Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
In my discussion of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I referenced his feat of landing two out of the first three spots in the Modern Library's contentious list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. Another author with multiple titles on the list was mid-century British writer Evelyn Waugh (and let's get this upfront: EVE-lin WAR), with A Handful of Dust slotted at #34, Scoop at #75, and Brideshead Revisited at #80.
The latter title also made the Radcliffe list, published in response to the dearth of female authors on the Modern Library list, as well the similar Time Magazine list. It has also been the subject of two screen adaptations: an early-80s British miniseries (starring Jeremy Irons and Laurence Olivier!) and a 2008 feature film. It was a mass-market paperback copy of the book, published in conjunction with the recent film adaptation, which I found on the bookshelves in the barracks in Qatar when I had exhausted my own reading supply during my trip to the Arab emirate.
The basic framework of the novel is rather straightforward. As the book's subtitle ("The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder") suggests, the narration is provided by a British Army Captain who, in the midst of World War II, has just arrived with his unit for billeting at an old English aristocratic estate called Brideshead:
"Brigade Headquarters are coming there next week. Great barrack of a place. I've just had a snoop round. Very ornate, I'd call it. And a queer thing, there's a sort of R.C. church attached. I looked in and there was a kind of service going on--just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine." Perhaps I seemed not to hear; in a final effort to excite my interest he said: "There's a frightful great fountain, too, in front of the steps, all rocks and sort of carved animals. You never saw such a thing."
"Yes, Hooper, I did. I've been here before."
The words seemed to ring back to be enriched from the vaults of my dungeon... I had been there before; I knew all about it.
As it happens, Brideshead was the home of the Flyte family, whose second son, Sebastian, was Charles' closest friend during his time as a student at Oxford. His wartime arrival at the home triggers a flood of memories of these college years, which occupy the first two-thirds of the novel. Raised in a rather sheltered home by his distant widower father, Charles entrance into the greater world would be largely shaped by this connection to Sebastian and his family, a relationship not entirely approved of by those looking out for Charles:
"I expected you to make mistakes your first year. We all do. I got in with some thoroughly objectionable O.S.C.U. men who ran a mission to hop-pickers during the long vac. But you, my dear Charles, whether you realize it or not, have gone straight, hook, line and sinker, into the very worst set in the University. You may think that, living in digs, I don't know what goes on in college; but I hear things. In fact, I hear all too much. I find that I've become a figure of mockery on your account at the Dining Club. There's that chap Sebastian Flyte you seem inseparable from. He may be all right, I don't know. His brother Brideshead was a very sound fellow. But this friend of yours looks odd to me, and he gets himself talked about. Of course, they're an odd family.
Charles' affection for Sebastian, which ambiguously skirts the line between friendship and romance, is tested by Sebastian's descent into alcoholism and alienation from his family, particularly his piously Catholic mother. Charles' growing intimacy with Sebastian inevitably draws him into the Flyte family circle, and Charles gradually becomes drawn into the internecine struggle for Sebastian's soul:
[S]ince Sebastian counted among the intruders his own conscience and all claims of human affection, his days in Arcadia were numbered. For in this, to me, tranquil time Sebastian took fright. I knew him well in that mood of alertness and suspicion, like a deer suddenly lifting his head at the far notes of the hunt; I had seen him grow wary at the thought of his family or his religion; now I found I, too, was suspect. He did not fail in love, but he lost his joy of it, for I was no longer part of his solitude. As my intimacy with his family grew I became part of the world which he sought to escape; I became on of the bonds which held him. That was the part for which his mother, in all our little talks, was seeking to fit me. Everything was left unsaid. It was only dimly and at rare moments that I suspected what was afoot.
Sebastian's increasingly eccentric behavior eventually leads to his departure from Oxford, and his eventual estrangement from his family, seeking solace in the cities of North Africa. Charles drifts away from both Sebastian and the Flyte family, leaving for Paris to study art. The book leaps forward ten years in its second section, now finding Charles unhappily married to the sister of another Oxford classmate, with two children. During a sea voyage back from the U.S., where an exhibition of his architectural paintings had opened to great acclaim, Charles encounters Sebastian's sister, Julia, who is equally unhappy in her marriage. They renew their acquaintance and embark on a serious affair, with many of Charles' long-standing feelings for Sebastian being triggered by family resemblances, and Charles being pulled back into the endless internal strife of the Flyte clan:
These memories are the memorials and pledges of the vital hours of a lifetime. These hours of afflatus in the human spirit, the springs of art, are, in their mystery, akin to the epochs of history, when a race which for centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, easting, sleeping, begetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world; commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scaled and new rewards won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.
In line with Waugh's mixed feelings about the British aristocracy, Brideshead Revisited looks at the decline of the landed class with a sense of critical nostalgia, and there were moments in the book that reminded me of Robert Altman's brilliant film, Gosford Park, with its searing depiction of an English country house in the interwar years. There are any number of social climbers and snobs running in and out of the book, and one of the text's many ambiguities is with whom Waugh's sympathies lay.
Another recurring topic in the novel is the Catholicism of the Flyte family, which places them in the minority in 20th-century Britain and particularly the aristocracy. The faith is approached with varying degrees of devotion within the family, with Sebastian's mother, brother, and youngest sister the most devote. His father, Lord Marchmain, converted for purposes of marriage, and then abandoned the faith at the same time he abandoned his wife for an adulterous life overseas. Charles was raised without religion, and for most of the book brings a great deal of skepticism to the religiosity of his adopted family. I am told, by various online reviews of the book, that Brideshead Revisited is heavily influenced by important Catholic themes like grace and reconciliation, reflecting Waugh's conversion to the faith, as well as the tensions within a religious Catholic family. I picked up on some of this, but I am not particularly well-versed in Catholic doctrine nor the history of Catholicism in England, and I suppose much of it must have gone straight over my head.