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

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
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it was amazing
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I just finished rereading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, a book I pick up every couple of years or so. This time I read it because of the new movie version movie (the one with Emma Thompson as the Lady Marchmain Flyte). As a critic, I get to see a pre-screening of the new movie on Tuesday; I am taking Dr. Steve. Also, I am a huge fan of the original, very-literal British miniseries from 1981 (it is the first thing that brought Jeremy Irons to international attention, and it had the excessively handsome Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte.). I don’t know exactly when the new movie is coming out.

Speaking of coming out, it’s impossible to speak of Brideshead Revisited without talking about the strong homosexual themes. Then again, you also have to talk about the pressure of Catholicism and its attendant guilt. Finally, there is the sense of social climbing, of coveting and envy, that defines the story’s narrator, Charles Ryder.

The story is about an upper middle-class boy, Charles Ryder and his integration into a rich English family. After years at boarding school and summers with only his absent-minded and oblivious father as family, Charles meets Sebastian Flyte their third year at Oxford.

They immediately fall in love, though Sebastian pukes in Charles’ room.

Sebastian is described as a pretty young man, the son of uber-rich Catholic aristocracy. Sebastian throws wild parties for his obviously gay friends (there is no hemming about Sebastian’s friends being fairies), and gets drunk repeatedly. He travels to Venice and the Continent and generally lives an extremely privileged life.

He also carries around a teddy bear names Aloysius, which he speaks to as if it were a naughty child. He’s 19 and at college.

Sebastian and Charles start a thinly veiled romance – one that has been alternately argued to be sexual or simply a romantic phase by young men. Charles is taken in by Sebastian, his effete friends, and his rich lifestyle, and they are quite open with their affection toward each other. I personally think they have repeated sex, the references to their love for each other, the moments of nudity, and the open discussions of homosexuality are too numerous to ignore.

However, as Charles becomes more and more entrenched with the Flyte family, Sebastian grows bitter and drinks more. He tried to keep his life with Charles and his Catholic family separate. Sebastian possibly understands his romance with Charles is being taken over by his family. Perhaps Sebastian realizes his Catholic guilt will also kill his relationship with Charles. Slowly, Sebastian becomes a virulently self-destructive drunk, as the family communicates to Charles that they don’t mind their childish relationship, but that it is a phase that will need to pass. Charles also comes to understand the strength that the orthodox religion has on the family as he watches Sebastian slowly drink himself to death.

Over the course of the novel, Charles transfers his affections to Sebastian’s equally unattainable sister, Julia. Charles blatantly admits that he finds Julia and Sebastian very similar in looks and temperament. God knows, the family’s vast wealth and glamour are also draws for Charles; it’s as if Charles will do anything to be a part of the Flyte family. He is a bit of a cipher, a mirror, a quiet man who attracts people because they are able to project upon him exactly what they wish him to be. Charles is a fascinating, longing narrator – there is a bit of The Talented Mr. Ripley in his envy and in his personal blankness. He lusts after Sebastian’s life, but also after Sebastian as a great, flamboyant and handsome man.

However, there is such a sense of denigration from that first romance of Sebastian’s and Charles’, and it runs through the entire novel and even into Charles’ and Julia’s romance. The sense of lost innocence along with Sebastian’s deterioration from overdrinking is tragic. Charles admits that, in love, “Sebastian was the first;” he admits this openly to Julia and others. An entirely different sort of destruction happens in Charles’ and Julia’s romance. Both loves are assailed by Catholic guilt.

Charles is an agnostic. His lack of religious knowledge and his criticism of Catholic hypocrisy is at first one of the things that attracts Sebastian to him. But it’s also the thing that dooms Charles’ relationship with the family.

The mother, Lady Marchmain Flyte, is very pious – separated from her philandering husband (who lives with his mistress in Italy), but refusing to divorce the man for her Catholic beliefs. She is a strong and spiritual patriarch whose guilt and religiosity inspire hatred from her husband and children. Yet, Lady Marchmain doesn’t do anything particularly wrong, and there is a sense that she is an earthbound saint whose kin hate over their own deep senses of guilt – guilt over their own sins: their homosexuality, alcoholism, infidelity, and apostasy from the faith.

