Saturday, October 29, 2011

Evelyn Waugh’s mid-century masterpiece stands the test of time.

I picked up Waugh’s WWII novel because I tried to watch the English TV version but decided I should read it instead.

Brideshead Revisited

The story of Brideshead Revisited (351 pages, Back Bay Books, $14.99) is all the more remarkable for having been published in 1944. Charles Ryder, an officer in the British Army, is posted at a country house that turns out to be one with which he has been familiar from the time of his undergraduate years at Cambridge.

The novel takes us back to those years and recreates Charles’s friendship with the naughty and effete Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of an aristocratic divorcee, Lady Marchmain, whose husband has deserted her and the pleasures of his grand home, Brideshead, for the soothing escape of Italy. Lady Marchmain is a staunch Roman Catholic, and all her children - Brideshead, the oldest and heir, Julia, the middle child, and Sebastian - have been brought up as Catholics.

At first Charles’s obsession with Sebastian makes the young man’s Catholicism only a passing interest. But as Charles gets more and more involved with this complicated family, the more central he sees the religion that the younger generation, with the exception of Bridey, have moved away from.

Sebastian introduces Charles to a lewd collection of undergraduate friends, who entertain him and distract him from his studies. But Charles wants to be distracted, and he is never happier than when Sebastian whisks him off for weekends, or even longer, at Brideshead. During these long and languorous visits, Charles recognizes Sebastian’s unhappiness and his inordinate
dependence on alcohol. Because Lord Marchmain was addicted to drink, Lady Marchmain cannot tolerate Sebastian’s drinking, and before long, he is avoiding her and the family or else embarrassing them all in an inebriated stupor.

As Sebastian slips off into southern Europe and even Africa, Charles loses sight of him. Charles had dropped out of Cambridge, after Sebastian was sent down for his excessive behavior, and he has studied art in France. He returns as a talented artist who specializes in painting portraits of country houses, and he becomes prosperous and married all the while that Sebastian is slipping further and further away.

After some years pass, Charles and Julia meet again on an ocean liner from New York to London. While most of the passengers are sea-sick, including Charles’s wife, he and Julia conduct an affair that at first is based solely on their shared concern with Sebastian.

When, after arriving in London, their affair continues, and the novel reaches a climax when Charles seeks a divorce and hopes to marry Julia, who is herself about to divorce. In the end, though, for various reasons, she cannot defy her religion so directly, and she pulls back and leaves Charles to his memories.

Charles loses both Sebastian and Julia, then, before the war begins, and when he returns to Brideshead as a soldier, the memories are almost too much to bear.

Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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