Paul Bryant's Reviews > Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
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********Please note - contains spoilers ************

One's head is rather spinning, there are so many terribly good things and likewise so very much abject wretchedness it's hard to begin. Let us try.

1) This book is the twisted story of a homosexual affair, which I was truly not expecting it to be. It's famously set amongst the upper classes, firstly in Oxford, so you get pages of blissed-out descriptions of life amongst British aristocratic students in the 1920s and how many plovers eggs they eat and which claret they guzzle. That part is what I was expecting, and very lush and delectable and appalling it is too. But what surprised me is that it all takes place within a thick pall of implied and overt homosexuality. The two principals of the first half, Charles and Sebastian, are in love, clearly. they do everything and go everywhere together. And the best character in the whole book is a Quentin Crisp-style flaming queer called Anthony Blanche who says things like

"Good evening Mulcaster, old sponge and toady, are you lurking amongst the hobbledehoys? Have you come to repay me the three hundred francs I lent you for the poor drab you picked up in the casino? It was a niggardly sum for her trouble, and WHAT a trouble, Mulcaster!"


"The gallery after luncheon was so full of absurd women in the sort of hats they should be made to eat that I rested here with Cyril and Tom and these saucy boys."

At one point Anthony takes our hero Charles to a gay club which Charles refers to as a "pansy bar". But here's the thing -

a) this novel is not notorious for its gay subject matter; it is true there is no explicit buggery going on, but neither is it especially coy. As it was published in 1945 when English men were being imprisoned for homosexuality (a crime which was only removed from the statutes in 1967, that year of liberation) this seems to me very interesting.

b) Nor in the book is there any trace of disapproval anywhere, from anyone, that homosexuality is wrong. The only sin which gets its religious comeuppance is adultery. From this book you would get the notion that the upper classes tolerated openly gay relationships in the 1920s and 1930s. This is surprising to me. It could be something to do with the public school system and the worship of classical Greece. It's all very queer.

2) This book appears to think its point is a religious one. So that the climactic sundering of the lovers in part two is because one of them is a passionate disbeliever and the other one realises that religion, by which we mean Catholicism, is genuinely important. As a confirmed "what's God got to do with it" agnostic, this washes right over my head but leaves me feeling damp and annoyed - I trudged through 330 pages for a stupid religious damp squib ending like that? Give me my money back! In the words of The Shangri-Las, "and that's called...bad".

3) this book is a love song to wealth and class, and as an only slightly reconstructed old class warrior, I was sailing on queasy seas, but could not help enjoying Waugh's tremendous atmospheric prose and beautiful dialogue. In the words of The Shangri-Las, "and that's called...glad".

4) This book presents us with one of my least favourite types of characters, the doomed agonised male with whom we are supposed to agonise along with and swoon over and indeed love. You get this creep popping up all over the place. He's there in The English Patient, he's there in that stupid movie Damage, he's there in Dead Man Walking, he's in la Belle dame Sans Merci, there's a million of them, all doomed, all with soulful eyes, all suffering. In the words of The Shangri-Las, "and that's called...sad".

5) This book appears to endorse some extraordinary behaviour. Charles gets married to someone who turns out not to be his true love at all, and has two kids, and goes off to paint in Guatemala for 2 years, and comes back, and his wife asks him to please come and visit his own children which he hasn't seen for 2 years and he regards this request as ... vulgar. And he just... doesn't see them! And no criticism from Waugh either! In the words of The Shangri-Las, "and that's called...mad".

So ultimately I don't really know what this book was really "about" but as a portrait of a set of upperclass bastards in England in the 1920s it's almost enthralling. Three and a half stars.


Note : Donna Tartt so ripped off part one of this book for The Secret History, with her languorous cliques of uber-rich students. She had more of a story going by page 100 I think, although that was a slowly crawling overfed turtle of a book too. But Evelyn Waugh is just a shade better at writing than our Donna.
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Reading Progress

April 25, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
June 9, 2008 – Shelved as: novels
June 9, 2008 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 127 (127 new)

message 1: by Martine (new)

Martine Tee hee. As someone who knows The Secret History almost by heart, I look forward to seeing how Brideshead Revisited compares to it. I'll check it out for myself very soon.

Tara I read this while in college and spent nights trying to gain a deeper understanding of it by drinking cheap beer, all the while thinking to myself, "What the hell is REALLY going on here?"

As I remember it, the story was all heavy implications coated in an eloquent writing style, containing characters I was completely indifferent to.

