The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.
I’m in the midst of reading a lot of books set in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and so I thought I would re-read this classic by Evelyn Waugh for the first time in many years. I was in my early 20s last time I read it, and I remember it as being a bit too slow and dense for my liking, though I was interested in the unusual love triangle I felt was at its heart. I read it after watching the TV series, and my imagination was still ravished by its glorious locations and interiors and clothes.
It’s impossible to do a précis of the plot without upsetting the delicate balance of elements within the book, but I will try: a young man named Charles makes friends with another young man named Sebastian at Oxford, and finds himself enchanted by the decadence and excess of his privileged life. Sebastian has a sister named Julia – cool, aloof, and sophisticated. Charles is attracted to them both, and sexual tension hums just below the surface of all their interactions. However, there is more at risk than just his heart. Sebastian’s family are devout Catholics, with the blood of martyrs in their veins, and this exerts such pressure upon them all that something must crack.
Reading it again, I did not find it slow. The narrative momentum of the book, its perfect balance of pace and depth, the acuteness of its characterisations, and the subtlety with which Evelyn Waugh introduces his themes of faith, sin, guilt, and redemption are truly astonishing. I am now obsessed with Evelyn Waugh and his life and work, and am seeking out more of his books. I feel I have a lot to learn from him.
You might also like to read my review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte: