Brideshead Revisited was one more foray into the world of classical literature that I embarked upon recently, sparked by Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I had not read any books by Evelyn Waugh before, but had heard of him and of Brideshead Revisited, thanks to a recent movie adaptation. Since I haven’t seen the movie, I could enjoy the book unencumbered by the images of the movie characters superimposed over those in the book — which I find quite annoying and avoid as much as possible.
Brideshead Revisited is primarily an account of life in England in the first half of the 20th century narrated by a young man, Charles Ryder, starting with his days as a college student at Oxford where he meets and befriends a charismatic fellow student, Sebastian Flyte. The two soon become inseparable, not in any romantic sense as we would now assume, but simply as very close friends who spend a lot of time together. Sebastian comes from a very wealthy family and lives in a palatial mansion called Brideshead to which he frequently takes Charles whenever he visits. Charles meets and becomes close to all the members of Sebastian’s family, including his beautiful sister, Julia, whom he almost ends up marrying, but much later in the book.
Most of the early part of the story is devoted to Charles and Sebastian’s escapades as students in Oxford, their visits to Brideshead, their travels abroad, and their interactions with the different members of Sebastian’s family. It almost gets to the point where you are over halfway into the book and you are wondering if anything is actually to happen! But then it does. Sebastian rapidly descends into alcoholism from which he never really recovers, Julia gets married but eventually ends up getting a divorce, and Charles drops out of Oxford to become a successful architectural painter. He also gets married and has children, but realizes, after a chance meeting with Julia many years later, that it is her whom he really loves. He also ends up divorcing his wife, and he and Julia are all set to get married when Julia realizes that she cannot go through with the wedding after all because of religious reasons — she is a staunch Catholic while Charles is an agnostic.
For a book set in the 1940s, there are a surprising number of divorces and affairs, which was surprising to me. What I also found unique about Brideshead Revisited was the extended discussions about religion and the critical role it plays in the book — not in bringing the hero and heroine together as you would expect, but in actually breaking them up. This disagreement in religious views happens so often between couples in real life but is hardly ever captured in fiction, and what impressed me the most about Brideshead Revisited was how it made religion a pivotal aspect of the plot.
Apart from this, I cannot really say that Brideshead Revisited was exceptional in any way, and I can see why it did not become a top-tier must-read classic. Much of it seemed to me to be “much ado about nothing.” I was glad to have read it, but I did not find it particularly riveting.
Having failed to find any classics that come even remotely close to how enraptured I was by North and South, I am reverting back to contemporary fiction. Just as Brideshead Revisited was primarily a social commentary on life in the 1940s, I hope to be able to find books situated in modern times with plotlines and settings that I can at least relate to.
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Reprint Publisher and Date: Back Bay Books, December 2012
Original Publisher and Date: Chapman & Hall, 1945
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.