Posts Tagged 'the brideshead generation'

Humphrey Carpenter doesn’t get Evelyn Waugh.

I quoted from The Brideshead Generation, Humphrey Carpenter’s 1989 biography of Evelyn Waugh and his friends, already while discussing Nancy Mitford. I finished the book a month ago and since then it’s been sitting on my coffee table, multiple bookmarks poking out of it, waiting to be blogged about.

humphrey carpenter the brideshead generation

As a biography I think it’s quite good. Waugh is the focus of attention, although the early chapters are shared equally among his Oxford contemporaries – Harold Acton, Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman, and Anthony Powell, among others. Graham Greene and Nancy Mitford turn up later in the book, and George Orwell puts in a cameo.

As literary criticism, however, The Brideshead Generation is a little exasperating. Carpenter examines the works of his subjects with reference to what was happening in their lives at the time of writing; this is excellently done. But sometimes he turns it around and attempts to explore his subjects’ characters by referencing their fictional works, and this is where he loses me. Am I being too easy on Evelyn Waugh (the man, not the author), or is Carpenter just being a literal-minded prig when he offers analysis like this?

The Loved One concludes with Dennis cremating [his love interest] Aimée without a shred of regret: “The fire roared in the brick oven. Dennis must wait until all was consumed. He must rake out the glowing ashes, pound up the skull and pelvis….” … Dennis is a writer, and at the end we are told that he will return to Europe carrying “the artist’s load, a great shapeless chunk of experience”. All through the story, Waugh has emphasized that Dennis is in a superior position by being an artist, and has suggested that this licenses his ruthlessness and dishonesty, and even permits him to destroy Aimée. The image of his smashing her burnt bones brings home violently what the novella has been telling us all along, that the writer has the right to manipulate, deceive, and finally destroy those around him if they can provide fuel for his art.

evelyn waugh the loved one

At the risk of belaboring what, to me, is incredibly obvious, Dennis Barlow is a sonofabitch. Carpenter writes as though he thinks the protagonist of The Loved One is intended by Waugh to be a heroic figure whom the reader should admire. He’s not: he’s a lazy fraud and (it is implied) a hack writer. When Dennis gives up his heart – “something that had long irked him” – in exchange for that “shapeless chunk of experience” which he will sculpt into a great work of art, there is no reason to believe that Waugh applauds the barter. There is a note of tragedy to the passage that Carpenter completely misses.

Of course, just because we’re not meant to admire Dennis, that doesn’t mean we aren’t meant to identify with him. He’s at the centre of the story and we see much of the action through his eyes, and it’s natural that we’ll sympathise with him. Up until the end, where he shrugs off Aimée’s suicide and conspires to dispose of her body, he’s a likeable figure, a cynic in a world of guileless simpletons. So let’s assume that the author, too, identifies with his anti-hero. If it is therefore fair to psychoanalyse Waugh in the guise of his fictional creation – I’m not sure it is fair – it might be reasonable to conclude that the creator doesn’t like himself very much: Dennis is the self-absorbed monster Waugh fears himself to be, annihilating, for the sake of his writing, the innocent people who love him.

But I think this conclusion is as oversimplified as Carpenter’s. The implication of the psychoanalytic approach to literary criticism is that the author’s writings flow directly from his subconscious onto the page, and that they can and should be interpreted like dreams. But the author (especially a master like Waugh) knows what he’s doing. His imagination is mediated by his self-awareness, humour, and sense of irony. To the extent that Dennis is Waugh, which I’m sure is more than a little, Waugh was not unaware of that fact. It occurs to me now that Dennis may even have been intended as a little fuck-you to those critics (like Carpenter) seeking evidence of Waugh’s own undeniable misanthropy in his writing.

At any rate, Dennis is a provocative comic character. He’s not funny in the way that Carpenter apparently believes he was meant to be funny, in the manner of Bugs Bunny or Cyrano or Groucho Marx: we’re not supposed to cheer for him as he puts jerks and poseurs in their place. In some ways Dennis is more like Daffy Duck or George Costanza or Mr. Toad: a selfish creature of limited self-knowledge, at war with a hostile world. But with those characters, the humour comes from their inevitable comeuppance, whereas Dennis gets away scot-free.

Outside of Waugh’s own fiction, the closest analogue to Dennis Barlow that I can think of is Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. But even she suffers a downfall, and she redeems herself a little at the end by helping to bring Amelia and Dobbin together. There’s a fairly minuscule literature of anti-heroes who triumph in the end without betraying their essential sonofabitchness, while retaining our sympathy. They mostly exist in Waugh’s writing. One can see why Humphrey Carpenter would be confused.

M.

Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Voltaire in Love, by Nancy Mitford.

Every Penguin book contains a brief biography of the author. Nancy Mitford’s explains that she was brought up in “a large remote country house with five sisters and one brother” – the inspiration for the Radlett family in her sequence of novels that begins with The Pursuit of Love – and that like the girls in that book she was “uneducated except for being taught to ride and to speak French.”

Much as I love Nancy Mitford, I sometimes find myself wishing that she’d been denied the French lessons. With her most famous novels taking place largely or partially in France, there are endless opportunities for Mitford to drop chunks of that language undigested into her narrative. This is a common tic among British authors of her era. Evelyn Waugh does it too, though less frequently. And I’ve read writers from still earlier in the 20th century (Lytton Strachey comes to mind) who don’t hesitate to show off their erudition in Latin or even Greek, again without bothering to translate for the benefit of their more ignorant readers.

