The Futile Struggle for Assimilation: Anthony Blanche and Rex Mottram in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited
“My theme is memory,” Charles Ryder says at the outset of Book II in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (225). “These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me.” Here the protagonist asserts the importance of nostalgia to his narrative. Throughout the book, he cherishes memories of former friends and lovers, and of the old English aristocracy on the decline in the early twentieth century. He laments this decline, viewing men of the rising middle class like Hooper as the unknowing inheritors of Europe.
But the past Ryder adores is not just known for its grand estates and the politics of marrying correctly; a darker side of the old way comes out in the collective xenophobia of English toward wealthy foreigners trying to enter into their society. As the England of storied noblemen declines in fortune (as seen by the gradual descent of Brideshead from castle to military barracks), the aristocratic class still hangs onto its perceived English identity by isolating foreigners within their borders, distinguishing themselves from outsiders by exposing their flaws and making it impossible for them to join the ranks of high culture. Anthony Blanche’s and Rex Mottram’s desperate attempts—and similar failures—to establish themselves in upper-class English society make them central figures in a study of the difficulty of assimilation in Brideshead Revisited. Though on a surface level, their personalities are dissimilar (Anthony is a lascivious degenerate and Rex is a brawny chump), and Anthony’s scenes come primarily in the first half of the book while Waugh fleshes out Rex’s character in the second, the two can be regarded as parallel figures.
Despite having a Southern European ethnic background (he calls himself a “dago” during his last meeting with Charles), like Guido and Felix in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, Anthony finds himself metaphorically “burdened with the experience of the Wandering Jew,” a “nomad of no nationality” (46). Though nearly as young as Charles and Sebastian, he has traveled the world throughout his short life, the end result being that he has no speck on the world map to call “home.” Waugh introduces him into the story at a party of Sebastian’s, set early in their freshman year at Oxford. The focus of the party shifts to “the ‘aesthete’ par excellence” when he enters, the narrator’s attention zooming in on Anthony’s exotic presence and flamboyant manner of speaking. “From the moment he arrived the newcomer took charge,” Charles writes:
talking in a luxurious, self-taught stammer; teasing; caricaturing the guests at his previous luncheon; telling lubricious anecdotes of Paris and Berlin; and doing more than entertain – transfiguring the party, shedding a vivid, false light of eccentricity upon everyone so that the three prosaic Etonians seemed suddenly to become creatures of his fantasy. (32)
Anthony, we see, is making great efforts to impress the young gentlemen of the party. Established in this single paragraph is his habit of poking fun at the expense of others not present in order to gain rapport with his current audience (which, as we learn later from his criticisms of Sebastian when speaking privately with Charles, he is just as likely to turn around and insult that same crowd). Charles argues that Anthony’s stammer (brought to the fore with his stuttering pronunciation of “preposterous” and “footer” in his first line) is not a natural difficulty of speech but “self-taught.” Once again, we note a device Anthony concocts to further captivate his upper class audience, bringing attention to himself by speaking in an affected manner on purpose.
His precious behavior does not end there. As if his teasing and stammering weren’t enough, Anthony goes out of his way to drop names of places he’s been, in this case the capitals of France and Germany. (Later, of course, he namedrops people he has met, including Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, Ronald Firbank—even Sebastian’s father and mistress in Italy.) The overall effect of his presence is to “transfigure the party” with his eccentricity—also faked, according to Charles. At the same time he enchants his audience, with Charles admittedly “enjoying him voraciously” (33), they must chalk it up to fakeness, in part because he is not English: “as foreign as a Martian.” They use a double-edged sword against Anthony. As a response to his bids for acceptance in the Oxford crowd, they damn him as a phony at the same time they enjoy his ability to liven up a dull gathering of “prosaic Etonians”—harp on his exotic foreignness at the same time they would say his demeanor is all fakery.
Thus is the tragedy of Anthony Blanche. His status as foreigner produces a desire to fit in, but his devilish charm—fueled by his wish to impress—perpetuates and amplifies the poor reputation from which he suffers. Hated by the Boy Mulcaster crowd, who saw it fit to attempt to cast him into an Oxford fountain; despised by Charles’s cousin, who denounced the foreigner as one “there’s absolutely no excuse for” associating with (42); discounted even by Sebastian, who “shouldn’t think a word” of Anthony’s is truth (61). And though he seems cheery by the party’s end, pleased to have met Charles, this writer reads his sobbing recital from the third section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as genuine, even if characteristically dramatic. Having “foresuffered all” in his life of globetrotting that has left him jaded, Anthony identifies with Tiresias (33). Though he has probably not “walked about the l-l-lowest of the dead” in a literal sense, he does suffer from alienation and has seen and experienced enough for several lifetimes—hence being “ageless as a lizard” (32). Anthony, however amusing he may be at times, however hard he tries, can only be with members of the English elite class, never of them.
