Written between December 1943 and June 1944 following a parachuting accident, Evelyn Waugh’s “operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters” (so described in the novel’s preface) has received significant acclaim: Time magazine in 2005 heralded it as one of the hundred best post-1923 novels of the English language; Newsweek awarded it a position as one of the greatest hundred books of world literature; and the novel was adapted into a widely-lauded television serialisation starring Jeremy Irons and Laurence Olivier in 1981. It is precisely this prodigious critical approval that makes this reader’s disappointment in the novel more unfortunate.
Brideshead Revisited is a novel of nostalgia as General Charles Ryder reminisces in 1943 about his time at Brideshead and his friendship with Sebastian Flyte: “…though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest,” (17) Charles remarks before the narrative reverts to 1923, to Oxford, a place of “autumnal mists, …grey springtime, and the rare glory of…summer days…when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear…” (17). It is here that Charles first encounters Sebastian, met in the most peculiar of circumstances: when the latter vomits on Charles’ carpet through an open window. From this first introduction, Sebastian’s family enter the fray: his father, the societally exiled Lord Marchmain; his mother, the sanctimonious Lady Marchmain; his brother, the diacritic ‘Bridey’; and his sisters, the beautiful Julia and analytical Cordelia. When compared to Waugh’s other novel exploring the ‘Bright Young Things’ of post-war Britain, Vile Bodies, Brideshead features a hugely different tone: whereas Bodies relished in satirising the triviality of twenties-Britain, Brideshead instead approaches the topic somewhat remorsefully, for the ‘Bright Young Things’ here are deeply troubled characters, whether that be regarding alcoholism or the questioning of faith.
As a novel, Brideshead is more concerned with characters than plot – those yearning for a rip-roaring yarn had better look elsewhere – and it is there, unfortunately, that the text falters. If Waugh should be commended for anything however, it should be for his ability to craft richly-drawn characters, whose victories and woes structure the entire novel, but they were never what I’d consider compelling. Brideshead arguably shares a striking resemblance with Fitzgerald’s applauded novel of the Roaring Twenties, The Great Gatsby (another comparison apart from the notion that both feature characters lost amidst the world they inhabit): much in the vein as Nick Carraway, Charles Ryder is that of a passive narrator, seemingly content to sit on the side-lines to inwardly view, and analyse, the events occurring before him. Whilst this is an undoubtedly interesting perspective to place the protagonist in from a writers’ standpoint, as a reader this led to an overwhelming sensation of superficiality, as though we were merely witnessing the events instead of being thoroughly participatory in or informed of them (for example, at the novels conclusion, the specifics of Sebastian’s alcoholism never felt satisfyingly conveyed, merely existing but not truly understood).
Consequently, it became increasingly difficult to establish an emotional connection to the characters: instead what keeps one reading is the intrigue established in the prologue regarding why, exactly, Charles is exhibiting such a reaction upon finding himself revisiting Brideshead. “‘I’ve been here before.’ The words seemed to ring back to me enriched from the vaults of my dungeon…I had been there before; I knew all about it,” (14) he states, ominously, establishing the possibility – and somewhat the expectation – that something horrific, something truly life-altering, will occur before the novels conclusion: instead, this reader closed the book somewhat sceptical as to why, exactly, Charles was so reluctant to return there in the first place. This disappointment perhaps relates to one’s tolerance, appetite and enjoyment for more darker narratives, but arguably dissatisfaction may pertain to this lack of emotional involvement: less frustrated with what actually occurred, but more ill-informed as to why this would instil in Charles such discontent.
However, one cannot dispute that Brideshead Revisited is beautifully written: Waugh’s evocative prose, particularly when describing Oxford, is picturesque (“Oxford – submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in – Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint.” (17)), adhering to the somewhat stereotypical notion of Oxford as the epoch of intelligence, where the most brilliant flock to thrive. But it’s Waugh’s command of metaphors that should be most commended: “She told me later that she had made a…note of me in her mind, as, scanning the shelf for a particular book, one will sometimes…[say] ‘I must read that, too, when I’ve the time,’ replace it and continue the search,” (167), Waugh writes of Julia’s impression of Charles, for example. These highly elaborative metaphors assist the deep characterisation that permeates throughout the novel, ensuring that Brideshead continually surprises, and impresses, its reader with its hugely intricate and artistic prose.
Perspective and the passage of time allow for alternate interpretations impossible to contemporary readers of that period and it is a result of this that, upon studying novels that have been published since, Brideshead can be (tentatively) placed contextually. Much in the same vein as Brett Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Brideshead features elements of the varsity novel – texts centred around university students as opposed to the university itself. Whilst Brideshead doesn’t tackle the controversial topics of Ellis and Tartt’s novels (namely significant substance abuse, manslaughter and Bacchanal’s – although the theme of bisexuality does slip into Waugh’s novel), it is entirely possible that readers who appreciated the aforementioned texts will find enjoyment in that of Waugh’s. However, for this reader, Brideshead Revisited remains unfortunately less the sum of its parts, proof that beautiful prose and compelling characters don’t always merge to forge a masterpiece.