Brideshead Revisited

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.


Filed under Books, Fiction

23 responses to “Brideshead Revisited

  1. It is a decent book but the sole example I know where the film has outshone the original text. I refer to the 1981 version, not the glossy 2008 interpretation.


  2. I have never read any Evelyn Waugh, and yet he is supposed to be one of the English modern greats. I sort of lump him in with all the other dreary, depressed post WW2 writers. And I’ve never wanted to read this book as it reminds me of being traumatised as a child, switching the television on to find the TV version and watching Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte vomit full face to camera. Ugh. But it IS meant to be a classic novel!


  3. I’ve always thought that it would be interesting to re-read Brideshead Revisited and Howard’s End at the same time. I loved both books and they’ve stayed with me for quite some time.


  4. Every time I go to the bookstore and see Waugh sitting on the shelf I think, should I get this now? But never have. I know he is supposed to be good but haven’t run across anyone who recently read him until now. So thanks! I think next time I see him on the shelf I’ll actually tak ehim home with me.


  5. After reading your review, I think the novel might frustrate me, unless I read a different book by Waugh first. I have Decline and Fall on my list, which is supposed to have some humor to it. What litlove said makes me laugh, but also confirms my waiting to read it too!


  6. I love your little essays, Dorothy. I don’t know how you find the time to write them.

    The themes in Brideshead Revisited are very interesting, particularly in view of how they were subverted by the 2008 film, which only added to an already muddled situation.

    In the novel and the TV adaptation Sebastian becomes an alcoholic because he can’t bear the guilt of knowing that his desires run counter to the teachings of his mother and the Catholic church. Charles gets involved with Sebastian’s sister Julia after Sebastian’s situation has become hopeless. Julia rejects Charles in the end because he is not a Catholic; she is ashamed of the sins she has committed with him and he cannot share or understand her need to atone for them. But the agnostic Charles comes, at the end of the novel, to understand divine grace through his visit to the chapel at Brideshead.

    The TV series with Anthony Andrews was very faithful to the book, quoting long sections of it and following the chronology very accurately.

    The 2008 film changed two key motives.

    In the film Sebastian becomes an alcoholic after seeing Charles kissing his sister because he is in love with Charles and he feels betrayed. Later, Julia rejects Charles because she thinks he is only interested in her money. (The film makes the relationship between Charles and Sebastian explicitly sexual. In the novel it is much more subtle and understated than this.) This is a very different story from the book. The film was written by Andrew Davies who adapts many classic novels for TV. He invariably takes liberties by spicing them up and rendering them “more suitable for a modern audience.”


  7. I loved the atmosphere of Brideshead Revisited, although I found the near-proselytizing a little bit obnoxious. I started reading Decline and Fall at the bookstore the other day and am now intrigued to read more Waugh – it was so totally different (and funnier!) than Brideshead, which is the only Waugh I’ve read. Thanks for a lovely review!


  8. Waugh has been on my list of authors to try for a while now, but I just haven’t carved out the time for him yet. But this post has really made me realize that I do need to make him a priority; it sounds like Brideshead Revisited has a lot of juicy stuff for a reader to sink her teeth into! And I personally really enjoy books that require multiple readings in order to fully grasp them, so this might be just right for me.


  9. Mr W

    I’m glad you liked it! It’s certainly one of my favorite books, and while it may be more serious than Waugh’s other writings, it’s not grim – the book contains some very humorous scenes and memorable characters (such as Anthony Blanche and Boy Mulcaster), and the ending is downright hopeful (for Waugh). Waugh converted to Catholicism for the purposes of marriage (much as Rex tries to do in the novel), and Brideshead seemed to be his attempt to sum up his very complicated feelings towards his adopted religion. Perhaps that’s why it sometimes feels the book is not under the author’s complete control? As you say, he packs a lot into 350 pages.


  10. This has long been on my shelves and it’s one of those “must read” (eventually) books. It’s interesting that Waugh was converting to Catholicism at the time–people who convert to a religion always have such a different perspective on it than someone raised in it. I read his Scoop several years ago, which wasn’t terribly PC but very funny in parts. Your post makes me want to go pull it off my shelves. (This is why I always have too many books started).


  11. Looking forward to discussing it in person! I have read Brideshead a few times over the last 20 years, and it changes for me each time.
    But the 2008 film sounds ghastly.


  12. Jenny

    This is, for me, one of my top-ten Best Prose of All Time books. It may be flawed as a novel, but I have a hard time seeing past the beauty and purity of the writing to catch the flaws. I’ve read it many times, and the subtle strains of love, loss, bitterness, redemption (and yes, as Joseph says, humor) make it more beautiful each time.


