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[246] Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

“The human soul enjoys these rare, classic periods, but, apart from them, we are seldom single or unique; we keep company in this world with a hoard of abstractions and reflections and counterfeits of ourselves—the sensual man, the economic man, the man of reason, the beast . . . indistinguishable from ourselves to the outward eye . . . knowing we have a secret we shall never share.” [226]

In 1942, Charles Ryder is a middle-aged captain in the British Army during World War II stationed in the Scottish countryside. He organizes his troops to move them to another location by train overnight. At the first light he finds himself unexpectedly billeted at Brideshead, a mansion whose owners he once knew. Told in retrospection, the story begins in 1923, in Oxford University, where Charles becomes friends with Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of an aristocratic family, who is the “most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his arresting beauty, and eccentricities of behavior.” The friendship quickly grows to be a bondage that bears an ambiguously homosexual undertone when Charles is called back to the palatial Brideshead after Sebastian incurs a minor injury during summer. At the time Charles also meets Julia, the standoffish sister who plays an intermittent and enigmatic part in Sebastian’s drama. Through Charles’s recollection of a harsh and acquisitive world that Brideshead is, Waugh, in favor of an emphasis on male friendship, writes that Charles has been in search of love and that he has no mind then for anything except Sebastian.

. . . at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of the grey city. [31]

The metaphor comes to inform Brideshead Revisited on a number of levels. But quickly Charles realizes that Sebastian’s family is overwrought by Catholicism. As his intimacy with the Marchmains grows he also becomes part of the world Sebastian seeks to escape because he has become wary of family and religion. His life is a struggle between what he wants to do and what he believes his church requires him to do. He descends into alcoholism, which the Marchmains denies, for solace. Charles constantly questions members of the Flyte family about their beliefs and even makes light of religion. “Is it all nonsense? I wish it were true.”

Julia Flyte is wayward and obscure. Only toward the end of the novel, after she has begun an affair with Charles and divorces her husband, does she thinks about being a Catholic. She expresses concerns that her behavior has filled her with sin that her mother, who is adamantly Catholic, has born to her grave. Even though she loves Charles, I am not convinced that Charles reciprocates the same kind of love. He is only emotionally in love with Julia because he sees Sebastian in Julia, and that his wife has been unfaithful. For nearly a decade since he sees the last of Brideshead until he reunites with Julia on a ship, Charles bears along a road outwardly full of change and incident (he becomes an architecture painter and gets married to a woman whose words render his bowels shrivel), but never during that time, except sometimes in his painting, does he come alive as he had been during the time of his (platonic) friendship with Sebastian. He indicates to Julia that Sebastian was the “forerunner,” the first person in the Flyte family with whom he fell in love.

I have not forgotten Sebastian. He was with me daily in Julia; or rather it was Julia I had known in him, in those distant, Arcadian days . . . every stone of the house had a memory of him, and when I heard him spoken of by Cordelia as someone she had seen a month ago, my lost friend filled my thoughts. [303]

Throughout the novel, Charles Ryder believes that what was is preferable to what is. His platonic relationship Sebastian might have prepared him for his maturing and his later conventional, romantic enterprises with Lady Celia and Julia, but he has lived the time of his life with Sebastian.

If it could only be like this always — always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe. [79]

He is obviously a man who values the past, which is largely made up of memories of Sebastian. His time with him makes up of the Arcadian days, which is part of the title of Book One. Arcadia refers to a pastoral and mountainous region of ancient Greece used extensively in painting and literature to denote a sort of Utopia or a place where life is wonderful.

Brideshead Revisited explores friendship, religion, and reminiscences in life. Book One, which emphasizes on the relationship between Charles and Sebastian, is more poetic and lyrical than the second half, which doesn’t take place until a decade later. Waugh, or rather through Charles, portrays a family divided by an uncertain investment in Roman Catholicism and by their confusion over where the elite fit in the modern world.

351 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]


29 Responses

  1. Love this book! It’s lovely and sad. Have you seen the mini- series with Jeremy Irons? Also, just as wonderful. A perfect adaptation.

    • It bears the same “ambition” as Howards End, which I recently read, to make an inquiry of issues that affect a country and not only a family. It’s a classic. I’ve been aware of the mini series and the movie. Sounds like people like the mini-series so much more.

  2. Well, you certainly did a much better job of summarizing this wonderful book than I did! I listened to it on audio (narrated by Jeremy Irons!) and fell under its spell. I think you nailed it when you said that Charles was never really truly in love with Julia for Julia, but because she was a piece of Sebastian. There was definitely a serious undercurrent there with Sebastian that was never resolved. You make me want to read the book again!

