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I Capture the Castle: A girl and her family struggle to make ends meet in an old English castle.
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«  Posts from 31 December 2008  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

23.10.2021


In scanning a full-text copy of Book Review Digest for 1946 at the Internet Archive, I noted several pieces of criticism by Henry Reed, including his rather famous review of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited for the New Statesman and Nation (23 June 1945, p. 408-409). Reed's review is often quoted by Waugh scholars as a piece of contemporary criticism, and was reprinted in Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage (Martin Stannard, ed. London: Routledge, 1984).

Book cover

NEW NOVELS
Brideshead Revisited. By Evelyn Waugh. Chapman and Hall. 10s. 6d.
Household in Athens. By Glenway Wescott. Hamish Hamilton. 8s. 6d.
I Will be Good. By Hester W. Chapman. Secker and Warburg. 10s. 6d.

Serious implications have been present often enough in Mr. Evelyn Waugh's previous novels. The title of A Handful of Dust was significant; and certain excruciating moments in that book, as when the mother hears of her little boy's death, were threatening signs of a novelist whose powers were not easily to be ignored. Those powers find full expression in Brideshead Revisited, a novel flagrantly defective at times in theme and artistic sensibility, yet deeply moving in its theme and its design. It is as well to describe Waugh's faults at once; they recur constantly, both while one is reading him and while one is remembering him. They radiate almost wholly from an overpowering snobbishness: "How beautiful they are, the lordly ones," might well stand as an epigraph to Mr. Waugh's œuvre so far. A burden of respect for the peerage and for Eton, which those who belong to the former, or who hate been to the latter, seem able lightly to discard, weighs heavily upon him; and his satiric studies of the follies and cruelties of the posh have always been remarkable for the fact that their poshness has always seemed to the author more lovable than their silliness has seemed outrageous. It is a kind of snobbishness which finds one outlet in a special vulgarity of its own. There are several scenes in Brideshead Revisited where the narrator sets his own savoir faire against that of the lower characters—the scene in the Parisian restaurant with the colonial go-getter Rex, for example, or the pages satirising the transatlantic liner—and emerges as no less vulgar than his victims. It is as if a man should repeatedly point out to one that his bottom waistcoat-button is undone. This vulgarity goes very deep with Mr. Waugh; and it is not surprising that in embarking on his serious novel he should show an addiction to the purple.

The subjects of Brideshead Revisited are the inescapable watchfulness of God, and the contrast between the Christian (for Mr. Waugh, the Roman Catholic) sinner, and the other kind of sinner described in the cant term of our day as "pagan." Boldly, Mr. Waugh writes throughout from the point view of the pagan, which he, a convert to Roman Catholicism, has not forgotten; even more boldly he puts some of the most devout of Roman Catholicism among his least attractive characters. The book opens with a tale of romantic friendship at Oxford in the years following the first great war. Charles Ryder, the narrator, falls in love with Lord Sebastian Flyte, the beautiful son of Lord Marchmain; Marchmain himself, once a Catholic convert, is now an apostate; Sebastian is half-pagan. The Oxford passage, comic and romantic, is the most brilliant part of the book; nothing in the later part approaches it, save the last few pages of the story proper. The farce is of a high order; the picture of the narrator's father is a masterpiece of comedy; and the seeds of the later conflict are dextrously sown.

