But do not, when attempting any course of reading aimed at appreciating Waugh's wit, give undue attention to Brideshead Revisited, a misfit of a book, much loved, and often loved in the wrong way, as the vomitous stupidity of Miramax's new film adaptation attests. There's a comic novel in there, but it is not, as the common expression goes, struggling to get out. It's lodged there quite contentedly; the book's acid portraits of dull dons and rich oafs are enmeshed with its affectingly tender peeks at lost youth and also with its eagerly overwrought splendor and its sincerely bogus religiosity. This was the seventh novel Waugh published—the eighth he attempted—a grasp at grandeur written in a mere four months, during a leave from the British army in early 1944. "Waugh wrote Brideshead with great speed, unfamiliar excitement, and a deep conviction of its excellence," Martin Amis once remarked. "Lasting schlock, the really good bad book, cannot be written otherwise."
All apologies to Wuthering Heights, but Brideshead Revisited has a claim as literature's finest schlock. It sees narrator Charles Ryder reflecting, with a compound of sharp rue and magniloquent longing, on his past. In his youth, there was a powerful love for beautiful and doomed aristocrat Sebastian Flyte and a failed attempt to rescue Sebastian from alcoholism; in early middle age, a thwarted romance with Sebastian's sister, Julia, and a continuing passion for the Flyte family's huge and gorgeous country house. At 39, Ryder—and, with him, the credulous reader—is convinced that the world of the Flytes has expired and, with it, an essential part of the soul of England.
It should be noted that those sentences erupt in the 1959 edition, which saw Waugh, appalled by his book, trying to redo the overdone bits. But there's no tinkering with emotionality as thoroughly bombastic as Brideshead's. The only thing to do is to put it on-screen. Thus, in the fall of 1981, did a miniseries version of Brideshead Revisited emerge on Britain's ITV, soon thereafter airing on PBS and becoming a smash on both sides of what its fan would doubtlessly refer to as "the pond."
But in Brideshead Revisited, Waugh has done the almost unthinkable. He has given us (jades, if the accusation is not too fierce) a full-blown acclamation of Catholic piety, vision, morals, and dogma, but in terms that steal a march past merely modern sensibilities, and in fact virtually swamp those sensibilities.