Brideshead Revisited is one of those books that changes with one’s years: when I read it as a teenager I (like many teenage girls, missing the point entirely) pretty much lost interest once Sebastian Flyte disappears into northern Africa; later I decided that it was immature and shallow to love the novel’s idyllic university section, that the point of the book was not the BBC-ready Oxford scenes but the inexorable pull of the Catholic church on the family, the “twitch upon the thread,” which acts so differently upon each of them (including Charles Ryder, whose own conversion is so delicately offered at the end). I take a more tempered view now—clearly Waugh enjoyed that first lush, sentimental section, and it would be silly for his readers not to enjoy it as well.
The following scene comes from just after it, about halfway through the book, after Charles has left Oxford to study art in Paris. It recounts a meal with Rex Mottram, who is engaged to Julia Flyte. Rex is suspect in a number of ways—he is Canadian, ambitious, a self-made man—but he and Charles want the same thing, to be accepted into the family circle at Brideshead, and their status as outsiders is cunningly portrayed in this meal.
I started this as an excuse to type out some of Waugh’s sentences and get to the bottom of their magic. As you can see, I found it hard to stop. I could have taken you all the way through the meal, to the amusing and telling disagreement about cognac—snobbish on the one hand, overconfident and misinformed on the other—but I managed to stop after the wonderful description of the preparation of the pressed duck. So bloody, so violent, such civilized language.
Has anyone ever seen a duck press in person? I've seen only pictures.
I was there twenty minutes before Rex. If I had to spend an evening with him, it should, at any rate, be in my own way. I remember the dinner well—soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in white wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare 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 Bère of 1904.
Living was easy in France then; with the exchange as it was, my allowance went a long way and I did not live frugally. It was very seldom, however, that I had a dinner like this, and I felt well disposed to Rex, when at last he arrived and gave up his hat and coat with the air of not expecting to see them again. He looked round the somber little place with suspicion, as though hoping to see apaches or a drinking party of students. All he saw was four senators with napkins tucked under their beards eating in absolute silence. I could imagine him telling his commercial friends later: “ . . . interesting fellow I know; an art student living in Paris. Took me to a funny little restaurant—sort of place you’d pass without looking at—where there was some of the best food I ever ate. There were half a dozen senators there, too, which show you it was the right place. Wasn’t at all cheap either.”
“Any sign of Sebastian?” he asked.
“There won’t be,” I said, “until he needs money.”
“It’s a bit thick, going off like that. I was rather hoping that if I made a good job of him, it might do me a bit of good in another direction.”
He plainly wished to talk of his own affairs; they could wait, I thought, for the hour of tolerance and repletion, for the cognac; they could wait until the attention was blunted and one could listen with half the mind only; now in the keen moment when the maître d’hôtel was turning the blinis over in the pan, and, in the background, two humbler men were preparing the press, we would talk of myself.
“Did you stay long at Brideshead? Was my name mentioned after I left?”
“Was it mentioned? I got sick of the sound of it, old boy. They Marchioness got what she called a ‘bad conscience’ about you. She piled it only pretty thick, I gather, at your last meeting.”
“‘Callously wicked,’ ‘wantonly cruel.’”
“It doesn’t matter what people call you unless they call you pigeon pie and eat you up."
“Ah.” The cream and hot butter mingled and overflowed, separating each glaucose bead of caviar from its fellows, capping it in white and gold.
“I like a bit of chopped onion with mine,” said Rex. “Chap-who-knew told me it brought out the flavour.”
“Try it without first,” I said. “And tell me more news of myself.”
“Well, of course, Greenacre, or whatever he was called—the snooty don—he came a cropper. That was well received by all. He was the blue-eyed boy for a day or two after you left. Shouldn’t wonder if he hadn’t put the old girl up to pitching you out. He was always being pushed down our throats, so in the end Julia couldn’t bear it any more and gave him away.”
“Well, he’d begun to stick his nose into our affairs you see. Julia spotted he was a fake, and one afternoon when Sebastian was tight—he was tight most of the time—she got the whole story of the Grand Tour out of him. And that was the end of Mr. Samgrass. After that the Marchioness began to think she might have been a bit rough with you."
“And what about the row with Cordelia?”
“That eclipsed everything. That kid’s a walking marvel—she’d been feeding Sebastian whiskey right under our noses for a week. We couldn’t think where he was getting it. That’s when the Marchioness finally crumbled.”
The soup was delicious after the rich blinis—hot, thin, bitter, frothy.
“I’ll tell you a thing, Charles, that Ma Marchmain hasn’t let on to anyone. She’s a very sick woman. Might peg out any minute. George Anstruther saw her in the autumn and put it at two years.”
“How on earth do you know?”
“It’s the kind of thing I hear. With the way her family are going on at the moment, I wouldn’t give her a year. I know just the man for her in Vienna. He put Sonia Bamfshire on her feet when everyone including Anstruther had despaired of her. But Ma Marchmain won’t do anything about it. I suppose it’s something to do with her crack-brain religion, not to take care of the body.”
The sole was so simple and unobtrusive that Rex failed to notice it. We ate to the music of the press—the crunch of the bones, the drip of blood and marrow, the tap of the spoon basting the thin slices of breast. There was a pause here of a quarter of an hour, while I drank the first glass of the Clos de Bère and Rex smoked his first cigarette. He leaned back, blew a cloud of smoke across the table and remarked, “You know, the food here isn’t half bad; someone ought to take this place up and make something of it.”