Smart Rereadings: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Colette’s The Vagabond, & D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy

Rereadings:  Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman, is a little-known classic.  When I first read this charming collection of essays, I was inspired by Evelyn Toynton’s  “Revisiting Brideshead” to reread Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  The first time I’d read it, I was teaching at a lovely snob school, and so steeped in classics that Brideshead did not measure up.   When I reread it in 2005,  I admired the exquisite style and the witty dialogue.  Toynton, on the other hand, disliked it.

In Waugh’s great Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, published in 1946, the narrator Charles Ryder remembers a romantic pre-war past.  At Oxford he was befriended by the Catholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte; later he falls in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia.  At Oxford, the charming Sebastian carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, everywhere.  I regret to say that no one I knew ever carried a teddy bear, but then I didn’t know any English aristocrats.

The essays follow a pattern of discovery and reassessment, and quite often the book turns out to be different from the writer’s memory of it.  In my favorite essay, “Love with a Capital L,” Vivian Gornick revisits  Colette’s The Vagabond and  The Shackle, its sequel.  And what she loved in her twenties is not what she loves now.

Gornick writes,

When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible.  She was our Book of Wisdom.  We read her for solace, and for moral instruction.  We read her to learn better who we were, and how, given the constraint of our condition, we were to live.

Gornikc found the experience of rereading Colette “unsettling.” She writes,  “The wholly unexpected occurred:  I came away from them with mixed feelings.” She loved the lyricism but was surprised by the emptiness of the narrator Renee, whose life revolves around love.   Although  The Vagabond is my favorite of Colette’s books, I know what she means.  In The Vagabond, Renee rejects a charming lover who isn’t quite as intelligent as she:  she feels it wouldn’t work.    But in The Shackle she falls for a man who has beaten his previous girlfriend.  Why?   What happened to Renee that she would find him attractive?

Most of the essays in the collection are elegant and insightful, though I am not interested in David Micahelis’s revisiting of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band (and anyway wasn’t that cheating?).  Pico Iyer writes brilliantly about D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy, which he read at an English boarding school and admired upon rereading. I reread the novella in 2016 and wrote here:  “Think Lady Chatterley’s Lover, only sillier.”

In Rereadings, Patricia Hampl writes perceptively on Katherine Mansfield, Jamie James on Joseph Conrad, Philip Lopate on The Charterhouse of Parma,  David Samuels on J. D. Salinger, and more.  A very entertaining book.  I want to read more on rereadings.

8 thoughts on “Smart Rereadings: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Colette’s The Vagabond, & D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy

  1. Me too. Very interesting subject. For me, too, Colette fares the worst – I adored her as a teenager, and beyond; now I find her very troubling (though still fascinating). She was of course a complete narcissist, and that’s both the charm and the ultimate problem.

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    • I agree . I love Colette’s music-hall artist novels and essays, but I can make nothing out of the essays in The Pure and the Impure, which i reread solely because it was an NYRB book.

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  2. Oh I need to get this! I’m a big re-reader and love examining the changes in my own and others’ readings of books – that’s a big theme in my current Iris Murdoch re-reading project. Middlemarch is the most re-read non-Murdoch for me, and when I read it at 17, I thought it was about love and marriage, whereas my most recent re-read in my late 30s had it about death duties and politics!

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  3. This is a Fadiman collection I haven’t come across and need to get hold of asap. We have a an Aloysius Bear, named for his aristocratic forebear, but at the moment he is guarding our collection of Harry Potter novels. I’m not sure what Sebastian would think about that – or about the fact that we have a Sebastian Bear as well.

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  4. Sounds really interesting, and a good essay can make us rush back to a book we love or loved. Colette *is* potentially problematic – I tend to find myself enjoying the books where she’s musing on life or communing with nature more nowadays, although as she was a woman who lived by her passions I don’t know why we should expect her work to be about anything else. Plus she writes beautifully! 🙂

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    • I love Colette, but I do understand Gornick. The Vagabond is one of my favorites, and I go back to The Shackle because I think there’s something I’m missing.

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  5. I’ve read Anne Fadiman essays. Rereading is itself a rich topic.I’ve been so dislllusioned, or shocked at how I misread utterly (Fielding’s Tom Jones two years ago) or how I’ve changed. Though sometimes I stubbornly stay the same: Austen’s books and Richardson’s Clarissa remain the same for me.

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