Kelly's Reviews > Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
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It is difficult to encapsulate a book which strives to reach for so much over the course of its pages. I'm sure I will miss some things, but perhaps that's best with a book like this. An epic style classic, I mean. There's always something more to dig out of it.

The writing style is one of the most striking things about the book, let me just put that out there. This is due to the hodgepodge nature of the thing. The beginning of the book has quite a bit of high Romanticism, of a style more appropriate to the 1840s than the post WWII era- to the point where its utter cheesiness seems out of place, which often gives way to Madox Ford type of prose- unobtrusive, mild, wiltingly despairing, Lost Generation feelings. Towards the end of the book, you get some very modern, intentionally shocking bits and some existentialism. The Romanticism has entirely died. Obviously the choice of styles illustrates the journey of the main character/the main Flyte family through the novel, but I thought it was also an interesting way of encapsulating popular styles of writing that prevailed at the time, particularly in Britain in the interwar era. One of the major points of the book is to give a reading of the English character, and the styles covered many sides of it, I think.

As to the story itself, it is a long metaphor for the death of the old way of life in England. A powerful English Catholic family, the Flytes, slowly crumbles from the inside as member by member by member they are struck down into death or into irrelevancy, doomed to live out their days as shadows of their former brilliance, unable to let go of the past or work with the future. The narrator, Charles Ryder, is not one of the family, but he is perfectly placed to see each demise as it occurs. It is a superemely heartbreaking piece as we get to see the crushing of each character's hopes and dreams in excruciating detail. I found myself becoming attached to the family, in spite of how awful and distancing that they could be, so well done to Waugh for that one. It does endow one with a sense of helplessness, though, just like the characters, that there is nothing that really could be done for them, prisoners as they are of ideology, centuries of history, societal expectations, family dramas, repressed (or not so repressed) sexuality, rand of course, and most of all, religion.

The Catholic yarn of the novel burns perhaps the brightest of all. It is continually present, even under circumstances that one would believe had no call for it. Which is the point of it. Waugh paints a Catholicism that is everywhere, in everything, allows its followers no freedom, no room to grow and change, nothing entirley of their own, of a Big Brother type God/Church who sees everything. It is an ideology of no escape, which we see several characters- most notably the tragic Sebastian- struggling against. It is a condemnation of the stranglehold that the Church places on human beings, or being human at all. It is the Church, in the end, despite all the helping factors of society, the past, the changing-too-fast present, that ultimately destroys the hopes and dreams of all the main characters. Charles, Sebastian, Julia, Lord Marchmain, Lady Marchmain, all of them. They cannot escape it. Not even Charles, who isn't even a Catholic, but is merely in love with this family infused with it. One of the most constant questions by Charles is, "Do you always talk about religion so much?" or "Why bring God into it?" totally uncomphrending that the family can't get God /out/ of anything.

Lady Marchmain stands in for God on Earth, while Sebastian is the hugely flawed Christ character. He's actually something of a cross between Christ and a Drowning Ophelia, but really, in terms of action, is there much difference? Especially since Sebastian is really a Christ of the Jesus in the Garden variety, that is of the "let this cup pass from me," variety. It is said over and over again that he has a calling, that he is holy yet rather heathen, and even he ends up in the embrace of the Church. A pathetic embrace it may be, yet he ends in serving it despite whatever he might have willed or tried to forget through his drunkenness and wandering. Sebastian is the most heartbreakingly beautiful pieces of the story, though he fades out of view in the second half. He still manages to drive the motion, to keep Charles' reluctant love.

In the way all the characters end and the total presence of belief, despite not wanting to, I was reminded very strongly of Graham Greene. He made a lot of similiar points (if perhaps more passionately) in The End of the Affair. The final cry of, "God, just leave me alone!" at the end of that novel is echoed on page after page here. I do think that it is done better and with more finesse by Greene, but I will grant that Waugh had a lot more to deal with and probably had to be a bit more crude on this topic.

I should also probably mention that there is a very strong homosexual element to the story. Charles spends the first half of the book in love with Sebastian, and the second half chasing the shade of him, his sister Julia. It is presented as a platonic love (at least Waugh mentions nothing about them actually having sex) but nonetheless an obsessive one. He does deal in rather surprisingly explicit detail with other gay relationships in the person of Anthony Blanche, Sebastian's German lover, etc. They even visit gay clubs and there is a lot of very open talk about people being gay. I was surprised by that in a novel published almost 50 years ago, especially one with such a strong Catholic element to it. A lot of people's sexuality is questionable, and the idea of being in love with a person, an idea, more than being sexually attracted to either gender is brought up again and again. Rather progressive for its time, I thought.

... okay, I've rather rambled on, haven't I? In sum, very well written, epic, handles a lot more than one would think it could, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Though, I won't lie, being an anglophile helps to get you through the slower bits and through the rolling your eyes at the cheesy Romanticism and crazy Ophelia characters.

Right. Really done now!

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 13, 2007 – Shelved
April 23, 2008 – Shelved as: fiction
July 22, 2008 – Shelved as: brit-lit
July 29, 2009 – Shelved as: worlds-lost-dead-and-dying
September 11, 2009 – Shelved as: owned
January 12, 2010 – Shelved as: give-me-seven-years
January 16, 2010 – Shelved as: 20th-century-postwar-to-late
October 21, 2011 – Shelved as: grand-opera
May 4, 2014 – Shelved as: melancholia

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Jude (new)

Jude is it heartbreak or is it heartburn?
have a been played
or do i need a rolaid?
gotta find the diffrence,
the diffrence tween 'i love ya,'
the diffrence tween 'i love ya'
and the symptoms of ebola

just a know-nobody who came here to see how the review had racked up 20 comments and walked into a playpen and then a favorite song was called to mind.

unfair to comment on all here - tho have resonated to much. WILL recommend to all, however, John Irving's tribute to the god of his idolatry Dickens. it's lovely.

Kelly The difference between 'i love ya'
and symptoms of ebola

... is fantastic. I laughed out loud and inappropriately at work. Well done. :)

message 3: by Jude (new)

Jude o dearest allow me to introduce you Rufus Wainwright, genius offspring of Loudon and the remarkable Kate McGarrigle. (well, you prolly already know of Rufus but just not this tune...)

if you think reading it was fun, hearing it will thrill you and singing it yourself will eventually be appropriate and perfect.

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