Conversion by Property

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.


5 thoughts on “Conversion by Property

  1. >While it’s indisputable that Elizabeth was awestruck by Pemberly, I always felt that her feelings towards Darcy first began to turn when she heard the housekeeper talking about what a good man he was, at length. She interrupts her initial musings that she could have been mistress there, receiving her aunt and uncle as guests, by reminding herself that she wouldn’t have been permitted to invite them, such was her opinion of Darcy. When Darcy himself appears that day at Pemberly, she is exceedingly vexed at having been found there by him, because she can’t reconcile the housekeeper’s stories with her own experiences, and is thoroughly confused. I think you sell Elizabeth quite short in your analysis. While she appreciated the beauty of Pemberly, it was the testimony of Darcy’s people that began her conversion of the heart.


  2. >Oh far be it from me to sell Elizabeth Bennett short! It would be like spitting sunflower seeds in the Louvre. Admittedly as a man, I see her a bit differently than the fairer sex, and I make no apologies for that.To your point, Joan: No question that the words of the housekeeper about the care Darcy showed to his sister, among others, helped to soften Elizabeth’s heart. Again, as I pointed out at the conclusion of my ramblings, Darcy ultimately succeeds in obtaining Elizabeth’s affection by his actions, by his deeds proving his worth to her, and not MERELY because he has some nice digs. However as Maureen has pointed out there is that initial “wow” of the house itself, and of course there is the simply logistical fact that she sees the park and the house well before she meets the housekeeper. As I have also written in a subsequent entry, beauty can be a revealer of truth and can tell us much about an individual’s character. It is important to the development of the narrative that when Elizabeth sees this particular monster in his own lairElizabeth is, as you say, confused by the contrast between her preconceived notions of Darcy and the beauty of his home. Something does not fit, nor is in focus. Ultimately things do come together, and all is reconciled. This is why I think the contrast between these three works is rather significant.


  3. >I pointed out over at Dawn’s that Elizabeth’s remark is an obvious joke that she makes in response to Jane asking her how her change of heart had come about. When E dates it to seeing his “beautiful grounds”, Jane “entreats her to be serious” and the conversation that followed lasted half the night, Austen says.Elizabeth was my earliest literary heroine and one disses her at one’s own risk!~lily


  4. >And perhaps just as obviously, my comment on Elizabeth being a tiny bit covetous – which the few men who posted on Dawn’s blog agreed with – was also meant as exaggerated humour that was clearly lost on many. But then, my vocabulary is somewhat bereft of choice expressions such as “to diss”.


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