    • I felt a bit misgiving when the novel makes that transition to narrate Charles’s relationship with Julia. Obviously he “finally takes the formal possession of a lover” on the ship across the Atlantic, and that a serious swell has confined Charles’s wife in her own cabin, I feel he is not completely in love with Julia. When the storm was passing, to me it was like a symbolism of the end of their “turbulent” short-term relationship, because as you say, there has always been this undercurrent of Sebastian.

  3. Whata wonderful review Matt. This is a book that I read roguely with Novel Insights before we went and saw the film (which was good but not really close). I wouldnt probably have read it for years and years if it hadnt been for the film but am so, so glad that I did. It’s become one of my favourites.

    If you loved this you should give Madresfield by Jane Mulvagh a go as its a non fiction book about the family and house Waugh got his inspiration from.

    • I am so glad I took your recommendation to bring it to the top of my reading list. The novel is so rich with details of the aristocratic life, Catholicism, love, and memories. It’s a book that never finishes what it’s meant to say–begging for re-reads in the coming years.

  4. The 1980s era mini-series is far, far superior to the recent film version.

  5. Wonderful review. You’re right, so much of the story is based on memories — I felt like the whole point of the story was lost without Sebastian. I kept wanting him and Charles to run away together (as lovers) but they never did. Do you think there was regret there, for what never happened?

    • I think Sebastian’s spirit is present the whole in the second part of the novel, which focuses on Charles’s relationship with Julia. He sees Sebastian in Julia and that is the reason why he ended up being with her, at least physically, on the ship. I think even if Sebastian and Charles have run away together, Sebastian would still struggle with his alcoholism?

  6. Brideshead is such a great book! I was struck by the complexity of the relationships, particularly as they are shaped by the past. The description of Julia wrestling with guilt, her mother, and fear is incredibly moving. Thanks for posting your thoughts on the book!

    • I was surprised that Julia never expressed much thoughts about her mother’s religion until the end when Catholicism becomes a barrier to her marriage to Rex. Then she takes a nose-dive in her emotion that being with Rex, who was a divorced man, and then trying to get a divorce and marry Charles, contributes to her sin.

  7. This is one that I have never read but would like to. Books that contain undercurrents like the one you talk about between Charles and Sebastian are intriguing to me. Authors of Waugh’s time couldn’t write about such things in an overt manner so they left readers guessing and surmising which makes for an interesting read for us now!

    • I was reading that Waugh experienced a few platonic relationships with men just like that between Sebastian and Charles, but he ended up getting married to a woman and had children. Could Brideshead Revisited be somewhat autobiographical? I do find the novel somewhat ambiguous when Charles began a relationship with Julia. But eventually the book shows itself that it’s Sebastian that he misses the most and that he cannot forget.

  8. I have four or so Evelyn Waugh books in pretty hardback editions, and haven’t got around to reading them. Your review makes this sound lovely!

  9. This is one of my all time favorites! I actually loved the book so much when I read it as a teenager that I’m afraid to reread it now. And the TV series from 1981 with Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte is a must-see classic. Andrews is just perfect as Sebastian!


  10. I’m going to be totally honest and just say that the idea of reading this book is intimidating to me! I’m not sure why I tend to shy away from these challenging reads but they scare me 🙂

    • Classic can be c=scary but it rewards you with so much ideas and thoughts that come gushing at you after you put down the book. This one is a classic, just like Howards End.

  11. This is the second blog post I’ve read about this book in the last couple of weeks! It sounds so good–with so much to the story, I really need to grab it from my shelves. The only Waugh I’ve read is Scoop which was funny though not terribly PC!

  12. You won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for a good story with complicated relationship and undercurrent intricacies.

  13. […] [246] Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh […]

  14. I’ve seen the movie and thought it was fantastic! I’m gonna have to read this ASAp/

  15. I found this interesting article featuring memos sent by Evelyn Waugh to californian film producers regarding a film version of Brideshead Revisited. A very good (yet barbed) read if your interested in the Author and some of his own ideas about the book.


  16. […] 6-page article affirms that Charles Ryder manifestly is Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited contains as large a dose of autobiography. The main character is based on the brother of his female […]

  17. […] Evelyn Waugh and Bri… on [246] Brideshead Revisited …pickygirlfoodfilmfic… on [268] The Cement Garden …Laza on [268] The Cement Garden […]

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