A recent review by Anthony Gottlieb addresses the new film version of “Brideshead Revisited”, which has been savaged by many critics for straying too far from the novel – not to mention from the much-praised classic television mini-series starring Jeremy Irons. Gottlieb’s review argues that the film successfully addresses many of the failings in “Brideshead” as a novel, and removes a clumsiness which Waugh himself perceived in the novel after its success, and which made Waugh think about how the novel ought to be edited for filming.
Having always preferred “A Handful of Dust” as my favourite Waugh in any case, I was not particularly shattered by the controversies of this new film version – more racy, less faithful to the book, Catholicism as some life-sappingly evil force, etc. Juvenile striptease act interpretations of concepts which the filmmakers could not possibly hope to understand are nothing new in contemporary society. However, Gottlieb’s review made me think about the possibility of an interesting connection between Charles Ryder, the narrator of “Brideshead”, Elizabeth Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice”, and Soames Forsyte in the first volume of John Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga”, “The Man of Property”.
While admittedly a somewhat simplistic or even reductionist argument, I have always had a slight dislike for Elizabeth Bennett, in that she only really begins to fall in love with Mr. Darcy once she sees what a grand house he lives in. Perhaps the charitable way to look at what is, at least initially, something tinged with an unpleasantly mercenary quality, is to consider that Elizabeth comes to see that someone who is capable of living in such beauty and making it even more beautiful cannot be all bad. This charity is then strengthened by Darcy’s subsequent acts of generosity and heroism on behalf of the Bennett family.
In his review of “Brideshead” Gottlieb notes:
The film plays up the contrast between Ryder’s gloomy home life and the glamour of Brideshead, which Waugh stressed in his memo, and which helps to explain Ryder’s desire to infiltrate the aristocratic world–be it via Julia or Sebastian.
This interesting idea made me ask: is it possible that what really seals Ryder’s conversion is his falling in love with a house? Certainly falling in love with Pemberley is what causes Elizabeth Bennett to reconsider her feelings toward Darcy. Perhaps Ryder’s Catholicism, as Gottlieb points out, has less to do with a genuine conversion of heart, and more to do with a conversion to ascending the ladder of snobbery.
In a different way, John Galsworthy in “The Man of Property” had a more reasoned take on the love of houses. Galsworthy came from an earlier generation than Waugh, and was not a Catholic, yet managed to understand that property cannot, in and of itself, be the source of the self-sacrificial love that is required of the Christian in his relationship to his fellow man (let alone with his wife.) In “Property” Soames goes about building a fashionable new house for his frigid young wife Irene in the hope that, by allowing Irene to make decisions regarding the planning and decoration of their new abode, she will come to warm to him. Instead, she warms to the architect and Soames rapes her as punishment.
Soames seeks to give a home which Irene, his love – or more properly, his obsession – does not want. It does not convert her. Ryder, at least on some level, wants to obtain his own “place” from Sebastian or Julia, which he has no real hope of ever attaining. His conversion seems to be caught up in velvet swags and gilt altar rails. Only Elizabeth Bennett, so far as we can tell, manages to live happily ever after with Mr. Darcy. And perhaps this is because, even if she fell in love first with the house, Elizabeth Bennett did not change herself in order to possess it. Rather, she simply gave its owner the chance to possess HER, by his actions.