The same statement rings true for Rex Mottram, a Canadian emigrant and aspiring politician whose social position “had an air of mystery, even of crime, about it” (184). Like Anthony, Rex’s status as foreigner prevents him from seeming to have a legitimate past—along with his status as “new money.” And like Anthony, Rex “exerted himself to make an impression.” Having abandoned Canada following a failed affair, Rex seeks acceptance in the higher echelons of English society, hoping that his money and bold manner of speaking will impress. In short, his estrangement from North America leaves him yearning the great honor of becoming assimilated into another culture. Yet his brusque, graceless demeanor sends off the impression of being a brutish colonial. Charle’s first impressions of Rex continue:
He was a handsome fellow with dark hair growing low on his forehead and heavy black eyebrows . . . One quickly learned . . . that he was a lucky man with money, a member of Parliament . . . that he played golf regularly with the Prince of Wales . . . and was on easy terms with . . . anyone, it seemed, who happened to be mentioned. Of the University he said: “No, I was never there. It just means you start life three years behind the other fellow.” (111).
The opening physical descriptions make Rex sound almost simian. Not only is his hair dense and dark, but—like an ape’s fur—it also reaches to a spot on his forehead that would be bare in most humans. The closing direct quote, in which he exposes himself as somewhat of a Philistine, is almost as Neanderthal-esque, especially in the presence of the well-bred, well-educated Flyte family. Rex openly admits to caring nothing for a higher education, a sure marker of status in the English society of the day. Instead, he cares only for money and status—and obtaining them more quickly than those competing against him.
He fails to recognize, however, that such a rush for wealth without proper cultural refinement lowers his status in the eyes of Charles and the Flytes. Though the acquaintances he claims are high-status in politics rather than the arts, Rex’s insistence on being familiar with famous figures is also reminiscent of Anthony’s name-dropping. His desire to acquire Julia as his wife is, therefore, not meant as a gesture of mutual love but a method of marrying himself into the status of British elite. In short, he wants to become assimilated in the easiest way possible—without the trouble of proving his worth with actual intelligence. Therein lies Rex’s obstacle, for “Foreigners,” as Charles writes, “were tricky about money, odd in their ways, and a sure mark of failure in the English girl who wed them” (182). It comes as little surprise that Julia’s mother and siblings—as members of the aristocratic class for which Charles feels nostalgic—highly disapprove of Julia’s Canadian lover.
The laughable jeweled tortoise Rex gifts Julia and his foolhardy attempt to convert to Catholicism only compound his grief—and the idiocy Charles and others perceive in him from the start. Because he senses their doubts about his worth as a suitor, he makes himself look more ridiculous than he would have. Indeed, even Cordelia, the youngest and most naïve member of the family, can see right through Rex. She curses his well-meaning gift (the diamond-encrusted tortoise) as “beastly” (166) and derides Rex as a “glorious chump” for believing her lie about sacred monkeys in the Vatican (194). By taking increasingly desperate measures to seal matrimony, Rex perpetuates a vicious cycle. Thus Rex’s tragedy mirrors Anthony’s: neither can become English, and their dire efforts to impress their way to acceptance only worsen the situation.
In the end, however, Anthony Blanche and Rex Mottram are not beyond grace. In Waugh’s sweeping gesture at the conclusion, the ancient knights’ flame is lit again in the Brideshead chapel (351). Charles perceives in this fire a grace that eclipses his previous obsession with nostalgia. The lit lamp upholds the sacred and washes away the profane (as per Waugh’s subtitle). Although this gesture culminates on the last page, focusing on Charles’s personal epiphany, Anthony and Rex should not be forgotten. At the novel’s end, they remain forever absurd, yet in a sense, they forge their own brand of redemption.
Anthony finds his place by forfeiting his struggle to enter the English elite—ceasing futile attempts to impress Oxford boys into accepting him. In his last meeting with Charles, he comes to terms with his negative image, freely calling himself a “degenerate old d-d-dago” (272). Instead of despairing, however, he embraces the term. He feels “quite at home” in the Blue Grotto Club, apparently a hangout for oddities, outsiders, and “saucy boys” like himself, and he accepts his station in society.
Likewise, Rex settles down on the fringe of English politics. All the war-mongering exclamations he and his comrades shout in Brideshead and all his controversial statements that make newspaper headlines work to his benefit once Europe erupts into World War II. Despite failing in romance and in legitimately entering aristocratic society, Rex succeeds in politics—at least for the moment. True, Rex will not likely become assimilated into normal British society, but he finds a home as a kind of circus figure in the furor of wartime.
These two men—the novel’s primary depictions of outsiders—who tried in vain to enter the elite class for so long, finally drop their pretenses. Instead of working to gain acceptance from the old fashioned English aristocrats who would not oblige them by default, they secure places in society by accepting themselves.
Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. 1945. First Back Bay Books paperback ed. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.