I think I was quite a romantic teenager – or, at least, I certainly liked to think I was, and at seventeen, while in the sixth form at school, I used to spend my half-terms visiting my older brother, Tom, who was studying English at Queen’s College, Cambridge. After all the petty rules and insular outlook of school – as I perceived it – Cambridge, with its wonderful buildings, narrow backstreets, punts on the Cam and teeming with young, bright and vibrant people seemed impossibly romantic to me. I soaked it up and could not wait to be carefree and hedonistic and unshackled from the confines of school life.
It was shortly after returning, giddy-headed, from Cambridge for the first time that I read Brideshead Revisited, the novel Evelyn Waugh wrote in a flurry over six months in the Second World War between December 1943 and June 1944, while the author was recovering from a parachute accident. Waugh had written another novel, Put Out More Flags, (which is hilarious), during the war in 1942 yet still served in the Army, including a stint with the Commandos, with whom he saw action during the Battle of Crete in 1941.
Despite his reputation as a brilliant comic novelist, Brideshead is a serious and wistful piece, told by the protagonist, Charles Ryder, an artist. One night during the war, Ryder arrives at a new army camp only to discover the following morning he has come to the grounds of a large country house he knows very well: Brideshead, the home of the aristocratic and Catholic Flyte family. This prompts him to remember and reflect on his relationship with the family - first with Sebastian, the beautiful, eccentric and tragic middle son, who he meets at Oxford in the 1920s, then Sebastian’s mother, estranged father, and other siblings, not least Julia, with whom Charles has an intense affair in the years leading up to the war.
Reading it as a seventeen year-old on the cusp of adulthood, it had a deeply profound and lasting effect on me. It’s a wistful, nostalgic, elegiac and tragic novel, but which also includes a brilliantly depicted picture of Britain’s wartime army, one in which civilian conscripts forced into the discipline and strict parameters of army life make for awkward and ill-fitting bedfellows. I became obsessed with the inter-war period, which in my immaturity I viewed as something of a lost Eden. My friends and I would swan off on picnics and drink wine and eat strawberries just as Charles and Sebastian had done, and although we didn’t quite go so far as to carry teddy bears, it did prompt something of a cultural awakening, first pricked during those visits to Cambridge, but which I embraced fully after reading Brideshead. That sounds terribly pretentious now, and of course I was terribly so back then; but the desire to travel, of which I’d done little as a boy, first to Italy (and to Venice, as depicted in the book), and to open my eyes to art and a far wider range of music, were very real.
Waugh’s writing is exquisite, whether his descriptive prose or his beautifully crafted dialogue and it bewitched me utterly and has continued to do so whenever I re-read the novel. And whenever I am writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, I always have a copy beside me on desk – a guide and inspiration.
James Holland is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning historian and broadcaster. The author of a number of best-selling books about the Second World War, including Fortress Malta, Dam Busters, The Battle of Britain and most recently, Normandy 44 and Sicily 43, he has also written and presented a considerable number of television documentaries, many of which are watched globally. Co-presenter with comedian Al Murray of the hugely successful podcast, We Have Ways of Making You Talk, he is also a Fellow of Swansea University and the Royal Historical Society, a Research Scholar at St Andrew’s University and director and chair of the Chalke Valley History Festival.
Today Italy is a land of beauty and prosperity but in 1944-45 it had become a place of nightmares, a land of violence, war, and destruction. James Holland's ground-breaking account expertly documents the German advance and a segment of Italian history that has been largely neglected. Click here to buy this book now.