Sunday, April 10, 2011

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited is not quite in the canon.  Like Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Evelyn Waugh's novel is just below the arbitrary classic boundary.

But frankly I just love it.  Brideshead Revisited is a romantic middlebrow classic, with original characters, beautiful writing, a symmetrical structure, and many surprises in the plot.  The first book and most of the second book are elegant, though the end teeters and falls into incomprehensible Catholic gibberish. (Being a Catholic, I think it's all right for me to say this.)

But Book I, the story of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte's charming friendship at Oxford, is enchanting and absolutely polished.  After Sebastian, a sweet Catholic aristocrat, drunkenly throws up over Charles's windowsill one late night, he sends all the flowers in a flower shop to Charles.  He charms Charles's scout (servant).  At a lunch that day, Sebastian is "peeling a plover's egg taken from a large nest of moss in the center of the table."

"'I've just counted them,' he said.  'There were five each and two over, so I'm eating the two.  I'm unaccountably hungry today."  

As an artist, Charles needs a little refining.  Sebastian educates him through his own taken-for-granted acquaintance with good things.  Charles puts away his prints and a vulgar screen.
Somehow anything in the UK goes with me.  Rich people?  Fine. In American literature I don't approve of them, but I can imagine myself rich, English, and at Oxford.  In Maryland in the '80s, when the PBS production of Brideshead Revisited was on, everybody watched it. We discussed it in the lounge on Monday mornings.  Even the most persnickety people loved it, but I may have been the only one who read the book.  My paperback (see left) says "Companion to the PBS television series" on the cover.  Companion! We all loved Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews.

The prologue, beginning of the frame constructionof the novel, introduces us to Charles, the narrator, in the 1940s when he is an army captain.  His company believes it will be dispatched to the Middle East, but the destination turns out to be Brideshead, the estate of Sebastian's family. Most of the rest of the book is a flashback.  The past is more vivid, of course.

When Charles spent time at Brideshead with Sebastian in the '20s, he slowly learned the difficulties of Sebastian's Catholic household.  His father left his mother years ago, and there was no divorce because she was a devout Catholic.  Mummy is a controlling charmer whom men end up hating.   After Sebastian becomes a drunkard and leaves Oxford, their friendship unravels tragically, mainly because of Mummy.  Charles's voice becomes muted and lugubrious, and the sunniness of youth is gone.  

In the second book, Charles's sad romance with Julia, Sebastian's sister, is a bit shadowy:  they are both so unhappy, and their problems so serious, that one cannot read it with as much enjoyment. Charles is a successful architectural artist (he paints pictures of people's houses before they are demolished), and Julia is an unhappy wife of a brash politician.  They are drawn together.  The Catholic ending is surprising, and I'm not quite sure I understand it.  But it's not the Catholic ambiguity that draws one.   

Don't we all secretly want to have gone to Oxford in the '20s, carried around a teddy bear name Aloysius, drunk champagne and eaten fresh strawberries, and visited Sebastian's gorgeous estate?  Wouldn't we have loved to be Julia, the beautiful, intelligent woman who can have anything she wants, but cannot transcend the limits of religion?

But religion is a good thing.  It really is.  It just makes for a sad ending.


Ellen said...

You are showing a rare appreciation for the important central theme of religion in the book. It's the central meaning and solace of the characters. Most readers just ignore this.

You have another person in the world who reads the book just as you do: my husband, Jim.

Myself I don't care for the book that much but I do love its melancholy and think the famous mini-series was accurate in capturing that.

Frisbee said...

The Catholicism is difficult to ignore, though I paid little attention when I first read BH. There's so much in this novel. The meditation on religion is lovely, but the ending always throws me.