Evelyn Waugh, ‘Brideshead Revisited’

The better the book, the harder it is to write about it. I can’t possibly write about this book without discussing plot details. Sorry about that.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so many years to get round to reading ‘Brideshead Revisited’. Come to think of it, it took me quite a while to get round to Evelyn Waugh, and I still only really know his ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy. Which I like a lot.

I’m thankful that I’m slightly too young to have watched the 1981 TV version of ‘Brideshead’. It seems to me to be one of those books which it’s important to read before seeing any dramatised version, because the actual events are subsidiary to the themes and atmosphere. Luckily, having a vague mental image of Anthony Andrews with a teddy bear wasn’t enough to affect me.

It’s an absorbing and memorable book, and will stay with me for quite a while. I don’t think it’s ever going to rank as one of my favourites, though, and it’s taken me a while to work out why. The first and more obvious reason is that the theme of the conflicts of Catholic belief is an uncomfortable one for me, because I cannot comprehend religious belief on any meaningful level. I’m not able to sympathise enough with the characters who are being conflicted. I can understand, to some extent, but I can’t share, and the end of the book, where the narrator finally becomes a believer, is for me a defeat and a disappointment rather than a satisfactory denouement.

The second reason is that although Charles, the narrator, feels that his friendship with Sebastian is the ‘forerunner’ of his love for Sebastian’s sister Julia, for me Julia is paler and much less interesting than her brother. Sebastian’s charm drives the first half of the novel – he seems to me to be one of those characters who develop a life of their own, possibly beyond the original intentions of their creator – and when Sebastian is removed from the main storyline some of the zest goes out of the experience. Put simply, I missed him.

A favourite moment:
“’Ought we to be drunk every night?’ Sebastian asked one morning.
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘I think so too.’”

Poignant with hindsight because of what Sebastian goes on to become, but somehow summing up a mood I remember from my own student days, where you realise that you have choices to make and experiences to savour; that you can make your own life, accept its consequences and revel in its freedoms. It’s also about the relief of finally having reached an age and an environment where you don’t have to answer to the disapproval of others. And it’s about finally having found someone with whom you don’t have to prevaricate or put on an act, who sees the same world that you do. The strength of that friendship is another reason why I missed Sebastian when he left the main narrative: after that Charles seems always alone, even during his doomed affair with Julia.

The edition I read (Penguin 2003, ISBN 9780141187471) came with a short preface, written by Waugh in 1959. It was worth reading. He was talking about the fact that the book is very much a product of the time he wrote it, which was the first half of 1944. “It is offered to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals”. That sense of nostalgia does pervade the book, in particular the memory of luxury and ease in a time of anxiety and shortage. I think perhaps that’s why it works so well for modern readers who are looking for a feel of the golden age of the English aristocracy in their country houses: the sense of looking back to a time which is lost was part of the novel’s creation, not just something readers may bring with them.

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