Title: Brideshead Revisited
Author: Evelyn Waugh
No. of Pages: 315
First Published: 1945
Synopsis (Courtesy of Joseph-Beth Booksellers): “Evelyn Waugh’s most celebrated novel is a memory drama about the intense entanglement of the narrator, Charles Ryder, with a great Anglo-Catholic family. Written during World War II, the novel mourns the passing of the aristocratic world Waugh knew in his youth and vividly recalls the sensuous plea?sures denied him by wartime austerities; in so doing it also provides a profound study of the conflict between the demands of religion and the desires of the flesh. At once romantic, sensuous, comic, and somber, “Brideshead Revisited” transcends Waugh’s familiar satiric exploration of his cast of lords and ladies, Catholics and eccentrics, artists and misfits, revealing him to be an elegiac, lyrical novelist of the utmost feeling and lucidity. “
Comments and Critique: Often, my book club selections require splitting the reading into manageable chunks. This means that it may take me weeks, if not months, to finish our selected book. Part of this is strategic on the part of the book club because we hope to encourage participation in the discussion when each person has only fifty or so pages to read each week. Part of it is strategic on my part, allowing me to read the required number of pages and then move on to something more modern I may want to read. It definitely allows me to mix things up a bit in my choice of reading.
Imagine my surprise on a Sunday when I emerged from reading Brideshead Revisited and discovered I was almost finished with it. At 315 pages, it is one of the shorter novels we have read for the book club, but after five years, I read along with the reading schedule as much as possible. So why did I start and finish the book this weekend? I attribute my voracious reading to the book itself. Essentially, I fell in love with the sensual, lush, and poignant storytelling with its undercurrent of sorrow and Charles Ryder’s fascinating life story.
The characters in Brideshead are so…undescribable. From Sebastian and his teddy bear to Charles’ father and his mind games, each character shines brightly and remains unlike any other characters I have ever read. Each bursts onto the page, with his or her light remaining long after they exit the scene. Conversely, Charles himself remains shrouded in mystery throughout much of the novel, only to have everything, including the prologue set in wartime England, make sense at the very end. Still, a reader is left with so many questions about Charles and his motivation in life. Was he in romantic love with Sebastian? Was he with Julia, or was it love for Brideshead itself? Why give up his life as a painter? Wasn’t there anything else in the Army he could have done?
There is a pathos to the entire novel that I personally find compelling. Charles is, in this reader’s opinion, a very unhappy man, but he is only reflecting the unhappiness of Waugh at the time of his writing the novel. The history of Brideshead Revisited is fascinating and directly contributes to the emotions flowing throughout the book and experienced by the reader. The unhappiness and longing of Waugh is palpable and makes itself felt in Charles’ actions and thoughts. In addition, Waugh offers his audience a different take on military service and wartime preparations – one that seemingly opposes the idea that people wanted to serve their country and fight the Germans – by showing us that not everyone was fighting out of a sense of duty to his or her country. This fact only compounds the feelings of helplessness that reach the reader.
Written at a time when patriotism was of the utmost importance, Waugh’s longing for the lost pre-war era is curious and yet brave. World War II did change society forever, and society has a right to mourn that loss. Waugh’s mourning is felt in his descriptions of picnics, dinners, parties, and the excess of everything that permeated pre-War society. In addition, Waugh bravely tackles the situation of homosexuality with tact and compassion, making it an essential albeit subtle essence of the plot.
I cannot finish a review without discussing Waugh’s presentation of Catholicism and Charles’ conversion to it, as it is another central theme throughout the book. As a Roman Catholic myself, I found Waugh’s discussions of this particular religion both fascinating and thought-provoking. He does an amazing job of presenting all of the arguments and questions both for and against, describing the struggle for faith, and yet showing the beauty of the religion that one cannot help but ascribe some of the details to his own personal struggle. This challenge to believe does not distinguish itself solely to Roman Catholicism either for it is an age-old struggle between faith and common sense to which anyone with any familiarity of organized religion can relate.
Put together, Brideshead Revisited is a unique and addicting read for anyone who loves to read classics. There are enough surprising plot twists that prevents the reader from predicting the ending. The language and descriptions require, and deserve, time to savor and enjoy, as they do much to establish the feeling of loss that permeates the book. Having devoured the book in one day, I now understand and support the critical acclaim Waugh received because of this novel. It is well worth the time to discover Charles Ryder and Brideshead.
This book counts for my 100+ Reading Challenge and my Read ‘n Review Challenge. Dear FTC, I purchased this with my own money.