Considered by many to be his magnum opus, Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited has had a profound impact on many of its readers' lives. The book even finds itself on Time Magazine's "All-time 100 Novels" list (novels from 1923-present) along with other great works such as Animal Farm, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Rings. And yet, many readers find the story, especially the ending, to be unsatisfying. What is it about Waugh's novel that causes so many people to dislike it, and an even greater number to credit it with changing their lives? The answer is the same for both.
The story is a personal recounting of Charles Ryder's relationship with the Marchmain family. He first becomes acquainted with the family when he meets the younger son, Lord Sebastian Flyte, while studying at Oxford and the two immediately become best friends. Sebastian invites Charles to spend the summer with him at the his ancestral home of Brideshead Estate. There, Charles meets the rest of the Marchmain family (Lady Marchmain, Sebastian's elder brother the Earl of Brideshead, Julia Flyte and Cordelia Flyte) and is surprised to discover that they are Catholics.
Therein lies the problem that the family deals with day in and day out. While Lady Marchmain, the Earl and Cordelia are very focused on their faith, the other members of the family seek only to escape it. The head of the house, Lord Marchmain, had converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, but soon escaped to Italy where he then lives with his mistress. Sebastian seeks escape first through a return to his childhood and then through alcohol. And Julia seeks to escape it through society and her relationships with men. As time passes, the family is slowly ripped apart. And even when Charles thinks that he has seen the last of Brideshead Estate, fate throws him there again, this time with even more profound consequences.
My Review (Caution-Spoilers):
There are many themes running throughout Brideshead Revisited, but I would like to begin my review with what this novel isn't. Like many other works, this novel tends to be painted into a corner when it comes to themes. This particular corner is homosexuality. While this does make appearances in the novel (it is the 1920s for crying out loud), this is not exactly what I would call a "homosexual novel", though many claim that the relationship between Charles and Sebastian is more than platonic. Waugh had this to say on the subject: "Charles's romantic affection for Sebastian is part due to the glitter of the new world Sebastian represents, part to the protective feeling of a strong towards a weak character, and part a foreshadowing of the love for Julia which is to be the consuming passion of his mature years." Ultimately, no matter what the true nature of Charles and Sebastian's relationship is, homosexuality is not something that the novel focuses on, and neither should it's readers.
The main theme running throughout the novel is Divine Grace. At first, the novel seems to be a tirade against religion. Lady Marchmain and the other faithful members of the family a are painted as oppressive religious fanatics. Lord Marchmain leaves his family, Julia marries outside of the faith, Sebastian falls into alcoholism, and Charles blames Lady Marchmain for all of it, believing that she was shoving religion down their throat. Halfway through the book, however, Waugh reveals the truth about what his characters are really running from through this conversation between Cordelia and Charles, right after Lady Marchmain's death:
"You didn't like her. I sometimes think when people wanted to hate God they hated Mummy."
"What do you mean by that, Cordelia?"
"Well, you see, she was saintly but she wasn't a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can't really hate God either. When they want to hate Him and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it's God and hate that."
They are not running from religion or religious people; they are running from God himself. Waugh also uses a line from the Father Brown story "The Queer Feat" to show how they are drawn back to God. "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread." What I found to be so fascinating is how Waugh uses Brideshead Estate to represent God's grace. Many of the characters spend most of the book trying to get away from the estate, but each one finds his way back in one form or another. Sebastian does not return to Brideshead, but he does join a monastery in Tunisia. Lord Marchmain returns there to die and in the process is reconciled with the church. The estate is left to Julia (not the eldest son) who is the only member of the family still in need of grace (which she accepts). Finally, Charles himself receives grace in the quiet chapel of Brideshead. In a letter to Lady Mary Lygon, Waugh summed up his belief in Divine Grace like this: "I believe that everyone in his (or her) life has the moment when he is open to Divine Grace. It's there, of course, for the asking all the time, but human lives are so planned that usually there's a particular time — sometimes, like Hubert, on his deathbed — when all resistance is down and Grace can come flooding in."
The other theme running through the novel is a lamentation of the loss of the English nobility. Brideshead Estate also serves as a representation of a time in England that is now lost, while "Hooper", a man from Charles' regiment, represents the up and coming generation that has no respect for history or tradition. Brideshead is being used as a camp for British soldiers during WWII, and the soldiers staying there are slowly defacing the beauty and majesty of the ancient home.
Overall, this was a fascinating, if imperfect, read. Waugh's writing takes some getting used to, and there are things that happen in the novel which would make me recommend it only for mature readers. I wouldn't say that I found this to be the most captivating novel that I have ever read, but it certainly is one that will make you stop and think. Though non-Christian readers might find the ending to be disappointing, those of us who have tasted Divine Grace will find it to be rather satisfying. I will now leave you with one of my favorite passages from the novel:
"It's frightening," Julia once said, "to think how completely you have forgotten Sebastian."
"He was the forerunner."
"That's what you said in the storm. I've thought since: perhaps I am only a forerunner, too."
Perhaps, I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke-a thought to fade and vanish like smoke without a trace-perhaps all of our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.
There are two adaptations of Waugh's novel. The first is the acclaimed 1981 mini-series starring Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder. Though I have never seen it, this is the version that most fans of the novel enjoy.
The other version is the recent film starring Matthew Goode, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Hayley Atwell and Felicity Jones. I've only seen a few clips of it, but I'm not sure as to whether or not it preserves Waugh's emphasis on grace.
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