Friday, November 30, 2007

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels of all time and the standard against which I compare all Catholic novels. (Not surprisingly, hardly any of them measure up to it.) I have read it countless times, but not until quite recently did I realize that that the British edition is different from the American one.

I stumbled across this website, A Companion to Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which has annotated notes for both editions. There I discovered that fifteen years after its publication Waugh, having become a little embarrassed by the lushness of the novel's style, made come cuts and revisions in the 1960 British edition. The American edition has always kept to the original text. (Interestingly, "there was an even earlier limited edition of 50 copies, printed privately for friends, which differs from both the later published editions.")

I am relieved to discover that my copy is the American edition because I always like to see a work as the author originally released it.* (It annoys me no end when an artist can't let go of a piece of published work and keeps on diddling with it. I'm thinking of George Lucas revising Star Wars, Spielberg's multiple versions of Close Encounters, and my mother-in-law who, decades after their completion, revised details on her oil paintings so many times that they lost whatever virtue they had originally possessed.)

On the website David Cliffe points out one revision which he feels is notable. The passage deals with Charles Ryder's attitude to religion in contrast to the way Catholicism pervades the consciousness of Sebastian and his family. I take the liberty of of quoting the two versions.


I had no religion. I was taken to church weekly as a child, and at school attended chapel daily, but, as though in compensation, from the time I went to my public school I was excused church in the holidays. The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teaching was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it: religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the providence of ‘complexes’ and ‘inhibitions’ - catch words of the decade - and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophic system and intransigent historical claims; nor, had they done so, would I have been much interested.


I had no religion. I was taken to church weekly as a child, and at school attended chapel daily, but, as though in compensation, from the time I went to my public school I was excused church in the holidays. The masters who taught me Divinity told me that biblical texts were highly untrustworthy. They never suggested I should try to pray. My father did not go to church except on family occasions and then with derision. My mother, I think, was devout. It once seemed odd to me that she should have thought it her duty to leave my father and me and go off with an ambulance, to Serbia, to die of exhaustion in the snow in Bosnia. But later I recognised some such spirit in myself. Later, too, I have come to accept claims which then, in 1923, I never troubled to examine, and to accept the supernatural as the real. I was aware of no such needs that summer at Brideshead.

Though the later Waugh may have perferred a more asustere style, the earlier version does a better job not only of capturing Charles's religious background, but the attitude of the age toward religion. Time and place is an important element in Brideshead Revisited, which is why I think that the richer language of the first edtion, which so well evokes it, is more appropriate.

The next time I sit down to read Brideshead, I shall certainly have my browser open to David Cliff's website.

I would also like to point readers to Evelyn Waugh in his Own Words, where you can listen to excerpts from Waugh's talks and interviews. I particularly enjoyed hearing his description of Forest Lawn given on the BBC radio in 1948 (which is when The Loved One was published).

*Except of course those cases when the cutting and slashing has been ordered by the publisher over the author's protests.


wayfarer said...

Great post. I don't comment much but love reading your site. Keep up the great work!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Thanks for letting me know! Sometimes one feels like a person in a locked room talking to himself. It's always nice to know that someone else is listening.

bridey said...

I prefer the later revision - I particularly like the "supernatural as real" phrase. Also the explanation of Charles' father's singleness. I didn't know of the original text til recently, so I've grown up on the later revision...

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I suppose I'll have to sit down someday and read the revised version. Though I expect one tends to prefer whichever version was first read. Charles' father is such an intriguing character. I really liked the way he was portrayed in the BBC dramatization.