Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Brideshead Generation Evelyn Waugh and His Friends By Humphrey Carpenter

'[The Brideshead Generation] has both style and substance, and is above all an enjoyable companion. It has a wildly amusing cast, here controlled by a skilful director.' "Evening Standard"

'Jovial and entertaining, full of the sort of stories that your friends will tell you if you don't read it before them.' "Independent"

'Carpenter has read widely and has collected an enormous fund of entertaining stories and facts.' "Sunday Telegraph"

'Hauntingly sad and wonderfully funny and by far the best thing Humphrey Carpenter has done.' Fiona MacCarthy, "The Times"

 Review By William Tegner on July 6, 2003

This is an admirable book, well written, balanced and well researched. After a slightly hesitant start, the scene shifts to Oxford in the early twenties; it comes across as a very dissolute place, with distinct homosexual undertones. The noticeable "public school" backdrop leaves you wondering why anyone should send their child to an English boarding school (at very great expense, incidentally). But they did, and still do. However, at Oxford we are introduced to a veritable galaxy of talent, including Evelyn Waugh, the lead character in the book, Graham Greene, John Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster, Anthony Powell and others. There are some very amusing quotes and anecdotes.
But the book becomes increasingly serious, and whilst not specifically a work of literary criticism, it cites reviews and gives the background to the works of Waugh and to a lesser extent others. It also looks at the curious world of the Roman Catholic convert. At the end I felt a little sad for Waugh and some of his contemporaries. In spite of their achievements, by no means all of them seemed happy.

Books of The Times; When Wit Was All And Kindness Was Nil
Published: December 22, 1989

The Brideshead Generation Evelyn Waugh and His Friends By Humphrey Carpenter 523 pages. Illustrated. Houghton Mifflin. $27.95.

''She almost wished in this new mood of exaltation that she had come to the party in fancy dress. It was called a Savage party, that is to say that Johnnie Hoop had written on the invitation that they were to come dressed as savages. Numbers of them had done so; Johnnie himself in a mask and black gloves represented the Maharanee of Pukkapore, somewhat to the annoyance of the Maharajah, who happened to drop in. The real aristocracy, the younger members of those two or three great brewing families which rule London, had done nothing about it. They had come on from a dance and stood in a little group by themselves, aloof, amused but not amusing.''

Evelyn Waugh's wicked description of a party in ''Vile Bodies'' gleefully captures the inane posturing of the Bright Young Things who came of age in London during the 1920's, and at the same time it captures the brittle mood of Waugh's own Oxford generation: a sense of postwar futility gaudily disguised as frivolity; a yearning after the aristocratic values of a vanished, nondemocratic age; a willful determination to substitute hedonism and witty detachment for seriousness and introspection.

Though Humphrey Carpenter's new book, ''The Brideshead Generation,'' touches briefly upon the forces that shaped Waugh and his friends -namely, the convulsive aftereffects of World War I, and the emergence of a new bourgeois society - it makes little serious attempt to situate this group of writers within the continuum of English cultural history or to assess its overall achievement. The reader who is interested in the social impulses that led to the ascendency of Waugh's circle (a group that included Cyril Connolly, Graham Greene, John Betjeman, Anthony Powell, Nancy Mitford, Harold Acton and Brian Howard) would do better to examine Martin Green's ''Children of the Sun,'' an original and absorbing study that carefully examines the emergence of these writers vis-a-vis earlier and later literary groups personified by Kipling, Orwell and Auden.

As for ''The Brideshead Generation,'' the book pretty much limits itself to chronicling the careers of Waugh and some of his friends, drawing heavily upon these writers' fiction and autobiographical works, and such secondary sources as Christopher Syke's biography of Waugh.

Because these authors wrote so cleverly about themeselves, because their lives were so crammed with colorful anecdotes, ''The Brideshead Generation'' makes for fast, diverting reading. Though much of the material is just old literary gossip, Mr. Carpenter manages to do a fluent job of weaving this information in with pithy analyses of individual books and casual sketches of overlapping social worlds. The reader gets to see John Betjeman, the future poet laureate of England, carrying his teddy bear (like Sebastian in ''Brideshead Revisited'') around the Oxford campus; the young Graham Greene playing Russian roulette with a loaded revolver, and an aging Waugh taunting unwanted guests with his huge antique ear trumpet.

The snobbish, insular realms of Eton and Oxford are conjured up in a couple of brief chapters, and the reader is quickly immersed in the acutely class-conscious politics of student society. The esthetic choices made during these school days would later shape entire lives and careers, but many of those choices appear to have initially been made on completely arbitrary grounds.

According to Mr. Carpenter, the future art connoisseur Harold Acton became an ardent proponent of mid-Victorian style because his rival esthetes at Oxford had already put dibs on the period of the 1890's; the only other viable alternative - ''to become pure modern'' - was embraced by Auden's circle. Waugh, Mr. Carpenter suggests, similarly gravitated toward political conservatism as an expedient social measure. Though he and his public school pals had ''sometimes posed as 'Bolshevik,' '' writes Mr. Carpenter, Waugh realized, upon his arrival at Oxford, ''that if he were to join one of the left-wing groups at Oxford he would 'find the competition too hot.' ''

In a well-known passage in ''Enemies of Promise,'' Cyril Connolly posited the theory that the experiences he and his contemporaries had undergone as students were ''so intense as to dominate their lives and arrest their development. From these it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental, and in the last analysis homosexual.''

Certainly the adolescent aspect applies quite pointedly to many of the writers in this volume. Though he outgrew his youthful fantasies of suicide, Greene has spent the better part of his life traveling the globe, looking for other ways of escape. With ''Enemies of Promise'' and ''The Unquiet Grave,'' Connolly became a specialist in the themes of futility and self-reproach. Brian Howard evaded his early literary promise by spending the better part of his life aimlessly wandering about Europe, before committing suicide in 1958.

Waugh, of course, went on to write a series of wonderfully comic novels - as well as the more elegiac ''Brideshead Revisited'' - but by middle age, he had sunk deep into an alcohol-soaked depression, his pose of defensive detachment calcifying into a ferocious misanthropy that alienated family and friends. He took a journalist to court for implying that his brother Alec's books had sold more than his own; and he complained that his own children were ''defective adults'' - ''feckless, destructive, frivolous, sensual, humourless.''

By the end of his life, he was constantly complaining that he was ''bored bored bored.'' It was a depressing and somehow fitting end to a life that increasingly revolved - like much of his social set's - around the snobbish distinctions of wealth and class, and a glittering but empty series of parties, drinking bouts and stupid jokes.

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