Posted on by Val Hewson
By Chris Hopkins
Here is Part 2 of our literary food blog on Evelyn Waugh, by Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University.
The book is infused with a kind of gluttony … which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.Evelyn Waugh, Preface to Brideshead Revisited, 1945, Revised Edition, 1959.
In November 1943, having been unwillingly transferred from the Marines to the Royal Horse Guards, and after having tried unsuccessfully to join the SAS, Waugh was sent on a parachuting course, though he was then forty years old. He actually enjoyed very much the sensation of jumping from an aircraft. However, in landing from one jump, he fractured his leg, and was given a period of leave to recover (eventually extended unpaid until June 1944) during which he began a new novel, to be published as Brideshead Revisited in 1945. (1) It is a novel filled with nostalgia and about nostalgia, but by no means without a critical if idiosyncratic theological framework. Even before this, in a diary entry for 29 August 1943, Waugh had written of his now changed feelings about Army life and of his urgent need to return to his work as a writer. It is perhaps particularly significant that he used a metaphor based on wine-production and cellarage to talk about how he saw the relationship between his experience and his writing at this point:
I dislike the Army. I want to get to work again. I do not want any more experiences in life. I have quite enough bottled and carefully laid in the cellar, some still ripening, most ready for drinking, a little beginning to lose its body. I wrote to Frank [Pakenham] very early in the war to say that its chief use would be to cure artists of the illusion that they were men of action.Evelyn Waugh, Diaries, p. 548; also quoted in Eade, pp. 320-1).
The vintages must be used at the correct time if they are not to spoil. Unlike his novels of the thirties and even his 1942 novel, Put Out More Flags, this new novel is not mainly about the now, about the modern and modish, but was to be a reflection, Proustian in some respects, on the decades of the twenties and thirties, and their relationship to the wartime present, as well as on various specific lives in the light of eternity and ‘divine grace’ (Preface, location 2). Perhaps in terms of the novel’s larger ambitions, its treatments of food and drink are not primary, but they are nevertheless prominent, and a key part of the work’s atmosphere. As Waugh saw, looking back from the perspective of nineteen-fifty-nine, what he and many others experienced as privations of personal pleasure and indeed style influenced the way the novel recalled the recent past. Here are some of Waugh’s reflections in 1959 on the time when he wrote the novel:
It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English, and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. I have modified the grosser passages but have not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the bookEvelyn Waugh, Preface, location 8.
The connections Waugh makes between food and wine and other matters of style is notable. Nineteen forty-four is the period of ‘soya beans’ and of Basic English, both, in Waugh’s view, drastic reductions to full and proper ways of living. The Soy Info Centre’s invaluable time-line on the History of Soya Beans in Britain and Ireland explains that:
During and after World War II soy flour is used extensively as a substitute for meat, milk, eggs and flour in a vast array of foodstuffs … [it] developed the image of a bad-tasting ersatz foodstuff, and the English came to dislike any food with the name ‘soy’ attached to it, in part because of poor product formulations and the use of low-quality soy flour (2).
Basic English was clearly considered by Waugh a linguistic or stylistic equivalent to soya beans, wholly unable to substitute for the real thing. The idea of Basic English was formulated by Charles Kay Ogden in his book, Basic English: a General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1932). Basic English was not intended to replace English as a natural language, but to be used by speakers of English as a second language, and to make international communication in English clearer and simpler. This second aim was associated during the war with an idea that Basic English could help sustain world peace in a post-war world. Basic English simplified English by reducing the number of words, both verbs and nouns, while retaining a more-or-less ‘natural’ word-order. Ogden argued that most everyday communication could be readily managed with only eighteen verbs and a core vocabulary of two-thousand words. These precepts are still in practical use – notably in the Simple English Wikipedia (3). Orwell based the ‘constructed language’ of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg, 1949) on Basic English, fearing its potential for restricting not just free speech, but the expression of free meaning. Clearly, Waugh too saw Basic English as an impoverishment of natural English, and a sign of the times.
Brideshead Revisited certainly does use a more purple prose than Waugh had ever used before (except in the way of parody), but as Waugh realised, this was not just an incidental feature, but something deeply embedded in the conception of the novel. Here for example is the nostalgic opening of chapter one of Book One, which follows on from the much more austere Prologue, and which describes Captain Charles Ryder’s unexpected return to Brideshead when the Army sends his unit there:
‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were cloudy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of particular splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest (location 229). (4)
Strictly-speaking, purple prose is always a critical term, indicating a prose style which is so excessively decorative that it inevitably fails to hold the reader’s attention or to construct a clear meaning. In that sense, Waugh’s prose here is not purple, because it surely does work superbly in its context, but it is perhaps nearly as rich and ornamental as you can get before turning purple.
It was Waugh himself who made the connection between rationing, food and style in the novel in his Preface, and indeed there is a richness about the description of food in the novel which is equivalent in many ways to the novel’s love of the nostalgic, emotional and rhetorical charge of the past. Of course, the food recalled was indeed at the time a Remembrance of Things Past. Here is the most elaborate description of food, (French) cooking, and wines in the novel. As a foil to Charles Ryder’s knowledgeable enjoyment of this superb meal in Paris is Rex Mottram, who pays for the meal, but does not at all understand its quality:
I remember the dinner well – soup of oseille [sorrel], a sole quite simply cooked in a white-wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviar aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and with the duck, a Clos de Bèze of 1904.
I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (locations 2420 and 2470). (5)
Perhaps one would not want to consume such prose all the time, but given the drabness of wartime rationing (which of course went on into the later nineteen-fifties), this response is not mere gluttony, but a heroic recreation of fine food, of food as art (even if Waugh’s own war was not entirely deprived of some decent food and wines – though I personally suspect that entire bottle each of 1920 Dow’s may have been a mistake, in terms of both style and appreciation of the virtues I imagine it to have possessed).
Read Part 1 here.
Note 1. See Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited, by Philip Eade, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2016, pp. 321- 327 for some of Eade’s account of Waugh’s military career during this period, including a quotation from a letter to Laura Waugh about his enjoyment of parachuting.
Note 2. See History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in the United Kingdom and Ireland (1613-2015) – SoyInfo Center, based on a book of the same title by William Shurtleff and Akiko Ayoyagi (Soy Info Centre, 2015), which can be downloaded in full from the site.
Note 3. Information drawn from the Wikipedia entry on Basic English, which also gives links to Basic English word-lists still in use in various contexts and indeed in the Simple English Wikipedia. See: Basic English – Wikipedia.
Note 4. Some indication of the nature of Waugh’s post-war editing can be seen by comparing the 1945 original of this quotation with the 1959 revision:
‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fools’ parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as is given us once or twice in a life-time, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.
(Readers Union with Chapman and Hall unrevised edition, London, 1949, p.15; 1945 editions are not that easy to obtain, being quite collectable; I have underlined textual differences between the 1945 and 1959 versions here, and again in Note 5).
Note 5. In the 1945 version, the first quoted paragraph is identical, but the second had a considerable expansion which spoke of the impossibility of describing a fine wine in its own terms, and saw all such accounts as influenced by the describer’s own emotions:
I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (p. 135).
A concise overview of the textual complexities of Brideshead Revisited across its manuscripts and editions is given in Robert Murray Davis’ ‘Notes Towards a Variorum Edition of Brideshead Revisited’, in the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, vol. 2, part 3, p.4 (12/1/1968).