Wednesday, 22 September 1999

Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited (1945)

Edition: Penguin, 1989
Review number: 331

For some reason, even though I have read and enjoyed several books by Evelyn Waugh, I have never picked up his best-known book until now; I was slightly too young to want to watch the early eighties' TV adaptation. I wasn't prepared for it to be such a sad story. Other Waugh novels, such as Scoop, have a melancholy vein running through them, but Brideshead Revisited possesses this to a marked degree. Instead of the sadness being a minor part of the book, it is the humour which takes second place.

The book is about the memories brought back to Charles Ryder when he, an army officer during the Second World War, is quartered with his men in the stately home Brideshead Castle. He knew the Flyte family, owners of the mansion, intimately over twenty years, first meeting Sebastian when both were undergraduates at Oxford, then having a long-term affair with his sister, Julia.

There are several sources of sadness in the novel. These include Charles' feelings about his own wasted life, but mainly centre around the Flytes. From almost the first moment that Sebastian appears on the scene, with his eccentricities (including the famous teddy bear, Aloysius), there is a sense that he is doomed. As the years pass and his drinking takes on a more unhealthy character, this feeling is confirmed. None of the Flytes are happy, and there are hints that this is due to the dominant personality of their mother. This is probably most clearly signalled by their different adult attitudes to the Catholic Church, introduced by her to the family. Sebastian comes closest to abandoning the church entirely, while his elder brother, heir to the Marchmain title, and younger sister Cordelia seriously consider becoming a priest and a nun respectively.

One of the main themes of Brideshead Revisited is the suppressed homoerotic side to Charles' admiration of Sebastian. This comes across strongly, as does Charles' unwillingness to admit it to himself. His love affair with Julia is based around her resemblance to her brother; this naturally has a major, if unspoken, effect on their relationship.

As a melancholy evocation of a past which led nowhere (both Charles' personal life, and the optimistic early twenties), Brideshead Revisited is undoubtedly one of the greatest of twentieth century novels. The looking back was probably initially suggested to Waugh by the desire which motivated its writing. In the introduction (from the second edition onwards) he explains that what he wanted to do in part was to draw people's attention to the destruction of England's stately homes, which he viewed just after the war as imminent given the destruction of the country house lifestyle and the indifference of many people to their fate.

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