on May 19, 2011
Nothing to add regarding the story, Brideshead is and will be, one of my favorite novels. A note about editions though; Waugh originally published Brideshead Revisited in 1945. Waugh wrote it during the war years and with time, developed a "growing dissatisfaction with its literary style. He found it too lush, too decorative or ornamental in too many places." For me, that "lushness" is one of the reasons that I fell in love with the language of the novel. He republished the novel in 1959, with a number of the passages trimmed or "toned down". There are some additions as well but overall the novel is tightened up (although I would disagree with the author that his revised version is "better"). For more information you can read "Companion to Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited' by David Cliffe on the internet. Through a convoluted history, which need not be discussed here, the original or first edition is referred to as the "American" edition and the revised one is the "British" edition. I own both copies in hardback myself and find that both have merits but as previously stated, my preference is the original. I am glad to say that the Kindle version appears to be the original version. I have found the quickest way to tell which one you are reading is by going to Book I, Chapter 1 'Et in Arcadia Ego' (God knows how much has been written on that memento mori) and reading the first paragraph. In the original edition the words "fool's-parsley" is written and the phrase is "soft vapors of a thousand years of learning". In the revised edition, the fool's-parsley is eliminated and the phrase is changed to "soft airs of centuries of youth". Hope this helps as the original version available on the Kindle was the revised one. Which begs the question, for $9.68, why can't the publisher include both editions?
on November 11, 2009
This is one of my favorite books of all time and it's frustrating to have to read it in such a poor edition. The typos and all-over formatting is deplorable (That's why the 4 stars as opposed to the 5 stars it should deserve). The material is still wonderful, so much can be forgiven. I question however, how this e-book was created. It does not even list the correct author (Waugh)and the author listed (Wendorf) has not added any commentary to the text. Makes me wonder if this is a pirate copy that slipped by Amazon! Whatever, for 2 bucks it's still one of the 100 greatest books ever written and deserves to be in everyones' collections.
on January 12, 2001
This is not Waugh's best novel, but is perhaps his enduringly most popular thanks to Granada's immortalisation of the book in the film version with Jeremy Irons, John Gielgud, Lawrence Olivier, Anthony Andrews and others. Often sentimental, often dogmatic, and even, in places, precious, Brideshead remains an important part of Waugh's fictional constructions.
Both a coming-of-age novel, and a paean to the English stately home, Brideshead melds history with fiction. Beginning in the midst of WWII, the story weaves back to the narrator's time at Oxford, his interaction with the Flyte family and his introduction to their home, Brideshead. The novel ends by returning to the wartime barracks and provides an image of post-war hope, despite the rain and the gloom and the depression of war and loss. The hope does not stem from a regaining of the past, or the revival of the narrator's relationships with the Flyte family, but instead comes from his acceptance of the Catholic faith - which plays a large role in the novel, as both the narrator's foil and his eventual salvation.
This novel may not sit well with readers who enjoyed novels such as Vile Bodies or Black Mischief or Scoop, but will appeal to readers who enjoy Waugh's humour without necessarily enjoying his usual acerbity.
on September 4, 2013
Brideshead Revisited is about Captain Charles Ryder's curious infatuation and obsession with the wealthy and eccentric Marchmain family. He comes to know them through a chance meeting with the beautiful Sebastian Flyte - the only son of Lord and Lady Marchmain. They form a strange co-dependent relationship with strong homosexual undertones. As the friendship develops we see Charles get sucked into the decadent and frivolous lifestyle of the rich and privileged. Charles seems to not only fall in love with Sebastian but with the whole family and all their pecularities. He sees in them characteristics he wishes to possess. He readily adopts them as his own family.
In Charles' review of the past that he so desperately longs to return to we are transported to an England inhabited by a generation that is torn between piety and agnosticism and tradition and modernism. There is also an internal struggle within Charles as he tries very hard to define his own identity and become his own man.
This main theme of the book is the past and Charles' battle to not only come to terms with his past but to let it go too. It's a battle he seems to not want to win because he is so convinced that those were his golden years and that he never got to be the man he was meant to be.
