Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh (1945)
Back Bay Books (1982)
351 pp


My reading Brideshead Revisited was not inspired by any viewing of the 2008 film adaptation. Let’s just make that clear. And now that I’ve read the book and watched the trailer to the 2008 film adaptation, I’m certain I’ll never watch it. It looks atrocious and like the makers took some characters and made their own story about them. I’m really not a fan of most film adaptations (there are, of course, many exceptions), especially these days when producers and directors seem to be grasping at — here it is again — a beautiful, showy style rather than a nice meeting of form and substance. I bought this book because I liked the cover. I read it in preparation for a nice long viewing (11 hours) of the apparently superb ITV adaptation of 1981. I have it already, so it’s just a matter of finding that time.

At the beginning of the book, Charles Ryder is a disillusioned, apathetic soldier in World War II. I was quickly drawn into the story and into the writing during at this very early point in the novel. Waugh’s writing, I found, was superb — complex without being burdensome, beautiful without being pretentious. And I could just imagine Jeremy Irons reading this sentence:

Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day — had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading? — as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster.

The company of soldiers Captain Ryder is traveling with ends up at Brideshead, a place, we are to find out, where Ryder’s conflicted and complex past most played out. At any rate, it represents a great deal, and Ryder lapses into the book-length reminiscence.

Brideshead is divided into two books. The first one, for the most part, introduces Ryder’s complex and touching relationship with Sebastian Flyte, a fellow Oxford student. Sebastian is an incredibly wealthy young man who still carries around a teddy bear and adores his nanny. Ryder finds Sebastian and his lifestyle incredibly attractive, and like a lover he despairs when they are apart and finds himself jealous when Sebastian travels without inviting him to come along.

Waugh does a great job developing their relationship. Though I didn’t feel it was ambiguous, there are grounds to believe that their relationship was deeply platonic but not sexual. In not getting explicit, Waugh makes their relationship all the more realistic, somehow. By not going into detail, Ryder’s narration tells a lot about his relationship with Sebastian. To me it didn’t feel like Ryder’s restraint meant he was ashamed — he doesn’t hide the fact that he deeply loved Sebastian, and this love probably was sexual:

Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never know, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.

Rather, his restraint seemed to suggest that he didn’t want to confine his love in language, that he doesn’t want to explain his love to others, that to do so would taint his love. The subtitle of the book is, after all, “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.”

This relationship, though seminal and perhaps the beating heart of the story, is not the whole story or even the focus. First, they begin to grow up. The languor of youth passes on, and the novelty and freshness wears off. Through the years, Sebastian drifts away. His religion and his family create such a conflict within him that alcohol and prodigality seem to be the only real escape.

The book moves into a discussion on religion, particularly Catholicism, which Ryder thinks has Sebastian and his family stifled. Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, is deeply religious.

Religion predominated in the house; not only in its practices — the daily mass and rosary, morning and evening in the chapel — but in all its intercourse. “We must make a Catholic of Charles,” Lady Marchmain said, and we had many little talks together during my visits when she delicately steered the subject into a holy quarter.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Ryder’s main antagonist is Catholicism. We get a sense that though Sebastian has the pretense of being irreligious, he believes enough of what he’s been taught to be stifled with guilt. That is the case with the whole family. And the last half of the book develops Ryder’s relationships with those other members, particularly Sebastian’s sister Julia.

One thing that really strengthens this book, besides the subtle writing, is Waugh’s ability to draw and maintain strong motifs: painting and building being one of my favorites. Ryder is an architectural painter, but Waugh manages to use this to achieve a great effect when he pronounces some of the book’s largest themes and conclusions.

Now, for me, it’s on to the 1981 adaptation. And here’s one observation after watching the first hour and a half, which comprises of the first 100 pages of this 350-page book. How did they turn the last 250 pages into ten hours of film? I’m anxious to find out!

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