title: Brideshead Revisited [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Evelyn Waugh
source: New York Public Library
GENERAL SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never read Brideshead Revisited, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here. Since it was published in 1944, I’m writing with the assumption that I’m the one late to the party and many of you lovers of literary fiction have probably either read it already or are super familiar with the plot. So, if not, stop. Now. You’ve been warned.
Confession time: Until a few years ago, I thought Evelyn Waugh’s name was pronounced Eh-vah-lynn Wow, and that he was a she. I wish I were kidding. One of the great epic fails in book snobbery. Regardless, every time I passed the “W” section at the bookstore or library, I’d see
her his titles with their gorgeous cover art…but upon reading the back summary and coming to the words “set against the backdrop of World War II,” I usually put the book back on the shelf. With few exceptions, I love historical fiction…as long as the book doesn’t take place entirely in the trenches. Before you yell, please note that I’m sure my bias has kept me from discovering a great many tomes. I just have a hard time getting into several hundred pages of war and destruction and blood and death and politics and guns and moral turmoil and brotherly bonding/bromance, etc. I know full well that there are many notable works of literature (mostly by dead white dudes) with fabulous plot lines and gorgeous prose (A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls…well, just Hemingway in general, War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front), and I’m sure I’ll slug through a few of them for the general-betterment-of-self/expansion-of-overall-cultural-literacy at some point…it’s just not my favorite.
BUT a few months ago, I DVR’d (yes, I still DVR) Brideshead Revisited when it aired on Ovation and fell in love with the story. And when Waugh’s name came up again in the Mitford biography I’m reading (he was friends with Nancy Mitford and is said to have taken inspiration from the Mitford kids among other Bright Young Things of the era), I read up on him and decided to add this and Vile Bodies to my 30-before-30 literary bucket list.
Brideshead Revisited is, in fact, set in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the years leading up to World War II, though only the prologue takes us anywhere near the trenches (phew!). Charles Ryder, our narrator, and his unit are stationed at Brideshead, which serves as catalyst for Charles to reflect on how he came to know the house and to tell the story of his two great loves who grew up there: Sebastian and Julia Flyte.
I know there’s debate as to whether the nature of the deep relationship between Charles and Sebastian had a sexual aspect….in my opinion, Charles’ love for Sebastian (and vice versa) was absolutely romantic (see the definition), in terms of their relationship being imbued with their desire for adventure and their idealization of and total dependence on the other, often steeped in a reality exclusively their own. Also, I think they probably had sex at one point. Or at more than one point. Or at least fooled around. It was an era of experimentation (booze! jazz!), and it wasn’t super uncommon for young men to experiment that way in boarding school or when away at college, or because they were, in fact, gay or bisexual, etc. (n.b. Tom Mitford, brother of Nancy Mitford et al, for example, is thought to have had at least one homosexual relationship in his youth and according to this Telegraph UK article, Waugh may or may not have been involved at one point with a gentlemen who has been said to have inspired Sebastian). I loved the contrast Waugh was able to strike between the love shared by Charles and Sebastian and the love shared by Charles and Julia. Charles and Sebastian’s relationship imploded because, in a way, they preferred to cling to the idealized version of the other (it’s hard to live in the reality where the person you feel closest to is an alcoholic with some fairly deep emotional problems. I think, in many ways, Sebastian’s flight to Morocco, etc. occurred out of love for Charles, to protect Charles from destructive force he knew he had become. Maybe on some level, Charles understood it as the gift of a unmarred, idyllic past, as he says on page 203 “These memories, which are my life–for we possess nothing certainly except the past–were always with me.”). Charles and Julia’s romance imploded because they failed to move beyond the reality of their situation (i.e. Julia’s deeply entrenched Catholic belief system was a tad restrictive, and then there was her nagging insistence upon avoiding eternal damnation…a bit prohibitive to a divorce/second marriage to another divorcee who also happens to be an agnostic). It’s a book as much about denial as it is about desire, and how both can be acts of love.
My favorite character by far was Cordelia, Sebastian Flyte’s young sister, and I died laughing at scene where she talks Catholicism with Charles upon their first meeting:
“[Cordelia says] ‘D’you know, if you weren’t an agnostic, I should ask you for five shillings to buy a black god-daughter.’
[Charles] ‘Nothing will surprise me about your religion.’
[Cordelia] ‘It’s a new thing a missionary priest started last term. You send five bob to some nuns in Africa and they christen a baby and name her after you. I’ve got six black Cordelias already. Isn’t it lovely?’ “(p. 82)
She’s so precocious, and fancies herself to be so forward thinking, yet she acts almost as a mirror against which Waugh is able to reflect back everything he saw wrong with the Catholic church at the time (and possibly with religion in general, but given that he and I never discussed the matter, this is purely conjecture), but she’s also such a likable character due to her youth and wit. Through Cordelia especially, Waugh shows us how no person is only one thing; that no thing is either solely good or bad.
Waugh was such a dynamic and flexible writer. He possessed such a gift for characterization and voice! I wish I had even a fraction of his stylistic dexterity! (Just a fraction! I’m not greedy!) Even at the most tragic moments, Waugh’s wit (I can’t help noting these observational zingers as evocative of Oscar Wilde at his best in The Picture of Dorian Gray) shines through. For example, when Lord Marchmain is dying, his mistress Cara says this of his condition: “His heart; some long word at the heart. He is dying of a long word.” (p. 288)
Rubric rating: 8.5. I need to read a few more titles by him before I definitively and officially induct him into the personal pantheon, but DAMN was he talented!