U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Brideshead Generation

brideshead revisitedYou may have already heard of the salacious rumors recently published in the Daily Mail regarding British Prime Minister David Cameron. If so, I needn’t go into the particulars, and if not, you’re welcome to look here (or, for a little more background from the Guardian, here). The first link goes to an excerpt from what is promised as a bombshell unauthorized biography of Cameron by the billionaire Tory politician Michael Ashcroft, who has a personal grudge against Cameron after being denied a government post he believes the PM promised him. According to Ashcroft’s own estimate, he had spent £8 million on the Conservative party’s electoral campaigns, but feels he has been shut out of the decision-making role that kind of money should have bought him. (U.S. politicians—especially those reliant on mega-donors—should perhaps take note here.)

But what I am more interested in is how Ashcroft begins that excerpt in the Daily Mail. He (and his co-writer Isabel Oakeshott) write, “When Cameron arrived at Oxford [1984 or 1985, I believe], it was in the wake of the huge success of the TV series Brideshead Revisited. Based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel, it featured the handsome and decadent Lord Sebastian Flyte, who wore a cricket pullover and over-indulged in alcohol.”

That tone-setting allusion to Waugh’s novel fascinated me, as Brideshead Revisited was also a central cultural touchstone for a group of young conservatives from around that era with whom I am a little more familiar—the first editors of the Dartmouth Review, which began publishing much closer to the actual premier of that miniseries (January 1982 in the U.S., October 1981 in the U.K.). The Review and Brideshead also shared a prominent supporter: William F. Buckley, who introduced each episode when it was broadcast on PBS. It had not really occurred to me that the Reviewers’ intoxication with the tale of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte would have been paralleled on that narrative’s home turf, that the actual students of Oxbridge might also do absurd things like carry around a teddy bear in imitation of Sebastian. Perhaps the draw of Brideshead on this generation of conservatives merits a little examination.

One of the essential points to make about the young conservatives’ allegiance to Brideshead as a sort of beau idéal of taste and class is that the novel itself is so bad. It is mawkish in a way that calls to mind A. E. Housman if not Erich Segal; its much-praised religiosity is mannered and ostentatious, a sort of hipster’s Catholicism; it is indulgent in a manner that I suppose hoodwinks some readers into believing it is haughtily decadent. The novel itself is perhaps redeemed if you first hear its slick and saccharine prose in the mouth of Jeremy Irons, but it is unredeemable otherwise. Waugh is generally known for his tartness, but Brideshead is pure cheesecake.

There is also a specter haunting Brideshead—the specter of Proust. How else can we read lines like “My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time” or “we possess nothing certainly except the past” except as a sort of pale emulation of In Search of Lost Time? Yet if we can see Brideshead as a sort of epigonic Recherche, epigonism is itself a theme of Waugh’s novel (as it is, to some extent, one of Proust’s motifs—Marcel’s epigonism), and it is that very thematic that I think appealed most and most intimately to this generation of conservatives.

For what Brideshead dramatizes is the problem of constructing an aristocratic demeanor essentially by pastiche—by a series of highly contrived gestures and recherché possessions. In Brideshead these gestures are often simply spontaneous and the possessions merely exquisite (though for Charles Ryder, seeking to imitate Sebastian’s fluent idiosyncrasy, he can only come off as studied and strained). For the 1980s, however—particularly within the ever-widening vortex of postmodernism—what had been spontaneous and idiosyncratic could only take the form of elaborate mannered anachronisms. For instance, here is a description of one of the founders of the Review, Keeney Jones, from Poisoned Ivy, a memoir by one of the other founders, Benjamin Hart (the son of the Review’s advisor Jeffrey Hart):

Jones was wearing a blue-and-white-striped seersucker jacket, white flannel trousers rolled up at the cuffs, loafers and white socks, a necktie with a picture of Uncle Sam saying ‘We Want You,’ and two buttons on his lapel, one of which read ‘Nixon in 1980,’ and the other with a picture of a B-52 bomber, under which was written ‘DROP IT.’ His cheeks were red, and he had an impish grin, as if he had just done something completely irresponsible. He was pulling behind him, on a leash, a baby blue foam-rubber shark. The shark’s name, I learned, was Chesterton. Jones ordered a strawberry daiquiri, threw his Sherlock Holmes hat on a rack, exposing his blond curls, and sat down…

Or here is Dinesh D’Souza’s description of Jeffrey Hart himself: “He wore a long raccoon coat around campus, and he smoked long pipes with curvaceous stems. He sometimes wore buttons that said things such as ‘Soak the Poor.’ In his office he had a wooden, pincer-like device that he explained was for the purpose of ‘pinching women that you don’t want to touch’” (from D’Souza’s Letters to a Young Conservative). And here is D’Souza, a few pages on, describing the leisure activities of the early Review:

I remember some of those early dinners at the Hart farmhouse. We drank South American wine and listened to recordings of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of Robert Frost reading his poems, and Nixon speeches, and comedian Rich Little doing his Nixon imitation, and George C. Scott delivering the opening speech in Patton, and some of Winston Churchill’s orations, and the music from the BBC version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

He goes on to say, “There was an ethos here, and a sensibility, and it conveyed to me something about conservatism that I had never suspected. Here was a conservatism that was alive; that was engaged with art, music, and literature; that was at the same time ironic, lighthearted, fun.”

The adjectives D’Souza uses to characterize this jumble-bin evening are remarkably inaccurate: what is lighthearted about Patton, or ironic about a Churchill oration? But one is also struck by the absence of anything that can truly be called high culture here. One can only see this as pretension rather than pretentiousness: the Reviewers are trying to act like country squires, but simply don’t know what they’re doing. Perhaps that was true even of the Bullingdon Club while Cameron was in it—a sort of nervousness compelled by the knowledge that they had to re-learn their parts as aristocrats because the taken-for-granted quality of noblesse was no longer a natural part of their lives or society.

But Brideshead crucially offered them a way out. Brideshead offered young conservatives a license to play-act at being debauched young lords, naughty, arrogant, loud, and louche. Of course, young men of a certain mind have never really required a particular text in which to find that license: even if the Review’s debut more or less coincided with Bridesheadmania, the clubs that Cameron belonged to have existed at Oxford for a very long time. But Brideshead—broadcast on television, for pete’s sake—was a sort of mass instruction in a partially forgotten code of pretentiousness and anti-egalitarianism. This generation of conservatives suddenly realized that if they acted like Sebastian, what they were doing would be recognized and either commended or abhorred. But it would not be mysterious; they would look like they knew what they were doing.

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