Book Review: Brideshead Revisited


The William & Mary Boston Alumni Chapter selected the Evelyn Waugh classic Brideshead Revisited (1945) for our May meeting. The novel is the reflections of Charles Ryder upon his relationship with the aristocratic Marchmain family after coming upon their crumbling homestead Brideshead while serving in the military in wartime England.

In the first section Ryder flashes back to forming a friendship with the younger son Sebastian Flyte while they both studied at Oxford (I use “studied” loosely here as they spend much of their time partying).  Sebastian has two characteristics that stand out: one he is Catholic, and two he is barking mad (or batshit insane as we’d say here in the States).  A third characteristic emerges over the course of the novel.  Sebastian is a depressive alcoholic and Charles is his codependent enabler.

The second part of the novel is much less interesting as Sebastian, the novel’s most interesting character, is only discussed second hand.  Here Charles returns from traveling abroad for his art, indifferent to his wife and children and instead strikes up an affair with Sebastian’s sister Julia.  This leads to the climax of the novel in which deus ex machina leads Julia to remember she’s a practicing Catholic and calls off the affair and plans for divorce.

From what I understand about Waugh, he was a convert to Catholicism and wrote this as a Catholic allegory.  Yet the Catholics in this novel are portrayed as lazy, selfish, drunken, and foolish.  That the novel is told from the point of view of the unsympathetic agnostic doesn’t bode well for a positive image of Catholicism either.  One of my  book club friends felt the Catholic message of this novel is that “God will get you in the end.”  That may be.  As a critique of England’s crumbling aristocracy, the novel’s other theme, this book works much better.  But overall I’m none too impressed.

Author : Waugh, Evelyn, 1903-1966.
Title : Brideshead revisited : the sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder, a novel / by Evelyn Waugh.
Published : London : Chapman & Hall and the Book Society, 1945.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. That doesn’t sound very sympathethic to the church, indeed… maybe he meant it to be interpreted differently somehow?

    God Bless,

    Reply

  2. I expect you’re correct and Waugh meant for Brideshead Revisited to have a certain meaning that I just didn’t get. I neglected to mention that the novel has a particular “English Catholic” perspective which is different than my own American Catholic perspective 60-odd years later.

    Reply

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