Banned Book Club: Brideshead Revisited
Title: Brideshead Revisited
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Challenge status: Brideshead Revisited is #74 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #38 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: An interesting case. I could not find specific challenges, but everyone on the internet seems to quote the wording from ALA OIF verbatim, the “challenge” described there is blanket (not specific to Waugh’s book) but Very Severe. In 2004, Gerald Allen (R) brought a bill to the Alabama state legislature to “ban the use of state funds to purchase any books or other materials that “promote homosexuality”.” Allen’s argument is that the ban would not have constituted censorship, but instead was an attempt to “encourage and protect our culture”, and prevent the immoral ideas (i.e. homosexuality) to from spreading and facilitating the “re-engineering [of] society’s fabric in the minds of our children”. More coverage on that (failed) legislation here, here, and here.
First line: ”When I reached ‘C’ Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning.”
I had no idea what the book was about when I started reading, I kind of despaired when I got started because the book opens up on some vaguely military-esque goings on in London in the WWII range (I sure have read a lot of books about WWII lately), but it turns out this book had pretty much nothing to do with the war, and everything to do with high society pre-war leading up to WWII. In fact the first part of the book takes place at college (in Oxford), where aristocratic boys will be aristocratic boys.
Regarding the themes that might concern potential censors: the “homosexual lifestyle” is vaguely referred to, and not disapprovingly, but sort of matter-of-factly. The relationship between Charles Ryder (the main character) and his college buddy Sebastian is clearly some kind of love that borders on romantic but the protagonists never suggests any kind of actual consummation. Some of the male characters “take up” with other gentlemen; live with them, travel with them – but details are not discussed. Which fits in context: extra-marital affairs are also described off-handedly, fodder for idle gossip (the scandal!) but never described in depth. I expect the tele-series (featuring Jeremy Irons, looking very louche) probably sets-up that aspect of the narrative a little more explicitly (more info here: Brideshead Revisited Series).
What a jewel of a book this is. So well written, and funny and sly. The key characters are vibrant but nuanced. It is actually pretty easy to understand how it made it to a list of the most well-regarded novels of the 20th century, it might be one of the best books I’ve read that I had never heard of in advance. Oh, and apparently if you’re into English Lords & Ladies and dramas of that nature (e.g. Downton Abbey) you might really dig this story, at least according to this article: “Downton Abbey” has nothing on “Brideshead Revisited”: Evelyn Waugh was the master of British aristocratic decline.
But despite this isolation and this long sojourn in a strange world, I remained unchanged, still a small part of myself pretending to be whole. – Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisisted
Besides the lifestyles of the rich and dissolute, the book also covered art & the art scene (Ryder is a painter), addiction (Sebastian is an alcoholic), religion (Sebastian’s family is Roman Catholic, a minority religion in the UK at the time), social strata (various threads), and love (of different types, at different levels). I thought even the end was done well, in the sense that one of the major romantic entanglements in the book ends rather abruptly; but not so much because their loved failed, but because they needed the space to make their lives succeed. I would have preferred a happier ending, the narrator probably would have also preferred a different story arc, but I thought Waugh did a good job – showing how a door could be gently but firmly closed rather than slammed shut.
This is probably the most refined and genteel banned book of the list.
* Update: I forgot to mention one small thing about this edition of the book, published by Everyman’s Library in 1993, which I found VERY helpful and I wish more books would include – a chronology. Side by side, events by year, in the author’s life, in the literary world, and in history. Just useful to keep things in context