Waugh’s Saving Grace

Revisiting Brideshead, we see that wine ministers to the sense of being as do few other things

Literature Wine

Fourteen years after its first publication in 1945, Brideshead Revisited was reissued with a preface by the author. By this stage of his life, Evelyn Waugh had mastered a particular tone of quizzical hardness which was but one of the aristocratic affectations of this son of a middle-class publisher. Looking back on the moment of the book’s composition during a period of leave from military service following a minor injury, Waugh contemplated it with the appearance of dispassion:

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.

Certainly, the prose style of Brideshead is not, at all moments, under close authorial control. One recalls, with a shudder, some of the dialogue between Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte towards the end of the novel.

However, the many references to wine in Brideshead do not show Waugh merely wallowing in the blissful memory of prewar delights. No doubt there was a touch of wallowing. But there was also some authorial shaping, to the point where the language and appreciation of wine become closely associated with what Waugh claimed to be the deep theme of the novel, namely the operation of divine grace.

Waugh used the absence of wine to characterise the various dystopias of the novel. During his dreary war service leading “C” Company in various pointless journeys across an England immiserated and brutalised by war, Charles’s decline is reflected in his choice of drink:

Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old. I felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp; I developed proprietary claims to certain chairs and newspapers; I regularly drank three glasses of gin before dinner, never more or less, and went to bed immediately after the nine o’clock news. I was always awake and fretful an hour before reveille.

Wine is also absent from Charles’s father’s house. When Charles returns home after his first term at Oxford, old Mr Ryder makes a show of hospitality:

“What do you like to drink? Hayter, what have we for Mr Charles to drink?”

“There’s some whisky.”

“There’s whisky. Perhaps you like something else? What else have we?”

“There isn’t anything else in the house, sir.”

“There’s nothing else. You must tell Hayter what you would like and he will get it in. I never keep any wine now. I am forbidden it and no one comes to see me.”

At the excruciating dinner party Mr Ryder holds ostensibly to entertain his son (at which he drinks barley-water), the food and the wine are equally tasteless. 

Lord Brideshead’s dislike of wine, and his explanation for it, is an economical stroke of characterisation which crystallises his profound obtuseness: “I like and think good the end to which wine is sometimes the means — the promotion of sympathy between man and man. But in my own case it does not achieve that end, so I neither like it nor think it good for me.” 

Brideshead’s misunderstanding about the purpose of wine is perhaps inbred, the recognisable offspring of his father Lord Marchmain’s pathetic and misguided hope that he will be able to ward off death because he has always “drunk fine claret”.

If the absence of, or an abstention from, wine in Brideshead is a sure sign that something is wrong, its presence is no infallible indication that all is well. When Jasper, Charles’s pompous cousin, is instructing Charles on how to behave in Oxford, he touches on the topic of wine: “And drink — no one minds a man getting tight once or twice a term. In fact, he ought to, on certain occasions. But I hear you are constantly seen drunk in the middle of the afternoon.”

Like Lord Brideshead, Jasper is in the grip of a mistaken understanding of the use and value of wine. So, too, is the unspeakable Rex Mottram. Rex’s mistress, Mrs Champion, remonstrates with him when he opens a large-format bottle of champagne: 

“Why a Jeroboam, Rex?” she said peevishly. “You always want to have everything too big.”

The same ignorant abuse of wine as a mere instrument of ostentation is visible when Rex visits Charles in Paris. They go out to dinner at Paillard’s, then a famous restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne, and eat and drink sublimely:

I remember the dinner well — a soup of oseille, 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 bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bèze of 1904.

These splendours are wasted on Rex, who smokes with the red burgundy, and who dismisses the fine old cognac Charles requests in favour of something more “treacly” in a “vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort”.

By contrast, Sebastian Flyte knows about wine, and knows what wine is good for. Everyone remembers the baroque wine-tasting scene at Brideshead, and the far-fetched, impressionistic, terms Sebastian and Charles use for the wines they drink. But already, when Sebastian calls on Charles and takes him for the first time to Brideshead, the choice of wine shows taste and knowledge:

“You’re to come away at once, out of danger. I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Château Peyraguey — which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted, so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.”

Now known as Ch. Lafaurie-Peyraguey, and in 1855 ranked third among the wines of Sauternes after Yquem and La Tour-Blanche, this is indeed a sublime wine with soft fruit, to which it is better adapted than a more luscious Sauternes such as, to take an extreme example, Rieussec (at least as it is currently made).

What Sebastian understands, at least until he becomes an alcoholic, and what Charles through Sebastian’s friendship also comes to see, is that wine ministers to the sense of being alive as do few other things. It is a secular shadow of that grace which Sebastian never quite forsakes, no matter how degraded he comes to seem in the eyes of the world. That is why it is not merely a casual choice of word when Sebastian says that Lafaurie-Peyraguey is “heaven” with strawberries.