I don't think another 6 pack of good beer could get me to read this again.

message 3: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Moorhouse Viz the way Lord Lucan's cronies all rallied round him when the old boy murdered his nanny.

message 4: by Melody (last edited Jun 26, 2008 01:52PM) (new) - added it

Melody Delightful review. Not so sure I'll read the book - but I love the quotes you chose to share. But I did enjoy The Secret History and you called it a what? Oh "slowly crawling overfed turtle of a book" that's funny!

Paul Bryant Thanks for all these comments. I may go after Graham Greene next, he's due for a light kicking I feel.

message 6: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Moorhouse Try "The Power and the Glory". Lots of fuel there.

Tara Mmmm, Heart of the Matter...

Lynn Can you mark this for spoilers? I just read too much :(

Paul Bryant Oops sorry Lynn - I need to learn how to do that

message 10: by Eric (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric Henwood-Greer The homosexuality is often debated. I'd tend to agree with you that it's very prominent (the new, oddly rewritten film version makes it all the more so with a kiss, etc) but you have to remember a few things--liek when it was set. As the father's mistress tells Charles in Italy, in England very close almost romantic relationships between young men in those old British colleges was accepted as normal in England and even as maybe necesary (EM Forsters' Maurice takes this as a starting poitn when the character of Maurice fails to see his relationship as more than that and his firend isn't happy to move on to women after).

I love the book, but what confuse sme about your review is why you expect things like the homosexuality to be disapproved of. I think you expect Waugh to side more on the fence one way or the other with his themes, and that doens't interest him.

Interestingly Waugh was known to have mainly gay relationships in his college days, then was married three times and "straight" afterwards (some argue that he never really was able ot make it work which could be argued of the character of Charles as well) and he became a VERY devout catholic who served in the war (I always foudn this amusing because to my mind Brideshead is most about Catholic guilt and the problems it causes). That sadi apparantly, in his Oxford days anyway, Waugh was less like Charles, and much more like the character of Anthony Blanche!

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I may have been unclear about where I was expecting the disapproval of homosexuality to be coming from. In the first place, there's no disapproval expressed at all by the characters in the book. In the second place, likewise no disapproval expressed by the author. This - to me - was surprising and very gratifying. Perhaps gay people weren't so despised as I had thought they were. Then finally, when the book was published in 1945, again, no disapproval. Very enlightened all round. Of course throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s gay men were being given prison sentences for having sex - so hence my surprise. I hope this is clearer.
The romantic-attachment thing I take to be a polite euphemism, by the way!

message 12: by Eric (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric Henwood-Greer Ah that makes sense--sorry I think I mis read it that you felt there should be disapproval. Many critics do think that his mom's disapproval of, and the Catholic guilt over his homosexuality is one reason Sebastian starts drinking so much--but again like every detail in regards to the sexuality, that could be, and has been, argued both ways.

I think if you asked Waugh he might actually say Charles and Sebastian's relationship wasn't sexual--it was an idealized one that reanscended that, but personally I'm with you on the issue. But, like I said, in the upper classes of the time for the most part close male to male relationships in college were seen as a antural part of growing up. I think as long as you got married after, etc, mostly they didn't care what you did. Anyway, I liked the book much more than you, but you raise a lot of really interesting points--that probablymake me like it all the more (I'd wonder if reading it when Iw as a yougn teen dealign with my sexuality played a part--though it's also a fave book, and miniseries, of my father and a number of fairly, I'd say, "straight" guys I know).


Alexandra Wilding I think you may have missed the satire aspect of the whole thing...

message 14: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I don't think I did. See my Anthony Blanche quotes. He's a hilarious character & Waugh is having great fun satirising gay life, and later, London artlovers, the idle rich on the cruise ship, and so on. But the tone of most of the book is very solemn.

message 15: by Manny (new)

Manny I remember having the same reaction when I read the first volume of Anthony Powell's autobiography, set in that period. He's totally matter-of-fact about some people being hetero, some homo, not a shadow of condemnation, shock, even surprise. The world just happens to be that way. Apparently it wasn't a big deal to be gay in the 20's and 30's, as long as you were discrete and had had the foresight to be born into the moneyed classes.

Elise I don't know you, but was trying to think how to craft my own review of BR, and then read yours, and now the thought of writing my own seems completely redundant. Great review. We had the same experience of the book.

message 17: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Thanks Elise. Seems some novelists love to write "elegiac" books - Hotel Du Lac is another - and some readers seem to love it when not much happens to very rich people for page after page. Hmmm, so why do I like Henry James again?

