Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I don’t care if Evelyn Waugh lived a century ago, I WANT HIM TO BE MY FRIEND.

Five Points About This Book Which I Thought Of And Wrote:

1. The Characters

The novel opens as Captain Charles Ryder, after stumbling across a stately home in war torn England, begins to reminisce about the two most important people in his life: Sebastian and Julia Flyte. So begins the “revisiting” referred to in the title, and one of the funniest, most heartbreaking and poignant stories you will ever read.
Beginning with his university days, Charles is taken on a journey of debauchery and “naughtiness” by teddy-bear holding, atheist socialite Sebastian, introducing Charles to his home at Brideshead and his religion obsessed family. Sebastian is a complete personification of the Roaring Twenties spirit; frivolous, extravagant and ultimately, doomed.
Charles semi-infatuation with Sebastion occupies the first half of the book, whilst the second half focuses on his love for Sebastian’s equally profound and religiously confused sister Julia. The thing is, Waugh writes so BLOODY beautifully that you cant help but fall in love with these characters yourself, sharing Charles dizzying highs and pathetic lows with the two.

2. The Writing

Sometimes Waugh writes so well that I don’t even realise until I’m making dinner several hours later, shout “wait – what did he say?” and rush off to check while my macaroni cheese foams over the sides of the saucepan.
Take a read this passage to understand what I’m talking about:

This was the creature, neither child nor woman, that drove me through the dusk that summer evening, untroubled by love, taken aback by the power of her own beauty, hesitating on the cool edge of life; one who had suddenly found herself armed unawares; the heroine of a fairy story turning over in her hands the magic ring; she only had to stroke it with her fingertips and whisper the charmed word, for the earth to open at her feet and belch forth her titanic serpent, the fawning monster who would bring her whatever she asked, but bring it, perhaps, in unwelcome shape.

Yes, that is one sentence. Now go and make some macaroni cheese.

3. The Comedy

Imagine two Oxbridge students from the1930s, add champagne, strawberries, frivolity and homoeroticism and you get a flavour of the humour of this novel. Waugh writes with a biting wit, so caustic that it could burn a hole through the page, expressing great disdain through his characters for the multitude of well-to-do stereotypes that inhabited that particular era.
My favourite comedy scenes though involved Charles and Sebastian, who spend much of their time inebriated and carefree, talking about “rot” and “getting tight”; only occasionally reflecting on their behaviour as in this passage which made me cackle like a mad witch on the tube:

“Ought we to be drunk every night?” asked Sebastian one morning.
“Yes, I think so.”
“I think so too”.

Oh Sebastian and Charles, I want to be in your gang.

4. The Tragedy

The triviality eventually fades away though, and the second half of the novel becomes a lot more introspective, examining the nature of addiction, religion and love. At the risk of giving anything away, I wont delve too deep but rest assured that even when Waugh writes tragedy, it’s never melodramatic. Everything is contained, bubbling under the surface. Charles’ infatuations shift from Sebastian to Julia, but it is really the Flyte family and the world they inhabit, Brideshead, that ultimately captures him and causes him to reminisce so vividly.
The real sucker punch is this – the biggest spoiler of Brideshead Revisited is on page one. Charles is a lonely soldier, and encounters Brideshead again completely by chance. I don’t need to tell you how his relationships with Julia and Sebastian turn out; the inevitable destruction of each character is really at the tragic centre of the novel.

5. The Relevance

Perhaps the aspect I enjoyed most about Brideshead Revisited was how many times I found myself thinking “good grief, that is so true”. I felt this especially when Charles described his experiences at University; he is told calmly that “you’ll find you spend half of your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in the first” (unbelievably true) and particularly when he thinks that “if I was not going to take up one of the professions where a degree is necessary, it might be best to start now on what I intend doing” (it has occasionally struck me that I ought to start on that novel I’ve been planning since I was fifteen – my degree in philosophy was rendered useless the day I discovered “Philosopher” isn’t an actual career).
Not only this, but the observations he makes about society and social niceties completely spot on.This is a remarkable achievement, considering that the novel was written 80 YEARS AGO. Evelyn Waugh could be transported into the here and now and feel perfectly at home – once he gets used to touchscreens and unexpected items in the bagging area.

Put quite simply, this novel is a masterpiece. Anybody with even a passing interest in literature should consider this a must read.



  1. Roisin, this is a wonderful review! I think you nailed it. "Brideshead Revisited" is far and away my favorite Waugh novel, largely for the reasons you've articulated in your review. I really like and completely agree with your point about this novel being timeless, and that we can find much in it that applies to our lives in this time and place--well said. It strikes me that I'm due for a reread of this novel at some point in the near-future. Well done! Cheers! Chris

  2. Another lovely comment! Thank you so much again for your amazing feedback - it's so great to know that somebody is reading and enjoying this blog...makes me think my efforts aren't futile after all!