Where Mitford is concerned, usually I can piece together the gist of these lines using common sense and my 11th-grade French skills. But then I came to her little biography Voltaire in Love, about the affair between Voltaire and the Marquise du Châtelet. Here she takes the trouble to translate letters, but epigrams and verses are usually reproduced verbatim.

nancy mitford voltaire in love

For instance, she offers this poem written by Frederick the Great of Prussia to his friend and correspondent Voltaire. The situation is that Frederick (or Fédéric, as the Francophile prince liked to sign himself), a young intellectual with pacifist leanings, has just come to the throne, and now must contend with the death of Charles VI of Austria. Charles had no male heir, and although he has arranged for his daughter Maria-Theresa to succeed him, the other royal families of Europe immediately begin plotting to lay claim to various pieces of the Austrian empire. Frederick is under pressure to extend Prussia’s borders at Austria’s expense. He writes:

Déjà j’entends l’orage du tambour,
De cent heros je vois briller le rage,
Déjà je vois envahir cent états
Et tant d’humains moissonnés avant l’âge.

“This may not have been very elegant,” Mitford adds, “but was perfectly clear.” Sigh. Here’s what I was able to make of it on my own:

Already I hear the something of the tambourine,
Of a hundred heroes I see something the rage,
Already I see something a hundred states
And many people something before the age.

With the help of a web translator I’m able to put together:

Already I hear the the storm of the drum,
I see the rage of a hundred heroes shine,
Already I see a hundred states invaded
And so many humans harvested before their time.

Not very elegant…but clear enough. Unfortunately I do most of my reading in bed, and I refuse to hump over to the computer each time some French verse appears. So I’m missing a lot.

***

In an article quoted by Humphrey Carpenter in The Brideshead Generation, Evelyn Waugh claims that

because most women have not received a classical education, they write “as though they were babbling down the telephone – often very prettily, like Miss Nancy Mitford.”

…A condescending way to speak of his good friend Miss Mitford. (And doesn’t the slangy, jazzy style of Waugh’s earlier and best novels owe a lot more to telephone talk than it does to Sixth Form Latin?) I wonder what Waugh would say about today’s authors, few of whom have confronted Xenophon or Virgil in the original. Is all modern literature just babbling down the telephone?

***

A few months back I described how I often failed to pick up allusions in literature written before my time:

[I]t makes me wonder how many of these finer points I’m missing, when I read British novels a half-century old or older … I suspect if I slowed down and went through these novels with an eye to investigating such perplexments, rather than skipping ahead to get on with the story, I would find a mystery in almost every paragraph.

Mitford is usually pretty forthright, but she chooses to be vague in describing a “coarse and cruel” satire performed by opponents of Voltaire’s controversial Le Temple du Goût:

Polichinelle is ill – comes the doctor – orders a good beating and a purge – after which the Temple du Goût is carried onto the stage, in the shape of an object that can be imagined.

Alas, what could be imagined by the readers of 1957 cannot be imagined by me. Presumably by “purge” the doctor meant the application of an enema. So the object that is carried onto the stage is Voltaire’s book in the shape of – what, an enema bag? Can that be right?

How would you make a book that looks like an enema bag? I’m glad I’m not the prop guy for that play.

***

For all her modesty about enema bags, or whatever, Mitford is surprisingly free with the word “whore”. She uses it to describe her heroine, Mme du Châtelet:

In spite of her careful upbringing and the outlet provided by a diversity of interests, she always had something of the whore.

She goes on to relate the anecdote of a footman who was asked to pour hot water into her bath:

As she did not use bath salts the water was clear and she was naked in it. Without any embarrassment she separated her legs so he could pour the water between them. Eighteenth-century manners may have been free and easy, but this was not the ordinary behaviour of an honest woman.

Reading this passage out of context the modern reader might assume the author is prudishly condemning Mme du Châtelet. Actually Mitford is quite sympathetic to her, even when the Marquise is behaving (as she frequently does) like a jealous nutbar.

The word comes up again in describing two women that the Marquise’s erstwhile tutor and lover, Maupertuis, brought back from an expedition to Lapland:

Les tendres Hyperboréennes seemed very much less attractive in Paris than in their native land; soon he longed to be rid of them. He opened a subscription … with the proceeds he placed one sister in a convent. The Duchesse d’Aiguillon’s excellent butler found a husband for the other, but she turned out to be a disappointing wife, in fact a whore.

I was brought up short each time I came across the word “whore”. (It seems particularly unfair when applied to that unfortunate Lapp, hauled all the way to France then unceremoniously dumped on a stranger.) Nowadays “whore” is usually reserved for the extremest insult; one doesn’t throw it around as lightly as Mitford does; feminism has taught us all to be wary about passing judgement on women’s sexuality. But I don’t think Mitford is being judgemental; I think she’s just using “whore” as a synonym for “promiscuous”. It seems the flavour of the word has changed over the past half-century. Somehow feminism has actually added to the sting of the epithet, rather than diminished it.

M.

Update, May 13 2009: Turns out I had more to say about Voltaire in Love.

Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

In December I blogged about Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, and Noblesse Oblige.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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