I first read Brideshead Revisited when quite a young teenager, in love with Waugh’s floppy haired bright young things, up at Oxford seemingly for nothing more arduous than to be sick through each other’s windows, or recite The Waste Land from balconies, or carry around bears called Aloysius. The television programme was on ITV but I was away at school so was only ever allowed to stay up for half of each programme, so had to read the book to find out what was going on.
Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.
Anyway, my Pollyanna-ish teenage self, combined with watching half of the dramatisation gave me quite the wrong impression of Waugh’s novel.
I’ve read it several times since, and each time I read it it’s a different book: it wasn’t until I read it at around the same age Charles Ryder is at the beginning of the novel that its melancholy genius really hit me.
Anyway, Brideshead Revisited was only thirty seven years old when I first read it. This year it celebrates its seventieth birthday, and I think it truly is Waugh’s triumph. Don’t be distracted by the dreaming spires and the decadent beautiful aristos, it’s an innocence and experience novel; it’s about lost innocence and loss, disappointment and not fulfilling one’s potential. Forget all that stuff I always write about the good ending happily and the bad unhappily, I think Brideshead is alluringly tragic. But I’ve just been mending my copy with sellotape (I’m a terrible breaker of spines and once the glue goes brittle, pages fly out like moths when you open them) ready to start re-reading it in preparation for Alex Preston’s Books That Built Me on 2nd June, and perhaps I’ll discover it has transformed itself yet again into quite a different book from the one I think it is.