  13. I disliked Julia so intensely that it interfered with my ability to enjoy the novel–I just couldn’t see why she would be so desired. She reminds me of Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure (do you think the proximity of names is an accident?). When I read the novel myself for the first time, not long ago, I complained that she was “another ethereal beauty prone to erratic mood swings and inconvenient fits of piety. Is this kind of pseudo-philosophical eroticized flightiness really what intellectual men find attractive in women? . . . discerning the novel’s tone towards her is essential here, and that’s just where I had trouble. If the satire is thorough, perhaps she and Ryder’s love for her are relics of the pre-modern world Brideshead comes to symbolize.”


  14. I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time now and I am grateful I have this review to guide me!


  15. Have you seen the original series? If not you must put it on your fun to do list because it is gorgeous (Jeremy Irons when he was fabulous). I agree there’s a ton going on and the writing is so easy to fall into you can get swept away. How did you feel about Charles relationship with Julia (really I still feel it was Sebastian he wanted all along).


  16. Boy, I am so glad to see that I am not alone in not ever having read this one. I don’t know why (maybe because of the popularity of the series), but I always assume it’s one of those books everyone has read but I. The only thing I’ve ever read by Waugh is The Loved One, which I really liked, but it’s one of his lighter (and very funny) works. I saw the movie A Handful of Dust years ago, and I always thought that one was also supposed to be satirical and funny, but the movie certainly wasn’t. It was one of the most depressing (although very well done) movies I’ve ever seen. I seem to recall that the friend I saw it with and I went out and drank heavily afterwards. You’ve interested me in reading this, though.


  17. This book is on my reread list, and after reading your post, it needs to move up some! I like books like this–I’m expecting to be swallowed by it for awhile, as I try to sort it out.

    Reading your post reminded me of a reread I did of A Separate Peace two years ago. I read it in high school, analyzed it to death, and then when I reread marvelled at what a good book it was. I guess the friendship of the young men triggered the comparison, and it too is about “war, religion, education, love, ambivalent sexuality, class, landscapes, architecture, alcoholism, art, snobbery, friendship, family, nostalgia.” Well, maybe not so much religion, but the others.


  18. Anthony — well, I will have to see the film. The trouble is, I hardly watch any movies these days, so the list is rather long … but I’m looking forward to it.

    Litlove — gross! That would traumatize me too, I’m sure. Yes, I suppose he is one of those post-WWII writers, although I hear his other books are much funnier, so perhaps those would suit you better. But of course there’s no reason to read Waugh if you don’t want to!

    Amanda — Brideshead Revisited did seem to have a Forster-like sensibility to it. He also reminded me a bit of Maugham, especially with the religious interests.

    Stefanie — I thought that for a long time too, and I also needed to hear from someone who really likes him to get me to pick up his books eventually. I happen to have a bunch of friends who like this book, so the time was definitely right!

    Debby — I’ve heard that Brideshead is significantly darker in tone than Waugh’s other books — that it doesn’t quite fit in with everything else he’s written. I’m curious now to read one of the more comic novels, to compare.

    Joseph — thank you! Kind comments like yours definitely help with motivation 🙂 Those changes in the 2008 film sound awful. I think I’d hate it. Thanks for the warning.

    Emily — I’ve learned that Brideshead is unique among his books. I enjoyed the atmosphere too. It’s always interesting to follow the perspective of an outsider entering into a new and strange world; I liked watching Charles trying to figure the Brideshead people out.

    Steph — it sounds like this book would be perfect for you! I definitely recommend it. I like books that require a lot of thought and processing, although I think this one might have too much going on to really come together — but it’s such a good read anyway.

    Mr. W. — I think that’s one reason the book feels out of control to me — the conflicted feelings about religion. It’s interesting that some people call those feelings conflicted, and others talk about proselytizing. It makes me curious to know more about his feelings toward Catholicism, exactly, if such a thing is knowable. The portrayal of it felt very ambivalent to me, but it seems that a lot of people see it as very positive.

    Danielle — I think I will have to try one of his comic novels, just to see what they are like and compare. I bet I’d enjoy them. I think you’re right about conversion — the book definitely has the feel of someone trying to figure their new religion out.

    Becky — I’m looking forward to it too! Good to know it’s worthwhile rereading so much — when I’m ready to pick it up again, I’ll have a lot to enjoy.

    Jenny — my guess is that if I reread it, I’d admire it more and continue to enjoy it. I’ll admit that I didn’t focus on the writing itself all that much — I’ll have to do that next time! It’s cool to hear about so many people who enjoy this book so much.