I had never read anything by Evelyn Waugh before this and after reading Brideshead Revisited I will definitely be reading more of his books. What a pleasant discovery! He is an honest author who writes the most beautifully descriptive and detailed passages that bring scenes and characters to life.
on February 3, 2010
Evelyn Waugh made his name with acidly satirical novels focusing largely on the British upper classes' early twentieth century decline. Brideshead Revisited, ironically probably his most famous work, has similar themes but differs substantially in not being primarily satirical. There is some trademark Waugh wit to be sure, especially for those on the lookout, but this is more conventionally serious and ambitious. Not easy to classify, it is part comedy of manners, part historical fiction, and part romance; there are also quite a few comic and didactic elements and some symbolism. All this strongly suggests that Waugh was going for a masterpiece, and many fans and critics have called it such. It is certainly a commendable novel that deserves the high reputation it still has and is exemplary for characterization, a well-told story, and generally strong writing. The issue of whether it is Waugh's best book is essentially subjective, but it is certainly his broadest and probably his best written in conventional terms. However, it is brought down somewhat by a weak ending that makes the execution less stellar than Waugh's satirical masterworks and also harms his didactic purpose. This does not stop it from being an excellent novel but does keep it from true greatness.
Unlike most Waugh works, Brideshead functions on several levels. Charles Ryder, its first-person narrator, is still young but past his formative experiences; now a World War II British Army Captain, he looks back on the events that brought him to where he is and made him the man he is. Chronologically, there is a definite progression - if not necessarily progress - from relatively carefree, naïve youth to hard-won, belated adult wisdom. The novel can thus be legitimately seen as a bildungsroman - one that, moreover, many British men surely related to, as Ryder had many of his generation's characteristic experiences. This aspect is not strong enough to make Brideshead one of the great bildungsromans, but it is an important part of the book's worth and lasting value.
More important is the Flyte family that is the focus for most of Ryder's important experiences as well as the titular homestead that is metonymically linked to them. Like the Last family in A Handful of Dust, Waugh's most enduring other work, they are a traditional upper-class British family struggling to keep up with modern society and maintain ancestral dignity. It is a tough battle, and history has shown that there were almost no survivors. Ryder comes from a class that is distinctly beneath them but close enough for him to become active in their affairs, and he sees their tragic disintegration as both observer and participant. They stand in for the many families like them, and there is much pathos in their story, which also brings out other emotions. This is all the more so in that, in contrast to Waugh's usual way, he does not poke fun at them. Their fall is portrayed in an unadorned manner, letting us draw our own conclusions about its social and historical meaning.
As this suggests, Brideshead is a very moving and engrossing novel; it might not quite bring tears but draws us in and runs us through an emotional gamut. This is all the more notable in that, as in much of Waugh, no major character is likable. Only Cordelia, the youngest Flyte, and the family's Nanny Hawkins are even remotely so. The rest are vain, selfish, self-pitying, melodramatic, and more - yet, though they are far from conventionally sympathetic, we feel with, if not quite for, them. This is a triumph of Waugh's art, a trick only the best writers can pull off. The Flytes have a tragic flaw - the inherited pride the refuse to abandon -, and it proves to be their destruction in various ways. Objectively speaking, it is easy to say this is deserved, but it would take a hard heart not to have some feeling. There is a sense that they are doomed - if not necessarily victims of venomous fate, at least to a large extent casualties of time and place. Their story is fascinating and emotional enough to make the book worth reading.
However, there is quite a bit more to the novel. A realist triumph, it is a vivid portrait of a distinct era; we get a good idea of how various British groups lived and thought. There is much social observation, especially in regard to class, religion, and art. Brideshead is particularly valuable as a realistic document of pre-WWII British college life; the most surprising thing may be how little has changed. We also get an interesting glimpse of an era when Catholicism was still a great social stigma in England even among the gentry - a topic close to Waugh. Class relations are also variously explored in Ryder's interactions with the Flytes. Ryder's role as painter meanwhile interestingly dramatizes the artist's role in the era and may be meant as far-reaching symbolism again arguably touching the author. Finally, though only briefly, the novel vividly shows WWII's profound effect on all aspects of British life. All of this is engrossing and entertaining; much is moving, some is comic, and quite a bit is thought-provoking.
Brideshead also benefits from one of modern literature's most memorable and moving, if unconventional, depictions of love. Ryder and Julia Flyte are not the most likable characters to ever fall in love but are among the most believably and vividly drawn; much of what they experience will be widely and movingly familiar. As one would expect with Waugh, their relationship is no fairy tale; Brideshead does a superb job of conveying love's constant ups and downs with verisimilitude and emotion.
Ryder's relationship with Julia's brother Sebastian is nearly as interesting in this regard and far more so otherwise. It is a startling example of just how recently intense male friendships could be carried on openly in Western society without homosexuality rumors. The move away from this is of course far more pronounced in America than in Europe, and the novel will certainly be far more of an eye-opener for Americans in this way. To what extent Waugh meant the relationship as homosexual, if at all, is of course debatable, and the seemingly ever-growing Queer Theory movement has few texts more open to explication, but there is much of sociological interest here for all.
