This is a witty book that I disliked immensely. It asks the reader to be moved by the decline of the English country house (Brideshead) and the world of inherited privilege (as represented by the Marchmain family). At no point is there any suggestion that all their style and splendour might be the product of inequalities of gender and class; the vast majority of society is only represented in the form of uncomplaining servants. There is a singular lack of compassion for anyone less fortunate, and scorn for anyone who tries to ‘do good’. When Charles Ryder (the book’s narrator) speaks of Cordelia Marchmain’s work as a nurse during the Spanish civil war, he does so in a withering fashion.
It hurt to think of Cordelia growing up ‘quite plain’; to think of all that burning love spending itself on serum-injections and de-lousing powder. When she arrived, tired from her journey, rather shabby, moving in the manner of one who has no interest in pleasing, I thought her an ugly woman.
But I would probably be able to forgive the novel these limitations if it wasn’t so overwritten. Though there are many fine passages of prose, there are far too many overworked metaphors. Waugh himself said he regarded ‘writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language’.
I am, however, glad that I read to the end, else I would have missed this piece of unpleasantness.
It was no time for the sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and lime flowers. Now on the rough water there was a formality to be observed, no more. It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure.
This would have been a contender for the Bad Sex prize, had it existed then.