Sebastian is tormented by his mother, whom he cannot bear to be with. The mother is a mysterious and ambiguous figure, but not dissatisfying to the reader on that account. Sebastian's father has cut himself off from her and lives in Venice with a mistress. Like Sebastian, he flees from her, and it is perhaps not an over-interpretation to see here a suggestion that she represents some of the absolute exaction, difficult to face, of the Church. Symbolic or not, she is, in the story itself, patient, wonderful, cunning and unbearable; Sebastian cannot keep Ryder to himself and away from the family; and gradually he secedes from the relationship into drunkenness and vagabondage. Ten years later, Charles again meets Sebastian's sister, Julia, unhappily married to the barbarian Rex. The family charm works again, Charles falls in love with her, and is, in a curious phrase, "made free of her narrow loins" during a gale in mid-Atlantic. For two years their love survives happily; they are both about to be divorced in order to marry each other, when Julia feels "a twitch upon the thread"; she is reminded that she is living in a state of unchanging mortal sin, and cannot escape that consciousness; in the final pages, Charles is dismissed; we have already learned that Sebastian, far away in Morocco, has also felt the twitch upon the thread. The second part of the book falls far below the first; not only because for many pages we live in the dimensions of a gaudy novelette, enlivened, if at all, by the author's testiness at other people's bad taste, but because Julia is only a theme and not a person, whereas Sebastian has been both. Julia is alive only in her final speeches; and then simply because what she says is alive.

Underneath all the disfigurements, and never for long out of sight, there is in Brideshead Revisited a fine and brilliant book; its plan and a good deal of its execution are masterly, and it haunts one for days after one has read it. If one is reminded of François Mauriac it is not because Mr. Waugh's book is derivative, but for two other reasons. One remembers how much M. Mauriac can take for granted in his audience: Christian or agnostic, it knows what Catholicism is about. Mr. Waugh is in the far more difficult position of writing to an audience which in general is without that knowledge; he acquits himself convincingly, even to the pagan reader. Secondly, M. Mauriac reminds one of a lack in Mr. Waugh, for the great French novelist has sympathy with, and love for, the actual emotions of human beings. This sympathy and love are things no novelist can get along without; they are things which Mr. Waugh is still in the process of acquiring or reacquiring. A hard task; for they do not always survive religious conversion.

Household in Athens, Mr. Glenway Wescott's new book, is unusual among war-novels. Shock-tactics of technique, hysteria, over-loaded local colour, eager, unscrupulous cashing-in on the disasters of others: these are absent. It is not merely the intelligence and the watchful eye that have been engaged here. The heart is a dangerous necessity to the novelist; but it is, after all, his usual starting-point, however far away he gets from it. It is the first way of access which the author has to his characters. Mr. Wescott feels as deeply about his Greek family under the German occupation as the peace-time novelist feels about the creatures who build themselves up in his imagination and demand release. His four Greeks are thoroughly envisaged, the complexity of their plight, the slow, day-to-day horror, the mental dissolution and metamorphosis, the fantastic tricks played upon the mind bv physical decay, are desscribed with a realism of great calmness and strength. There is no local colour—a great relief. The Acropolis rises before us for a moment, but not for that purpose. There are no atrocities. It is a novel which explores its territory with great sincerity; it is a deliberately restricted territory, but there are moments when Mrs. Helianos's struggle with despair reaches out beyond the historical situation which provokes it. It is a profoundly moving book.

I Will be Good promises at first sight, and in its opening pages, to be a well-written, leisurely, escapist, comic novel; but into it one fails to escape. Nor is one meant to, though it might be possible to read the book as a romantic historical novel of immoral high-life in France in the eighteen-sixties, differing from others only by an unusual twist of fantasy. In point of fact, it has an almost Jamesian "idea" provoking it: a successful English lady novelist comes to live with a French family whom she well-meaningly, but insidiously and disastrously, persuades to behave like characters in one of her own romances. It is part of the great cleverness of the book that one is made to conjecture for oneself—and accurately, one believes—how the characters would have behaved if left to their real life. One knows, every time a wrong turning is taken, what the right alternative would have been. Between the amusing opening chapters and the beginning of the mischief there is an hiatus where one is out of step with the author's intention; as soon as this intention is clear the book is completely entertaining.
Henry Reed

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1532. Vallette, Jacques. "Grand-Bretagne," Mercure de France, no. 1001 (1 January 1947): 157-158.
A contemporary French language review of Reed's A Map of Verona.



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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