This was the Reading Group’s book for January. Made popular by the 1980s TV series starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick, I had never actually read the book. I had never seen the complete TV series either. Though we now have the full set on DVD and started to watch the series last summer. However we lost interest after about the fourth or fifth episode. So I was was rather keen to read the novel itself.
While the book contains some wonderful writing I did not find the novel very captivating or that interesting. Like the TV series, which is very faithful to the book, the novel, or at least the first part is full of bonhomie, gaiety, splendour and ravishingly beautiful people. But the people all seem to me to be pretty empty. Most of the main characters are part of the well established landowning rich. And by and large their lifestyle is one of easy going self-indulgence. It was very hard to like any of the main characters.
Evelyn Waugh ostensibly wrote the novel to show the workings of divine grace on a disparate but loosely linked group of people. Well, I can only say that I saw little evidence of grace anywhere in the novel. And any divine intervention seemed more in keeping with the antics of the Greek Gods on Mt. Olympus. Very little good happens in the novel. The Marchmain family are examples of rich catholics, but none of the family seems to get much satisfaction or comfort from their religion. Indeed it is fascinating that each of the six members of the family seems to have a very different version of what catholicism means in terms of everyday living. Religion weighs very heavily on all of them. In fact it seems to weigh each of them down in unhappiness and bitterness. By the end it has deprived Julia, who had until then seemed a level headed woman, of prospective happiness with Charles.
The only really interesting character was Anthony Blanche the overtly gay friend of the family. That an openly homosexual should play such a prominent and contrasting role in the novel raises the question of what Waugh meant by divine grace. Waugh’s whole attitude to sex is another problematic question for the novel. Charles and Sebastian have a very intense relationship, but it is never spelled out just how far this went in a physical sense. Latter on Charles does admit that he loved Sebastian, but no more is made of it. There is strangely little actual physical sex in the novel and when it does occur, when Charles finally beds Julia, it is described very briefly, almost perfunctorily, and appears to more like a military conquest than love between two human beings. Not a lot of grace, divine or other there.
In sum, not one of my favourite reads. The description of the life of a rich catholic family during the inter war years and the protected life of students at Oxford is quite interesting, but overall, the novel failed to convince me.