BRIDESHEAD REVISTED by Evelyn Waugh
Date: Feb 22, 2015
Details: Reading Group Read
The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh's novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.
Well, I’m not quite sure what to say about this book. There were parts of it I adored and parts I couldn’t care less about and wouldn’t have missed if they’d been omitted. But, before I get into that allow me to go back a few decades.
I was in my late teens when I saw the television series of Brideshead Revisited and all I can say is that I was fascinated by the story, the characters, the setting and the period it portrayed. I fell in love with Sebastian and Charles and eagerly awaited each new episode. When I picked up this book I expected to fall in love all over again.
I guess sometimes it is wiser to leave old loves in the past and not try to revive them. The vague images I had in my head and the – rather limited – memory I had of the story would have been enough to keep me mesmerized for the rest of my life. Reading the book now - 30 odd years after first seeing the story – has removed a lot of the glamour from my memories. Which of course means this is anything but a fair review of the book. This is an essay about how my selective memory stands up to the reality of the written word. As it turns out, the written word never stood a chance.
So, back to the story as I found it in the book. I adored the first part of the book. The developing relationship between Charles and Sebastian drew me in and fascinated me. The twenty years between the two World Wars and the ways in which the world changed make for intriguing reading. I watched the interactions between the characters in this book with growing repulsion. Nobody seemed to really connect with others or even want to make the effort to look below the surface. The moment characters did allow themselves to discover the hidden depths in others, almost invariably meant the end of the relationship. All of this kept me turning the pages but in a similar way I would if I were reading a science fiction story; it intrigued me but a lot of it was incomprehensible to me.
To me this read as an extensive story about destruction - the destruction of one man’s dreams and illusions, the destruction of a family and the destruction of a way of life. By the time the story ends, nothing remains of the certainties the story starts with. It made the reading experience similar to watching a train-wreck; horrifying to watch yet impossible to look away from.
I think I would have liked the book more if the story had been just about Sebastian and Charles. I just couldn’t get interested in the second part of the story when it turns into a description of the ‘doomed to fail’ relationship between Julia and Charles. And I guess that’s the root of the problem; in my memory this was a story about those two men. I assume the rest of the story featured in the TV-series as well, but it had faded from my memory, and even now I’ve read the book, no images come to me.
I can’t honestly say whether the way this story was written disappointed me or whether I felt led down by the fact the book didn’t live up to my memories. Either way I have to conclude this fascinating story was not quite what I hoped it would be.