Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh
originally published 1945
Little Brown & Co, 3rd printing, 1973
Genre: English literature
Synopsis & Review: Capt Charles Ryder’s company is assigned to a new location; upon arriving at the new billet, he discovers that it is the estate of his old friend Sebastian Flyte’s family. Being at Brideshead again after so many years makes him reflect on his dealings with the Flytes: Sebastian, Julia, Lady Marchmain, Bridey, Cordelia, and Lord Marchmain.
Twenty years before, Charles had met Sebastian by chance at Oxford, and though their first meeting was a bit unpleasant, they soon became fast friends. The two spend their time in drinking and idleness, slowly growing closer. Enchanted by the glamour and beauty of Sebastian and his lifestyle, Charles becomes deeply involved with him and eventually his family. Theirs is a highly dysfunctional family, divided by their parents’ division and their own struggles with their Catholicism. In the aftermath of the Great War–which was supposed to end all wars, but instead ushered in an era of constant warfare–Charles and the Flytes also wrestle with social changes, a Götterdämmerung of the aristocracy.
While Sebastian slowly sinks into to alcoholism (dipsomania!), Charles leaves Oxford to study art. His closeness to Sebastian’s family eventually drives a wedge between them, as Sebastian’s mother Lady Marchmain seeks Charles’ help in treating Sebastian, causing Sebastian to feel betrayed, and the two part company.
Later, after his own marriage to a society girl, Charles encounters Julia, and the love he had for Sebastian re-establishes itself upon her. The two conduct and affair, even seeking divorces from their respective spouses, but when Julia’s father Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead from his long, self-imposed exile on the Continent only to die, Julia is stricken with guilt and renounces her affair with Charles for the sake of her own soul.
During World War II, when he arrives at Brideshead once more, Charles is “homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless,” but after a lifetime of agnosticism, there he finally discovers his own faith in both humanity and the divine.
It took me ages to read Brideshead Revisited. I don’t mean that it was a long read, but rather, I picked it up back in August (August!), read the first page or two of the prologue, and put it down. I just could not bring myself to read it for OVER TWO MONTHS. (Thank goodness the Multnomah County Library has a generous renewal policy.) When Dewey’s Read-a-Thon came up, and Brideshead was still languishing on my side table, I decided it ought to go in my stack. After all, if I couldn’t forced myself into it far enough to really tell how good a book it was during a Read-a-Thon, I probably never would. And you know what I discovered? Two things: The prologue is actually very, very short, and Brideshead Revisited is fantastic.
Like, really, really astonishingly good. I had no idea; I’d never even seen either film adaptation. I don’t even remember how it ended up on my TBR list, unless it had something to do with my sister Maiya raving about it last year. It sounded good, so I put it on The List. Only as it turns out, I was under the wrong impression, and she had watched the BBC production. But now she’ll have to read it, or I will mock her mercilessly. That’s what sisters do.
Have you seen Metropolitan? Whit Stillman’s 1990 film about the young urban haute bourgeoisie (UHBs)? If you have, then you’ll understand the elegiac tone of Brideshead Revisited. The young people in both are witnesses to the end to something: an era, their class, their social rituals. They seem to have an impalpable awareness of this, and understanding that they are anachronistic, the last gasp of something that died before they were ever born. (I believe Julia actually says this at one point, but I did not mark the page!)
Foreigners returning on post from their own waste lands wrote home that here they seemed to catch a glimpse of the world they had believed lost for ever among the mud and wire, and through those halcyon weeks Julia darted and shone, part of the sunshine between the trees, part of the candlelight in the mirror’s spectrum, so that elderly men and women, sitting aside with their memories, saw her as herself the blue-bird.
At one point during Sebastian’s crisis, Lady Marchmain gives Charles her book, the book she had put together about her brothers, who all died during the Great War.
These men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot off at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, his grinning dentures. I wondered, as the train carried me farther and farther from Lady Marchmain, whether perhaps there was not on her, too, the same blaze, marking her and hers for destruction by other ways than war. Did she see a sign in the centre of her cosy grate and hear it in the rattle of creeper on the window-pane, this whisper of doom?
When reduced to a summary, the novel seems somewhat trite, perhaps uninteresting. But the tone, that lyric melancholy, that sweet dolor, raises it to the beautiful and fascinating, like Lady Marchmain’s Art Nouveau chapel at Brideshead. Without Waugh’s stunning language, the ornately crafted sentences, and his living, breathing, although deeply flawed, characters, perhaps it would be. Yes, the world Sebastian, Charles, Julia, and all the rest sprang from was one of excess and indulgence. And Waugh described the novel as ” infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language.” But nostalgia by its very nature smooths out the catching crannies of conscience, coloring whatever it touches with comfort and bittersweet pleasure. (I couldn’t help the alliteration, sorry.) As Charles says, “My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me”–remembrance creates both a shared and individual identity, it creates community, but it also includes the understanding that we cannot return to the past. But whatever else it is, Brideshead Revisited is hardly a panegyric. It is intensely critical of family relationships, intellectualism, religion and piety, and social values, among other things.
The novel is very reflective and Augustinian in nature, recalling the Confessions and their tale of a sinner and his redemption through faith. The vast majority of Waugh’s characters are Catholic, and nearly every one undergoes a conversion experience of one kind or another. Many of them, particularly the younger generation, struggle with their religion and identity as Catholics, and it sometimes takes great pain and anguish before they experience grace. Before sending Charles away for good, Julia tells him, I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. Even as a heathenish sort, I found it uplifting, even exhilarating.
Oh, and there’s also apparently a great deal of debate over whether Charles and Sebastian were involved in a homosexual affair. To me, it seemed clear that they were; there was no question in my mind at all. But then I have to wonder, is that because of some prurience in my nature? Am I reducing eros, or desire–which is rampant in the novel–to something more base or carnal? (I would be interested in doing an analysis of Brideshead Revisited with CS Lewis’ The Four Loves close at hand.)
Everyone ought to read Brideshead Revisited. It’s luminous, moving, and often very funny. No wonder it’s considered a masterpiece. Oh, and at one point Charles reads Lady into Fox! How delicious!
See also: Metropolitan
Cover: Oh, permabound books. You are so strange, and so amusing. This is a hideous cover; the watercolor cartoon of Brideshead is anything but inspiring (it’s reminiscent of the illustrations in that awful series of children’s books I hated, The Stupids, maybe?), and your color scheme highly questionable.
The we talked of it and nibbled Bath Oliver Biscuits, and passed on to another wine; then back to the first, then on to another, until all three were in circulation and the order of glasses got confused, and we fell out over which was which, and we passed the glasses to and fro between us until there were six glasses, some of them with mixed wines in them which we had filled from the wrong bottle, till we were obliged to start again with three clean glasses each, and the bottles were empty and our praise of them wilder and more exotic.
“… It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.”
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Like a flute by still water.”
“… And this is a wise old wine.”
“A prophet in a cave.”
“… And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.”
“Like a swan.”
“Like the last unicorn.”
And we would leave the golden candlelight of the dining-room for the starlight outside and sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling our hands in the water and listening drunkenly to its splash and gurgle over the rocks.
“Ought we to be drunk every night?” Sebastian asked one morning.
“Yes, I think so.”
“I think so too.”
24 October – 27 October