The most appealing factor about Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was that there was a film version starring Matthew Goode. For me, that’s as good a reason as any to pick up a hefty-ish tome about England in the interwar period.
I didn’t know what to expect of the novel—I knew it was a classic, and I knew that there was an important male relationship between the central protagonist and narrator, Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, a seductive yet elusive character. The novel is told from the perspective of Charles, who at the time of writing is serving in the British Army during World War II. On one morning, he and his troop arrive at Brideshead, the former home of the Flyte family; a site that holds many memories. The story moves through Charles’ life, from his years at Oxford and meeting Sebastian, to leaving England for Paris and becoming an artist. Throughout, the narrative pulls back to present-day Charles as he attempts to arrange and understand the events that led him to the current moment. Because of the retrospectiveness of the narration, memory plays an important role in the novel. At the beginning of Book Three, titled “A Twitch upon the Thread” Charles says of the stories he’s told and will tell: “These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me”. In some ways, keeping these memories alive is a consuming task, yet to let go of them is to erase a large part of his life. In holding on to them, the past—and its dreams—never have to fade away.
The desire to hold onto the past is one that Ryder shares with interwar England at large. In the novel’s foreword, Waugh expresses his unhappiness with the novel and the language and speech of its characters. But he also sees it as extremely demonstrative of the types of attitudes that existed in England and therefore necessary in understanding the resistance of the older class. And while Waugh is critical of these attitudes—English traditionalism and its resistance to anything new—there is a certain sense of adoration for that period and those people that lived, hopelessly and happily, in it. The tension of being critical of something and loving it at the same time extends into the world of the novel as well. While the Flytes are devoted Catholics in various degrees, Charles often expresses his distaste for Catholicism, even getting into drawn out disagreements over the ridiculousness of it. And yet, throughout the novel he cannot help but be intrigued by the devotion of the Flytes. More poignantly, in one of the final moments of the novel, Charles finds himself giving over to the power of the religion, begging it to give him reason to believe. It’s a moment that is both surprising and beautiful.
Brideshead Revisited is not an easy novel to dive into. In fact, it took me 250 pages and 2 weeks to get interested and even longer to connect with the characters. However, it’s the complexities, the constant tension and the surprisingly revealing and delicate moments that make the slow burn worth it.