    Rohan — interesting point about Sue Bridehead! It would be great to know what Waugh thought of Hardy. Your post makes me feel thoroughly confused about the novel’s tone, which is your point, of course. I had trouble figuring out just what to make of Catholicism in the novel and Waugh’s take on it. I knew Waugh converted to Catholicism, but his portrayal of it seems to very ambivalent. I never felt like I understood Julia’s character and why she acted as she did. I think you’ve helped me put my finger on part of why this novel feels so vague in its focus.

    Courtney — I hope you enjoy it! I’m a little bewildered by it, but I did like reading it.

    Jodie — I will have to watch the series, I see! It was quite a jolt to see Charles moving from Sebastian to Julia. It’s almost like he wants to be with the family, no matter what it takes — he seems to care more about them as a whole than about one individual person.

    Emily B. — Waugh is one of those people I’ve known about forever, but just never quite got around to reading. I’m glad I have now, of course, and I’m very curious about his other novels. Thanks for the warning about A Handful of Dust!

    JaneGS — A Separate Peace is one of those books everyone seems to have read, except me (like Brideshead for Emily). I never had to read it for school, so I missed out on it. I wonder if I would like it now, but I have to say the whole schoolroom air it has taken on doesn’t attract me much. I should get past that probably!


  19. Cam

    I reread Brideshead about a year ago for my book club (it was my choice). Everyone in the group — except for me — detested it. I had read the book soon after the PBS series aired in 1981-82. I think at that time I was too caught up in the series to think of the book on its own. But, reading it 25 years later was a treat. I couldn’t put it down and was so disappointed that my book group hardly wanted to even discuss it. Waugh does pack in so many themes, but it is the religious theme that I think is meant to be dominant. Perhaps a bit obvious because of the subtitle (The Sacred and Profane Memories of Cpt Charles Ryder), but I thought of it as a secondary theme, not the main one, the first time I read the book. The 2008 movie was on cable the other day & I kept thinking that I should switch the channel away from the trainwreck, but didn’t. It was truly awful, although it covered parts of the book that were either non-existent or very slight in the 1982 PBS version (Charles searching for Sebastian in Morroco, the trip to Venice although it was much different from the book). But, it was so far from the essence of the book that it hardly seemed like the same work. I couldn’t help but wonder how an adaptation can be so similar in a high level plot synopsis but yet so completely miss the mark. About the only thing that the 2008 movie got right was portraying Charles father as a boorish arse (although it gave no insight into why). It’s no wonder that the owners of the castle where the PBS series was shot (who have parlayed that into something of a minor tourist attraction I understand) did not grant permission to shoot the 2008 movie there.

    I would definitely recommend reading or re-reading this book to anyone.


  20. Mr W

    Handful of Dust and Decline and Fall are probably my favorites of Waugh’s novels. Emily, you are right – while the movie version of Handful is well done, it completely misses the irony and humor of the book, which is (admittedly darkly) hilarious. I can understand wanting to get drunk after seeing the movie!


  21. Jenny

    Mr. W — I actually think Decline and Fall is one of the funniest novels in the English language! Oh, and Stephen Fry’s adaptation of Vile Bodies (Bright Young Things) is very good.

    Charles’s father is not a boorish arse. He just has his own sense of humor and it doesn’t coincide with Charles’s. The scene where he almost but not quite suggests that Charles’s friend is an American is one of the funniest in this book or any other.


  22. Cam — well, what was wrong with that book group?? Thank you so much for pointing out the subtitle; I’d overlooked it, and it is useful to keep in mind when thinking about the book as a whole. Yes, it really does seem that the religious theme is dominant, although the subtitle nicely points out Waugh’s ambivalence — it’s Ryder’s sacred and profane memories both.

    Mr. W. — well, if you like those other ones even more, I will definitely have to give them a try at some point.


  23. I find it quite interesting that no one has mentioned the blatant predjudice against Catholicism which must have been rampant in post-18th century England. (England forbade seminaries in Ireland in the 17th and 18th century.) To me it seems that even though Waugh converted before marriage, it is a bit like a modern ex-muslim becoming involved with an orthodox Jewish family in Israel. While he is intrigued by the family’s faith, he none -the- less portrays it as a controlling, limiting and superstitous bunch of tripe. Only at the end of the book, which the movie misinterpreted completely,
    did it seem he admired the faith the family had, but only for it’s secure place in their lives, not in any observable truth it might have had. While I agree the orthodox view the mother had did cause Sebastian to drink, I think most orthodox religions cause heavy drinking-( or some other form of excessive behavior) and maybe this is the point of the book.-Of course, that’s only my opinion.


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