Brideshead Revisited in Nineteen Eighty-Four: Evelyn Waugh's Influence on George Orwell

Article excerpt

The relationship between George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh has been a matter of recurring critical interest. The most provocative comparison appears in George McCartney's essay "Helena in Room 101: The Sum of Truth in Waugh and Orwell." Arguing that Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) had an effect on Waugh's Helena (1950), McCartney focuses on one of the conversations between Orwell's hero Winston Smith and O'Brien, "Winston's torturer-cum-father confessor" (66). O'Brien claims that the Party controls the nature of reality; Winston resists and predicts that the Party will be frustrated by "the spirit of Man." In Nineteen Eighty-Four, McCartney observes, "power, not impartial inquiry, must always be the final arbiter of truth," but Helena "seems to have been written in direct response to O'Brien's solipsism" (67). Helena rejects the "mystery cults of her time" (McCartney 67) and embarks on a quest to find the cross used to crucify Jesus Christ. According to McCartney, Helena reflects Waugh's "conviction that we are meant to discover our purpose in and through the ordinary world of the senses" (68). Through her senses, Helena apprehends reality and receives a revelation. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, this progression is reversed: Winston believes he understands the nature of Oceania, but his arguments fade as his senses register increasing pain, and eventually he agrees with authority. Winston's love for Big Brother is a sort of anti-revelation, a misapprehension clearly induced by torture, whereas Helena's understanding of the crucifixion is supposed to be genuine.

I want to extend this dialogue back in time and to portray Nineteen Eighty-Four as a response to Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945). Orwell seems to have followed Waugh's lead in settings, characters, language, and, most strikingly, many common themes. The similarities indicate that Orwell had Brideshead more or less in mind as he composed Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell showed interest in Brideshead in notes and reviews, and Waugh's influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four becomes evident by comparing the two novels. Orwell was a socialist and an atheist, Waugh a reactionary and a Roman Catholic, but through fiction they explored common interests in alienation, memory, marriage, social class, suffering, faith, betrayal, and conversion. Both novels have been durable, but Nineteen Eighty-Four has proven to be more popular, partly because Orwell learned to improve his fiction by studying Brideshead.

Orwell outlined Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1943 and intended to include the "Position of R.C.s [Roman Catholics]," the "Position of the proles," the "nightmare feeling caused by the disappearance of objective truth," the "Loneliness of the writer," the "love affair," and many other elements (Crick 407-09). Waugh wrote Brideshead in the following year, 1944, and the novel became a best-seller. Brideshead was published in May 1945, and at about the same time Orwell began to write Nineteen Eighty-Four (Bowker 330). He intermittently worked on the manuscript for the next three years and finally produced a typescript in December 1948 (Bowker 383). Numerous authors are supposed to have influenced Nineteen Eighty-Four: they include Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler, D. H. Lawrence, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, and Yevgeny Zamyatin. No one has yet made the case for Evelyn Waugh, perhaps the most immediate influence.

To make this case, one can begin with the evidence that Orwell was thinking of Brideshead as he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. After suffering from tuberculosis for several months, Orwell returned to work on the second draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the summer of 1948. In a letter in July, Orwell wrote that "Brideshead Revisited was very good in spite of hideous faults on the surface" (It is What I Think 400). In a review that appeared in July, Orwell preferred Waugh's treatment of Catholicism to that of Graham Greene in The Heart of the Matter. …