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Reading Gay Men’s Book Club


Review for

“Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh.

This was the big prestige TV series just when I was making my closeted entry to the local gay world as an undergraduate. I first heard it mentioned in a camp acquaintance's enthusiasm - cute boys in love on prime-time ITV! I didn't really watch TV in term, but when I got home discovered my mother was an enthusiast - the best costume drama she'd had in years! So I let her make me sit through all the videos she wanted to re-watch. It was strange to see all that almost explicit homosexuality given such a positive presentation in the early episodes - but of course our family conversation never mentioned *that*. I saw the whole series on my mother's videos, I think, & a few years later read a friend's copy of the book, but rapidly & seeing it all through the eyes of the TV adaptation.

And then I gradually forgot it, but when it was chosen for the group I was happy enough to re-visit youthful pleasures... Only it seemed very different this time round, to a maturer reader with the TV series a dim memory. The unforgettable (to me, anyway) lines - "This house seems to have been designed for the comfort of only one person, and I am that one." which has dominated my idea of a Venetian palazzo ever since, the "raining spritually, only we were too sinful to see it", & "the sacred monkeys in the Vatican" of Rex's conversion, the appalling but hysterically funny schadenfreude of Charles's father to him - were all there, but the whole book seemed very different now. Not a vehicle for the bits that had been the set pieces of the TV series, but a much more complex work, a proper novel, with much of the complexity of real life but surely not just that... only what was I missing?

When we met to discuss it, most of us saw it through similar eyes, & it was only Piet who knew nothing of all that & had taken the book as it came - & seen it as parody. Perhaps that is the best way to read it. Apparently that's not what Waugh intended: he said the intended theme was how divine grace brought people to Catholicism. Yet 5 years after publication he said privately he'd re-read it & was appalled - publicly he just said (in a foreword another decade later) how absurd his longing for pre-war luxuries, his assumption that the country house was despised & doomed, & a couple of passages which were never intended to be realistic, now all seemed to him.

30 years on you'd expect the TV series to have been forgotten apart from the odd queen like me it was a formative experience for, but I see wikipedia's article on "Brideshead Revisited" is about it, with the recent feature film & the novel itself just supplementary pages. So, it was never really what Waugh meant it to be. I suspect it is best read as Piet did, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if I should read more of Waugh's work.

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