The novel could have been truly great, an undeniable masterpiece, if it only had an effective conclusion, but it unfortunately does not. The dubious tradition of having hedonistic and otherwise conventionally immoral characters undergo perfunctory religious conversion at a literary work's end goes back at least to Apuleius' [check]The Golden Ass, and this is unfortunately another entry. Waugh stated that the main theme is God's grace, and those paying any attention can see that it is, though there is no hint until the last few pages. The Flytes' troubled relationship with Catholicism is a theme throughout, and their trauma is the sort of thing that typically drives even the most guarded into desperation and thus religion, but the relative ease with which various members embrace it is simply absurd. The patriarch's deathbed conversion is particularly overwrought; however guilty his conscience, it is highly implausible. Far more significantly, Waugh fails to portray is convincingly. Ryder's anti-religious comments and actions throughout the scene have center stage, and any moderately engaged reader would think sympathy and strength are with him, yet Waugh would have us believe he is on the losing end. One critic aptly remarked that this episode would be one of Waugh's most brilliantly and subtly satirical if it were not meant so seriously - but unfortunately it is. The mercurial Julia's sudden conversion is far more plausible, especially as Waugh takes care to carefully foreshadow, but he should not be offended if many readers cynically question her sincerity and wonder how long her resolution will last. Most ridiculous of all is the conversion of Ryder. A staunch religion opponent throughout the novel lacking even the slightest sign of giving in, his change and newfound optimism, however uneasy, are simply unbelievable. He has had some difficult experiences but nothing to bring such a change. The sudden switch is almost self-parodical, an embarrassing artistic flaw leaving a bad taste in our proverbial mouths.
I would dismiss all this as a cheap narrative trick in a lesser writer, but we must give Waugh the doubt's benefit. It is most likely a simple case of didacticism overcoming art; Waugh has a point to make about how God's mercy operates in seemingly illogical but ultimately beneficial ways but pushes far too hard. This would seem obvious even if we knew nothing about him, but there may be much biographical insight. Waugh converted to Catholicism not long before writing Brideshead and had a somewhat uneasy relationship with it for the rest of his life; most who have looked into it believe he was sincere even if hardly a model Christian. His desire to portray this in his work is very understandable, perhaps even inevitable, but many critics think that, like nearly all authors in similar situations, he let beliefs reduce artistry. Balancing them is extremely difficult and certainly not limited to religion; that Waugh could not is unfortunate but hardly surprising. This was the first real instance, but it is generally thought to infect his later writings to varying degrees. However, the ending thankfully does not ruin what is otherwise an excellent work, even if it does frustratingly hold off greatness.
A few minor, additional warnings may be needed. Waugh is in my view one of modern fiction's great stylists, his conciseness, straight-forwardness, relative lack of allusion, and general avoidance of Modernist techniques making him stand out in an era when literature became ever less accessible. He may lean toward overly simple for some, but he has the great virtue of clearness that I value highly and that is so sorely lacking in much post-nineteenth century literature. That said, what was concise and clear sixty-plus years ago is not exactly so now. Waugh is formal and, in contrast to much subsequent fiction, especially the popular kind, somewhat stiff. He was not really pretentious but can easily come off as such to those not prepared to take him on his own terms. He was also uber-British, and Brideshead is particularly so; the country's culture and history infuse every aspect of the novel. This is of course not a bad thing, but those unfamiliar with British culture and literature - or who are averse to it - may be somewhat averse to the novel. My advice to them and all others not immediately taken with the novel is to stick with it. The ending is certainly a letdown, but Brideshead as a whole is one of the best post-nineteenth century English novels and should be read by anyone even remotely interested in literature of its various types.
on September 24, 2012
I picked up this early 20th century English novel based upon its inclusion in Everyman's Library of 100 Essential Books. The story was, in fact, about what you would expect from such a period piece if you've read other novels of the period such as Atonement and Howard's End.
At its heart, the story revolves around a somewhat aimless young man, Charles Ryder, without much of a family foundation, set adrift at Oxford College during the period between the World Wars. While there, he meets a young member of the aristocracy and essentially adopts the young man's family as his own. The story follows the relationships and history of the eccentric Flyte family in three different threads, first during the Second World War and then in flashbacks to the early 20s and then the late 30s. In doing so, the author injects numerous comments and allusions to the Roman Catholic faith (and apostasy) of his characters.
