Book: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Genre: Fiction (Classic #2)
This was February’s classic. I remembered that the miniseries from the eighties introduced us to Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons, but beyond that I had no sense of the story. After I read it, I wasn’t sure I had a true sense of it yet.
Charles Ryder, serving in WWII, comes across an estate the army will commandeer for wartime use. It’s Brideshead, the country seat of the Marchmains, with whom Charles was intensely involved as a younger man. Seeing the home recalls those memories.
Charles’ first memories are of Sebastian Flyte, second son in the Marchmain family, whom he met at Oxford. Sebastian is considered charmingly flamboyant, with his love of Nanny, his preoccupation with his teddy bear Aloysius, his ambivalence about his family, his devotion to his Catholic faith, his dedication to having a good time, and his indifference to the feelings of others. He and Charles form a powerful attachment to each other, but one that is unequal. Charles is a devoted follower of Sebastian, but Sebastian’s regard for Charles seems dependent on Charles’ usefulness to Sebastian.
During their university years, the two are essentially inseparable, spending time both at school and during the holidays together. Their friendship reaches a climax when Charles comes to Brideshead and meets the rest of the Flytes. Lady Marchmain is an extraordinarily devout Catholic, running the family home since her husband has abandoned her and is living in Italy with his mistress. Julia is a debutante, bent on securing an engagement to an up-and-coming Canadian. Bridey, the eldest son, is rather non-descript, seemingly in his own world. Young Cordelia is a bit of a mischief maker. During this visit, Sebastian’s love of alcohol becomes pronounced to everyone. When Charles does not rein him in, Lady Marchmain very politely banishes Charles from her home.
Some years later, Charles, indifferently married to the sister of a school friend, re-encounters Julia, who indeed married her Canadian. Sebastian is living in a monastery in Africa, trying to do good with his life and to refrain from drink. Cordelia is serving as a nurse during the war in Spain, and Bridey is engaged to be married. Lady Marchmain has died. Julia and Charles begin a passionate affair, one that is to last several years until their divorces can be finalized. Lord Marchmain comes home to Brideshead to die, but not before reconciling himself to the Catholic faith he abandoned. After her father’s death, Julia realizes that an unsanctioned marriage to Charles is something she is not willing to contemplate. She ends their affair, and when revisiting Brideshead (with the army) the agnostic Charles begins to show an interest in God and faith.
On the surface, simply as a story, this book was just an average tale of the British aristocracy with an outsider admiring them and wanting to be part of their world. And as such, it merited my three-book rating. However, I figured there had to be more than meets the eye, or why else would this be regarded as a classic? So, of course, I did a little research.
Before I commenced that, however, I did have a more decided opinion about one aspect of the book. The Catholicism of the Marchmains is prevalent, and as a Catholic, I didn’t think the faith was portrayed in a particularly flattering light. This is because we encounter it through Charles’ eyes, Charles who isn’t a person of faith and who seems to see Catholicism as something that gets in the way of daily living. I thought this was rather odd, since I knew that Mr. Waugh converted to Catholicism. I figured this book was either written before his conversion or perhaps he became disenchanted with the faith and was using this work to kind of take a step back.
And this is where the research comes in. I learned that this book was indeed written after Mr. Waugh’s conversion. In fact, this book is supposed to be an expression of the Catholic faith, dwelling on the themes of reconciliation and divine grace. Now that I know that, I can see those elements in the book, but obviously they were lost on me during my actual reading of the story. Three of the key Marchmain members (Sebastian, Lord Marchmain, and Julia) all experience various forms of reconciliation. After a lifetime of disbelief, Charles comes to faith through divine grace.
When I was at school, I certainly remember reading various works of literature in my English classes, learning about the imagery, themes, etc. I often wondered then how much of these elements the authors actually intended and how much future analysts assumed. It’s clear that whatever elements were intended or not, it’s likely I would have missed them (as I just did) if I hadn’t been learning about the books as well as reading the stories. When I read fiction I tend to get lost in the story, as I certainly did here. In learning about the writing of this book, I appreciated it a bit more, since I now also appreciate Mr. Waugh’s craftsmanship. It’s a shame that I didn’t have a little more of the Holy Spirit whispering in my ear as I was reading, pointing out what in retrospect seems a bit obvious. Et cum spiritu tuo.