“Whereof what’s past is prologue…”

The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

Hi again, everyone 🙂 Another non-Shakespeare focused blog, but for those of you who are Bard-nerds like me, I’ll be blogging about the National Theatre production of ‘Timon of Athens’ pretty soon, plus some great books by Ben Crystal, James Shapiro, Frank Kermode and Jonathan Bate.

But for now, it’s onto an author I’m currently studying at school as part of my English A-Level coursework: Evelyn Waugh. At the moment, I’m studying ‘Brideshead Revisited’ but, in an effort to see if the ‘gluttony’ of that book which he condemned in its preface is so very different from his usual style, I also just finished ‘Scoop’, a satire on journalists and newspapers.

I’ll start with ‘Brideshead Revisited’, probably Waugh’s most famous book. It was made into a hugely successful, and hugely faithful tv adaptation by the BBC in 1981, starring Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons, and, more recently, a less faithful film version in 2008, starring Ben Wishaw and Matthew Goode. I’ve only seen the movie, so I’m afraid I can’t compare them, but, much as I love Ben Wishaw (see my ‘Richard II – The Hollow Crown’ post), they changed much too much for my liking. But I’ll talk more about that later, after I’ve written about the actual book.

Personally, I think the plot is too long for me to put it all here, and lots of bits are too important to miss out, so here’s a summary link for those of you who haven’t read it: http://www.shmoop.com/brideshead-revisited/summary.html. Or, of course, you could just read the book! I promise you it’s worth it.

The central characters of the novel are Charles Ryder, Lord Sebastian Flyte and Lady Julia Flyte. Charles and Sebastian have a particularly enigmatic relationship that has provoked a lot of critical interpretation. Put brutally, the question is: are they gay or not? They do have extraordinarily close relationship, yet, as Clara, (Sebastian’s father’s mistress – yep, it’s complicated), points out: “I know of these romantic friendships of the Germans and the British”. Romantic doesn’t necessarily mean sexual, and so this comment can be taken both ways; Charles is indisputably in love with Sebastian and his unique charm, his hedonistic lifestyle, but it is never clear whether their relationship develops into anything more physical, especially since they seem to dislike Antony Blanche (one of my favourite characters – he’s very witty, and much more observant than the rest of them) who is clearly homosexual. So basically, a complex relationship!

My favourite element about the book was not the characters; it was the ‘rhetorical and ornamental language’ that Waugh apologises for. Just…wow. How can you not like:

“In [Oxford’s] spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days…when the chesnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas,  exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.”

It’s just gorgeous; sublime. That’s why the first book in the novel: ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, is my favourite, because it’s where the full beauty of the language really comes into force. However, saying this, it isn’t my favourite book I’ve ever read; for me, Charles is just a little too pessimistic for my liking, and I wish Sebastian, Anthony Blanche and another of my favourites, Sebastian’s youngest sister, Cordelia were in the novel a lot more. Nevertheless, I would say this is one of those books you absolutely have to read, at least once in your life; if only purely for the descriptions.

Moving on to the film, I’m not going to lie, I thought it was a bit rubbish. They cut both Anthony Blanche and Cordelia to tiny parts, made the homosexual attraction between Sebastian and Charles a lot more explicit (which, admittedly, isn’t that bad in itself, but…), they made Julia and Charles’ relationship start in Venice, at least 5 years before it’s supposed to, meaning that it seemed as though Charles’ betrayal was the reason for Sebastian becoming an alcoholic, which made the stifling repression of his family and his disturbed, overly childish mind seem less important. However, I am one of those people who hate any changes being made at all in film adaptations, so I should probably watch the tv serial version instead!

‘Scoop’ is a lot less well known than ‘Brideshead Revisited’, and it has a very different tone. Although there are some very descriptive passages, they aren’t anything like the idyllic pastoral imagery of Brideshead. However, my favourite thing about ‘Scoop’ was its extremely sarcastic and ironic tone about the world of journalism:

“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns…

‘Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe gor orders to rush to the new revolution…Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blodd and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilised, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the press for you…”

I know that was long, but I hope that puts my point across. Then again, some of my family work in journalism, so perhaps I find this more funny than other people? Brideshead probably has more universal themes than ‘Scoop’, but I found the latter much more witty. The basic plot of ‘Scoop’ is also a lot more easier to understand than Brideshead, but because everyone in the journalism world is so confused, you yourself become more and more confused as different characters flit across the pages, some with very similar names, some with very similar personalities… You definitely have to keep your wits about you to properly understand everything that’s going on. However, this means that you have a lot of sympathy with the protagonist, William Boot, than you do for Charles Ryder.

Basically, two excellent books, but in very different styles. If you like sarcasm, irony, maybe tv programmes like ‘The Thick of It’ or ‘The Office’ , you’ll probably like ‘Scoop’. But if you’re a massive fan of costume dramas, like ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Parade’s End’, etc. then ‘Brideshead Revisited’ is the one for you 🙂

Thanks again for reading, and I’ll write more soon!

2 thoughts on ““Whereof what’s past is prologue…”

  1. Read ‘Vile Bodies’ if you get the chance! Its got the decadence and craziness of the ‘lost generation’ but its really surreal and kind of hilarious…again, not at all like Brideshead, and doesn’t sound very similar to ‘Scoop’ – I guess it’s good that he mixes it up a bit.

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