Brideshead Revised is a 1940s novel that while considered one of the best books written in the 20th century, is considered to be an embarrassment by its author, Evelyn Waugh.  Who, it turns out, it actually a guy.  Did anyone else automatically assume Evelyn was a girl’s name or was that just me?

Moving right along, with the above information calmly taken under my wing, I delved into Brideshead Revisited, finishing with mixed feelings; like that moment when you realise that blue-vein cheese is, in essence, extra mouldy cheese.  Feeling good, but also that slightest bit cheated, not to mention confused.

Brideshead Revisited is told from the perspective of Charles Ryder and spans for over twenty years, from 1923, when Charles first starts attending Oxford University, right up to the Second World War.  In his first year, despite not completely being from ‘the right social set’ (although having a tonne of money, how convenient) he unconventionally meets Sebastian Flyte, a beautiful, aristocratic boy who, while a little odd, appears to have everything going for him.  Quickly he and Charles forge an incredibly close (and I mean, really, really close) friendship and Sebastian reluctantly introduces him to his family at their home, Brideshead Castle.  Although the family are lovely and beautiful (particularly Sebastian’s sister, Julia), they are strident Catholics, and Charles, who is agnostic, is perplexed by the strength of their beliefs.

Over time, Sebastian develops dipsomania, an extreme dependency on alcohol, and he and his friendship with Charles disintegrates and eventually ceases when he disappears overseas never to be seen by Charles again.  As time passes Sebastian becomes an influential and successful painter and his marries and has two children.  However, he is cold and unloving to his wife, and both end up being unfaithful to one another; Charles to Julia.

Waugh’s style of writing, although at the beginning slightly difficult to get into, and I wouldn’t suggest it for anyone who was strapped for time, is beautiful.  His style, so very English, is the exact right mix of descriptive, conversational and humorous, while also staying true to the overall storyline.  His descriptions emphasis beauty and art and the importance of both in everyday life.  For instance, although we are given ample examples of what Brideshead must look like, it was never at all overwhelming, or detracted from the dialogue or plot.

The set-up of the storyline was, although not entirely different to many plots during that era, somewhat ambiguous and at times uneven.  When we are originally introduced to Sebastian, as readers we are totally immersed in the friendship that the two boys have and their lives at Oxford.  Waugh provides loving and detailed descriptions of apparently everyday events that occur in the boys’ lives, yet in a way that completely romanticises their friendship.  Perhaps this was a way to signal at something more, but I’ll discuss that a bit further on.

Then the next period of Charles’ life is either omitted completely or skimmed over in a short number of pages.  While this didn’t annoy me, it did seem slightly peculiar as it were during momentous occasions in his life; his marriage, the birth of his two children, and his voyage to South America.  Perhaps it was a way for Waugh to emphasise the importance of the Flyte family in Charles’ life?  Or perhaps because it detracted from the overall plot of the storyline, which were the effects of religion on relationships.

While Waugh did do this successfully, a skill that many authors would have handled rather clumsily (shall I assume we’ve all read a book where a period has been skimmed over so quickly we suddenly have no clue what was going on?), it did have the unfortunate side effect of leaving me a bit disinterested towards the middle of the book, and those who are slower readers, or have less time on their hands, may have lost interest completely, or put down the book for so long that they totally lost the connection with the protagonist.

In terns of characters, I was undecided, because while I did enjoy reading this book, I didn’t feel any strong connections to any of the characters.  Sebastian irritated me with his inability to save himself from his dipsomania, and his family for that matter for becoming enablers to his problem.  Instead of addressing the issue face on, they skirted around the issue, using their religion, pride and social standing to make excuses.  So very English and rather boring to read page after page in all honesty.

Although Charles cared deeply for Sebastian and Julia, he still seemed so incredibly emotionless to me, particularly with his neutral feelings towards his wife, and his complete disinterest in seeing his children, one for the first time.

And Julia, who conjured up images of breath-taking beauty, seemed fickle and cold.  Her connection to Charles for the first half of the book is tenuous at best, and yet they begin an overwhelming love affair with one another all of a sudden when they’re reunited.

Of course, the most influential aspect of Brideshead Revisited is religion, specifically Catholicism.  This one is tricky, because as someone who is not a Catholic herself, I felt that I went into this book somewhat cynically.  Saying that, as the protagonist, Charles, is agnostic, perhaps I was expected to be in the mind-frame.

The thing is, Waugh doesn’t paint a fantastic image of it.  Each of the Flyte family members have some sort of relationship with their religion, whether it’s absolute, as with Cordelia, Lady Marchmain and Lord Brideshead, or tenuous and ever-fleeting, like with Julia and Sebastian.  And then there’s Charles, who is trying to understand how faith works, without really ever understanding the complexities of it.

What annoyed me about this were the paradoxical aspects that the Flyte family presents in terms of its faith.  Although Charles is an alcoholic, throughout the novel we read about how he is, in various terms, accepted by his religion, despite his actions.

Furthermore, although it is never said, Waugh hints at a romantic relationship between Charles and Sebastian.  While this isn’t an issue for most people, and Sebastian does indeed have a homosexual friend, in Catholicism homosexuality is considered a mortal sin.  And Julia and Charles both begin an affair with one another outside of their marriages, as well as the long-standing affair that Lord Marchmain has when he leaves his wife.

While all of this wouldn’t truly be an issue with me, I found it frustrating, and perhaps a little too accurate for that matter, when Julia turns to Charles in the final pages of the novel and tells him that she cannot enter a sinful marriage with him.  Whether this is because he isn’t a Catholic himself, or because she would be too happy, I’m not entirely sure, but it just seemed so contradictory and hypocritical that I just wanted to mentally slap her across the face.  Sadly with fictional characters (particularly ones from the 1940s) this is not an option.

Overall, I found this book interesting, complex and beautifully well-written.  It explored aspects that I had not personally considered, but was left thinking about when I finished it.  I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of English literature, loves beautiful descriptions, or has the time to sit down and really appreciates some fantastic writing.

Have you read Brideshead Revisited or anything by Evelyn Waugh?  What did you think?  Let me know in the comments!

brideshead revisited by evelyn waugh

Brideshead Revisited – (image taken from http://www.blogspot.com)

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