Here’s something you probably don’t know: Evelyn Waugh revised several of his novels, some quite extensively, when preparing the uniform edition of his books that was published in England in the early Sixties. Don’t be embarrassed–many of Waugh’s most ardent American fans are unaware of these revisions. The reason for their ignorance is that the editions of Waugh’s novels that have circulated most widely in this country, the Little, Brown trade paperbacks, are straight reprints of the first American editions.
I mention this because I only just discovered that the Everyman’s Library edition of
Brideshead Revisited, the novel Waugh edited most ruthlessly, not only reprints the revised version but includes an introductory essay by Frank Kermode in which Waugh’s changes are discussed at length and in detail.
Also included is the preface in which Waugh explained why he trimmed Brideshead:
In December 1943 I had the good fortune when parachuting to incur a minor injury which afforded me a rest from military service. This was extended by a sympathetic commanding officer, who let me remain unemployed until June 1944 when the book was finished. I wrote with a zest that was quite strange to me and also with impatience to get back to the war. It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster–the period of soya beans and Basic English–and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. I have modified the grosser passages but have not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book….
I knew about these changes but had never actually seen the revised version of Brideshead, so I picked up a copy of the Everyman’s Library edition and read it day before yesterday en route to Minnesota. As I read, I found myself agreeing with Kermode: “On the whole most readers, I think, would agree that the purgation of the first version–not over-rigorous, for reasons Waugh suggests in his Preface–makes for improvement: the final version of the novel is preferable.” My guess is that those who dislike the book intensely (as many readers do) won’t find the revised version all that much more persuasive, but swing voters might well be nudged into the pro-Brideshead column by Waugh’s shrewd pruning, while admirers will find it fascinating to see what he chose to cut.
On the other hand, I do admit to regretting the loss of certain delightfully ornate touches, especially in Waugh’s description of Anthony Blanche, the character based on Harold Acton. Here is Blanche in the original version of Brideshead:
This, I did not need telling, was Anthony Blanche, the “aesthete” par excellence, a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville, a young man who seemed to me, then, fresh from the sombre company of the College Essay Society, ageless as a lizard, as foreign as a Martian. He had been pointed out to me often in the streets, as he moved with his own peculiar stateliness, as though he had not fully accustomed himself to coat and trousers and was more at his ease in heavy, embroidered robes; I had heard his voice in the George challenging the conventions; and now meeting him, under the spell of Sebastian, I found myself enjoying him voraciously, like the fine piece of cookery he was.
And here he is in the revised version:
This, I did not need telling, was Anthony Blanche, the “aesthete” par excellence, a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville. He had been pointed out to me often in the streets, as he pranced along with his high peacock tread; I had heard his voice in the George challenging the conventions; and now meeting him, under the spell of Sebastian, I found myself enjoying him voraciously.
I do think the second version is an improvement, but I miss those last eight words! It’s as though Henry James had started with the New York Edition of The Portrait of a Lady, then edited it down to the original version. Remember his celebrated description of Caspar Goodwood’s kiss? In the original, it was just one crisp sentence: “His kiss was like a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free.” By the time of the New York Edition, it had mushroomed into a full paragraph:
His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free.
I’d say James got it right the second time, wouldn’t you? Sometimes less is just…less. But not when it comes to the revised version of Brideshead Revisited, which I commend to your attention not only as a generally superior literary experience but also as a little-known chapter in the history of aesthetic second thoughts.