This book is #64 on my Classics Club list, and #1 on my Back to the Classics list for 2014. Please be warned that there are spoilers below, so please revisit Brideshead Revisited before reading my review!
A soldier reminiscing about his past. An ancestral home under threat. An undergrad with a teddy bear and a penchant for champagne. These are just some of the things that you can expect to find in Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited.
But it’s not all stuffed toys and bubbly at Brideshead. Because don’t get me wrong – this is a Depressing Book. Charles Ryder, an army officer in the middle of the Second World War, reminisces about an aristocratic family that he met in the 1920s, while he was an undergraduate at Oxford. At university he met and befriended the eccentric, but lovable, Sebastian Flyte, owner of aforementioned teddy bear and soon-to-be-alcoholic. His relationship with Sebastian introduced him to Brideshead, the country house owned by Sebastian’s family. The novel recounts Charles’ continued connection with the family over two decades, including his eventual relationship with Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and (possible) conversion to Catholicism, the family’s religion. It’s not a cheerful story, and although there are no maimings, scarcely any fist-fights, and very few deaths, reading Brideshead Revisited somehow left me feeling depressed, at times even empty. The characters are neither likeable nor unlikeable. The storyline is dark and full of disappointments, but not to the point where one begins to despair of the human condition. How you view the ending depends on your religious views (or lack thereof).
So let’s talk about the one ray of light in this tale – AKA the only character I really cared anything about, AKA Sebastian Flyte, a complicated, charming, childlike creature whose behaviour seems to be an indictment of his family’s treatment of him. He is the sort of person everybody seems to like. When he first invites Charles to dine with him (having had a bit of a gastric mishap through Charles’ open window the night before), he writes a little note which says, “I am very contrite. Aloysius [this being, of course, the name of his teddy bear] won’t speak to me until he sees that I am forgiven, so please come to luncheon today” (Book I, Chapter I). Who could possibly refuse such an invitation? I know I couldn’t.
Now, many have suggested that the relationship between Charles and Sebastian is a homosexual one. Having seen the movie a few years before (where the relationship between him and Charles is, if not sexual, definitely romantic), I was already familiar with this reading. And it is certainly a very compelling way of approaching the text. Charles notes, for instance, that he accepts Sebastian’s invitation to luncheon because “I was in search of love in those days” (Book I, Chapter I), and his later infatuation with Julia possibly stems from her similarity to Sebastian, something Charles notes early on: “I was confused by the double illusion of familiarity and strangeness … Her dark hair was scarcely longer than Sebastian’s, and it blew back from her forehead as his did; her eyes on the darkling road were his, but larger” (Book I, Chapter III). Unable to express these desires in so many words, he transfers his feelings for Sebastian onto his sister, whom he sees as “especially female” (Book I, Chapter III); it is her sex which adds an element of ‘strangeness’ to her form, which highlights her as ‘feminine’, ‘female’, the socially acceptable object which the ‘masculine’ should supposedly focus its desires on.
As the years go on, and Sebastian leaves Oxford and travels abroad, struggling with alcoholism, Charles seems to loose touch with him completely. Sebastian slips off the map, and in the final parts of the book he all but disappears. Is Charles perhaps intentionally repressing the memories of Sebastian, scarcely mentioning his name, channelling all of his attention into his affair with Julia? He claims that “I had not forgotten Sebastian. He was with me daily in Julia; or rather it was Julia I had known in him, in those distant Arcadian days” (Book III, Chapter IV). Brother and sister seem to have blurred into one another until Charles can’t really seem to separate his feelings for one from his feelings for the other.
But although he tells us he hasn’t forgotten Sebastian, the novel largely seems to. Sebastian apparently ends his days in a convent abroad, having found religion at last. As a reader I was inclined to be a little suspicious of this; as one of the characters argues, “That I won’t believe, not even if I see it. He [Sebastian] was always a little heathen” (Book III, Chapter IV). It seems a bleak (although perhaps inevitable, given his health-related problems) end for such a fascinating character. All in all, I think his story would have been infinitely more compelling to read than Charles’, despite its unhappy ending. But Sebastian remains something of a mystery, whether because Waugh wanted to distance himself from the subject of homosexuality, or just because he thought that Charles was a more interesting character to write about (in case you were wondering – he isn’t). Sebastian, although he seems to ‘find religion’ later in life, isn’t exactly the poster boy for conversion; whether he believes in a particular deity or not, he never gives up drinking, and the end of his story doesn’t feel like a resolution, but remains open to questions and contentions.
As for the rest of the characters in the novel, they are mostly tiresome and unlikeable. Charles is a decent narrator, but like all the other figures I had no strong feelings for him. All in all, the book left me feeling strangely empty and disappointed. It was well-written, undoubtedly; matter-of-fact, with little flowery language or digression, but I put it down with little desire to read it again. Was it intentionally bleak? Depressing? The importance of religion throughout the novel is inescapable; for some readers Charles’ ultimate conversion at the end of the novel may be seen as a ray of hope. For me, it seemed forced, given his suspicion of the way that Sebastian’s family used (and abused) their religion throughout the novel. All in all, the novel painted an unhappy picture of the interwar years in Britain, of the declining English aristocracy, of modernity in general. Although well-written, Brideshead Revisited left me with only one major feeling: dissatisfaction.
Rating: 3.5 Stars