80. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1945. It is narrated by Charles Ryder, who tells the story in a series of flashbacks — the novel begins in 1943 when Ryder, who is now an army officer, and his men are quartered at Brideshead. His observance of the damage the house has sustained in the years since he had last seen it sparks his remembrance of his time at the house and with the family who lived there.

Waugh 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”. This is achieved by an examination of the Catholic aristocratic Marchmain family, as seen by the narrator, Charles Ryder.

Ryder’s first experience with the Marchmain family is when he goes away to school at Oxford in 1923 — a man walking by on a drinking bender vomits through a window of Charles’s ground-floor rooms. The next day, Charles receives flowers and a note of apology which contains an invitation to lunch. This is the first official meeting of Charles and Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son of the Marquess of Marchmain. Charles and Sebastian (and Sebastian’s stuffed bear, Aloysius) become fast friends and live a life of hedonism with the rest of Sebastian’s friends.

Sebastian is very reluctant to talk about his family and even more reluctant to introduce Charles to them — he takes Charles to Brideshead only when he is sure that his family will be away and is upset when they return earlier than expected. Sebastian has an older brother, the Earl of Brideshead whom they call Bridey, and two sisters, Lady Julia, who is older, and Lady Cordelia, who is the youngest. Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, is a devout Catholic and her faith is her life. She is a strong and at sometimes cold character. Lord Marchmain, Sebastian’s father, converted to Catholicism in order to marry her, but abandoned both the religion and his wife and moved to Italy.

Charles and Sebastian’s relationship has been strongly debated through the years. They have a sort of “romantic friendship”, which some people believe developed into a sexual relationship. After all, Charles states that he was “in search of love in those days.” Nothing is explicitly stated, but Sebastian is characterized as a flirtatious lush with effeminate airs about him. (It is rumored that Sebastian’s character is based off of Hugh Patrick Lygon, a schoolfriend and suspected lover of Waugh.)

Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) and Charles (Matthew Goode) in the 2008 movie

Sebastian begins to become more and more enveloped in his alcoholism trying to numb his oppressive mother and her religion, and he eventually flees both his family and Charles to go on a bender in Morocco. His drinking ruins his health, and the next time Charles encounters him, he’s in a Tunisian monastary as a recovering alcoholic. Monastical rehab, if you will.

After Sebastian leaves, Charles does not see much of the Marchmain family; he marries and becomes a father, although he and his wife are in a loveless, “cold” marriage. By some twist of fate, Charles runs into Julia, Sebastian’s sister, and enters into an affair with her.

She seemed to say “Look at me. I have done my share. I am beautiful. It is something quite out of the ordinary, this beauty of mine. I am made for delight. But what do I get out of it? Where is my reward?”
That was the change in her from ten years ago; that, indeed, was her reward, this haunting, this magical sadness which spoke straight to the heart and struck silence; it was the completion of her beauty.”

Charles and Julia divorce their spouses and are making plans to marry each other when Julia gets notice that her father, Lord Marchmain, has returned to Brideshead and is languishing on his deathbed, as the ridiculously rich tend to do. Julia and Charles visit him and Lord Marchmain has not only changed his will to bequeath the estate to Julia rather than Bridey, but he has returned to the Catholic faith and is receiving the sacraments. Julia is touched and inspired by her father’s rediscovered faith and decides that she can’t enter into a sinful relationship with Charles.

Thus the novel comes back to the “present” with Charles in the army in World War II. Charles discovers that the Brideshead chapel has been reopened, having been closed upon the death of the pious Lady Marchmain. The soldiers are able to worship at the house, even though it’s been damaged by the war. It occurs to Charles that the efforts of the builders — and, by extension, God’s efforts — were not in vain, though their purposes may have appeared, for a time, to have been frustrated.

Waugh was a convert to Catholicism and wrote this novel as a secular expression of the Catholic faith. Rather than using sentimentality to get his point across, he uses the characters of the agnostic Charles and the flawed but intensely Catholic Marchmains. The novel also examines and judges Charles’s agnosticism and portrays it as being empty when compared to the humanity and spirituality of Catholicism. Each of the Catholic characters is redeemed through their faith — Lord Marchmain, who lived as an adulterer, is reconciled with the Church on his deathbed; Julia is involved in an extramarital affair with Charles, and she comes to feel this relationship is immoral and decides to separate from Charles in spite of her great attachment to him; Sebastian, the charming and flamboyant alcoholic, ends up in service to a monastery while struggling against his alcoholism; Cordelia has some sort of conversion: from being the “worst” behaved schoolgirl her headmistress has ever seen to serving in the hospital bunks of the Spanish Civil War.

The only thing that could be considered a separation from the Catholic faith would be the relationship between Charles and Sebastian. I am one of the proponents of the belief in the romantic relationship between Sebastian and Charles. One of my major problems with the book is the build-up of the relationship between the two young men, only to have Sebastian disappear in an alcoholic haze, never to be seen again. And then, what’s up, affair with Sebastian’s sister. Hello, my annoyance.

Readers who interpret the relationship as overtly homosexual quote such lines as the fact that Charles had been “in search of love in those days” when he first met Sebastian, and his finding “that low door in the wall … which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden” — an image that can be a metaphor for gay sex. The line “our naughtiness [was] high on the catalogue of grave sins” is also a quite strong suggestion of gay sex, which is a sin in most religious beliefs, particularly Catholicism. Reference is made at one point to Charles impatiently anticipating Sebastian’s letters in the manner of one who is love-smitten. It is also suggested in the book that one of the reasons why Charles is later in love with Julia is because of the similarity between her and Sebastian. Indeed, when asked by Julia if he loved Sebastian, Charles replies, “Oh yes! He was the forerunner”.

Thank you for backing me up, Wikipedia.

Overall, Brideshead Revisited is a great book, once you get past the disappointment of the lack of a fulfilled Sebastian and Charles relationship. There are a lot of wonderful moments and great quotes about friendship and love. While I’m not a huge fan of organized religion, I respect people who have a sense of spirituality and live for something larger than themselves. The spiritual and humane side of Catholicism is highlighted in this book, which is a wonderful change from the lurid headlines of today.

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