Moira Russell Hmmm, so why do I like Henry James again?

Because everyone loves Henry James! Well no, not everyone. But did you know Raymond Chandler loved Henry James? I didn't find this out til I read that new book about his marriage, even tho I'd read his letters. You could have knocked me over with a screw.

Moira Russell Found this via Manny's thumbs-up -- what a great review! altho I do have more affection for the book, I think. I remember being in a graduate writing seminar once and the teacher rhapsodizing about the dinner Waugh writes up in detail for like TWENTY PAGES, and it made him very sad I was the only one who had heard of it.

Tartt ripped off SO much of this book for SH (which I do like) it's not even funny.

Catie Waugh said that the book "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself."

I think that the other themes of the book: love, sexuality, wealth, class--and even the characters themselves ... are all more secondary than we understand them to be until the last pages of the novel where conversations with Cordelia, Lord Marchmain's acceptance of his last rites, and Charles' own thoughts about the chapel reveal Waugh's purpose more clearly. Not that the secondary themes and the characters are unimportant, just less important that we at first think.

message 21: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant It's a puzzle for me, as I quite understand that for Waugh and (say) Graham Greene these themes like grace and atonement and so forth are REAL, but to me they're incomprehensible. So I have to find a way to read these books as a non-believer.

message 22: by Catie (last edited Jun 12, 2009 10:39AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Catie Paul wrote: "It's a puzzle for me, as I quite understand that for Waugh and (say) Graham Greene these themes like grace and atonement and so forth are REAL, but to me they're incomprehensible. So I have to find..."

Sorry, I don't think I'm clear on what you mean. Certainly the way you experience this book is different from the way a Christian who believes in grace would. But what about your unbelief makes the way that you read this different?

message 23: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant can I say this without causing offence... because I don't take supernatural bestowal of grace seriously, I think it's frankly delusional, but I know that Waugh did, so that makes it hard to figure out exactly how uncertain the ground I'm standing on actually is.

message 24: by Jessica (new)

Jessica great review, thanks Paul B.

message 25: by Sarah (last edited Jun 12, 2009 07:44PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sarah Great review. I disagreed with some of your points (I don't think the homosexuality is as overt as you seem to think, I agree with msg 13 on that issue; and I also come from a different point of view than you do religiously) and agreed with others (WTH was up with Charles' disinterest in his children? And why is Sebastian such a popular character?) but this is a great review all the same.

ETA: I should say, I don't think the homosexuality of Charles is as overt as you. Anthony Blanche is clearly a flaming queen. And Sebastian's very likely gay, especially considering his relationship with the German(? I think?) later on.

message 26: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Have not yet read the book but I very much want to now.

So I can weigh in on all of these points--

message 27: by jesa (new) - rated it 3 stars

jesa yes yes yes. i too was quite surprised that the book seemed to present typically taboo topics (homosexuality mostly) as quite ordinary and just fine. i also really liked that, and liked that the book surprised me. i thought Charles was in love with Sebastian, but not in a sexual way, and liked that the book seemed to present a spectrum of (male) sexuality.
but, as an agnostic myself i really didn't care too much for the ending (like, literally--i didn't care), and i don't think i would be bowled over even if i were religious.
the lovers in the second part just seemed a little deus ex machina to me, as if a love story were needed and sebastian is out, so some other member of the family must be tossed in.
some of the prose was quite stunning, and the dialogue (Antoine Blanche especially, as you said) was entertaining. not a masterpiece, but not a bad book at all.

message 28: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Sara - "I don't think the homosexuality is as overt as you seem to think" - perhaps in the background of my mind and not in yours is the knowledge that public schools - that British inversion which means private schools! - where all these toffs went to were notoriously awash with buggery. So maybe Waugh didn't (couldn't, wouldn't) need to be especially overt about any physical love which was going on.

message 29: by Trevor (new)

Trevor It is so long since I've read this, perhaps too long. I got my mum to read it and we talked about whether they were homosexual or not - there is that lovely bit where Sebastian's father's Italian girl-friend (at least, I think I remember her being Italian) says how amusing it is that young English men have these close relationships with members of their own sex until they are much older than other boys would from the rest of Europe. I think the point of this book is that in the Upper Classes of the time the code was that you could do anything you wanted, as long as you did it away from overt public gaze. So, Charles not understanding that destroys any chance he had with your woman at the end.

Like you I was surprised by how much I liked this novel - I mean, there is plenty to dislike about it, as you point out - but there are bits of it that just shine and shine. Great review as always

message 30: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Thanks for the kind words - I remember the comment you mention. Like she was saying how amusing it was that English toffs stay so gay much later than Continental toffs do. Anyway the point is well made, if you were rich different rules applied.

Jenny Roth I, too, was initially shocked at the homosexuality that, while not graphic, was certainly not subtle! Besides Blanche's character, Charles refers to Sebastian throughout the book as his first love. I wonder if this book was popular when it was first published?

message 32: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Wiki says "Brideshead Revisited was published in London in May 1945. Waugh had been convinced of the book's qualities, "my first novel rather than my last". It was a tremendous success, bringing its author fame, fortune and literary status"

So curious that the apparently sexually repressed Brits took to these louche young men like ducks to water.

Jenny Roth Good for the Brits! I guess they're not as stuffy as we presume.

message 34: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye 1) You sucked me in beautifully with "very lush and delectable and appalling".
2) What does "an only slightly reconstructed old class warrior" end up as or, even, what is one at this point in the middle of the journey?
3) My English Master wrote a thesis on "The Sword of Honour Trilogy" and injected me with his passion for Waugh, not to mention Greene.
4) I would have to do a lot of re-reading and re-thinking to agree with what you've said, although I would defend your right to say it until the very day you die.

message 35: by Mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mark Knoop Hmm... I'm guessing you saw the film first. Pity, as what is only vaguely hinted at in the book becomes the overriding theme. This book is not about a homosexual affair. It is about love, faith, class, death, guilt, self-destruction and much more besides.

Jenny Roth Mark: Only speaking for myself here, but I haven't seen any film or stage version--I just read the book. And I agree that homosexuality isn't the only theme, but it was a surprising one and I think that's why people are talking about it.

Bonnie G. Homosexuality is only important becuaes it separateds Sebastian from the Catholic Church and leads him to a life of self-infantiliztion to avoid his feelings. Though Waugh is generally a cheerleader for the Church, he obviously sees this as an issue. This book is in no way about a homosexual affair.

message 38: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant do you not think Charles and Sebastian have a gay relationship?

Bonnie G. they love one another and may or may not have had the guts to act on that romantic love sexually but it is not a major theme in and of itself any more than heterosexuality is a major theme.

message 40: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant well, we do see things differently there. The central relationship in the book is the one between Charles & Sebastian and it is set in the Oxford chapters within a context of accepted homosexuality, so I think it does not really matter if the relationship was phycical ir if Waugh was implying it was but couldn't be explicit, they loved each other and that was that. Their later stories seem to me to be stories of disappointment, of how they could never find in anyone else what they found in each other.

Bonnie G. Interesting interpretation. Certainly the affair with Julia was Charles sublimating his love for Sebastian.

message 42: by Elizabeth (last edited Feb 07, 2013 05:47AM) (new)

Elizabeth As a confirmed "what's God got to do with it" agnostic, this washes right over my head but leaves me feeling damp and annoyed - I trudged through 330 pages for a stupid religious damp squib ending like that? Give me my money back!

LOL! This is so spot on to my reaction. I haven't been able to make it through the book, but I finally saw the 1981 mini-series a few years ago, and at the end, I just wanted to smack Julia and her hysterical wailing upside the head.

message 43: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Yes Elizabeth, we could form a queue of likeminded people, like the people queuing up to slap the hysterical nun in Airplane.

Alice Slowly crawling overfed Turtle of a book. I love this phrase! We could apply this to a good many books or series.

If a work was of truly atrocious quality could we call it a slowly crawling overfed tur*le? :)

message 45: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I can see us saying - don't bother with that one, it's just another SCOT.

message 46: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John I was struck by what a horrid father Charles was - blowing off seeing his son like that for a bit more (of his) crumpet. I wasn't so sure Julia ended it because of her own religiosity, as much as dreading the idea of Charles' constant "not understanding" her family's faith.

message 47: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant yes, I think I'd agree with that - sometimes I think that this kind of terible parenting was standard for that class at that time.

Alice Slowly Crawling Overfed Turtle. This is a great category for books! We can put any Russian novel in this category, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, DFW's Infinite Jest;,

message 49: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Alice, take a look outside your window now - do you see an unfamiliar car cruising around? That will be Goodreads Foster Wallace Police - I should duck out the back and run for cover if I were you.

message 50: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John For what's it's worth, I read DFW's essay on cruising, which was interesting, if a bit pathetic. I have zero interest in reading another word by him. Does that make me a bad person?

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