Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
I’ve never been a great fan of Waugh—have read several of his satirical novels and appreciated them, but not loved them, though Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust I don’t think I’ve read since I was a naïve undergrad. Brideshead Revisited is different, focusing as it does on relationships and also on religion, specifically English Catholicism; the theme of religion is both quaint and a reminder of the different—and yet not so different—religious controversies of our own time.
Waugh’s major achievement in this novel is the voice of Charles Ryder—world weary and disillusioned but not cynical, directionless at least until the war is over, recalling his youth not only without regret but able to appreciate its glory now that all glory seems, at least temporarily, gone from life. Like so many others I’ve seen the TV mini-series and can’t help but think of Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, but in this case I don’t think it’s so much a case of an actor appropriating a role as an actor responding fully and accurately to the text of a novel.
Charles goes up to
Slowly Charles comes to know the family: the devout Lady Marchmain who attends mass in a chapel built specially for her; Lord Marchmain who lives flamboyantly in Venice with his mistress and refuses to set foot on English soil while his wife lives; Brideshead—the eldest son—stodgy and probably virginal, who wanted to be a priest but has no vocation, Julia—Sebastian in female form, just 18 when Charles first meets her, who wants to reject the religion of her family; Cordelia—still a child, curious and devout; and finally Nanny Hawkins who lives in the old nursery where all the grown children—but especially Sebastian—retreat often for rest and relief from the world of Brideshead and family. Seeing the family through Charles’ eyes, we see both their glory and their shame. Charles would have loved to grow up in such a family and now he “fits in” and is valued by all of them, though Sebastian hates to see his friend appropriated. We also see how Lady Marchmain’s religion tore apart her marriage and engendered conflicts in all her children. Charles has no religion, sees religion as superstition, more likely to stifle than to nourish.
If Charles’ voice is Waugh’s greatest achievement in this novel, his prose is also breathtaking. Descriptions tend to be catalogs of detail, incredibly efficient both condensing detail and in setting scene or mood. In fact the novel starts that way: “”I have been here before,” I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.”
Sometimes the catalogs turn into extended figures like this: “I knew these fierce moods of Julia’s, such as had overtaken her at the fountain in moonlight, and dimly surmised their origin; I knew they could not be assuaged by words. Nor could I have spoken, for the answer to her question was still unformed, but lay in a pocket of my mind, like sea-mist in a dip of the sand-dunes; the cloudy sense that the fate of more souls than one was at issue; that the snow was beginning to shift on the high slopes.” Or this one—here it’s Julia speaking, not Charles: “You know Father Mowbray hit on the truth about Rex at once, that it took me a year of marriage to see. He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory.”