Brideshead Revisited ~ Evelyn Waugh


Another never-before-read book for me this week: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It’s subtitled The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. The story is that of Charles Ryder, a young Englishman studying in Oxford. There he meets Sebastian Flyte, second son to the Marquis of Marchmain, a charming young man. He becomes fascinated with him and with his entire family – including his younger sister Julia – living at Brideshead. We follow Charles over the course of almost 20 years and his particular relationship to the family.

The narrative is in the first person, yet somehow it’s one of these stories where it feels as if the character is a stranger to himself throughout the story. Not quite sure what he feels or experiences. It’s as if he’s watching someone else living his life.
I didn’t like the book: I found it depressing. One of the most depressing books I’ve ever read (and that’s saying something) I kept looking where I was to know when I would be done.

The writing is reflective of the character I thought: weak. Not that it’s badly written – in fact it’s very well written – but everything about Charles Ryder’s a bit weak and bland. He never seems to make any conscious decisions: things happen and he goes with the flow. He has no control over his story, his life. It’s very disconcerting.
Even when he speaks of his marriage, his wife and children, he doesn’t appear to be aware that he actually had a part in it. He seems completely unattached from anything. At some point he speaks of Sebastian – whom we’re made to believe is a great friend – as ‘the forerunner.’ And understandably so, Julia comes to realize that maybe she’s a forerunner too. He seems to be taking ownership for nothing: he blames Mrs. Flyte for creating a wedge in his friendship with Sebastian. He disliked his wife but married her nonetheless because he was ‘lonely.’

There’s an aura of depressive melancholy about him and many secondary characters that’s not pleasant at all. I understand the novel stands for a regret of the great age before the Wars. I get the sorrow and the wistfulness: things were lost. But instead of somehow beautifying it, it makes it even darker, because the character can’t seem to do anything but feel sorry for himself. The last few words he actually speaks are “I never built anything, and I forfeited the right to watch my son grow. I’m homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hooper.”  (Modern Classics, p.325) Boo ooh. It’s not like he did anything to deserve more.

I guess I didn’t like the preaching going on in the book. I may be a Catholic but to me the book addressed one of the major issues I have with overly pious people. And in his way Charles – who says he’s an agnostic is just as bad as the other – is just as bad. It’s about converting people to their ideas. Imposing them until the other has no choice but to accept them. That annoys me. The not-so-subtle moralizing about faith and its dogmas, the lessons about marrying a divorce… All of this annoyed me.
If Julia had only said that she wasn’t going to marry Charles because she felt he wasn’t in it, that she was only ‘the forerunner’ of something else, it might have felt more genuine. As it is, she doesn’t marry him because just before he died and even though he was barely conscious, her father crossed himself after receiving the Last Sacrament from a priest despite the fact he’d renounced the Church some 20 odd years before. This was just the last straw.
Maybe it makes sense for the writer and for the journey he went on himself, I don’t know. But for me it made the entire character a fake.

So yes one book I won’t pick up again. Maybe I missed something. Maybe I’m too young, maybe I’m not English and can’t understand the message. What do you think?
Have you read Brideshead Revisited?
What did you think of it?

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. I too did not enjoy Brideshead as much as my peers did. I enjoyed some of the characters (Cordelia was lovely, Anthony Blanche was awful and hilarious), but I agree about how generally unpleasant the novel is. Having conversation with more and more people convinced to bump it up one star, and I will probably read it again in the future. I am currently reading Helena by Waugh, and though it has some of the preachiness you mentioned, I find it much more delightful! I think I will give Decline and Fall a shot next, and then a friend of mine wants me to read a number of his short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting because I read it shortly after Birdsong and both address in a way the nostalgia one feels after a war – for the golden era of before, for a way of life… But whereas one really fascinated me, the other left me unimpressed.

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