While I have read several works by Dickens, I found much of the florid prose in this story more difficult to appreciate, perhaps because it is written in the patois of the early 20th century English aristocracy. When the story was following a timeline narrative, I can say that I enjoyed it quite a bit. However there were many periods of little or no activity, in which I felt the momentum of the novel grind to a halt.
Certainly, the culture and practices of the English aristocracy, viewed by modern standards, seem ridiculous and silly to us today. This novel focuses on the period when deterioration of the rigid English class structure accelerated and essentially shattered with the outbreak of the Second World War. It bears noting, however, that it was exactly this seemingly ridiculous culture that resulted in a tiny island nation ruling over one of the greatest empires ever known. "From whom much is given, much is expected", could have been the byword of 19th century English society, and while much was certainly given, expectations were not found wanting.
on January 27, 2015
This novel is surely one of the most sumptuously written books of the twentieth century; a banquet of food, drink, art and beauty. Its themes are beautifully worked out, its characters so vivid and memorable, its plot and pacing a masterclass. The story rolls out like a skein of silk across the pages; a thing of both natural and created beauty. Its tone is plangent - a lament for things past - while its scope is epic; paradise lost, the nature of art and beauty, love and loyalty.
Why is it, then, that it leaves me with such a bitter taste in my mouth?
Waugh states in his preface that the book was written to illustrate the operation of divine grace upon mankind, which I understand to mean God’s free and unconditional gift of love to us, who don’t deserve it, but which Waugh understands, it seems, quite differently.
Waugh himself was a late convert to Catholicism and Charles Ryder, his narrator and protagonist, from being a sceptical agnostic at the beginning, has also converted by the end of the novel. (This is only hinted at, but is unarguably the case. In the prologue Hooper, Ryder’s adjutant, refers to Catholics as ‘your lot.’ Retrospectively, Charles tells us; ‘I have come to accept claims which then I never troubled to examine, and to accept the supernatural as the real.’ Finally, in the epilogue, Charles visits the reopened Chapel at Brideshead and says a prayer; ‘an ancient, newly-learned form of words.’)
That Waugh intends to say something about Catholicism is obvious, even without his preface; why else choose to make the Flyte family Catholic? Charles and Sebastian have some interesting but inconclusive debates about the latter’s faith, which, clearly, troubles him a great deal. Likewise, towards the end of the book, Catholicism becomes an issue for the dying Lord Marchmain, whether he should, or should not, be attended by a priest. Rex’s status as a divorcé and, later, the extra marital relationship which exists between Charles and Julia are both significant to the plot because of the attitude of the Catholic Church. Attendance (and non-attendance) at Mass are often mentioned. Catholicism is indelible in the fabric of the novel; the comings and goings, the attitudes, opportunities and challenges of the characters, of whom by far the majority are Catholic. All of the Flyte family including the estranged Lord Marchmain are Catholics whether practicing or not. Also Anthony Blanche, Cara, Mr Samgrass, Nanny and the household staff. Catholicism is an integral part of the novel.
If Waugh wished to cast a positive light upon Catholicism, to explain it, even to promote it, he goes an odd way about it; to me, the nature of Catholicism remains a mystery. Nowhere in the novel is a coherent explanation of its tenets and practices even adequately, let alone persuasively, offered. Despite Charles’ best endeavours to understand it, and his fairly penetrating questions, no-one is able to throw any light on the subject. ‘There were four of you,’ he says, while Lord Marchmain lies dying. ‘Cara didn’t know the first thing about it, and may or may not have believed it; you knew a bit and didn’t believe a word; Cordelia knew about as much and believed it madly; only Bridey knew and believed and I thought he made a pretty poor show when it came to explaining.’
And unfortunately the image presented of Catholicism and Catholics by the novel is so very unappealing. Lady Marchmain is stiff and cold, and invidiously controlling. Bridey is pompous, judgemental and ridiculous. The priest charged with admitting Rex to the church compares him to an imbecile just because he is unchurched. Mr Samgrass wilfully misleads Lady Marchmain about the events of his trip to Morocco with Sebastian, and has an eye very unpleasantly on his own comforts in the matter of food, drink and accommodation. Poor Sebastian and Julia are deeply conflicted about their faith and one cannot but feel for them; Sebastian is unable to make Charles understand that his problem stems from the fact that while intellectually he accepts the teachings of the church, in his heart he rebels against them. Charles unwittingly puts his finger on it when he says; ‘If you can believe all that and you don’t want to be good, where’s the difficulty about your religion?’ Sebastian’s reply is; ‘If you can’t see, you can’t.’ Meaning, of course, that IS the difficulty. Julia’s soliloquy by the fountain is an out-pouring of guilt and angst which has its source in the nursery. She says; ‘I can’t quite seem to get all that sort of thing out of my mind - Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell, Nanny Hawkins and the catechism.’ Neither of them is able to square the circle in terms of their personal lives, desires and values against the over-arching dictates of the Catholic Church, and both rebel.