It’s a frustrating novel. I sense author Waugh’s latent homosexuality, and there is a strong sense of his gross envy of the travels and money and wondrous things and parties and balls of the upper class like his narrator Charles does. Finally, there is the strong sense of Catholicism. You could either say the religion and its guilt-ridden patterns doom the Flyte family. Or you could say that it is the only moral compass that these people have and that God is waiting to pull them back into His fold, even after their darkest sins and self-destruction.

The reclaiming of faith among the bourgeois and the over-privileged is the theme I think Waugh thought he was writing about. But there is a sense of such loss over their Bohemian innocence. And there is a palpable sense of guilt and shame that the Catholicism brings on – there doesn’t seem to be much mercy in Waugh’s God. Everything just slowly gets worse and sicker and more depressed. Perhaps that’s why I see the novel as a supreme and beautiful tragedy. Even though Charles comes to respect the spiritual belief and even attend to it some, I am still struck by the decay, the corrosion, the purification – of the beautiful house Brideshead and of its family, the Flytes.

As a gay man and being from a Catholic family (although the Flytes are wealthy and we are white trash), I love this book, even as it frustrates me.
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Reading Progress

June 15, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
July 28, 2008 – Finished Reading
July 24, 2011 – Shelved as: favorites

Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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message 1: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Great review! I haven't read the book and I have only vague memories of the 1981 miniseries, which my mom loved (she fell in love with Jeremy Irons). I am going to get the book now, because of your review.

Christina The Emma Thompson movie has inspired me to look closer at this book and your review has increased my interest in this book. I've seen the mini series or read anything by Waugh but I'm looking forward to it now. It sounds like a very rewarding story and at the same time as a great read!

message 3: by Ayu (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ayu Palar Hi, I really like this review of yours :)

I agree that the miniseries are very great.

message 4: by Edward (new)

Edward Brideshead's shit. Nuff said.

message 5: by Karl (new)

Karl Drobnic I've read the novel several times, and watched the Jeremy Irons dramatization. While I recognize the homosexuality, I've always read Sebastian and Charles as platonic friends. Waugh certainly knew how to write a love scene without going into the bedroom (the scene between Julia and Charles on the deck of the storm-tossed boat). If he had wanted more than a platonic relationship for Charles and Sebastian, he could have made it just as explicit as the boat-deck scene. Instead, he leaves it ambiguous. Had there been a physical relationship, my thought is that Sebastian's fate would have been different.

Schmacko Thanks for your comment. You're right: I am stating an opinion when I say that I believe there was more than mythical romance involved.

As a gay man (who was raised Catholic), I am going to draw conclusions that are motivated by my own POV; we all do that -- bring ourselves to great novels. I agree that Brideshead Revisited is ambiguous. However, the gay themes are very clearly there. There are the gay friends, the descriptions of emotion, the nudity, etc.

I personally believe that a lot of what Waugh is writing about is about how young men can and will be in more homo-centric (if not homo-erotic) relationship, but they grow out of those into adult relationships. Part of Charles' transformation is his transference of love from Sebastian to Julia. Part of it has to be Charles' conversion to Catholicism (something Waugh himself went through late in life).

Waugh has written a complex - and sometimes troubling - novel. It's frustrating for me personally that there seems to be an implicit treatment of homosexuality as a mere phase. Though, truthfully, we can never tell if the dynamic Marchman family (a family much warmer than Charles' own) and their wealth also seduced Charles. That's why the book is so complicated, disturbing, and lovely. I've read it several times, too. I simply love the book for all it's enigmatic intent.

message 7: by Karl (new)

Karl Drobnic "I personally believe that a lot of what Waugh is writing about is about how young men can and will be in more homo-centric (if not homo-erotic) relationship, but they grow out of those into adult relationships."

