Alex Massie

Returning to Brideshead

Text settings

Back to Brideshead! Last month I took a fairly relaxed view of the forthcoming Miramax travesty. The only real question would seem to be whether it is enjoyably or enragingly terrible. The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last suspects the latter and seems particularly aggrieved by the treatment Lady Marchmain has received:

Yes, the new Brideshead features a villain--Lady Marchmain. Instead of a pious, if clumsy, near-saint, Lady Marchmain is now ambitious and manipulative. "I hope you didn't let Julia mislead you," she sternly warns Charles. "Her future is not a question of choice."...

The bizarre reimagining of Lady Marchmain seems to be a result of the excision of Catholicism from the new Brideshead. The screenplay reportedly stays away from matters of the church and the trailer makes but one allusion to it, showing a rosary falling from someone's hand. And, if there is none of that fussy Catholic stuff in the new Brideshead story, then the pious Lady Marchmain might reasonably be seen as a heel. As her younger daughter Cordelia observes in the novel, "When people wanted to hate God, they hated Mummy." Take away God, and Lady Marchmain may be little more than a controlling shrew.

Well, there's plenty of "that fussy Catholic stuff" in the novel and I've always seen Lady Marchmain as something of a "heel". Worse than that actually, now that I think of it. Of course, I'm not a Catholic myself so you might say I would say that. Even so, it seems perfectly reasonable to dispute Mr Last's characterisation of Lady Marchmain as "a pious, if clumsy, near-saint" and observe that manipulative might be the exact term one would choose to describe her. And I don't see how one can avoid the conclusion that, shrewish or not, she is "controlling". Regardless of their other reasons, indeed whatever their own faults and weaknesses, this is something that both Sebastian and his father seek to escape. And, frankly, I've always been sympathetic to their view.

In passing, I'd add that Cordelia's line, quoted above, is nonsense. If anything it should be the other way round, in as much as many readers may find their tolerance for God limited by their tolerance for Lady Marchmain. Below the fold are two clips from the Granada adaptation that Last rightly praises as a "high water-mark" for television that, I'd suggest, support my interetation more than his. But, of course, one useful definition of good art is that folk can have radically different, but legitimate interpretations each of which is, to their mind, supported by the evidence of the art itself...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSociety