Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is about many things: war, religion, education, love, ambivalent sexuality, class, landscapes, architecture, alcoholism, art, snobbery, friendship, family, nostalgia. I suppose all books are about a lot of things, really, or they wouldn’t be interesting, but this book seemed to have an especially long list, and it’s not that many pages (my edition had 350). I really enjoyed the novel, although I continually felt like I wasn’t quite getting it. I couldn’t decide which things I was supposed to focus on, which were going to be the most important.
Brideshead Revisited seems like an excellent candidate for a rereading because I might understand it better, now that I know what it’s about. I’m not quite sure if this lack of focus is a flaw or not, and another reading might help me figure it out. This is not something I would do any time soon, but perhaps someday. It seems possible that there isn’t a lack of focus at all, but rather that it takes a while to become oriented to what the author is doing, and that a second reading would help me pull everything together.
The novel begins with a war scene: it’s World War II, and the main character, Charles Ryder, is about to move with his company of soldiers to a new camp in England. The soldiers are all tired and dispirited, hoping to see some real action, and disappointed once again. It turns out that the new camp is going to be at Brideshead, a place Charles once knew very well. The sight of Brideshead sends him back in time to memories of the many days he spent there with the family after meeting Sebastian Flyte at university.
Charles and Sebastian become close friends, and although Sebastian resists it, Charles comes to know the family quite well. It’s an unusual family, partly because Sebastian’s parents have split up, his mother living at Brideshead and his father abroad. Sebastian has two sisters, both of them with very strong personalities. The family is Catholic, setting them apart in an entirely different way. Charles is mildly bewildered by this Catholicism, as he tends to assume everyone is agnostic, but he slowly learns just how much it means to them.
The novel describes how Charles’s relationships with the various family members develop over the course of many years. Sebastian develops a drinking problem and Charles has to choose whether to side with the family and anger his friend or to do what Sebastian wants at the risk of his health. He watches as Julia becomes engaged to a really awful man, and then ends the engagement. He meets both the mother and the father and sees what different paths their lives have taken.
After the opening war scene, Waugh takes us back in time to Charles’s university days, and from there forward, we follow the story chronologically, but we are reminded again and again that Charles is looking back on his life as a young man from the perspective of someone caught up in war and looking out on a changed world. Occasionally Charles will reference an event that happened much later than what he is currently narrating. So although the chronology is clear and fairly well-maintained, there is a strong sense of everything in the past that the present-day narrator has lost. I should add “loss” to my list of themes the book takes up, and it’s one of the most important ones, both on a personal and a national level. Charles revisits Brideshead during the novel’s opening and closing sections, and the changes that have taken place, described in the middle, show how impossible it is to truly revisit the place. It has changed and Charles has changed so much that both have become different beings entirely.
There’s so much going on that I can’t describe it all; I’m ending this post with the same note I started on. Brideshead Revisited may not succeed in developing all the themes it takes up, but it was a pleasure to read such an ambitious and thought-provoking novel.