That's the way I've interpreted it. I commented because your review got me to thinking about reading the book again from a perspective closer to yours and see if it lights up differently.

Schmacko Karl, we need a "Like" button for comments. Thanks!

message 9: by Evgenia (new) - added it

Evgenia Just bumpted into your review! It is fantastic! Adding it to my list as my next read.

Schmacko Wow, thanks!

Marija I love your review. I don't think of Lady Marchmain as an earthbound saint so much as someone who can't empathize with her loved ones. When Sebastian's alcoholism becomes apparent to everyone, she often reminds Charles that she best knows how to handle it because she'd been through it all before with Sebastian's father. But she never has the self-awareness to question if her actions the first time around, which resulted in Sebastian's father hating her and ultimately leaving her, would serve her well the second time around. And of course, they don't. Every time I encountered her I felt like she was wrapped up in her proper bubble, and nothing could touch her.

Schmacko Ooo, good points. I didn't think of it that way. Good eye.

message 13: by Marija (last edited Oct 18, 2012 08:39PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Marija I do have to say that Brideshead is one of my all-time favorite books. Waugh's writing is nothing short of poetry.

Schmacko I generally appreciate all his work. He and Willa Cather are two people I don't think get the credit they deserve.

Marija I hate to admit I've never read Willa Cather.... and I'm a librarian. Which of hers should I start with?

Schmacko My Antonia! Part of it is about how the Midwest became farmland; the land is certainly one of the book's characters!

Part of it is about how two people (Jim & Antonia) bond over separate/shared grief and loneliness from childhood to adulthood. Part of it is about pride in your humble beginnings. And a big part of it is about xenophobia and the integration of the immigrant into the American fabric.

Lovely, wonderful stuff!

message 17: by Schmacko (last edited Oct 18, 2012 08:52PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Schmacko "I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska...

"I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue, and I soon began to ache all over. When the straw settled down, I had a hard bed. Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land--slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be."

Schmacko I just reread this. I'm more strongly struck this time by the Catholicism of the whole thing. It's as if Waugh says the religion lets characters sin and denigrate themselves so they can come back to the Church penitent, understanding they do not deserve God's grace. In other words, it's steeped in guilt and lack of self-worth. This affects Sebastian, Julia, and Lord Flyte in much the same way. Another interpretation is that Catholicism "infected" each character at a young age, making it impossible for them to be happy otherwise - in homosexual lives, in infidelity, or in second marriages after divorce. It's a grim, limited way to view the world.

Marija I so agree with your comment, Schmacko (that can't be your real name, now, right?). I'll have to read it again myself. I remember being confused as to Waugh's own feeling about Catholicism after I read it.

I'm packing up and moving. I just put that book in the "to keep" box, rather than the "to give away" box. I'll pick it up again later this year.

Schmacko Thank you. Like I said, it's a frustrating book, so I keep coming back to it.

Renee Kujawski Thank you for this perfect review; it sums up my feelings brilliantly! I, too am frustrated with the book and so intrigued and in love with it that I have read it over and over through the years, getting new insights into it each time. I was raised Catholic and have considered myself and agnostic for decades. My dear stepson is gay and if he ever had time to read these, days I know Brideshead would love it the way I do.

Schmacko Wow, thank you!

Estella Awesome and very considerate review. Thanks for actually backing up your reasons for loving/being frustrated with the novel. Your insights (in my opinion) are spot on; you're the type of reader that I would hope everyone strives to be!

Schmacko Thanks! I always have trouble writing reviews about classics. So much has been said, and i also fear that high school and college kids plagiarize... ;-)

I actually had a college kid try to dupe me into writing a paper for him. I'm not that stupid. He read a review of mine and then he asked me if I could answer a few more questions about the book. And then he cut and pasted his teacher's questions, I assume, because they were more succinct and intelligent than he was.

message 25: by Tony (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tony Hi, Schmacko. I posted this on the "Bright Young Things" discussion, but I'd be interested in your opinion:

I've seen all 13 hours of the miniseries and read the book, several times each. I was dumbfounded, however, to learn that Waugh himself converted to Catholicism late in life. I couldn't then, and still can't, comprehend how someone could write such an eloquent and poetic discourse of the Machiavellian desolation and destruction that religion inflicted upon everyone in its path, only to turn a blind eye to its causal repercussions and eventually acquiesce to its dogmas.

Yes, Sebastian and Charles were in love, but I never got a gay vibe from Charles. Like any other adolescent (or, in this case, a very late adolescent) he was just an innocent young man who longed to reject his own past and leap at the chance for a new life. I also did not get any vibe that it was Sebastian's wealth that was the attraction; he was in love with Sebastian, and it was an inexorable escape. Their relationship was too innocent to have actually had sex. I think their relationship (and the outcomes) would have been quite different if that were the case. Cara said it the most eloquently in Venice. "I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They're not Latin. I think they're very good if they don't go on too long. It's the kind of love that comes to children before they know its meaning. In England, it comes a little later, when you are almost men."

Sebastian's homosexuality is more explicit, as ultimately evidenced by his choice of companion, Kurt, later in his life. This could also explain his alcoholism and need to escape. He wasn't just running from his family or his religion, he was running from himself. Cara, again, hit the nail on the head. "When people hate with all of that energy, it is really something inside themselves they are hating."

Personified by Lady Marchmain, religion destroyed almost everything it touched. It destroyed the marriage between her and her husband. It destroyed the love between Charles and Sebastian. It destroyed the love between Charles and Julia. It destroyed Sebastian. It even destroyed Cordelia, dooming that bright and energetic young mind to a dull life of servitude, though her own beliefs would prevent her from ever acknowledging it. These people were not sinners deserving of the wrath wrought upon them, they were loving and caring people.

In the end, all that remained was the ridiculous notion that blind faith itself was the only thing of any real worth. It would be the only thing that would survive this series of tragedies, ignoring the fact that it was responsible for them. I just can't accept that they had no other choice but accept the above as their own penitent transgressions and surrender to the faith that caused them so much pain in the first place.

Oh, and the movie version was a joke and missed the point entirely.

Schmacko Well, I agree with much of this. I've always struggled with what Waugh says about God having an invisible thread ready to pull everyone back in. I think a lot has to do with Lord Marchman at the last minute relenting, making Julia understand she also would be wracked with guilt until she returned to the religion. Perhaps Waugh doesn't do the best job of describing the conversion or re-conversion, because it was obviously something he dearly believed in, but it's still something I also struggle with in reading the book.

And the new movie version was horrible, wasn't it?

message 27: by Tony (last edited Jul 03, 2013 01:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tony Thank you, Schmacko. It's something that has bothered me since my first viewing, and no matter how many times I see or read it again, it still baffles me. Prompted by this thread, I started watching it again the other day and laughed out loud at the scene with Charles and Cordelia in the dining room where she declares that she has purchased six black Cordelias. I know that Cordelia is very young and innocent in this scene, and she clearly means well, but it still seems like Waugh goes out of his way to elucidate these kinds of silly hypocrisies (if that's not too strong a word in this context) only to have religion triumph in the end.

I'm glad to know that I'm not alone.

The movie version was very shallow, superficial, and blatantly heterosexualized; presumably to appeal to a modern, broader audience. It was too painful to watch.

Marija Tony - I couldn't remember the scene you described, so I searched it out and found it on YouTube. Thanks for reminding me about it.

And I agree with both of you - why did Waugh come back around again after religion ruined the lives of so many of these family members.

I haven't seen the new movie. I don't think I can bear to watch it after falling in love with the original series.

message 29: by Tony (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tony Thanks, Marija.

Don't see the movie. It's dreadful. It will cloud your memories of the exquisitely cast, directed, and photographed original series.

Thomas Superb review! I, as you, experience a certain "torment" as I revisit Brideshead, Yet it remains irresistible

Schmacko Thanks!

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