But the nature of God’s grace as portrayed in this novel is that rebellion is futile; neither Sebastian, Julia nor Lord Marchmain, or even Charles himself, escapes it in the end. And I use that word quite advisedly. There seems to be no escape; that ‘unseen hook and invisible thread’ is inexorable, so at last Sebastian settles in his monastery, Julia sacrifices love for Love, even Lord Marchmain makes the sign of the cross and Charles himself comes to bend the knee. Any ‘alternative goodness to His,’ as Julia describes it, seems not to be allowed, and all love, it is implied - Lord and Lady Marchmain’s, Charles and Sebastian’s, Charles and Julia’s, Charles and the army’s - will curdle and die, or be demanded as a sacrifice, until only God’s love remains. Then He will twitch upon the thread and bring them back to himself. Rather than a prodigal child returning freely to its father, the image conjured up for me the picture of a whipped dog being brought to heel on a leash, and it rankled.
There seems to be no free will, no choice, certainly no joy. Julia’s sacrifice is hard and bitter and seemed to me to be a terrible and unnecessary waste which, surely, no loving father would demand. While it might be comforting to know that after everything, in extremis whether physical, emotional or psychological, ‘underneath are the everlasting arms,’ it seems cruel indeed if those very arms are the ones which systematically carry away any other bulwark of comfort, love and joy which life might offer. ‘Eschew life and seek God,’ this novel seems to say, ‘there is no point in doing otherwise; he will have you in the end.’ What a bleak, fatalistic message!
‘Live life,’ say I, ‘and there you will find God.’
on August 14, 2014
Much over rated thanks to a great TV series in the 1980s subsequently subverted by a poor movie and lesser TV event. The novel is now very much a period piece, but a revelation for a generation reading total crap.
on April 26, 2014
I watched the BBC 1981 series first to help visualize the book. I then listened to the audio book (Jeremy Irons narrator). The writing is quite formal but has a poetic style to it that I enjoyed. Probably because this is not a lifestyle I understand very well, it took a while to like some of the homosexual characters, but in the end I liked almost everyone in the book. I believe the book is semi-biographical which makes the novel very realistic. Evelyn Waugh actually based most of the characters on real people he knew at Oxford and at these country estates. They ended up being famous or infamous later in life. What I didn't enjoy was some of the plot, especially how Sebastian became a drunk. I really envy this upper-class English life-style and can't understand why anyone born into it would intentionally destroy himself just to get back at his overly pious mother. Julia's courtship and finally marrying Rex is something else I don't understand.
In the BBC 1981 series most of the main characters who are supposedly in their late teens are actually over 30. The youngest, Cordelia, Sebastian's 11-year-old sister, is played by an actress who is 22. I got used to it because the acting and the voices are so wonderful. It helps to watch the BBC series first, but keep in mind that the cast is a little old for their roles.
on September 24, 2006
Evelyn Waugh's book "Brideshead Revisited" gives you that feeling of autumnal-university-literature-class heaviness that you crave from time to time. Like that piece of chocolate cake that you shyed away from the other day, it's something that is too dense and too heavy for you to eat hurriedly but something that you want to sit and take time with.
There are all of the usual literary forms in this book which employs memories of Post-WWI modernist progressivism framed by the mires of WWII meaninglessness. But Waugh isn't doing this simply for the want of honor and tradition that seem to have been lost to progress and get-'er-done type flunkies, he's (and yes, he is a "HE") doing it for your soul.
Evelyn Waugh was an adult convert to Roman Catholicism, and you can trace both his faith as well the memories of his wrestling against faith in this book. The book uses the protagonist of Charles Ryder to explore the lives and existential nature of the family that resides in the Brideshead mansion. It is a look into human nature as it wrestles with all sorts of things, and especially as it wrestles with faith.
The book is one of the many that are lumped into the "hound of heaven" category. Over and over in the book, we see that no matter how far astray or how morally and ethically objectionable people are - God's grace seeks after them and brings them back with a twitch upon the thread that connects them to God.
Although the book isn't overtly Christian, the Christian reader can certainly enjoy a deeper level of significance. The non-Christian can also enjoy the book, especially the look into the Christian life that shows that even Christians aren't ever perfect, nor do they need to be - they know a hound of heaven who is.