exaggerated ever since.

Still, even when the book first came out, some readers thought that, when it came to blue blood, Waugh dipped his pen in rose-tinted ink. In 1945, my great-aunt, Lady Pansy Lamb, received one of the first 50 copies of Brideshead Revisited from Waugh. Her opinion of the book was characteristically direct.

“All the richness of your invention, the magical embroideries you fling around your characters cannot make me nostalgic about the world I knew in the 1920s,” she wrote. “Nobody was brilliant, beautiful and rich and the owner of a wonderful house, though some were one or the other … Oxford, too – were Harold Acton and Co really as brilliant as that, or were there wonderful characters I never met? … You see English society of the 20s as something baroque and magnificent on its last legs … I fled from it because it seemed preposterous, bourgeois and practical and I believe it still is.”

Waugh was shocked by this letter, but acknowledged in 1959 that he had gone over the top in his luscious, hedonistic descriptions. Referring to the period from December 1943 to June 1944, when he wrote the book, Waugh said, “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English – and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.”

Waugh also admitted that he overdid his flattery of the upper classes and their houses.“It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the 16th century,” he wrote, “So I piled it on rather … And the English aristocracy has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible … Much of this book therefore is a panegyric preached over an empty coffin.”

But this lavish praise for aristocratic life – and the accompanying lavish prose – also gave Brideshead its enduring allure. It is the most elegiac, yearning and nostalgic of Waugh’s books.

With his loud check suit and ear-trumpet, the middle-aged Waugh was a grumpy arch-nostalgic – a walking reminder that nostalgia in Greek literally means “pain in going back”. And there certainly is pain in Charles Ryder returning to Brideshead as an officer in the war: “Here, at the age of 39, I began to be old … Here my last love died.”

Brideshead is the ultimate, lyrical farewell to those super-close, young friendships so many of us have; a goodbye to youth itself, too. But there is also beauty and pleasure in going back. You don’t have to be the second son of a marquess to look back on your youth as a golden age – when the sun always shines, as the cliché has it.

Charles Ryder talks of finding, through Sebastian, “that low door in the wall … which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden”. Those youthful episodes in Brideshead are like a trip to the Garden of Eden, with the delusion that expulsion will never come.

Waugh, as an uncompromisingly orthodox Catholic, was in no doubt that it was a delusion. Life, like the balls of Trinity term, must come to an end – and then, he believed, we must all face judgment. Charles, Sebastian, Julia, even Lord Marchmain, come to share this belief. And all of them, in one way or another, end up genuflecting.

Non-Catholic readers often find this unconvincing or even distasteful. The tension between faith and class worship in Brideshead makes for uncomfortable reading – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that Waugh himself struggled to reconcile a religion of self-sacrifice with his own taste for the well-born.

It may have helped the novel that the Catholic toffs of Waugh’s day were relentlessly snobbish – perhaps to compensate for the anti-Catholicism of many Protestant aristocrats and gentry. There was – and perhaps still is – no snob like a recusant snob (notwithstanding that Lord Marchmain was, in fact, a convert).

By celebrating a grand Catholic family, Evelyn Waugh hoped to kill two birds with one stone, slipping in the virtues of religion beneath the intoxication of sin. Brideshead Revisited repudiates the sins of the flesh but not snobbery, identified by Proust as a sin against the Holy Ghost. Still, without the snobbery, the book wouldn’t be nearly so irresistible.

Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English (Viking).

This article first appeared in the April 8 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here.