Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

First, for those of you that don’t know, I’d like to clear up something that I didn’t actually know until about five years ago. Evelyn Waugh is a man. I know, I know, confusing. Just remember, Evelyn is a man, George Eliot is a woman.

I am pretty ambivalent about Brideshead Revisited. At first, I was pretty excited. The story starts out with a 38 year old soldier in the British Army during World War II. I was excited because the book was copyrighted in 1944 and 1945. I thought the book would be about the actual War, and thought it was kind of cool to be reading a novel written about a soldier while the war was still happening. That turned out to not be the case.

The full title of the novel, on the inside page is “Brideshead Revisited The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder”. The story starts out with Captain Ryder’s unit moving to a new section of English countryside. One on which their command headquarters is to be an old estate called Brideshead.

Capt. Ryder has a history with Brideshead, starting when he went to Oxford as a wee lad of 18 and fell into a friendship with the younger Brideshead son, Sebastian. At the beginning, Sebastian takes him to Brideshead when no one is there, except the old nanny because he doesn’t want Charles to get involved with his family. Eventually, however, that’s exactly what happens. Charles becomes entangled in the family’s life. Sebastian, his older brother, his two younger sisters and his mother. There’s also the estranged father living overseas in Rome, whom the mother, a Catholic refuses to divorce. He lives quite openly with his mistress over there.

Time passes. Sebastian runs into some difficulty and it gets to a point where Charles has had enough and cuts ties with the entire family. Only to run into the sister, Julia on a sea voyage years later after he is married with children and a successful artist. He becomes entangled with the family all over again.

There are some interesting things to note about Brideshead. There are openly gay characters in here, well only one truly open one, a minor character. He warns Charles towards the beginning of the book about both Sebastian and Sebastian’s family. Charles doesn’t listen. Later in the book, he takes Charles to a gay club. He is definitely out in society as gay as well. It’s also hinted at strongly that Sebastian is gay, and that quite possibly Charles had an actual relationship with Sebastian. I thought it was really interesting for a book published in the 40s to actually have an openly gay character and so many hints elsewhere of it.

Waugh does a great job with dialogue and with helping us see characters not only through Charles’s eyes (first person narrator) but as they really are too.

One of the themes of the book is how strongly memories can take us.

“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life–for we possess nothing certainly except the past–were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning. 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 for which centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, eating, sleeping, forgetting, 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 records won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.”

The reason I am ambivalent about this book might partly be my fault. For large portions of it, I just couldn’t bring myself to care all that much about what was happening. Which, I don’t fully blame on myself because books from this time frame, set in the era after World War I, in England usually fascinate me. So, there must be something about the material that I just couldn’t connect with.

This isn’t a bad book. And I’d recommend it to certain people, depending on what they like to read, but I still just am not that excited about having read it.

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