2009: 97. Brideshead Revisited

“When I reached C Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning.”

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

      I have a complicated relationship with Brideshead.  It was my first Waugh, and I loved it.   As I’ve said before, upon finishing it I eagerly sought his other books, expecting to find more of the same, only to be surprised by their totally different black comedy tone.  I’ve read a number of times since then, and I really enjoy re-reading Brideshead - the language is so evocative, the tone so nostalgic and the plot draws you in.  But at the same time, every time I put it down I am struck by the thought that this is really a super bizarre novel.  What on earth is it really about?  

         The plot is thus (and this has spoilers, so don’t read if you want to be surprised) - a man, Charles Ryder, during his service in the Second World War is posted to an old mansion called Brideshead House (or castle or whatever - I don’t have my copy in front of me), which causes him to reminisce about his complicated relationship with the Flyte family, the Anglo-Catholic nobility that owns the house.  Charles first met them when he entered Oxford, and was drawn in by the glamourous younger son, Sebastian, who sweeps him off his feet (and with whom he is clearly in love and probably having an affair, though the book is either deliberately vague about this, or I am unsophisticated in reading the context clues of the 1950’s).  After Sebastian falls apart (because of his mother and Catholicism driving him to dipsomania), Charles drifts out of the Flyte’s life, only later to meet up with, and have a passionate affair with, Sebastian’s sister Julia (to whom he tells that Sebastian was “just the precursor”).  But that falls apart too, because of Julia’s religion.

       And there is so much going on here - the homosexuality, and the subsequent relationship with the sister, and overlaid on the whole thing is the Church.  It is the Flyte family’s religion that is the source of their woes, and I can’t tell if this is supposed to be an anti-Catholic book, or what.  Waugh himself was a Catholic, and wrote that the novel “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace’, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.” I guess the point is that all the characters return to God and the Church in the end, but the book so clearly makes Catholicism seem like some ridiculous cult that makes everyone miserable it’s hard for me to understand exactly what he’s driving at.  Compare this with, say The End of the Affair, a novel in which religion causes people to give up a relationship and causes them personal agony, but you believe that they get spiritual satisfaction of a sort.  I don’t know if Greene is a better writer than Waugh, but he was a more convincing advocate for God.  (And, seriously, has someone written a book about the Anglo-Catholic convert writers of the 1930’s? There must at least be an honors thesis published on the interplay between Greene and Waugh).

       And that’s not even dealing with the whole Sebastian/Charles relationship and what that’s all about, which is itself is so strange in tone, in that you can’t really read the any other way than to say that they are gay, but which the novel doesn’t really address head on - or rather which it just leaves hanging.  All of which is why I say love the book*, but find.  I always put it down with a sense that I understand what happened, but not really why.  George Orwell declared that Waugh was “about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions,” and maybe that is what I mean - but I suspect he was talking about the snobbery of Waugh, where I am stuck on the strangeness of the novel.  But the the writing is grand and it is probably my favorite Waugh - especially since I am realizing lately that I don’t have much stomach for dark comedies - I get too fond of my protagonists to laugh while they ruin their lives.

*I really do! The characters are so interesting and its so emotionally fraught and it really sucks you into the story. I’ve never seen the miniseries, but it is the perfect sort of story for a Masterpiece Theater, three night extravaganza.  So romantic, really.

Date/Place Completed:  August 2009; D.C.

Categories:  Fiction, Book Resolutions, The Evelyn Waugh Project , Modern Library Top 100, Re-Read

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017